I’m the epitome of ‘moderately fit’. I like exercise and although I can’t run, I try to walk, cycle or swim about two hours a week. Once a year, usually in April, my husband and I like to plan a three to four-day physical challenge in a different part of the country. We get to see an area we are not familiar with, breathe fresh air, feel the glow of the sun and feed our eyes on wondrous views.
In the past we have walked the Hollyford Track, the Banks Peninsula Track, the Tongariro Crossing, the Hurunui, Abel Tasman and many more. It’s so easy planning a trip for two, and if you can get a company to organise everything for you, then it’s stress free.
Tackling the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
This was our first long bike ride; the most we had ever pedalled before was 30km along the Little River Rail Trail in Canterbury. Maybe we should have started with the Otago Rail Trail. But the idea of pedalling from the base of Mount Aoraki/Cook to the beach at Oamaru in five days really appealed. I booked a trip with Tuatara Tours. I imagined it had to be mostly downhill….
When you book you have no idea who will be in your group. We were pleasantly surprised when we met at the depot near Christchurch airport the first morning to find that the other intrepid bikers had cancelled. We were the only ones on the trip. But as the bikes were loaded onto the minivan, those snagging feelings and questions crept in: Were we up to this ride? Shouldn’t we have hired electric bikes? Could we really cycle up to 65km a day? Have we done enough uphill riding? There was no time to doubt our preparation. The bikes were loaded and we were driven to Braemar Station by our friendly, but firm guide, Johanna.
The A20 trail actually starts from the White Horse Hill campground, at the base of Mount Cook. But as that involves getting a helicopter ride across the Tasman River, we began our trip at Braemar Station. We spent the first afternoon trundling along a quiet country dirt road along Lake Pukaki, past Australia Rock and the Tekapo Power Station. The sun was out and, when we stopped for afternoon tea, the vistas towards the Southern Alps were spectacular.
We went over the Pukaki dam and across the Pukaki Flats (real Mackenzie country grasslands). Arriving in Twizel as the sun was going down and rabbits were darting through the bushes. A good buffet motel meal always goes down well after a day of exercise. In our case it was only half a day, but so far so good. Twizel was built as a hydro construction town in 1969 and has a population of just over one thousand. We slept well that night.
Day two consisted of rides along beautiful blue canals, watching fishermen on the lookout for salmon on the canal bridge. And then cycling along the shores of Lake Ohau. Cycling took place in April, so the red, wild rose hips along the lake looked stunning. We came across about eight other cyclists on the trail, in two different groups, so not exactly crowded!
At Ohau Lodge we arrived early afternoon and knew this would be a treat. Earlier we had visited it ‘en famille’ last winter, for a skiing weekend. It was built in 1951 when Sir Harry Wigley transported two accommodation wings that were being disposed of at the hydro-electric dam at Lake Pukaki. The décor has a 70s, Scandanavian feel and the hospitality is heart-warming. We had a soak in the spa on the verandah looking out to the mountains and the lake and relished the evening cuisine.
I knew the third day was going to be the hard one. I had spoken to two friends who had done the trail before. But I kept thinking of my friend’s words: “After a breakfast at Ohau Lodge you can do anything!” and this was the motivation I needed. It’s a steady, winding climb up to the high point, with numerous ‘false summits’. When we couldn’t ride anymore we pushed for a while and then got back on our bikes. I thought the group of oldies in front of us were super fit, and then realised they had electric bikes! There were pangs of jealousy, quickly overwhelmed by self-determination! The descent down to Quailburn Woolshed for a picnic lunch was glorious. Johanna came up a bit of the mountain on the other side to meet us. There was even a mobile coffee truck at the bottom!
We had to get through to Benmore Hydro Dam, via Otematata that day, along the edge of Lake Benmore and Loch Laird Road. Although it’s a busy camping area in January, in April there was no one in sight. The poplar trees were autumnal gold and the sky a perfect blue. At the end of this hard 68 km day, it was so good to get driven back to Omarama – where Johanna had already put our cases in the motel – and to see that Oamaru stone ram.
When we left Omarama the next day it was freezing, and it was the first time I needed a beanie under my cycling hat. We were dropped off at the point we ended the day before, at the top of the Benmore Hydro Dam wall. Day four was really hydro-electric territory as we cycled along Lake Aviemore to Aviemore Dam and then Lake Waitaki and Waitaki Dam and into Kurow for lunch. In the local museum we learnt that the first social security scheme for New Zealand workers was designed for the families of workers on the Waitaki hydro-electric project in Kurow. And of course, Ritchie McCaw comes from a farm near Kurow, and he has pride of place at the entry to the museum. Kurow is your quintessentially small Kiwi town, complete with a Four Square supermarket, church and tea-room.
We had a scenic ride through the winery after Kurow and then followed the Waitaki River. We didn’t have the energy to look at the Maori rock art site. But I do remember getting ticked off by a local at the car park there for cycling on the road which went alongside the trail for a few kilometres. We defended ourselves saying the gravel on the trail in that stretch was too thick. It was easier cycling on the road. But we were clearly doing the wrong thing.
Duntroon had some interesting places to visit, but unfortunately everything was closed by the time we got there. It was a relief to reach our very quaint 19th Century bed and breakfast accommodation after a 65km day. The owners and hosts were from England and had brought with them a container load of crockery and pottery, paintings and collectables. After a hearty homemade steak pie and apple crumble with custard, it was easy to fall asleep on a brass, four-post bed with soft white eiderdowns, surrounded by rose bud wallpaper and English landscapes.
The highlights of the last day were seeing the Elephant Rocks (Limestone formations), going through the Rakis Railway Tunnel (where my husband could use his torch!) and through farms. Some of the trail is still being completed here, so sometimes we were on quiet back roads. Pace-wise, my husband and I are quite evenly matched while cycling. But I had less energy on day five and whinged to him about going too far ahead when he eventually stopped at a farm gate to let me catch up. We both laughed when a pair of Paradise Ducks flew past us, and the female was giving him what for on the way!
When we reached Weston, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was only 10km to go. The joy was definitely cycling through the Oamaru Botanical Gardens and the Victorian Historic Precinct to Oamaru Harbour. Johanna had parked at the harbour and cycled to the gardens to meet us. After a quick look around, we were back in the van and off to Christchurch.
We felt a real sense of achievement after 271km. But knew we couldn’t have done it without the fantastic back-up from Johanna and the Tuatara Tours set up. With visions of snowy peaks, blue canals, golden poplar trees and sparkling lakes and the ocean still in our minds, we marvelled at that beautiful stretch of our country and the vision of the A20 Trail makers. The Otago Rail Trail is going to be like a ride in the park now!
Top Tips for cycling in New Zealand
- Try and get your bike fitness up a little. Even an hour a week for 3 months will help your endurance. Do a bit of off road/dirt track cycling to get used to that terrain. Try a few longer trips, up to 30km, to get more comfortable in the saddle. Extra workouts won’t hurt as well.
- Buy a removable gel seat cover to add extra padding to a soft bike saddle.
- Give in to lycra and buy two pairs of padded bicycle leggings/shorts. They really do make a difference and your derriere will thank you for them! After day two you feel numb anyway.
- Use fingerless cycling gloves for most of the trip. Full-length cycling gloves are important for the very chilly early morning at Omarama.
- If you are taking your own bicycle, a water bottle clip would be an asset.
- Find a lightweight flouro vest that you can wear on the sections of trail that are on the road.
- Use a small daypack to carry lunch, snacks, phone, rain jacket, lip balm and sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses that feel comfortable for riding long distance.
- Cycle in layered clothes that you can peel off as the day gets warmer.
Words Nicole Bailey | Images Tuatara Tours