Cycling New Zealand Part 2: The Alps2Ocean from Ocean to Alps

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Cycling New Zealand Part 2: The Alps2Ocean from Ocean to Alps

Country: New Zealand

From Oamaru to Mount Cook Village (Aoraki)

Lesson learned: Once in a life a helicopter ride is well-spent money

Laughed about: Our snail’s pace

Most wonderful miracle: The Milky Way over Lake Benmore

Greatest challenge: gravel and rocks

Days on the bike: 5 full days and 3 half days

Kilometers cycled: 300.77

Average Kilometers per day: 46.27

Total Kilometers cycled till Mount Cook Village (Aoraki): 17,417

Nothing could really cheer me up in Oamaru. Headwinds, drizzle, traffic and cold pulled on my mood and my patience with everything. I didn’t even want to see the historic old town. We visited the tourism information center and asked about the weather.

“Rain”

“What, all day?”

“Yes”

“Every day???”

“Well for the following days that’s what it says here”

I couldn’t believe it. And we would be on the bikes? Why would we want to do that to ourselves? Why couldn’t we just live at some place with walls and a roof, just like normal people? What were we even thinking when we left Christchurch in fall?

Beginning of the Trail

Beginning of the Trail

We stopped at a supermarket to buy tea and treats and biked straight to the Alps2Ocean trail. First we followed the trails through a large park, later along the street, then the trail turned into a beautiful rail trail, back on the street and in between on an off-road bike trail. The cold wind slowly died away and the heavy rain had stopped ever since we left the tourism information center. And I began to enjoy the trail.

We followed a well signposted mix of paved streets, bike paths, gravel roads and rail trails, and climbed quite a few hills until we had stunning views over green farmland. My mood gets better with every meter we climbed. That is extraordinary, as I usually can’t stand steep climbs.

After a while the road got even steeper and the gravel pieces bigger. I had to concentrate so much that I nearly forgot how exhausted I was. Even though there were many empty fields around us, there was usually a fence around them. And even if there wasn’t, most grassy areas were steep and camping there wouldn’t be too much fun. Sun had just set when we finally pitched our tent on a clearing in the forest.

Annika Pushing It

Annika Pushing It

The only thing we heard all night was a squeaking possum. Not a single cyclist was to be seen in the early morning hours. The tent was already half packed when the first mountain biker approached our night shelter.

“Oh, I didn’t see you at all, I hope you didn’t notice me relieving myself there!” I had been wondering what he was doing there in the corner of the path, but yet I told him that I had only just seen him too.

Sun shone right onto our backs and the sky was bright blue without a single cloud to be seen. So much about rain all day every day. We crossed a short and dark railroad tunnel, then the trail led us on bumpy and narrow paths through the greenest fields. After a while the landscape got rockier and in the end we were surrounded by high rock cliffs to both sides. This area were the elephant rocks, and this was where we lost some meters of altitude walking down real narrow switchbacks. They shot the Narnia movies here!

Our Wild Camping Spot

Our Wild Camping Spot

Weather was still great when we reached Duntroon, where we bought half a loaf of bread from a café (these guys really come prepared for cyclists) and had a nice break. The way from Dontroon to Kurow followed a flat minor highway with little traffic. We asked for camping possibilities and were sent to the Motorcamp, where we’re asked to pay $32 per night. We decided to rather continue the search, even though it was already getting late. Some kilometers further there was a picnic bench on a small rest area and we just pitched the tent next to it.

It was a really cold night and a frosty morning, but with our comfy merino wool socks and leggings and the cuddly warm cumulus sleeping bags we were snugly warm. The only problem is getting up in the morning. But thanks to plenty of water just before bedtime, I was wide awake at sunrise. It was not even 9am when we started again. Lately we had hardly ever started before noon. We rode along the Waitaki River, later the Waitaki Lake and then pedaled up onto the Aviemore Dam, that led us to the northern part of the Aviemore Lake. The road on this side of the lake was small and there was hardly any traffic at all. We were in wallaby country now. But we didn‘t spot a single alive one. I counted four roadkills at the end of the day and Roberto seven.

Alps to Ocean

Alps to Ocean

The day started with a heavy headwind, but later in the morning most of it died away. It got so hot, that we had our break in shirts and bare feet. Still it was not quite hot enough to take a dip in the lake. At least not for us. Most of the lake was surrounded by a really big camping ground. In summer time they say that a huge amount of people lived there. Now there were many parked trailers and motorhomes with gardens and fences, but not a single person.

The Dam

Benmore Dam

In the end of the lake, we had to cross the Benmore Dam. The A2O brochure said that we would have to walk the last 800 meters, as it was really steep. We biked anyways (I can’t stand pushing my bike) and made it to the top with crimson faces and proud smiles. So far every single climb had been worth the effort and I began to actually look forward to the view during the climb. Not sure if I had mentioned this before, but I used to despise mountains.

Roberto on his new Bike

Roberto on his new Bike

In Otematata we visited the local shop for some ice cream and groceries. Maggie, the cashier, even allowed me to charge my empty camera batteries. She grabbed a newspaper and checked the forecast for us. Some showers, some sun, some winds.

The Otematata saddle was another on-road climb. Uphill I was going so slow that I could smell my own fart, and downhill we rode so fast, that tears came out of my eyes. I think it was 60 km/h.

We met another German who lived in Wellington and just “quickly” went to ride the A2O. I assume she probably did double the amount of our daily kilometers. In Sailor’s Cutting we stopped for the day. There was a simple $15 campground and due to the boat ramp right next to it, the camping ground was quite full with boatpeople. We cooked some mashed potatoes, chili beans with garlic, and cheese rolls, before we took a walk to the boat bridge. It was a beautiful night, not a single cloud in between us and the Milky Way. There was not a sound to be heard except for the odd fish under the boat bridge. I could have just sat there and watched the stars all night. But we had to go to sleep eventually. And as we laid there in our tent I realized that this must be true love: tolerating each other after days without shower and a bean-and-garlic dinner.

Our next climb were the chain hills. And as so often the climb was worth the effort and we were rewarded with great views down onto Lake Benmore, before we rolled down into Omarama. Omarama was situated right on the crossroads between Highway 8, that connected the touristy towns of Queenstown and Lake Tekapo (and also Mount Cook) and Highway 83, that led right down back to Oamaru. So you can imagine the amounts of people that stopped in this little town for a toilet break or a quick coffee. Most parking areas were filled with buses, trucks, cars, campervans, motorbikes, pickup trucks and motorhomes trying to get into or out of a parking lot. When we saw the people running out of the bus, so that they would have time enough to poop and buy a souvenir and have a coffee in their 10-minute break, I was very happy that we were ourselves masters of our own time.

On the Road Again

On the Road Again

After two kebabs and a bag of wine gum in snake shape we got back on the road to face the longest and steepest climb up to the highest part of the trail. This track must be big fun for mountain bikers, but it was a bit tricky for us on our touring wheels. At first we rode on a road with loose gravel and kept on sliding into the inner side of each curve. This was where we met Astrid and Eric from the Netherlands. They started biking back in 2013 and rode – just as everybody else we met – in the opposite direction. A few kilometers later we encountered Stu from Twizel. His wife Shell and he have started a business that supports cyclists on the Alps2Ocean trail called The Jollie Biker. They organize rental bikes, accommodation, food, transportation of people, bikes and bags – pretty much everything a cyclist needs – and adjust this to every individual’s budget. Today he accompanied a group of Australian travel bloggers, who decided to ride the entire trail in no more than three days. That makes 100 Kilometers per day, including many stops for pictures and videos.

Stu knew every single part of the trail inside out and prepared us mentally that it would soon get even steeper and even bumpier.

Michelle Stu and Family

Michelle Stu and Family

I was all sweaty and ready for dinner and bed, when the trail left the gravel road and continued on a narrow path. But it was too early to camp and the plains were too open to spend the night comfortably. Apart it was quite demotivating to start a new day with a huge climb.

We rode through the Quailburn Downs, where the path was made of flat try grass and let through endless areas of standing dry grass. The track was so narrow that we had to take care to stay exactly in the middle, or we would brush clumps of grass and rocks. Every now and then we had to cross creeks. Most were so small that we could just cycle through quickly, but some were so big we had to walk our heavy bikes. Fortunately we weren’t the first ones to do so and somebody had already put a bridge of big rocks into the creek, so we could keep our feet dry.

The views were absolutely stunning. Every single time we reached a high point, I was sure that this was the trail’s highlight. But the next view was always even better. The Downs seemed to reach for endless Kilometers and only at the very end we could see the snowy mountain peaks of the Southern Alps. The clouds covered the sky and gave us a rather dramatic feeling. And right there in the middle of plains, mountains and endless grasslands, we found ourselves all on our own. Just a few days ago I would have wanted to ditch my bike and hibernate for a few months. And now I found myself enjoying what so far has been the most beautiful bike trail of the entire travel!

Bike sign at the A2O

Bike sign at the A2O

For a moment we biked on flat smooth shingle, but soon the climb began. Stu, Astrid and Eric had not warned us for no reason. The rocks that formed the path were indeed bigger than my fist and the incline steeper than anything before. For the first time I had to ride in the very lowest gear. I felt like I was riding right up the remains of a debris avalanche. If my front panniers weren’t that heavy, I think I would have toppled over backwards, that’s how steep it got. I still don’t understand why, but I enjoyed it so much.

Little by little we rode up the side of the mountain. Every now and then one of my wheels would just slide away and I had to stop, bring the bike back in position and make a racing start on the big rocks. After all these years on the bike I had never been mountain biking with an appropriate bike and no bags, and it really made me want to try. When we got into the hairpin curves, I knew that we had nearly made it. With every time the sliding wheels made me stop, I turned around, took a deep breath and tried to copy this image right into my brain.

The Amazing Scenery

The Amazing Scenery

We reached the summit point just moments before sunset. Well, the mountain’s summit was still very far ahead of us, but the trail’s summit was what mattered to us. From up here we enjoyed views so far that I was surprised we couldn’t see all the way to the sea.

To the far left we saw the snowy mountain peaks of Mount Cook and its neighbors. Right in front of us was the Ohau Lake with the Ben Ohau Range behind it. The last sunrays touched the furthest corner of the range and fell right onto the tussock downs to our right. The grass stretched out to our far right and was surrounded by more mountains in the horizon. And behind us we were the dark grey mountains with the light grey tips that looked like somebody had spread ashes all over.

The View Up Top

The View Up Top

The wind blew stronger here and we got cold. It was about time to start the descent if we wanted to reach the Lake Ohau Lodge before nightfall. But we had made a mistake and underestimated the terrain. While our speed uphill was between 3.5 and 7 km/h, we thought we would be much faster downhill. But the big rocks and slippery debris slowed us down so much that our top speed was no more than not-so-impressive 10 km/h. This would not be enough velocity to reach the lodge in time. After few minutes my legs stopped hurting, but my hands cramped badly. It is easiest for me to place my hands as far away from each other as possible. That way I can control the heavy front part in difficult terrain. But at the same time I needed both hands on both brakes, so I had quite a tough time trying to ride any faster.

When the pain got too bad and the night got darker, Roberto spotted the sign pointing up the hill towards a hiking trail. I walked up the trail a few meters where I found an acceptable spot to pitch the tent. At this time of day we couldn’t be picky anymore and we sure had a great view there.

Lake Oahu Lodge

Lake Oahu Lodge Camping Place

We were both so tired that we left the stove in its bag and just fed ourselves with the last wine gum snake, the last three slices of bread, the last half cheese roll and a bit of salami and parmesan cheese. The rain began just in the moment when I closed the tent door. And it didn’t stop until noon. We were caught inside and Roberto soon suffered from cabin fever. It was 2 pm when we decided that this bit of drizzle wouldn’t harm us anymore. We just packed the tent when a beardy young man with a hiking stick approached us with a big smile. His name was Xaver and he came from Germany. His aim was to hike along the Te Araroa track through the entire New Zealand South Island. He had been lost for two dys at the beginning and walked through an 11-day stretch without one single village. Now, after more than a month time, he had hiked nearly half the trail, but humbly described himself as “not an expert”. Xaver was just as surprised to meet us, as we were to meet him. We walked half the way down to the lodge with him and rode down the other half. This day we had covered an impressive seven kilometers.

At Lake Ohau we pitched our tents. Cost: $30. Two dollars less than the last Holiday Park, which we had declined. But the price included use of all the lodge’s facilities. These were beautiful and very clean showers and toilets, a bar, a pool room, a cozy indoor area with fireplace, the restaurant (too expensive for our budget, but the food looked great), and – the highlight – two hot pools with view over the lake all the way to Mount Cook.

Lake Oahu Lodge

Lake Oahu Lodge

We decided that the shower was first priority. The shampooing under the low faucet at Sailor’s Cutting was not quite as satisfying as a real shower. Then we washed our clothes and left Roberto’s shoes is the snug drying room. “Waterproof” wasn’t valid forever, as he had learned after the first river crossing. At night, my friend Birgit and her travel buddy Amal came for a visit. They liked the lodge so much, that they decided to come back and spend the night on the following day. So we too added a rest day.

Finally we could let all our things dry, charge all electronics, write and translate blog entries, save and edit pictures, let the tent dry and the muscles relax. The big grey cloud that had covered the entire lake in the morning, rose higher and higher during the day, and in the afternoon we had good views all the way over the lake to the Ben Ohau Ridge and some of the snowy peaks. Mount Cook itself remained behind the clouds.

The trail to Twizel was beautiful. First we followed a quiet paved road, then we shared the path with the Te Araroa Hikers alongside the lake. This was the first time that the views were more stunning behind us, than in front of us. At the end of the lake we crossed a weir and followed the Ohau Canal on a perfectly straight and evenly paved road with no traffic. Only when we got closer to the salmon farms, we saw other people fishing for salmon that had escaped the farms.

The flat Ohau Canal road led us to the equally flat Pukaki Canal road and the wind blew sideward or not at all, because the Ben Ohau Range protected us from it.

Many smaller roads led us to Twizel, a small known famous with tourists who made their last grocery stops on the way to Mount Cook, where there are no shops at all. The many lakes around Twizel are a magnet to boatpeople and fishermen. Twizel was also the starting point for many of the Lord of the Rings tours.

Mt Cook and the Bike

Mt Cook and the Bike

We started with a visit to the Tourist Information Centre for a weather forecast check. A few days of rain, then showers. Lovely. Here in Twizel we also had to decide about the route of to Mount Cook Village. The trail followed the eastern side of Lake Pukaki, but ended somewhere between the mountains and the river. Mount Cook village was situated on the other side of the river and there was no way to cross it, except for a short helicopter flight. Swimming was not an option, as the river was far too fast and the waters fed by a cold glacier.

The other option was, to leave the Alps2Ocean and follow the road on the western side of lake and river. But we had fallen in love with the Alps2Ocean so deeply that we decided to call the helicopter offices for a quote. We were in luck: just two days later two cyclists would fly over from Mount Cook. If we caught the same helicopter back, we would get a cheaper price. Even this discount was still way over our budget and we could comfortably live from that money for some days. Nevertheless – there was nothing that could keep us from finishing this lovely trail, so we booked the ride.

We got some groceries and went to the local pub for a beer, as that was the only option to obtain Wi-Fi, so we could let our families know that we were still alright.

Beautiful Ride

Beautiful Ride

The first email in my inbox was written by our new friend Stu, whom we had met for about three minutes on the way into the Quailburn Downs. He and Shell invited us to spend the night at their place! Shortly after we sat in their living room with snacks and beer, watched the cricket world cup’s semifinal (New Zealand won last minute against South Africa) and got to know our hosts. Days later we found out that today had been their 25th wedding anniversary and that we had unknowingly crashed it.

The following day started cloudy, but the view to the Southern Alps was free and for the first time we could see all the way to famous Mount Cook. We biked through the grassy and rather flat Pukaki flats, where a tired hiker sat on a rock and had breakfast. It was our friend Xaver! Now you see how slow we were moving, if we even met a hiker for the second time.

Just for your information, Xaver would proudly and happily finish his epic hike less than two months later.

We stopped for a picnic at the visitor center on the southernmost part of Lake Pukaki, and then followed the A2O signs over to the eastern side of the lake. First we followed an off-road bike path parallel to the main road, then we got on a wider gravel road that led us up and down through the forest. To our left we spotted several beautiful clearings with great views down to the lake and up to the mountains that looked like they were made for our tent. But it was far too early in the day to stop. The road was hard to ride on, because the little pebbles were so loose, that it felt like constant aqua planning. I was more than busy keeping balance and moving forward at once.

Most of the time we had great views towards Mount Cook. It turned out to be a nice and sunny day. The forecast was wrong again. But they say that in this part of the country a forecast isn’t any good for more than twelve hours in advance. At dusk we pitched our tent next to the only portaloo in this section of the trail. New Zealand has spoiled us with its impeccably clean public toilets. This one – situated on a field somewhere far from everywhere – even had paper.

Annika and Roberto A2O

Annika and Roberto A2O

We continued the ride with sunrise. We had another 20 kilometers to go to Tasman Point, where the helicopter would pick us up at 11am and it was mostly going to be uphill. The wide rode eventually came to an end and we continued on a nice little path. Roberto managed to ride his bike straight into the only puddle of mud on the trail. The mud was so dry, that it blocked wheels and brakes and we had to walk his bike into the next river to clean it. This procedure took so long, that we had to hurry up for the second half. And this was where the trail got really bumpy again.

We had blue skies again and great view to Mount Cook. After a while we separated. Roberto, who was capable of higher speed, that I was, rode on, and I followed as fast as I could. It was a very bumpy ride and I was only party in control of my handlebar, but at least I made it over the only stream with no bridge with dry feet.

It was 10.50am when I reached Tasman Point bathed in my own sweat and with my tongue hanging down to the ground. Fortunately the helicopter was half an hour late, so we had time for a quick muesli-bar-breakfast.

When the helicopter approached it brought so much wind that we had to hold our hoods and helmets. Our pilot Mark helped us to load our bags into the luggage box and off we went. We flew for full 2 ½ minutes. Usually the flight was even quicker, but when Mark found out that this was our first helicopter flight, he flew a bit higher, so that we could see the mountains, valleys, the river and the glacier lakes. The bikes remained on Tasman Point, as pilots must not take bikes and passengers at once. So he flew back with a big cage hanging from his helicopter and brought the bikes back. We were still so very overexcited that it took us fifteen minutes to realize what had just happened and get back to normal. Only then did we notice how hungry we still were. So we ate our breakfast on a picnic bench next to the airfield. It was another seven kilometers (uphill of course) passing the Mount Cook Village up to the Whitehorse Camping Ground. The path led us one last time through tussock and smooth shingle, with the mountains right in front of our noses. And then we reached the end point. The Alps2Ocean adventure was over, the Mount Cook Adventure laid before us and we were incredibly happy and tired.

We invite you to see our A2O Slide Show Movie!

And for more information about the trail visit their website Alps2Ocean.

 

 

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