Cycling the Contours of New Zealand’s South Island

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” – Ernest Hemingway

As I gazed out at the snow-covered mountain tops, the only sounds I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears, in chorus with the howling of the winter wind. Christopher and I had just completed the Duffer Saddle on Nevis Road, a steep, often rocky valley road reaching just over 1,300 meters above sea level and nestled in the center of recently powdered mountains. Just as we reached the saddle, flakes of snow began to fall – the first snow we had experienced in New Zealand since arriving during the winter season.

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Erika preparing for the descent down Duffer Saddle on Nevis Road.

After reaching the top of the official highest public road in the country, we both breathed a sigh of relief and dismounted our bikes. The hard part was over — so we naively thought — on a road that serves as the track of a difficult summer race known as “The Gutbuster.” Boasting 24 river fords, steep climbs, and consistent headwinds, Nevis Road was easily the most difficult cycling we had both experienced since our tour began back in June. Not to mention the not one, but two, snowstorms we were hit with along the way.

Though the road was difficult, the scenery looked like it was cut and pasted from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the serenity that I had been seeking since we began our tour had finally been tasted. For the first time we could disconnect from the stresses of bustling towns, view an open night sky unobstructed by city lights, and bicycle on a road not infested with campervans — we both savored it as long as we could.

Since beginning our tour of the South Island, we had pushed our bicycles up the rock ridden Maungatapu Saddle, cycled alongside the snow-capped Southern Alps, been eaten alive by sandflies, and watched glowworms glimmer and come to life near a waterfall at Pelorus River (an actual filming location for Jackon’s The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug).

 

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The view from the Crown Range Summit.

As many locals foretold, the South Island proved to be more scenic, more mountainous, and more adventurous for cycling than the North. We had met kind kiwis, finally saw an actual kiwi, cycled New Zealand’s famous Crown Range road, walked among the treetops of an old growth forest, and watched a rare yellow-eyed penguin waddle along the beach. As Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Ricky Baker would say, it was “majestical”. And while I hate to overuse the term adventure, New Zealand had certainly proved to be just that and we had seen and travelled the length of it all — by bicycle.

 

Flash back a month earlier when we had just arrived on the South Island. After leaving Wellington and surviving a long, choppy ferry ride through the Cook Straight, we arrived in the beautiful harbor of Picton. After having been told by various locals that the South Island would be drastically different and more scenic than the North, our expectations were quite high. But we were also ready for what else we had been warned about: unpredictable and often cold weather. A side effect of climate change.

 

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Queen Charlotte’s Road promises gorgeous scenery.

Our first day riding on the island involved following Queen Charlotte Road along the island coast where we witnessed a stunning sunset. It was just the first day, but the South Island was already proving itself.

 

After a rough night of camping, sandwiched between RVs and having to listen to a drunk sing country music (before I kindly asked him to shut the hell up), we headed onward to tackle our first big climb — the Maungatapu Summit.

Now I would like to say Maungatapu was worth the amount of work it took to tackle it, but I’m still not quite sure if it was. Our guidebook had warned us that the summit was “very difficult for heavily laden touring bikes,” but having tackled similar warnings on the North Island route, we figured it wouldn’t be too bad — but, it was. The trail was incredibly rocky, so rocky in fact we could hardly ride down the hills, so much as climb up them. So, after two days of pushing, grunting, yelling into the open air, and camping in a shady location that obviously once served as spot for drunken parties, we finally completed the saddle and enjoyed an easy ride the rest of the way into the city of Nelson.

We enjoyed a much needed shower, meal, and nights rest in a local hostel and then were off again to hop on the well-known and well ridden Great Taste Trail – a route mostly designed for the wine lovers. We were able to stay on the trail for a few days, facing a mixture of biting rain and unyielding headwinds — which we discovered would be the norm during our South Island travels.

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Waking up to some fresh snow in Nevis Valley.

It wasn’t until we arrived at Lake Rotoroa that we had some clear skies, but the cold weather decided it was going to stick around. The cold weather however, didn’t deter us from either riding nor camping and luckily we had packed plenty of winter gear – long johns, wool socks, hiking boots, gloves, and fleece. Originally when we set out on our tour we both wondered if we had overpacked – in fact we have faced numerous jokes and jabs from other cyclists for carrying such large loads – but as we ended up facing two snowstorms on Nevis Road, I can say that I was quite thankful for having so many layers available to me.

 

Unfortunately for us though, cold weather doesn’t deter a specific New Zealand plague: sandflies. They’re biting, blood sucking little buggers that will basically eat you alive. They travel in swarms and, in my opinion, they’re worse than mosquitos and their bites last a lot longer — my legs still haven’t totally healed, and we are two weeks into Thailand! (Consider this a warning for cyclists and campers intending to explore NZ’s South Island).

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The beautiful beginning of Nevis Valley Road.

Having survived the sandflies and more campervanners at Lake Rotoroa, and after soaking our boots in a few river crossings, we arrived in our next destination: the small town of Murchison. While stopping at the local supermarket to load up on snacks, were approached by a kiwi named Owen. He asked us if we were planning on staying in town, told us he was a member on warmshowers.org and offered to let us stay at his place nearby. We followed him without question which, looking back, is actually kind of dumb and something we would never do in the U.S., but this was New Zealand after all and I don’t think kiwis are often axe murderers – that’s more of an American thing.

 

As expected, Owen was not an axe murderer, but a hardworking lineman. He not only showed us around town, and took us to feed eels, but he and his kind wife Peg offered us a hot shower, use of his boot dryer (why doesn’t everyone own one of these), and a warm meal followed by a delicious dessert of vanilla ice cream and canned plums — try it if you haven’t it. When originally cycling into the town of Murchison, known only for its devastating 1929 earthquake, neither one of us I think thought this little town would we would vividly remember, but Owen and Peg made Murchison one of my favorite stops along our South Island route. Because as I have said in my previous post while travelling through New Zealand, sometimes when cycle touring, it’s the people that make the journey.

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The view from Peter and Robyn’s home in Spring Junction.

The next day started with heavy rain that didn’t want to quit, but we didn’t want to impose on Owen and Peg anymore so we sadly, said our goodbyes and rode out in the rain, ready to ride over another saddle and into even smaller town of Springs Junction. Owen was kind enough to contact a warmshowers.org host that he knew well for us to meet in town, so tackling the Maruia Saddle in the rain wasn’t so bad since we knew we could look forward to a kind welcome and warm shower when we arrived.

 

Rolling into Springs Junction we were greeted by Peter, a retired statistician, and his wife Robyn who worked as a child therapist. The couple designed their home to be completely off the grid with solar panels and a compostable toilet. They even grew fresh veggies in their garden, made their own yogurt and crackers, and collected rainwater for drinking. Peter, an avid cyclist and someone who was in better shape than me for being twice my age, and his brilliant wife were basically who Christopher and I aspire to be when we grow up.

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Preparing for a rocky descent down Maungatapu Saddle.

So it is no surprise that after waking up to another day of pouring rain and being invited by Peter to take a rest day (Robyn had travelled out of town to visit family), we gladly extended our stay. We enjoyed a day of tramping local trails, rainy cycling, and thoughtful discussions about climate change, personal responsibility, and our future plans. Peter, like Owen, made the small town of Springs Junction more than just a blimp on a map. Facing an uncertain future with climate change, a time that can feel dark and hopeless, it is people like Peter and Robyn who strive to take personal responsibility and move about the world conscious of their own actions and their effect on our planet, that give me hope and inspire me to do the same. Meeting individuals like them is part of what I desired to discover when we set out travelling the globe. And while I wished to be adopted by them and live forever in their amazing, sustainable home, when we awoke the next morning to clear skies and fresh snow on the nearby mountains, I knew we had to move on.

Peter was kind enough to ride alongside us up the Rahu Saddle, our only climb of that day. After reaching the summit, we said our goodbyes and then Christopher and I enjoyed a sweet, downhill ride into the small town of Reefton where we had planned to meet more warmshowers.org hosts — this time thanks to Peter. It was in Reefton that we met Don and Robyn, a couple that had bicycled the world together. Don, originally from the U.K. but working as a cop in New Zealand since he and Robyn married years ago, was full of wonderful stories and jokes. He told us all about his favorite countries to bicycle in and made us more excited about our upcoming trek in Thailand. We spent the evening talking and laughing through dinner and I felt we were fortunate to have met such wonderful people in just the first two weeks of being on the South Island. People, I knew, we would have never met if we hadn’t been bicycle touring.

 

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Cycling on the West Coast Wilderness Trail.

After a good nights sleep and more delicious, homemade food, we were both excited and ready to take on the next leg of our South Island journey: the West Coast Wilderness Trail – also known as the “Wet Coast” – and for good reason.

 

We spent the next few days along the trail enjoying an amazing, and rainy, ride from the seaside town of Greymouth to the lovely Lake Kaniere, and into the town of Hokitika.

It was in Hokitika that we – finally — saw a Northern Brown Kiwi! Granted, we had to pay for this viewing, but at least can now say we saw one – and it even did a kiwi call, so it was totally worth it.

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Spotted this cute New Zealand sign on the West Coast, did not spot penguins.

From there we continued our West Coast ride to Franz Joseph and Fox glacier townships. We were both excited to see one, or both, of the glaciers, but the weather it seemed, had other ideas. We were hit with a week of straight, unstoppable rain and dangerously strong winds. We had no choice but to hold up in local hostels and utilize the rest time to get caught up on errands and to-dos.

 

Unfortunately, due to the weather – and the Fox Glacier road being wiped out – we didn’t get to see the glaciers. Since they’re receding at an alarming rate due to climate change, this was a major bummer, but hopefully one day, if we return to the land of the long white cloud in the future and they’re still present, we will get to see them.

We spent the next few days riding in the cold and the rain through Haast Pass where, after we made it over the pass, everywhere we looked had nothing but beautiful mountain scenery, waterfalls, and roadside streams. After Haast Pass, the South Island only seemed to grow more and more beautiful. We spent time camping lakeside at Lake Wanaka and cycling alongside the Southern Alps. We tackled the Crown Range — the highest, public sealed road in New Zealand at 1,076 meters (3,530 feet) — as people passed in cars cheering us on and we recovered from chest colds in Queenstown, where we then headed towards Nevis Valley for our snowy, but memorable adventure.

After tackling Nevis Valley and feeling invincible, we combined the last few days of cycling in our guidebook into one day. It was a bittersweet feeling as we cycled from the town of Mossburn and into Bluff – a place that had been our destination for what felt like a long time.

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Obligatory arrival photo in Bluff, New Zealand!

As we arrived into the seaside town of Bluff and reached the famous sign pointing in all directions – Tokyo, Sydney, Dog Island, the Equator – I half expected a crowd of people there to cheer for us as we arrived, finishing our 1,700+ kilometer tour of New Zealand. But, alas, there was no one there except a bus load of tourists who either gave us no mind, or just gave us looks of confusion. We sat on a curb uneventfully, eating the last of our banana chips and watching as busloads of people took pictures in front of the sign. We were the only people who had bicycled our way to the famous sign marker and while it felt for us like a great feat, it was depressing to see that we were the only cyclists. But despite this fact, we had still done it and we took our touristy photo under the sign like the rest and then celebrated with a rest day, over-indulging on carbs, and buying a bottle of wine.

 

It felt surreal to have finished the route that we had planned for and embarked on a few months before and just like that, we had done it and it was time to plan for the next leg of our tour.

We still had time to kill before our flight out of Dunedin so after reading recommendations online and studying maps, we set out to bicycle slowly through the Catlins, a seaside national park – which was basically a mixture of farmland, famous shipwrecks, and tourist attractions. Despite the rainstorm and multiple set of rolling hills we faced, we enjoyed our ride through the Catlins and our last few days of touring in New Zealand. We stood with strangers at sunset on the beach just to spot a rare yellow-eyed penguin, we camped next to bongo playing gypsies at Purakaunui Bay, and we tackled the long, steep climb to reach Nugget Point — the most photographed location in New Zealand.

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Nugget Point, the most photographed place in New Zealand — and it’s obvious why.

After arriving at the top of Nugget Point, a woman approached us and gifted us both with two bracelets made from bicycle spokes that she had created herself as part of her shop, Bicycle Part Jewelry. This thoughtful moment meant more to me than I think she could have known. As we sat on the bench, admiring the spectacular view, I stared at the bicycle spoke bracelet.

 

When Christopher first started teaching me about bicycles – I admit – I didn’t even know what a spoke was. It’s embarrassing now, but it’s true. So when this woman gave me a bracelet made from a spoke, an object that a few years ago I didn’t even know the name or function of, she unknowingly was reminding me of how far I have come and the world I have become a part of.

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Our spoke bracelets from Bike Parts Jewelry (and great riding glove tans).

This invention — the spoke — which connects to the invention of the wheel, which in turn sparked the invention of the bicycle and, ultimately, the invention of bicycle touring as a whole is something that, I think, not many people appreciate. It’s an invention that I never really appreciated until my partner – someone fascinated by the origin and reason for inventions and the workings of things – had explained it to me, had introduced me to bicycle touring, and had simply asked me to embark on this journey with him. It’s because of him and this man-powered machinery that I sweated up and coasted down the hills of the Californian coast, watched whales feed in Cape Blanco, Oregon, cycled through Nevis Valley in the winter snow, and now — cycled the length of New Zealand.

 

Christopher and I have now seen and conquered the contours of New Zealand in what Hemingway described as the best way to do so: by bicycle. No trains, or cars, or campervans — just our bodies and our bicycles. An experience I wish more people were willing to try.

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Looking back at our time on New Zealand’s South Island and longing for these stunning views. 

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