Ali and Paul's cycling trip to South Island, NZ

Ali and Paul’s cycling trip to South Island, New Zealand, 2010/11

By Alizon Hargreaves and Paul Talbot


Alizon first suggested doing the cycle trip down the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island sometime in the damp depths of Winter 2010 and I think my first reaction was ‘What!’  I could remember driving it a couple of years earlier and the size of the hills and unpredictable weather had definitely stuck in my mind.  However somewhere along the line I must have agreed to do it (I think?) and Ali set off with all of her normal enthusiasm organising rental bikes, booking flights and setting up accommodation. 

In order to get a better appreciation of what each days cycling would entail we sought out, and eventually found, a copy of Pedallers’ Paradise for the South Island by Nigel Rushton.  This is a very detailed account of the facilities and terrain on rides all over South Island.  After one look at it I was frightened to death!  He produces drawings showing the distance to be covered against the rise and fall of the land. Some of the rises covered far too much paper and were near vertical lines!  They would have made me feel much better if the horizontal scale had been tripled and they had been on fold out pages. 

So when we did start I was just a bit apprehensive about what was to come.  However as we got into the cycling and I succeeded in climbing one or two hills without too many problems, I really began to enjoy it.  The final day coming over the highest road in New Zealand on the Crown Range was truly amazing.  So I have to say thank you to Ali for persuading, or tricking, me into it and I would recommend it to everyone. 

Paul Talbot   

Ali and Paul’s cycling trip to South Island 2010/11 

To start the ride we flew down to Christchurch from Auckland and planned to stay overnight at my Great Cousins house before taking the well known Tranz-Alpine train over the mountains to Greymouth. 

27th December 2010 

After arriving in Christchurch in the morning we went to collect our hire bikes for the trip, armed of course with seat pins, saddles and peddles to avoid any sore bottoms or awkward cleats! The bikes proved to be quite light Cannondale 27 speed, with a huge range of gears. I had a sneaky suspicion we were going to need those.  We spent the rest of the day packing our panniers putting masking tape over the rear racks (makeshift splash guards!!) and ensuring we hadn’t forgotten anything.   

28th December 

A wet start to the day with gale force winds but ‘hey’ we were going whatever and at 7.30am off we went to the train station for the tranz-alpine across the Southern Alps via Arthurs Pass to Greymouth.  A tourist train but very cyclist friendly and we were invited to put our bikes in a separate carriage and had no need to remove pedals; phew!  By this time it was absolutely throwing it down so we were quite thankful we did not have too much cycling to do this morning.  Got chatting to our new travelling companions who turned out to be most interesting and we could see that we were going to have a stimulating trip in many ways.  Unfortunately we were all out of luck that day as an announcement shortly followed that the train was cancelled due to the extreme weather conditions of the last 24 hours. This had caused land slippages that had damaged both track and road so we had no way of getting to our destination.  Of course we had all our accommodation booked and we were desperate to start our adventure.  We tried to book a shuttle bus that afternoon but we seemed doomed to failure and eventually had to admit defeat and return back to our cousin’s for the night.   

29TH December  

We had booked on the 07.30am shuttle bus to Greymouth as didn’t feel we could risk re-booking the train as the damage seemed extensive and surely they couldn’t repair it so quickly? Cycled down again to central Christchurch, this time in the sun and feeling much more positive that all was going to be ok. We had also booked another shuttle from Greymouth down to Ross, which despite the late start, meant we could catch up on our accommodation for the rest of the trip.  Atomic shuttles turned out to be excellent and were one of the few bus services that could book both us and our bikes on.  We put our bikes on the cycle carrier at the back of the bus and off we went! It’s a long way to Arthurs pass and I could well imagine what my mum meant when she complained of miles and miles of straight roads surrounded by crop fields.  Eventually we reached Arthurs pass and a stiff climb, although I kept thinking I just want to be on my bike! Managed to see where the road and track damage had occurred and there was a very impressive amount of heavy machinery hard at work. Coffee stop ½ way with some rather hungry Kea’s attacking the tea pot left on one of the tables. I could now understand the warning about wearing sunglasses as apparently they are attracted to anything shiny which includes your eyeballs! Scenery was stunning though and we reached Greymouth on time and just about 10mins before the train. Amazing they repaired a very badly damaged line in less than 24 hours! We now had another 90 mins before our next bus so took the opportunity to do some riding and explore.  Greymouth is the west coast’s largest town and in the rain certainly lives up to its name and in the sun it was beautiful and the sea was stunning. We then hopped onto the next bus which took us about 50km down the coast to Ross arriving at 14.30 in readiness to do our 55km to Hari-Hari. 

At last we are on our bikes although into a very stiff Southerly headwind which proved extremely hard work.  Unfortunately although the Southerlies generally bring good weather they can be quite strong. Not being used to riding with extra weight I soon realised that this was going to be tougher than expected and even little hills seemed so hard. This was not helped by my back starting to hurt virtually straight away which was both annoying and worrying.   The mountains however were stunning and due to rainfall in the last 36 hours the streams and waterfalls had burst into life. We arrived at Hari-Hari around 18.00 and were shown to a very musty smelling room. Not a good start but ‘hey’ it’s a bed. We were soon to be joined by the Japanese tourist bus who arrived with their huge samsonite cases and huge cameras. Why is everything huge with the Japanese apart from them! Had a very mediocre meal and after checking the recommended breakfast café to see if it was open before 7.30 (it wasn’t) we headed for bed in readiness for an early start for our tough 88km the next day. 

30th December 

Some confusion about the breakfast time ended in us being offered a refund on our breakfast. Ha Ha I mean how far can one cycle on a refund I wonder, but in the end with some encouragement we were able to eat early as long as it didn’t involve any boiling/poaching or frying of an egg or igg as kiwis pronounce it.  We set off at our pre-decided time of 7.30am and it was a really fresh sunny day with a great tail wind. According to our Pedallers’ Paradise book we would soon be greeted with Mount Hercules which was the one major climb before Franz Josef. This proved to be a narrow and twisting 4 km stiff climb of 185m which we both managed and then a great descent down to Whateroa for a cuppa and a piece of cake.  

Only another 40k to Franz Josef but we enjoyed passing by such dense rainforest, river flats and streams, all of which are named, usually in a difficult to pronounce Maori name. We were doing well though and my backache had gone which was a relief. Franz Josef is a busy town, population of 350, with the main tourist attraction being the glacier.  We had made good time so were able to relax over lunch, although the constant hubbub of the numerous helicopter glacier rides proved very noisy.  Then on to Fox Glacier which is the other twin tourist town on this route but considerably less touristy.  According to our guide book there are 3 major hills, the Omoeroa (320m) Waikukupa (405m) and the Cook (410M). These straddle the first 18kms of our remaining 23km.  We had left plenty of time and energy but nothing prepared us for these climbs. They were very steep narrow, and had a section of unsealed road, plus the sun was baking us as we slowly ascended each hill.  Our old style ‘calliper brakes’ were very weak on the descents meaning we had very sore hands by the time we reached the bottom of the last hill. Never the less we completed them with only a little walking on each hill and 2 hours later arrived in Fox Glacier and of course a pint in the nearest pub!

Accommodation that night was in a cabin in a motorhome park, brand new facilities and also a fab spot to campervan watch whilst we enjoyed a great bottle of wine and a large plate of pasta.  What a day but it was beautiful weather and there is nothing like that tired exhausted feeling coupled with the promise of a comfy bed and sleep to look forward too!  

31st December 

Another 7.30am start but at least we were in charge of the breakfast. The Kea’s were hopping around on the roof next door and had been very noisy since 5am! The birds in NZ are spectacular, not so much with the colours but they just make such wonderful noises. The Tui, Pukeko and Bellbird to name a few, are a constant source of amusement and it was great to hear them chattering all the way.  Unfortunately we had only done a few K down the road and it started raining. Not too hard but faced with a long ride I did start to feel a bit miserable. Both sets of legs were a wee bit tired after yesterday but we pushed on and after a while the sun popped out and the transformation was amazing. New Zealand is a stunning country and this part is unspoilt with only 40,000 coasters inhabiting this very isolated, wet part of the South Island (They measure the rainfall in metres here).  It is also the land of the long white cloud and this was no exception today and it clung round the mountains like a fur collar. 

We knew there was only one place open on our 120km ride to Haast so into the Salmon Farm we went for our lunch.  Great little place with excellent coffee (NZ coffee is sooo good and trim flat white my favourite). After a good lunch we continued on this very straight road past Lake Paringa. We tried to stop but the sand flies here are hungry little critters and you stop at your peril. As Nigel Rushden author of Pedallers Paradise points out “Apart from car drivers NZ has no dangerous animals such as bears or big pussy cats but it certainly makes up for it with sand flies. Do not underestimate them!” Fine when you are moving but stop and you get eaten alive.   

We finally reached Knights Point which has 3 steep hills in 8 kms. There is a wonderful view of the rocks in the sea below and a great descent towards Haast junction.  Only 20km to go but were now faced with a very strong headwind and absolutely no cover between it and the Tasman sea.  It was a long hard slog but we pushed on and eventually reached Haast. Hooray the pub appeared and Paul was sat down with a pint while I went off the make the call for our UTE to pick us up.  I had been taken in by the location of this B & B and had completely overlooked it was another 18k along the beach road and into that bloody wind!  Fortunately the landlady offered to send Brian to collect us which he did.  We duly arrived at the B & B and met our New Year companions who turned out to be really good company.  We had a great BBQ at this totally fabulous place next to the sea. A fabulous New Year and no cycling tomorrow! Yeah!  

1st January 2011. 

Lovely relaxing day of rest in really hot sunshine! 

2nd January 

Oh dear! Thunder and lightening and heavy rain all night and forecast all day. We had the Haast Pass (563m) to climb today which although it is the lowest crossing over the Southern Alps it is 52km of gradual uphill followed by 5km of hard climbing . Decided that it would be no fun at all but unfortunately the bus was not running so we persuaded Brian to take us up. So glad he did as although it was not by any means the worst climb of the holiday the rain was torrential. On route there were spectacular waterfalls spraying right over the road, great in the UTE but not by bike.  

After a very short time we reached Makakora which is essentially just a tourist information centre with a few A-frame chalets around it.  Managed to get our chalet early and started on the red wine very shortly after. I had at least had enough sense to realise that if it was going to pour down for the next 36 hours we needed some wine!  I also realised that a mobile beautician could come and pamper me so she was booked and I had the best 2 hour facial ever. Cycling in the elements is fine but plays havoc with the skin and after all I am a fashionable cyclist!  The restaurant proved really good and after we finished we realised 4 other cyclists that we had already seen on our travels, were also eating there.  So later we all got together to swap stories and had a really interesting evening discussing what makes us enjoy cycling so much! All had different answers!   

3rd January 

Our easiest, shortest days cycling proved to be anything but. We set off in the pouring rain towards Wanaka which is a popular year round resort in a beautiful setting. I think psychologically we were not prepared and the gradients although not steep were long, windy and had a rough surface. We were greeted though with the sun trying to push though and with scenery around Lake Hawea that is simply stunning. We cycled up ‘The Neck’ (405m) and my cell phone suddenly perked into life with 8 New Year messages. There is no coverage from 60km before Haast until this point!  

We both seemed to be struggling today; maybe it was the two days off. This route though is so lovely and the surrounding mountains have such wonderful shapes and colours.  Wanaka is my favourite town and is a year round resort and a base for many activities like mountain biking, water sports, tramping, skiing, climbing and canyoning.  

A welcome descent into Wanaka and managed to find our backpackers which had a great lake view.  Never stopped in a backpackers before but within 1 hour of arriving I had all our washing done and drying and we had a leisurely walk into town for a bite to eat.  A supermarket visit for lunch tomorrow and then back to see exactly what goes on in these hostels. I have to say it was a hive of activity and everyone was beavering away preparing every kind of food imaginable. A young group but they certainly knew more about cooking than me!  We retired early to our room as guess what, we had another early 7.30am start in the morning. 

4TH January 

This was going to be our hardest day with a 40km climb to the top of the Crown Range and a total of around 90km to do. It was a lovely morning with a slight headwind and the promise of a hot sunny day and a visit to the historic Cardrona Hotel where we assured we would get a great pint of beer.    

The scenery warranted many drinks and nibble stops; it is just so unbelievable that it has to be appreciated at every opportunity.  We were passed by numerous training cyclists who without the excess weight just seemed to glide pass us and I started to resent my pannier bags.  The first 25km were a very gentle ascent and we reached the Cardrona Hotel at 9.30am. Unfortunately in true NZ style is was shut meaning Paul could not drink his promised pint in this 1865 iconic hotel which from peering though the window seemed to have a wonderful ‘English country pub’ style. Oh well perhaps just as well as we still had some serious climbing to do.  The road narrowed and gradually became steeper and climbed up the upper Cardrona Valley.  It became very steep towards the end and we both had to admit defeat over the last 1k and walk to the top of NZ highest highway at 1080m.  

What a fantastic view though and we spent a good hour eating our lunch and snoozing in the lovely sun.  A great descent was promised although this would have been far more enjoyable had we had some descent brakes and had some confidence in our ability to stop!  We did however stop to chat to a guy riding a recumbent up this mountain.  He turned out to be a Swiss paraplegic called Henry with a specially adapted bike. He was cycling from Bluff at the bottom of the South Island to Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island. What a inspiration but so comical as he asked us to inform his back-up of his intention to ride further up this stiff climb but gave us no real indication of when he may return.  His back up (Spanish) driver (Pol) apparently didn’t have a driving license which was rather interesting! Perhaps he was just a very nice man!  Turns out he was indeed a lovely man and very handsome, even though he did appear out of his backpacker van in a state of disarray and with his limited English he seemed to understand what Henry was up to.  

We eventually reached Arrowtown which is a picturesque village and was once the centre of the major gold rush.  Had a very welcome drink and then ran the gauntlet of holiday traffic on the ‘quiet’ route to Queenstown. It was extremely hot by now and after climbing steeply up to our hostel we returned to town to drop our bikes off for some relaxation by the lake. 

We are normal holidaymakers again and had a rest day in Queenstown and then back to Christchurch for my great Aunts 100th birthday.  The first time I’ve been to one of those!  

Alizon Hargreaves. January 2011.   

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