Cycling New Zealand | Part Two: South Island

After cycling around New Zealand, I realised that up until this point in my life I had severely overused the word ‘epic’. Since there is nothing quite as epic as descending towards Tekapo and seeing the most vividly blue water that you could ever imagine, or hiking beneath New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook whilst it is snowing in early summertime, or the breathlessness of diving into the crystal clear waters of the mountain-framed Lake Hawea. New Zealand epitomises the word ‘epic’ like nothing or nowhere else I had ever experienced. I spent two months cycling around the South Island and it was something unforgettable.

I am sat with my head in my hands. My eyes are closed and my jacket is zipped up tightly over my neck. It is lightly raining and there is a bitter wind whipping at my face and sneaking into the tiny gaps in my clothes. I rock forwards and backwards as the boat crashes into the waves that seem so intent on pushing it away, sending salty sea spray onto the deck and into my eyes and hair and causing my stomach to lurch into my throat. Breathe in and out, I tell myself, in and out. There is a lull in the ferry’s undulating, so I raise my head and open my eyes to a grey and green landscape. It is the first sighting of the South Island and passengers start filtering onto the deck to snap a photo of the approach. But all I want is to put my feet on solid ground and pedal away from this damned ferry and the seasickness in my stomach.

I fall asleep that night as the rain taps on my tent and am awoken the next morning by the sun’s first glow filtering through my green rain-fly. I make porridge on my camping stove as I always do, ladened with honey and banana as it always is, and then I sip my morning coffee while I pack the last of my belongings into my pannier bags in the exact order that I have always packed them for the last three months. Everything is as it always has been, except for the feeling I have in my stomach, the feeling one only gets when something new and unknown is about to happen; that feeling of I have no idea what I’m doing but it’s going to be great. I feel it as I pedal away from Picton and up onto the Queen Charlotte Drive. And then it is no longer a feeling but an actual thing that is happening. My wheels are spinning on new land, I am breathing in the South Island.

The Marlborough Sounds are somehow both perfectly formed and wildly rugged; calm, blue waters scattered with islands of tropical forest protruding out the water like hump-back whales coming up for air. My Garmin reads 2.91 miles as I wave my right arm and pull into the side of the road again. It may be the sixth time I have stopped already but I just can’t help myself… The sun is on my skin and I want to live this moment for as long as possible; I am falling in love with the South Island already. From the emerald waters of the Marlborough Sounds I head north to the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park, then south to the alpine lakes of the Nelson Lakes National Park, then west to the wet and wild West Coast. Everyday I am pedalling amidst a new and unique landscape and everyday I become more in awe of this incredible Island.

But as the views get more epic so does the weather… On the morning that I am due to begin the Alpine crossing from West Coast to East over Arthur’s Pass the sky is dark and angry, soon bursting into torrential rain and 80mph gusts of wind. I am quickly soaked through my two raincoats and I can barely see the road in front of me as the water sprays from my wheels and drops down from my helmet, clinging to my eyelashes. There is no shelter in sight so I battle on, cycling further and further away from civilisation until I physically and mentally cannot go any further, and I have no idea what I’m going to do about it. Ten minutes later I stumble into a roadside pub, my face red and stinging from the battering wind and the tears I didn’t quite manage to fight back. All I can think to do is order a coffee, then I clamber over to the table nearest the fireplace and sit in a daze while the rain seeps out of my sodden clothes and creates a pool of water at my feet. What am I doing? I ask myself over and over again. And what am I going to do?

What I’ve discovered about travelling by bicycle is that it completely confines you to the moment. In one moment you can be captivated by the this and the now that is epic and real. And thenin the next instant, you forget that feeling and resolve to give it all up; swap the bike and the tent for the warmth of a carseat and the comfort of a real bed. Right then in that pub I think that I am at the lowest low of my whole trip, but a few hours later I am warm and dry and a kind stranger is driving me and my bike to the top of the Pass. Then tomorrow – exhilarated to have the wind behind me – I want nothing more but to travel like this forever; I am a tiny bird amidst this humbling landscape, soaring effortlessly through the mountains.

In Christchurch I took a week off the bike to recharge and rejuvenate, and when I set off again my two wheels are joined by two more. Marty, who I met while cycling in America, was not put off by my daily moaning about the relentless headwinds and hills and so – with a slightly lighter load than my own – he joined me on the road to Mount Cook. I was a (semi-)veteran of touring thinking too much about the final destination and he was fresh off the plane with an old film camera in hand, convincing me to stop more to appreciate the ride. We entered Mackenzie Country (the place my mum loved so much that she had named my brother after it) where the hills were rolling and the sheep were a-plenty, each day pedalling towards the looming Southern Alps. The roadsides were ladened with wild lupins of fuscia and violet, and the lakes were the bluest blue I had ever seen. We lay in the dirt at Tekapo and watched the blackness above fill with dazzling specks and stars shoot through the sky, then we hiked across swing bridges and beneath white-topped mountains blanketed by clouds as snow fell on our faces in Mount Cook National Park. The road out of Mount Cook was virtually empty but for our two pairs of wheels, and as we watched the mountains disappear into the distance beneath the majestically moody sky, I felt like this faraway corner of New Zealand was our secret; a hidden mystery, an untouchable memory.

From Mount Cook we headed South to Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure and tourist hub. Though undeniably beautiful – floating at the edge of a deep blue, mountain-framed lake – this party town was somewhat overwhelming, so we escaped with a day exploring sleepy Arrowtown and a trip to the wildly rugged Milford Sound. The latter, for me, was like stepping into another world where any minute you’d expect a pterodactyl to come soaring over the cliff-tops or something resembling the Loch Ness monster to poke it’s head above the water beside the boat. Tropical trees and plants were growing out of jagged cliffs as crashing waterfalls fell mysteriously from somewhere high above. The clouds remained low, forming an eery blanket over our heads and confining us to this mystical world that seemed impossibly far away from reality, just for an hour or two.

As a final farewell, the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ became cloudless and the sun shone bright and glorious on our final week in New Zealand. We woke up on Christmas Eve on a grassy bank beside the clear, crisp waters of Lake Hawea, and spent Christmas Day slowing down in dreamy Wanaka. On Boxing Day the bikes were loaded for one last time as we tackled the infamous Crown Range Pass, an implacable 20 mile climb to take us back to Queenstown. When I stood at the summit that day, mountain high, with two wheels beneath me and two panniers fully-loaded, I felt lost in the moment once more. I had everything I needed in life right there with me. I was not dwelling on yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. All I was thinking about was whizzing down that hill and I was in love with that feeling, that carefree feeling; the warmth of the sun, the thrill of the descent. And then we were two birds once more, stretching our wings, turning our legs and soaring downwards, back towards reality.


Time/Season: I travelled through New Zealand October-December.

Bike: I’ve been touring on a Condor Fratello (which I adore) with a Brooks C17S saddle, Shimano 105 groupset, hand-built Mavic wheels, and a Tubus Logorack.

Luggage: I have two Ortlieb Back Roller panniers, an Ortlieb dry bag on the top of my rack, and a small handlebar bag.

Tent: MSR Hubba Hubba (2-man) light, freestanding, easy to set up, and very spacious for one person.

Maps: Take maps for sure, especially if you want to explore off the beaten track, but you can easily get by picking up free maps from any tourist information centre.

Camping/Accommodation: I’d recommend downloading the mobile app Campermate. It uses your location to find campsites and gives you details of price, facilities and reviews for each campsite. There are masses of campsites to choose from in New Zealand. Most privately owned ones cost between $15-25 NZD or the official DOC(government owned) campsites which are in general more basic but scenic cost between $5-15 NZD. There are also a lot of hostels and backpacker lodges which are pretty cheap (approx. $30 for a dorm room) and a nice option on a wet or windy night.

Coffee: You won’t struggle to find a decent cup of coffee in New Zealand. There are plenty of independent coffee shops in even the smallest of towns with excellent coffee, cake and lunch selections.

Tyres: A lot of the cycle paths and recommended bike routes in New Zealand feature gravel tracks so it may be worth getting slightly thicker tyres (cyclo-cross tyres would do the job). I had slick tyres so had to stick to the tarmac, which was never a real problem but did limit my options.

Traffic: At the time of year I was in New Zealand (October to December) the roads were in general a lot quieter than the UK. You will notice however a lot of large farming trucks – especially logging trucks – which I didn’t find to be particularly wary of giving space to cyclists or slowing down at all when they passed. I had no serious issues, but it is worth being aware and maybe fitting your bike with a small mirror so you can see them approaching.

Ferry: Once you get to Wellington you need to take a ferry over to Picton to get to the South Island. There are two ferry companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Both are roughly the same price and it only cost me $10 extra on Bluebridge for my bike. I booked a couple of days in advance, but you may need to book earlier at busier times of year.

Originally posted on Pannier CC.