aLONZ-y!: Bikepacking New Zealand’s South Island

The Vitals

Dates: March 17 – April 13, 2019

Location: Picton, NZ to Bluff, NZ

Distance: 1488 km, 14,700 m climbed

Photos by Brittany

Total Route

New Zealand Riding Summary

The Trip

For the better part of a week, Brittany and I have been sitting on the Otago Peninsula doing a housesit with two dogs. The peninsula is a picturesque bit of isolated living very near Dunedin. Though it’s only 20 km, it still takes more than 30 minutes to drive into town because the roads are so twisty. We’ve been spending our time cooking, walking the dogs, and checking out all of the hilly dirt roads of the peninsula (in a late 80’s Ford Laser). In the process we’ve seen plenty of sea lions and sea bluffs and, by hiding in the dunes and grasses for 30 minutes, we got to watch a yellow-eyed penguin waddle into the waves and swim around on an otherwise deserted beach. It’s been the perfect antidote to a few months on the move with 39 out of 60 nights spent in a tent.

In a book we flipped through at a coffee shop, any traverse of New Zealand from end-to-end is called a Length of New Zealand (LONZ) feat. We read about a skateboarding LONZ, plenty of hiking LONZ, and of course bike LONZ trips in as little as four and a half days. Now you can add Greg and BK’s 60 day odyssey to the list of great achievements in New Zealand sport.

Otago Peninsula (right side) and the natural Otago harbour.
A real big boy
How a real big boy gets up the beach
BK, Flynn, and Tui at Allan’s Beach

Being on the move so often, this will serve as the summary of the entire South Island portion of this cycling trip. This can be roughly divided into four sections based on where we took some longer breaks.

Section 1: Picton to Nelson

We landed at the ferry terminal in Picton around 5:00 pm and had about 35 km to ride in the evening to the town of Havelock. The feeling was keenly different from anywhere on the North Island. The tour follows a quiet coastal road the entire time with fjords and forest as far as the eye can see. On the last hill above Havelock, we stopped in the waning light to check out the view when Brittany and Alex found a large, brown, flightless bird. We weren’t sure what it was because it didn’t look like the photos of kiwis, and that’s because it wasn’t. This is the day we learned of wekas: something like a bolder version of a kiwi but not as rare.

Top of the first hill after the ferry.

From Havelock to Nelson we rode the highway until Pelorus Bridge, where we stopped at one of the filming locations from The Hobbit (the barrel scene), and from here we could take the 4wd route over the Maungatapu Saddle. The 700+ meter saddle just kept getting steeper and the last 3 km were spent on our feet. Over the top and the descent was even steeper. We let the pressure down in our tires and that helped soak up the bumps. Five people were murdered on this track in 1866 so we definitely needed to get out before dark lest we become haunted.

Centre of New Zealand marker in Nelson

Rolling into Nelson on a cooler evening, we celebrated the start of our first two-day break since Auckland with Domino’s ($5/pizza is insane) and the first Lord of the Rings. We ended up running around Nelson a bit during the two rest days but still had a chance to tour the NZ-famous Pic’s peanut butter factory.

Section 2: Nelson to Greymouth

We were still travelling with the German cyclist Alex and all three of us resumed the ride after the two day break. Riding south from Nelson was quite flat across a wide plain with vineyards and hops growing alongside the usual pastures. The highlight of the first day, spent mostly on gravel cycle trail, was Spooners Tunnel – a 1.3 km former rail tunnel. At that length it gets cold and damp in the tunnels and lights are a necessity. Due to the hockey stick shape of the tunnel, you can only see the light from both ends for a moment when you’re at the knee.

Lake Rotoroa in the evening – looking towards the smaller mountains to the west.

With cheap camping on our mind, we made a detour from the Tour Aotearoa route south to St. Arnaud after Spooners Tunnel. This allowed us to skip a long section of farmland but with a lot more climbing. From St. Arnaud to Lake Rotoroa, we took an extra 4wd track up to nearly 1000 m. So while we definitely went off-route, no one can accuse us of taking the easy road.

Lake Rotoroa is one of the stunning lakes in the Nelson Lakes district. The mountains dominating the skyline and plunging straight down into the water made it seem certain that the water would be cold, but no lake in NZ has been anything like our alpine lakes at home. After a pleasant swim, we were eaten alive by sandflies. That seems standard for this lake.

Swan on Lake Rotoroa

From Rotoroa we rode to Murchison on majority gravel roads with some shallow stream crossings, and from there continued south over the Maruia saddle on more country gravel roads and 4wd track. Only our second night of wild camping in NZ was just before the summit of the saddle on a small patch of cleared forest. The majority of the ride from Maruia to Greymouth was on pretty quiet paved roads but flew by as we raced a big storm to the west coast. We abandoned the TA route near Reefton since it would have added at least a day and it turned out the dire forecasts were right.

Somewhere on the road to Maruia

We got to Greymouth and into a hostel in the evening and that night the skies opened up. We spent three nights holed up in the hostel as water pounded the streets. Rumours were flying, with a purported 300 mm falling to the south of us in one day. Even if the amount is an exaggeration, the destruction was undeniable. The only bridge over the Waiho River was washed away and would keep the only road down the west coast closed for weeks. Another bridge on the cycle trail was also damaged so now our decision to skip a portion of the TA route was moot – there was no way we could continue our original plan.

Greymouth in a storm
Tasman Sea from Greymouth
The sun comes out on the final evening
A short hike to stretch our legs after the storm

Section 3: Greymouth to Albert Town

This was the longest section by far but was done in a rush. We had a date with friends to keep in Albert Town and the storm and route adjustment had put us a bit behind. We left Greymouth under blue skies but we were headed to the infamous Arthur’s Pass road which, at the time we left, was still closed as water was still flowing over one of the bridges en route.

Check out that waterfall near Arthur’s Pass

A fine morning of gravel cycle trails and gravel road by Lake Brunner and we were back at the main highway link between Greymouth and Christchurch which finally reopened after three days. The long climb up the pass hit 16% at times which required some hike-a-bike on the nonexistent shoulder. We crested the pass in the late evening and were greeted with a new landscape. Gone were the trees and ferns of a rainy coast, to be replaced by endless yellow grasses waving in the breeze.

Yellow grasses after the pass

We camped at the pass and spent four more days highway riding in the company of much faster and heavier vehicles. The campervan traffic seemed especially heavy and was probably related to the closure of the west coast highway. We occasionally got off the main road for 10 or 15 km, including a memorable pair of river crossings in order to avoid the town of Geraldine. These were the first proper, shoes-off, carry-a-bike river crossings we had done since Tajikistan but with relatively warmer kiwi waters.

Descend into the clouds south of Lake Lyndon

The last of these highway days took us to the famed Lake Tekapo, where turquoise waters and a “dark sky reserve” mean impressive views day or night. This road was a nightmare as we fought a ferocious wind. For about an hour we became separated despite there only being one road. I stopped for a break and neither of us noticed when Brittany passed me. I talked to some tourists at a coffee stand who ended up helping by telling Brittany that I was actually behind her when they passed her in their car.

Typical pastures in Canterbury
Camping just 8 km south of Tekapo

Once reunited, we took turns pulling and crawled into Tekapo at 8-10 km/h. In Tekapo we would join the “Alps 2 Ocean” cycle trail on car-free gravel canal roads and a mountain-bike specific trail. We followed this trail for a day and a half (with a view of Mt. Cook, NZ’s highest) to Omarama. From here, the straightforward route to Wanaka is on the highway over Lindi’s Pass but Brittany had done her research and took us on the East Manuherikia Track into Oteake Conservation Park south of Omarama. The climb over the Little Omarama saddle reached 1360 meters and remains the highest elevation we reached in all of NZ. About 700 meters were gained in the last few kilometers which meant a lot more pushing.

Lake Pukaki, Aoraki/Mt. Cook obscured by cloud

The descent was through a tight valley to which evening comes early. Our legs were blasted when we finally reached the deserted Homestead DOC hut, our home for the night.

From Homestead, Brittany had more tricks up her sleeve as we took backroads to the Thomson Gorge road through the Dunstan mountains. We spent a long morning at Homestead, only leaving sometime after noon. We reached the gorge road in mid-afternoon when a forecasted light rain began. We continued the climb as the rain and wind got worse and worse. By the time we reached the saddle at ~900 m, we were truly soaked and had been slow to add layers. On the ensuing descent we both became very cold. We had been hoping to find camping along the 4wd road but nothing looked appealing in the rain. At the bottom of the descent, we were spit out into farmland and our chance at wild camping had evaporated. We were talking about knocking on a farmhouse door when we saw a sign for a B+B. We were getting desperate in the early evening and rode up the long driveway to the house. The only living thing around was a very old, and very hobbled dog. The garage was half open and there were cars in the driveway. We knocked on all the doors but no one was home.

Daily journal entry at Lake Ohau

At this point we had waited too long to get warm and couldn’t continue. We changed into our only dry clothes under an awning and made tea with our stove and water from the outdoor tap. We watched every car as it passed the driveway, hoping one would turn in and we could explain ourselves. When darkness had well and truly fallen and we were still cold and waiting, we decided to set up the tent under the awning and beg forgiveness when the owners finally came home.

Lake Ohau camp

But they never did. Brittany and I spent a mostly sleepless, damp night starting at every sound. Well before sunrise, and after several sad visits by the old dog, we packed up our wet stuff in the dark and headed back out on the road with our lights. As the sun rose, we could see a light dusting of snow in the mountains we had just left. We rolled into Albert Town very early, still cold, and extremely tired. Luckily, our Airbnb was ready and Brittany and I headed there extra early to do laundry and take a much-needed nap. In the late afternoon, Will and Anne arrive after their day’s drive from Christchurch and we were ready to spend the next three days hiking and piddling around with good friends!

Landscape in Oteake Conservation Area
Homestead Hut
Top of Isthmus Peak facing north on a hike with Will and Anne. Lake Wanaka on the left. Some of the snow from the storm two days prior.

Section 4: Albert Town to Bluff (then Invercargill)

With an itchy trigger finger, we set off from Albert Town and through Wanaka on the road to Cardrona towards the world-famous Whistler doppelganger of Queenstown. We had plans to take 4wd tracks from Cardrona through the Pisa Conservation Reserve and spend the night at Meg’s hut. We had already purchased our hut passes when we decided to check on another incoming storm. The forecast had gotten worse and we were definitely in for another bout of cold and wet. Humbled by our recent mistakes, we decided to forego a guaranteed rainy day high in the mountains, and pushed on to Queenstown.

Cardrona Hotel. They do NOT like people using their bathroom without buying something.

Due to roadworks, we actually had a few hours to kill in Cardrona where I used the toilet at the Cardrona hotel despite not being a paying customer. A few minutes ahead of the scheduled open, the worker let us start up and we soon crossed over the Crown Pass – the highest paved road in NZ. This distinction didn’t mean much to us since it is 300 meters lower than the Little Omarama Saddle.

A long descent into Queenstown and then another two nights holed up, waiting out a storm. A bit of exploration of Queenstown in the rain was enough. On the second morning, our 9:00 ferry across Lake Wakatipu was pushed back until 11:00 so we had another late start. The beauty of the ferry, though, is that you cross the lake to car-free gravel roads for the next 100 km to Mossburn on the “Around the Mountains” cycle trail. The one day of rain was enough to swell the rivers and our two river fords were some of the toughest of the trip with some pretty strong flows and actually cold water.

Here comes Queenstown! Top of the Crown Pass.

Near Mossburn, we pulled off the trail on a bit of riverbank and spent a secluded night in the bush. Throughout the night, and into the next day, we faced wave after wave of rain. Though heavy at times, each bout only lasted about 10 minutes so we were still able to pack up and take our breaks during dry spells.

By now the landscape had changed for the last time to the dead-flat plains of the Southlands. In a 94 km day we only did 80 meters of climbing. In Winton, the best camping option was down at the golf club where camping and greens fees are both on the honour system. We paid the very reasonable fee, shared the hot water of a coin-operated shower in the ladies locker room, and fell asleep to the very loon-like roars of the deer at the farm next door who are eager to mate.

The last day on the route contains, unfortunately, some of the worst roads. Coming into Invercargill you must join busy roads with a lot of traffic. Once in the city, a cycle path takes you along the estuary until about 15 km south of town but from here to Bluff (about 20 km), you spend your time on the side of highway 1. Since it was a Saturday, things were a bit better for us since truck traffic is lower on weekends (apparently).


Just past Bluff we reached Stirling Point. This is the site of the signpost whose mate we began our trip next to in Cape Reinga, 3284 km away. This endpoint was a bit of an anticlimax. We had been working towards it for two months but in the last two days, our reaching it was a foregone conclusion. Instead of a wave of euphoria, we both felt more like, “Well, there it is”. The major contributor to this feeling was probably that we still had 30 km to ride, back to Invercargill on the road we had just taken in order to catch a bus to the housesit.

Stirling Point

After a hot drink and a meat pie, we turned our bikes around and pedalled back to a holiday park in Invercargill. Along the way, we met a guy who was just finishing a run across NZ while pushing a stroller. He had already run 67 km that day and was 12 km from the end. He had also started in Cape Reinga four days after us. At the holiday park we set up our tent for one last drizzly night before catching our bus in the morning. A hot shower and a shared bottle of wine with a Scottish tourist were the highlights at the end of a long road.

Albert Town family portrait