South Island NZ

During February – March 2012, a friend, Margaret, and myself undertook an extended cycling adventure through the South Island back country. Below is the email blog that I wrote whilst travelling, together with some embedded videos to capture the moment!
(Please note that this ride was largely through private property, so if you are considering a similar route, please ensure that you contact the respective farm owners/managers to get their permissions in advance.)


I flew from Auckland to Nelson solo in late January and then cycled to Amberley, mostly via the Lewis Pass. However, on Margaret’s recommendation, I turned left at Murchison and rode via the Maruia Saddle road. This is a spectacular forest reserve and the actual saddle road itself is about 15kms, although the run down the valley from Murchison is very peaceful – this diversion is recommended if you are in the area – even by car, although please note that there are 6 small fords to cross on this route!

Margaret and I met at the Raikaia Gorge campsite on February 9. The next morning the weather was the “pits”, so we had a day off and just read and lay about in our tents!! The next day, whatever the weather provided, we decided to depart to our first back-country  experience. We headed inland. Arriving at the  homestead we were welcomed and it was suggested we camp at a lovely stream just behind the homestead. A beautiful evening sunset surrounded by high peaks – bliss.

Next morning the sun did rise from the east to create a magic panorama of light and shadows across the surrounding hills. What a start. The riding was just as good, along lonely farm tracks, snow covered peaks looking down on us with the Rakaia River a constant companion to our right.

Soon we were onto one of the “shingle fans’, where the riding looked easy to me. How wrong I was. These shingle fans are slippery, fist-sized stones and yes, I did fall off trying to ride! OK, time to accept defeat and push the bike uphill and across about 500+ metres of this shingle face. Not fun…. I was very pleased when we got across.

We kept stopping for photographs to capture the wonderful scenery and snowy peaks, not realising that we were to get much much closer to the Main Divide as the morning wore on. Eventually we crested the Pass at the confluence of the Rakaia River and Lake Stream. The tussock was so huge, that all you could see of the big black cows in the tussock was their eyes and ears poking above the tussock – glad I did not need a comfort stop at this time!

We rode on and on, through a tough and at times, rock-strewn ride – and all this at an average speed of only 7km/hr – like I said, not easy! Eventually we went down off the hills and away from the mountains to cross more ‘shingle fans’ and within a few kilometres we were back on public (nice and smooth) roads. Yay! With a burst of renewed energy, we arrived in Mt Somers an hour or two later and enjoyed a cold ale (or two) with dinner.

Next day was much a shorter ride (all over by 2:30pm) and just got us to the next DOC campsite. Hey Marg, it’s raining! Never mind, we were up and go where we met the station manager and received the latest route instructions before heading away into the unknown.

As we rode, the rain eased and a beaut day was delivered. Cloud-shrouded hills surrounded us whilst the powerful and flooded nearby gorge stream noisily swept down the valley. What a setting it is in this valley, and especially the deep and roaring gorge – words can hardly describe the inner feelings one has as you travel.

After a bit of a navigational discussion, we located a small footbridge across the gorge. Now the riding initially looked easy – nice flat paddocks with long grass and the odd track to follow. However, that did not last and some serious physical exertion was required to get over some of the rock tracks where gradients were up to 15-20+% at times. It often took two of us to just push one bike at a time up these steep hills. The rocks were slippery, large and loose – not exactly “fun” riding. And yes, a few hills we had to walk down as well. Lunch was very-well earned after what was the final hill of this section.

Onwards we rode – wow, those massive mountains just above as we rode were something else. The views and expansiveness is beyond words.

Eventually we were back to public roads, and it was a final blat through rain-soaked skies, via Meikles Summit into Fairlie, where we bunked down for the night!

Following our departure from Fairlie on a drizzly morning, we wandered south to Cricklewood (it is on the map but all it is a sign!) Here we turned right towards the Waratah Saddle and then onwards to the Mckenzie Pass. The weather was cool and light rain, so turning up at a farmer’s door asking to use their hay barn for lunch cover ended up in being offered the shearer’s house complete with wood for the fire – bliss. We must have looked like drowned rats? The dry inside lunch was appreciated and renewed our energy for the upcoming Saddle and Pass. Once over the McKenzie Pass, remarkably, the awful wet easterly weather that we had been suffering for a few days was over as we breezed into the delightful warm sunshine of the McKenzie Basin.

We headed towards Lake Benmore and camped under a grove of willow trees, only 5 metres or so from the edge of the lake. Another very peaceful night. The next day it dawned clear and only got better as we progressed towards the unknown. The road led us away from views of Lake Benmore for some 15+ kms. Our only company was rabbits, briar bushes and a few dead wallabies (of the 2 legged bouncing fur variety). The hillsides were barren, scrawny and rocky, devoid of farm animals.

Onward we continued through the morning until the big ride up to the top of the saddle, topping out at 877 metres. Coming over the top, gasping for breath, there was almost a complete white-out. There were no views to be had, bar a few metres ahead. Slightly disappointed we sat for about a half hour just watching the cloud blow in and out. Eventually, a few peeps of clear air appeared looking down the valley and wow, we could see our first glimpses of Lake Benmore. What a sight! The brilliant glacial turquoise blue colour was an absolute sight to behold in amongst the rough barren hills that surrounded us. The cloud continued to phase in and out and we could also view the downhill ride that was ahead, after all, it was still some 12kms to reach the actual hydro dam of Lake Benmore.

We enjoyed lunch in blazing sunshine and just stared in awe at the beauty all around. To be honest, I was “blown away” by the view and the colours and shadows on the lake – it is not often that I am speechless!

We then descended for several hours, yes, it was steep and a rough track so you could not just let fly of the brakes and go for it. Some of the drops off those switchback bends were quite scary. To arrive at the Lake Benmore Dam on the lake edge was great and nice to be back on some tar-seal roads, away from constant road watching required when on rough gravel farm tracks.

Soon after we met Mirjam ( coming towards us. I had been following Mirjam’s world tour blog on-line so it was great to meet her in person. Soon we were discussing gravel road options for Mirjam, as she particularly enjoys the back-country places.

I was amazed at the beauty of the Waitaki Valley as we rode south-east in the late afternoon light and also again the next day. There is so much history just everywhere and I must return to explore more in this area.

With things going well, our next mission was Danseys Pass, which as many will know is a slow gradual climb – to us it was relatively easy after some of the farm tracks that we have been on! On the way we found some giant field mushrooms, so big that only one would fit into my handlebar bag – yes, they were huge (150cm diameter!), but great eating later.

A visit to the Danseys Pass hotel was a must, mind you just for a coffee and scone to refresh! A night in Naseby was called for and this is one quaint town – lots of restoration of buildings going on. Interesting place, but only about 120 permanent residents now. As we headed deeper in to Central Otago, Ranfurly was the optimal supermarket stop to refill the panniers. After using the Rail Trail from Ranfurly to Oturehura, we moved back to the road and the long ride down the wide Ida Valley, surrounded on both sides by low mountain ranges in the far distance, before camping near Poolburn Pub for the night.

The next day, we headed deeper into Central Otago. The travel was through the rocky tors so distinctive of Central Otago and one almost expected to find a Hobbit around every corner . Barren, dry, but beautiful (in its own way), lifeless, yet somehow stunning.

To finally arrive in Alexandra was great – a day off the bike was badly needed, and as it was raining the next morning, so a day off it was.

Margaret and I split at Alexandra for a few days and I rode the main road (yuk, traffic!) to Roxburgh, before crossing the Clutha River and riding the beautiful peaceful Teviot Valley to Millers Flat. On the way, I stopped to view the ruins of what was the largest woolshed in NZ back earlier last century. It was an exceptionally large stone building, originally about 100m long and about 30 metres wide. It is now only about 50 metres long as dangerous ruins have been destroyed for safety reasons. Quite impressive, even as a ruin.

At Millers Flat, I stayed at Invercargill friends crib/bach. It was a wonderful break with time to relax, eat and sleep, not necessarily in that order!! By this time, Marg had ridden the Knobby Range and was now somewhere in the Old Man Range fighting the elements of extreme cold weather. After a few days, I eventually left Millers Flat and rode via Gore to meet Marg at Lumsden for a catch-up on all her riding news.

The next day, we soldiered on in beautiful calm sunny weather to Garston in preparation for the Nevis. Now this road has been on my bucket-list for some time and it was great to be so close. Yes, I was even excited with the challenge ahead. The locals seemed to think we were somewhat crazy heading across the Nevis, as it starts, as they reminded us, with a 12km climb. The weather was looking suitable for the high altitude climb ahead, so it was early out of the sleeping bags the next morning and on the road. What a glorious start to the day. It was cold and we were well clothed with multiple layers. Once we started climbing, layer by layer of clothing was stripped off.

The views back down the hill towards Garston and west to the main Divide were magnificent in the early morning light. The climb really is relatively gentle (I think), with lots of switch-backs until eventually reaching the ski hut that is available to all for use. Not long after was the top of this climb, at about 1100m. The sun was out, a road in good condition and the legs felt just great! We traversed along the tops for a while before beginning the run down into the Nevis Valley. There are about 25 fords to cross through the valley, so you just accept that wet feet is the norm and then you are OK!

Soon we noticed a cyclist coming towards us! Wow, it was Mirjam, the Dutch cycle tourist that we had met back near Lake Benmore. It was good to catch up again and hear her tales of the back-country South Island.

Lunch was near the sheep somewhere alongside the Nevis River. As we moved along the valley, you could see the old water channels on the side of the hills that had been built by the early gold miners in the late 1800s to enable water to be moved from many kilometres away to assist with sluicing for gold. There were also a lot of tailings from these old gold mining operations. The tailings looked completely out of place in the Nevis Valley environment. They were a different silvery-gray colour and of different general geological shape to the surrounding countryside. They certainly looked like a foreign matter to me and completely out of place. To me they are a blight on the existing landscape, in much the same way that the hills have been scoured in the desperate search for gold. The scoured hills are unnatural in their form. I almost found it sad to see this ‘damage’ in such a barren but beautiful picture that surrounded us, but I guess that is what progress was about for the early gold miners. On the other hand, I ‘take my hat off’ to those early miners who ventured into such an unwelcoming and inhospitable place that the Nevis is, without all the flash clothing and comforts that we have of modern living today. I sometimes wonder if they really knew what they were heading into, or were they just ‘blinded’ by the possibility of getting rich through gold prospecting?

Today there is still commercial gold mining occurring in the Nevis Valley. However, the condition of such mining licences today include the requirement that the tailings resulting from the current mining are returned to pasture upon completion. So, whilst the old tailings will remain for historical purposes, no new tailings will be visible in the years to come, and that is a very sensible option in my opinion.

That night we camped in the beautiful peaceful calm valley at Schoolhouse Flat in the Lower Nevis, overlooked by Mt Ben Nevis (at approximately 2200m) and near to the old historic hotel ruins. Sleep came easy in such a special and remote place.

The next day, as morning dawned, we were up bright and early to be greeted by a bright pink sky – oh dear, the weather was turning. We hurried to leave camp in order to get over Duffers Saddle ahead, topping out at 1300m. The rain started as we ascended and then it got very windy and bitingly cold. By this time I was ahead of Marg and we had agreed earlier that I would not wait for her at the Saddle if she was not with me, but keep on going to get off the top the Saddle and down, to hopefully, less cold conditions towards Bannockburn.

The descent was a tortuous 9km of screaming brakes and cold and numb hands trying to hold the brake levers… I had many stops to cool the wheel rims and to try to get feeling back into my fingers. By about 10:45am, we were warmly ensconced in a Bannockburn Cafe drinking copius amounts of tea and eating, eating, eating trying to warm up as it continued to rain – oh and BTW, I can recommend the homemade cinnamon scrolls at the Bannockburn Cafe!. We had been lucky with the weather as that same afternoon, it snowed in the very Saddle in the Nevis that we had just come over!

Margaret and I then went different directions with Margaret heading off to ride around Lake Hawea and then into the Skippers Canyon area while I headed south-east, via the Otago Central Rail Trail (150kms of NO cars – joy!!) to Dunedin and a flight home.

A fantastic trip, remote and special places that is New Zealand’s South Island.


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