Dan's Cycle Tour of the South Island

Dan's Cycle Tour of the South Island

Cycle touring around New Zealand’s South Island – what could possibly be more beautiful, more romantic, more … painful. If you work at a desk, breaks are enforced; if you sit for ten hours on a plane you’re supposed to wear special socks. And yet there I was taking weeks off work to sit on a lumpy, triangular piece of foam while I pump my legs repeatedly. Strange behaviour indeed. It was December, supposedly the best weather of the year, but that’s not how NZ weather works, oh goodness me no. 

My partner in crime was Paul, with whom I embark on many of my madcap schemes. As soon as we’d decided to postpone our road trip through West Africa (thank you ebola, civil war and the usual African hospitality) we set about planning this little sojourn. We’d fly into Wellington, get the ferry to Picton and start cycling: across to the west coast, down to Bluff, the southernmost point, and back up the east coast to Picton. We'd done a two-day training ride a few weeks beforehand on which I detected a twinge in my left knee and the sky collapsed; it rained harder than I thought was possible - we got drenched, our panniers leaked and my bike chain was washed totally clean of grease. Based on this successful expedition we judged ourselves ready for the big time.

Now I won't go into meticulous detail about every stage of the trip as most of it was on the highway, puffing up and down hills, being blown sideways by logging trucks, avoiding road kill and then collapsing at the end of each day to a bowl of pasta and sauce. We were mostly freedom camping so we kept to ourselves and ducked into a supermarket every few days to replenish supplies. We didn't get to do much sightseeing as we were focused on covering the required distance each day. 

After five days we reached the bleak outpost of Westport, high up on the west coast. It’s surprising how many hills there are over there. Who’d have thought crossing the Southern Alps could be so strenuous? We took it as it came though: when the road went up, we went up; when the road went down, so did we; when the sun came out, we put on sunscreen; when it rained, we put on waterproofs. It wasn't rocket science.

We passed a pleasant not-too-raucous NYE there and set off in the morning without too much of a hangover, at least in my head. Within five pedals of starting it felt like someone was trying to prise off my left kneecap with a screwdriver. My body was falling apart already! It was a worry for a few days, but I bolstered my patellas with full-time painkillers for the rest of the trip and that dulled the screwdriver sensation to that of a butter knife and I was able to continue.

NZ's west coast, despite being listed by Lonely Planet as one of their Top Ten Regions to Visit in 2014, is home to a squillion sand flies. Within minutes of arriving at any given camping spot, or indeed stopping on the road for a stretch, the tiny buggers were all over us. Mornings and evenings were spent inside the tent as much as possible and cooking necessitated a head net. The coast was beautiful but it was a relief to get over the Haast Pass and into the fly-free lake district of Wanaka and Queenstown.

Up until then we’d been pretty lucky with the weather. As cycle tourists, the wind was our nemesis, but apart from the odd breeze we’d enjoyed mostly still days. As we rode deeper into the roaring forties we were soon battling fierce headwinds. The blasts from passing trucks were amplified and my helmet would have blown clean off had it not been strapped on. In a land where even the local post boxes huddled together for protection, we were desperately looking forward to a tail wind.

It was an appropriately bleak day when we finally rode into Bluff. “This is the furthest from the end of the ride we’re ever going to be,” said Paul, helpfully. Thanks, mate. He was right though; there was nothing for it but to point our handlebars north and go back to Picton.The promised tail wind propelled us along nicely for about fifteen minutes before, incredibly, it changed direction and began howling out of the northwest. From that moment on we were pummelled, buffeted and blown sideways all day, every day. The wind was like a heat-seeking missile except that whenever we changed direction it would move around to face us and hold its massive palm against our forehead like a schoolyard bully.

 Nga Haerenga is NZ’s nationwide network of cycleways, comprising 2500km of trails and 23 Great Rides. Although our route did not coincide with many of the trails we managed to incorporate sections of the six Great Rides over the five weeks. Getting onto the trails was a huge relief and the kilometre markings flew past as we remembered the joy of off-roading. We followed the wide, blue Clutha River and around the spectacular Roxburgh Gorge, now flooded by a hydroelectric dam. The Otago Rail Trail wound between dry hills of wind-blasted tussock, through eerie tunnels and over creaky wooden viaducts. We finished up with the Queen Charlotte Trail - an epic sine wave of pushing and careening, and possibly the most fun of the whole trip.

Past the wineries and vineyards of Blenheim and the seals and beaches of Kaikoura we rode, to the town that met us, fresh and enthusiastic, off the ferry a month beforehand. In that time we’d seen snow-capped peaks, glacial lakes of the deepest blue, offshore rock stacks and sheep. Lots of sheep. We hitched a lift on a jet boat, learned not to eat trail mix while riding over corrugated gravel and fought an orc army for the treasure of Smaug the dragon. Well, maybe I imagined that last bit.

It wasn't easy but the memory of the pain will fade. I might forget it altogether one day and agree one day to cycle across the Tibetan Plateau, or Ladakh or somewhere equally steep. Maybe the only thing that will save me further pain is to re-read this blog every couple of years. “DON’T DO IT, DAN! IT BLOODY HURTS, REMEMBER?”

Some statistics on the completed ride:

Total distance ridden: 2270km

No. riding days: 29

No. rest days: 3

Average distance per day: 78.3km

Longest day: 115km

Shortest day: 38km

No. nights in a bed: 5

No. punctures: 0

Average daily costs: $50