We made it to Bluff! One bright, sunny April morning – just when cycling was for us, becoming a daily routine and the mind was used to drifting off in its own direction – Alice stopped ahead and I snapped into reality. There it was – a signpost informing us of our arrival at Bluff. Our goal. Only perhaps, for its arbitrary title of the most southern town on mainland New Zealand. Our cycle from Cape Reinga was complete – a mere 3,823 km by our convoluted route taking us 57 cycling days (plus a few rests).
Bluff was going about its own business on this clear and pleasant morning. Few people noticed three cheery cyclists heading out to Stirling Point. We tried to be cool about it, after all, what was so special about some arbitrary signpost stating distances to London and other faraway places, but as we approached, those cheesy grins just couldn’t be contained. Not least because it really was yet another spectacular spot – the deep blue ocean stretched before us, wind-battered bush clinging to the rocky coastline. Posing for a photo was compulsory, but we resisted buying any of the tack-o-rama at the “Landsend teashop”. We were, of course, not your average tourist.
So let’s go back to the beginning of our South Island tour. “But what about those hills?” This was the usual comment from people when we explained we’d just cycled the length of New Zealand. I remember meeting two fresh cyclists not far out of Auckland who were grumbling at the hills and who made that memorable comment, “We’ve heard the South Island is flat.”
We attempted to contain our amusement at the time but on embarking on our South Island tour we began to understand. In comparison with some of the rollercoaster roads we’d taken following the East Coast of the North Island, the roads did indeed suddenly feel “flatter”, gently following the contours of the wide open valleys. The difference being when you get a hill, you certainly know about it. South Island roads snake their way up and over a number a mountain passes and they sort of lodge in the memory, whether it’s the endless efforts of crawling uphill, legs burning, heart pounding, sweat pouring, or the satisfaction of speeding downhill, adrenaline surging, air rushing, views ever-changing.
Well, in order of appearance, here’s a quick run-down of some of those more memorable South Island hills encountered on our trip.
Island Saddle 1372m
We hooked up with the tramping club Easter cycling trip and cycled along the Rainbow valley road with them beginning at the junction on SH63 east of St Arnaud. The unsealed road climbs steadily all day. For us it was magic to be cycling amongst the mountains after having remained basically at sea level for so long.
With a total of 11 in our party, it was a sociable bunch with an exponential increase in the “phaff” factor as one by one we stopped for a delayer, a photo, a puncture. Our group soon spread out but it was Island Saddle that really separated the wheat from the chaff… or shall we say, the stubbornly competitive from the more laid-back.
Island Saddle separates the Rainbow and Molesworth valleys. Much height has already been gained before the steeper ascent begins. An isolated and barren landscape, the road is clearly visible scarring the rugged tussocked hillside. It’s one of those horrible hills that drags on and on, steadily increasing in gradient, saving the steepest section for that last agonising corner.
John Rhodes was troubled that Phil (25 years his junior) reached the summit ahead of him until he realised that we didn’t count – we were not officially part of the Club trip!
The biting wind at the top reminded us of our altitude and snatched away excess body heat. Time for a few pics before heading down. The downhill section was not messing around. Phil, Alice and I discovered the disadvantage of slick tyres and panniers on gravel and hoped brake blocks would hold as we descended towards Lake Tennyson.
Jacks Pass (869m)
After campfire singing and storytelling on the shores of Lake Tennyson, the next day we continued with the Club trip a little way before heading off towards Hanmer Springs – all downhill and the promise of a soak in the hot pools at Hanmer. Harry was almost persuaded to join us.
Jacks Pass was one of those roads you were glad not to be cycling up. After enjoying relative solitude and isolation for several days it was a shock to discover 106 cyclists at the top – until we realised most of these cyclists had in fact taken a lift up from Hanmer. We’d stumbled upon the Easter weekend holidaymaker’s latest adrenaline activity – downhill cycling. Much as I enjoy downhills, once again slicks on gravel doesn’t instil great confidence as the road zig-zagged steeply. Youngsters whizzed past in a cloud of dust, occasionally ending in a crumpled heap at the next corner; one even demonstrated the interesting “shoe on back wheel” braking technique. I decided my cautious approach sufficed and allowed for full appreciation of the invigorating and magnificent panorama of views across the opening valley bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Sadly Hanmer was heaving with Easter weekend tourists – a reminder of why we normally head for the hills – so, Harry, no hot pools that night.
Lewis Pass 886m
Excellent sunny autumnal weather – crisp and clear – accompanied our cycle up and over the Lewis Pass. The approach was picturesque – a blend of rural and rugged as we headed up the valley, but also frustrating as any apparent height gained would immediately be lost – the sort of undulations not noticeable in a car.
My knee developed an off-putting clicking that mysteriously disappeared with my foot out of the toe clip and so resulted in an interesting uphill technique.
The colours were strong and bright. The intense blue of the Lewis River cutting its braided course flanked by golden toi toi and red rosehips gave way to dense beech forest.
On Hot.pool_Harry’s recommendation, we paused just east of the pass to find natural thermally heated rock pools nestled amongst the river bank. We soothed tired muscles and sucked on Easter eggs, periodically fighting of sandflies and cooling off with a quick dip in the river.
A very gentle but sustained climb finished it off to the summit where, disappointingly, we were not rewarded with a signpost for our photo opportunity but were rewarded with a satisfying freewheel to Maruia.
There’s a story about cycling through pitch black dense beech forest with no lights from Maruia, but I’ll save it for another time.
Mention must be made of the hilly sections the West Coast road negotiates about the glaciers. Mighty mountains meet dense natural forest. Rivers cascading through boulder-strewn valleys making for dramatic scenery to take your mind off the lungs exploding from more zig-zag climbs.
We abandoned the bikes for a day here and energetically walked up Alex Knob for commanding views of the Franz Josef Glacier and Main Divide. Behind us, the coast stretched before us like a map, putting into perspective the proximity of mountains to sea.
It was around this time that there was a very sad day for vegetarianism – a story involving Alice and an all-day cooked breakfast, but I won’t go into details.
Haast Pass (563m)
In contrast to Lewis Pass, by the time we reached Haast, winter had assertively taken an icy grasp on the country and the West Coast began to show off its dense natural forest in all its misty, drenched glory.
So it was with plastic bags on hands and feet we set off in the icy rain. Alice bravely battled on with broken grip shifters and was only using one gear. Warm and cosy couples in motorhomes chugged past us with waves of encouragement. The road gradually gained height and as the cloud swirled around the hills, the snowline could be seen alarmingly low and dusting the bush.
Just when Alice was congratulating herself on coping well with one gear the road cruelly took on a steeper gradient at The Gates of Haast. Two cyclists zoomed past in the opposite direction. “Your turn soon…” floated in the air. I think I’d have argued with the “soon” bit but eventually the summit was reached.
The sleet now turned unquestionably to snow – thick flakes falling fast – and we were keen to get going. Alice’s and my bare legs stung as memories of winter PE lessons playing hockey in the snow at school returned. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold sitting inactively on a freewheeling bike, but what was most dissatisfying was arriving at the Makarora tea shop two minutes too late. This time even Alice’s negotiating skills couldn’t persuade them to serve 3 soggy cyclists.
Crown Range Road (1080m)
After Haast Pass, the clouds parted to reveal Lakes Wanaka and Hawea in all their overwhelming beauty surrounded by snow-laden peaks. It was a grand sight and inspired us to tackle the Crown Range Road. A visit to the Cardrona Hotel is a must and our bodies grumbled at having to leave. The dusty unsealed road winds its way up the narrowing valley indecisively crossing from one side of the river to the other. Progress is gauged by the decreasing numbers on the bridges until the watershed is reached. Despite being barren and treeless, the road twisted and turned, keeping us guessing at each corner as to the whereabouts of the summit.
At last, speckled with patches of snow, the top was reached and at over 1000m we quickly chilled off in the disappearing sunshine. Thankfully our descent was bathed in golden sunlight still, and as if in a landing aeroplane, we were greeted with spectacular views of Queenstown, the Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Lake Hayes and Lake Wakatipu. “Ooo – it’s good to be alive!”
Finishing with tight hairpin bends requiring more concentration, we “landed” in Arrowtown making a mental note never to cycle the Crown Range in the other direction!
Bluff Hill (265m)
Finally a mention of the steepest hill encountered. No kidding! Of all the hills we’d struggle our way up between Cape Reinga and Bluff, the steepest had to be a small section of the road winding its way up Bluff Hill – a small pimple of a hill emerging out of Southland’s pancake-flat agricultural land. Rumour has it that even Phil had to put a foot down.
Still, spectacular views are gained from its modest 265m summit. Nursing strained legs and aching lungs we gazed out to sea taking in Stewart Island and the great emptiness of sea beyond. Already our minds wandered to thoughts of our next adventures! This was for us, the bottom of New Zealand.