Roadtripping New Zealand
In the second installment of our “Roadtripping” series we headed over to New Zealand’s magnificent South Island to explore the quiet roads, turquoise lakes, towering mountains, and to meet the wonderful people of Wanaka and Queenstown. And to drink their beer.
It all started with a single email:
So the planning began. All four of us – Alby, Cal, Dave and myself — had leave passes negotiated, payback to wives in order, and tickets booked.
I’ve always wanted to go riding in New Zealand. I’ve been there a few times before, but it was always to do some hiking with my wife. But during the drives to our hikes I always took quiet notice of how awesome those windy roads would be to ride.
I’m not sure if the phrase “proximity syndrome” even exists (I can’t find it on Google) but I’ve always thrown it around to mean: the resistance to discovering your own backyard because there are many more far-off exciting places to visit.
It seems that most people I know have never been road riding in New Zealand either. While nearly every keen cyclist seems to have had the good fortune to ride in France, Italy or Spain, it always baffles me why a three-hour flight to New Zealand is rarely on anybody’s agenda.
You needn’t travel all the way to Europe to ride through picturesque valleys, over looming mountain passes, and alongside turquoise lakes. It’s all right here in our own neighbourhood. The Kiwis have the best-kept secret on Earth. It’s hard to nail down just one place in New Zealand to visit, but we only had a few days and the South Island was made for this roadtrip.
Cycling vacations are now more often than not described as “boutique”. I can appreciate the desire for nice food, fine wine, premium accommodation, mechanics cleaning your bikes and giving you the pro treatment, but it’s not what I crave.
Just like anyone I don’t mind being spoiled once in a while, but my simple needs only require clean accommodation (okay, I don’t enjoy sleeping head to toe in a double bed with a bloke anymore – we stayed at Wanaka Edge Apartments which was perfect for a group or a family), a big breakfast, black coffee, and to ride my bike from dawn to dusk and come home with absolutely nothing left in the tank. That way I feel like I’ve earned the gluttony that comes afterwards.
We set off from Melbourne at a reasonable time on Tuesday morning and after a brief connection in Christchurch we were in Queenstown by the late afternoon and ready to ride. Queenstown airport has a bike assembly area with a work-stand (such an awesome typical Kiwi thing to do) which made it easy and convenient to get our bikes together.
We rode out from Queenstown with the intent of basing ourselves in Wanaka for the week. About 20km from Wanaka we got the scent of a wood-burning fireplace and came across the rustic Cardrona Hotel. A quick pint was calling our names.
By the time we needed to leave (to catch the last remaining daylight) we had had far too many beers and were a bit too jolly to ride the remaining 20km to Wanaka. So we settled in for the evening, got another round, and ordered every single item off the pub-food menu (literally every single item off a substantial menu).
We had only ridden a measly 60km from Queenstown, so we figured we’d simply jack up tomorrow’s k’s and chalk this night up to “carb loading”.
Early the next morning we woke up in Wanaka (don’t ask me how we got there) with dry mouths and headaches, but the forecast was looking great and we had to capture the golden hour.
The route I had planned was ambitious, but I told everyone that it was mostly downhill all the way to the west coast. If you squint at the profile you could almost be fooled. They fell for it.
A 211km ride didn’t seem that bad and we had a van we could load everything into and drive back to Wanaka by sundown. Easy.
I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life that a 211km ride transitioned from a no-brainer to something nearly impossible. It was the day my wife gave birth to our first child. From that point on riding daily didn’t seem so important, which is why I cherish these rare trips with my mates even more. But they certainly hurt more than they used to.
It only took about two minutes to get out of Wanaka and find ourselves in complete remoteness. We made our way along windy roads past the beautiful Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka with towering mountains surrounding us. Thirty minutes into the ride I had no bars left on my mobile reception and I felt a calmness I don’t get to enjoy very often.
There aren’t many stops on the Haast Pass on the way to the west coast. About 70km from Wanaka there’s the Makarora Tourist Center where you can get petrol, water and food (you should have seen the week-old spring roll that Chas ate!), and then there’s the town of Haast at about 142km.
Perhaps 211km in a day was a bit ambitious. Fortunately, due to landslides in the area, the pass was closed after 6pm and all vehicles needed to be out of the area by then. Things were getting tight by the time we hit the town of Haast so we decided to turn back before we hit the coast.
It was highly recommended to us that we stop at the blue pools along the road to the coast. While we didn’t have the time, the photos look unreal and you should definitely check them out if you’re nearby.
It wasn’t as big a day in the saddle as I had hoped but we got to ride some spectacular roads and we certainly burned off the food and beverages we’d enjoyed at the Cardrona Hotel the night before. The ride definitely wasn’t all downhill like I’d been trying to tell the others, and the combination of heavy undulating roads (mostly 20mm graded aggregate) and a block headwind definitely took their toll.
That evening I met with Wanaka locals Scott Rainsford (a super-keen cyclist of all disciplines who’s originally from Adelaide) and Carla Munro (from Tourism Wanaka) for a beer and to hear more about the region and how to make the most of our time in the area. It seems as if nobody in Wanaka is actually from Wanaka originally. The place is packed with people with a passion for the outdoors and many people seem to live there for the lifestyle. It’s a sleepy town in the evening, but in the early morning the town comes to life and is buzzing.
The pride of the people who live in Wanaka is infectious. A disproportionate amount of athletes and adventure junkies base themselves in Wanaka. An interesting stat that I saw in a local newspaper is that every member of New Zealand’s Sochi Olympic team except for one speed skater is based in Wanaka over the winter. That’s 14 out of their 15 athletes.
The local Wakatipu Cycling Club boasts one of the smallest memberships in New Zealand but is one of the most successful with 2012 National Road Champs Nicky Samuels (Wanaka) and James Williamson (Alexandra) among their members.
Upcoming Wanaka exports include Tom Scully (Cromwell), Sophie Williamson (Alexandra) and current World Multi Sport Champion Braden Currie (Wanaka, who was also fifth at the XTERRA Worlds). Other lazy day jobs include people who get paid to pull others up Mt.Everest for a living …
Don’t talk yourself up too much in Wanaka. It’s a humbling environment.
“Thirty minutes into the ride I had no bars left on my mobile reception and I felt a calmness I don’t get to enjoy very often.”
If you’re looking for nightlife in Wanaka you might be a little disappointed. Dinner at the Speight’s Alehouse was fantastic but didn’t have the buzz we were looking for after 9pm on a Wednesday. Young Cal was hot to trot and dragged us out to the only place open past 9pm that had any signs of life and that was Fitzpatrick’s Irish pub. They served a decent pint of Guinness, had a band, a pool table and heaps of backpackers ready to party. But if you’re looking for a big night out, best to head over to Queenstown.
I was secretly thankful for the lack of nightlife in Wanaka though because I was absolutely shattered from the riding that day. Back at the apartment Alby and Dave started to discuss the key themes of Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness … possibly aided by a few too many beers. It wasn’t long before I was sound asleep listening to their jibberish.
After another unexpectedly late night we woke with headaches again and readied ourselves for another day in the saddle. We took a liking to the Kai Café & Bar in Wanaka — their killer coffee and ‘Eggs Benny’ were becoming the go-to staple for breakfast. The owner of the Kai had just swam the length of Lake Wanaka the day before and after riding along the lake and seeing how massive it was (42km!), we all thought there was no way that could have been possible. But he did. That’s just how they roll in Wanaka.
We headed out to do our own version of what’s affectionately known as “The Block” (as in, casually ‘just going around the block’). It’s the Wanaka – Cromwell – Crown Range – Wanaka loop. But we didn’t think we could fit it all in and we were looking for something a little different, so we did changed things up a little. We went over the Crown Range, up Coronet Peak, took the back roads to Queenstown, then headed on to Glenorchy before riding back to Queenstown for a late lunch.
The Crown Range is undeniably awesome to climb over with very different but spectacular views on either side. If you ever stay in Queenstown or Wanaka you’ll likely find yourself riding this route a few times.
Coronet Peak was a recommended diversion that we rode and were glad we did. It’s only 8km long but the views and descent were well worth the price of admission.
From there we travelled through the back-roads to Queenstown the opposite direction that was ridden on stage 4 of the Tour of Southland this year. All I could think of was how incredibly scenic but gruelling that stage would have been to race.
We passed through Queenstown, which seemed like a thriving metropolis compared to where we had been for the past couple days. It felt nice to be back in civilisation but we wanted to ride one more road before getting back into the hustle and bustle.
The ride to Glenorchy undulates and hugs Lake Wakatipu for about 45km. The lake was something special as landslides have changed it to a much more turquoise colour than usual and it was hard to take our eyes off the water for the entire ride. But storms were looming and we could see that we were riding right into the thick of it. We turned around just before Glenorchy as we were all getting really hungry.
Back in Queenstown we got a snack pack of Monteiths Radler Bier (“radler” is German for “cyclist” but it’s basically a shandy). The legend of the Radler goes like this: apparently there is a pub at the top of a popular climb in Bavaria where all the cyclists stopped for a beer after they’d hit the summit. But all the cyclists would drink the taps dry, so the pub started watering down their beer with lemonade. And the Radler was born. True? False? No clue, but it’s a good story.
The thing all the cool kids do in Queenstown is go to Fergburger. There’s always a queue, so it must be good, right? Well this time it was as empty as I’ve ever seen it and we were absolutely famished so we got some take-away and headed to the lakeside. There are lots of great food options in the area but the burger you remember is always the one you have when you’re most hungry.
Before we packed up the bikes for the evening we had this camera drone that we were busting to use to shoot some cool footage. We came across this awesome bridge that crossed the Shotover River (the Lower Shotover Bridge). I could tell the story with words, but it’s much better described in this video:
To drown our sorrows we saw the Lake Bar as a great option for dinner and they delivered. Montheiths on tap, big helpings of lamb on the specials menu, and a bartender named Josh who happily made two trips in his own car to drive us home as the rain came bucketing down while we waited for a taxi. Just another personal touch that Wanaka left us remembering.
“The pride of the people who live in Wanaka is infectious.”
On our final day in New Zealand we decided to have a sleep in because we had enough golden hour photos and we decided they were kinda fake anyway. Who wakes up at 6am on a guys’ roadtrip? Who were we kidding …
We went to Kai Café again, got into the Eggs Benny and got rolling at the civil hour of 9am. We had a 70km roll over the Crown Range to the Queenstown airport where we could return the hire van, disassemble our bikes, pack up and board the plane. It couldn’t have been scripted any better — once we stepped inside the airport the temperature fell and the heavens opened up for one hell of a rainstorm.
Our roadtrip was only four days but it was enough to leave us with heavy legs and feeling satisfied. We could have stayed a week longer but this short visit left us wanting more and gave us an idea of the possibilities for our next visit.
Thanks for coming along on the journey and if you’re ever looking to get away for only a few days or a few weeks, definitely put New Zealand on your bucket-list. It’ll blow your socks off.