Roadtripping Canterbury

Exploring New Zealand's Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

It's no secret that New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. Anyone that's visited the country's South Island will tell you about the diversity of terrain, from soaring peaks to alpine lakes and from lush rainforest to open plains.

CyclingTips' Jonathan Reece and Andy van Bergen recently visited the region of Canterbury in New Zealand's South Island with photographer Tim Bardsley-Smith to ride the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, a 300km mostly-off-road cycling trail from the slopes of New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, right out to the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru. This is the story of their journey.

As we set out on this roadtrip we didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been to New Zealand, and Andy had only been to go snowboarding. The closest we’d got to riding in the region was reading and hearing (perhaps a little too often) about our boss Wade’s New Zealand trip last year. If our trip was half as good as Wade’s sounded then we were in for something special.

Our plan was to spread the 301km of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail over three days. This would give us enough time to enjoy the scenery and take in some little detours along the way.

The trail is technically a mountain bike trail but to make the most of the challenge we opted for CX bikes. As roadies, we’re used to pointing out every little pebble and pothole during group rides, so we were looking forward to getting off road and seeing where the trail would take us.

  Day 1: Mount Cook to Twizel 75km

  Day 1: Mount Cook to Twizel 98km

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith


We began the ride at the base of New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki (Maori for “Cloud Piercer”, we were told), also known as Mount Cook. We woke to a stunningly clear day but a day that was close to freezing in the shade of the mountain before the sun showed its face. To catch the “golden hour” we were up early, struggling to get on our bikes as our frozen hands battled with zippers, pumps and everything else we should have done in the warmth of the hotel room.

The cold should have come as no surprise — the day before starting the ride we had been on a Glacier Explorers trip to Tasman Lake, which sits at the base of Mount Cook and is fed by the Tasman Glacier. The glacier itself is 27km long and 4km wide and we were told it takes 600 years for ice to make it down from the top of the glacier to the lake, where it snaps off and forms icebergs.

We even got to see this in action — during our tour roughly 5,000 tonnes of ice fell from the glacier into the water. The noise was deafening and the captain quickly took evasive action as large waves moved towards the boat we were in.

The following morning, rolling out from the hotel on the first day of the ride, we were headed down towards Lake Pukaki. The wind chill only added to our discomfort, but the cold was soon forgotten when the sun poked its head over the mountains.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

There are two starting points for the Alps 2 Ocean Trail. If you opt for the official start from Mount Cook, as we did, you have to take a chopper across to the other side of the Tasman River after just 7km of riding. Whilst this might seem a tad excessive (and it probably is), it had to be done if we were going to stick to the trail. Besides, there’s something about New Zealand that makes you want to do everything to the extreme.

As we rode towards the helicopter it was only natural that the Arnie Predator impressions started to come out: “Get to the chopper!!!”

On the other side of the Tasman River the trail hugs the shore, offering a technical section with river crossings and some big bits of loose rock. You often hear people say that trying mountain biking is a great way for roadies to improve their bike handling and I’d have to agree. The technical sections of the trail were great for giving the skills a good brush up.

The trail takes you away from Mount Cook but every time we stopped and looked back, the view of the sun rising over the mountain was stunning. In fact, almost anywhere we looked was stunning. It’s clichéd I know, but it definitely felt like we were in Middle Earth.

As with most regions of New Zealand, they did film some parts of the Lord of Rings films here. We’re pretty sure the location director would have come to New Zealand, taken one look around and then spent the rest of the week relaxing in the bar, job done.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Pushing on towards Twizel, we decided to take a dip in the glacially fed Lake Pukaki. It was as cold as it sounds but well worth it. Jason Menard, the manager of the trail, said he wanted to make this a compulsory stop for those doing the trail, as a sort of rite-of-passage. We were just glad the sun was out and we didn’t have much further to ride with wet knicks.

We had heard that if you start the trail at the alternate start point up at Lake Tekapo you go down a killer descent from a salmon farm to a hydroelectric power station. We decided to make a quick detour up and down the climb — the trail ran right past and it seemed silly not to. The views were definitely worth it, as was the descent.

Back down by the lake we completed the last section of the trail, a fun grass-flats section through an open plain into Twizel. On arriving we headed straight to Shawty’s Restaurant for a beer and their waffle fries which, we were told, are well known throughout the region.

Click through to see the Strava Route for day 1.

 Day 2: Twizel to Omarama 86km

“It was going to be hard to beat the weather and scenery the first day of riding had offered.”

It was going to be hard to beat the weather and scenery the first day of riding had offered. We went to bed with the forecast of rain but woke to sunny skies, albeit stronger winds than the previous day. This was appropriate as we were going to be riding around Lake Ohau — which translates to “place of wind” — and soon enough we’d have our fair share of it.

Setting off from Twizel we had a warm up along the road next to the Ohau canal before heading over Ohau Weir where the gravel started. This was an awesome smooth shingle track around the lake, winding through low shrubs before we were spat back out on to the road which would take us to our halfway point, Lake Ohau Lodge.

To Andy and I it seemed very windy compared to what we get at home in Melbourne, and we had a stiff headwind all the way to the lodge. For this region though, it was essentially a calm day — winds over 100km/h are a regular occurrence here.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

On our way up to the Lodge for lunch, we had seen a gravel road that seemed to snake its way up a nearby mountain at an impressively steep gradient. Looking at a map we found out it was the climb to the Ohau Club Ski Fields. We were told at the Lodge that we might be in for a bumpy ride as the road is only graded for the ski season.

After a moment’s hesitation we decided that we’d better give it a go. What we didn’t realise was how steep it actually was and how rocky the surface was. This was definitely a climb for mountain bikes with low gears and bigger tyres, but we struggled on anyway.

Rounding each corner we were greeted with more loose rock, and we dared not stray too close to the outside line for fear of the rather large drop that awaited. We even had a water crossing to deal with which was definitely a first for me on a climb. The views along the way were worth it though, and we’d say this is a must-try if you’re riding the trail, to see how far up the road you can get.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

After a fairly sketchy descent, in which we were very thankful for our disc brakes and 32mm tyres, we turned back on to the Alps 2 Ocean Trail to start the longest climb of the day. This was one of the best sections of the trail, as it snaked its way through beech forests and out into the open, following the ridge line upwards.

We were told this section of the track is to be shingled at some point so we think, if the trail is of interest, it would be best to get out here while it remains in its current state.

After what felt like about 10 false summits we were over the other side and descending bumpily along a winding rocky trail, before it straightened out to awesome double-track through amber grasslands. It felt like being on a roller coaster — all you had to do was ensure you didn’t leave the track you were on for risk of catching an edge and going over the bars.

Leaving the grasslands behind we decided to take a slight detour to the unique Clay Cliffs which we had been told about. You can ride right up to and around these impressive pinnacles which reminded us of giant termite mounds.

The last section of the day’s riding took us into the town of Omarama where the local hot tubs were waiting. While the thought of sharing a tub with two other stinky guys wasn’t particularly appealing, I must admit I was looking forward to a soak after two solid days of riding.

Click through to see the Strava Route for day 2.


 Day 3: Omarama to Oamaru141km

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

“This single-lane road was enough to make anyone happy: flowing bends, a smooth surface, rolling hills and virtually zero cars.”

This was our longest day in the saddle but it also included the most road riding. Our cross bikes allowed us to open it up a bit and take advantage of the smooth surface.

Starting out from Omarama, the weather that had been so favourable for the last two days decided to turn on us — it became colder, greyer and wetter. The one thing this trail does as it heads from the alps to the ocean is takes you through an amazing range of scenery and terrain. This day was more of the New Zealand you read about: rolling hills, paddocks filled with sheep, low temperatures and another lake to ride around.

Even though this trip was about taking our bikes off road, it was nice to start the day with some killer road riding. We were greeted with a nice little climb up Otematata Saddle and a long and flowing descent off the other side. Flying down into Otematata, the trail took a left turn up to Benmore Dam, presenting us with a short, punchy climb.

While we couldn’t wait to get to the other side of the dam, start the descent and follow the road around the lake, we stumbled upon some hidden single-track at the lookout above the dam. We mucked around here for a bit in the dirt before heading over, down and around Lake Aviemore. This single-lane road around the lake was enough to make anyone happy. Flowing bends, a smooth surface, rolling hills and virtually zero cars.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

We made a stop at Kurow Winery just out of town to fill up on cheese and bread and taste a few wines. It probably wasn’t the best idea with 70km still to ride, but we were there for the full experience, not just to smash out the k’s.

That’s the great thing about travelling by bike: you set your own agenda and you get to see more of what’s around you. That is unless Andy is smashing you up a climb; then you just end up looking down at your stem waiting for him to let up.

With our bellies full and our minds set on our final destination of Oamaru, the last bit of the trail took us into completely different terrain along empty gravel roads surrounded by green pastures. We headed past the distinctive Elephant Rocks — yes they were grey and looked like a heard of elephants — reminding me of Stonehenge. It was something about the grey statue-like rocks set amongst the lush green pastures.

Here Andy and I both had our first and thankfully only spills of the trip within about 30 seconds of each other. I slipped on an old water pipe on to soft grass and Andy fell over at 0km/h while clipping in on a rock. It’s funny how you can make it through two days of technical riding without coming unstuck and then it’s the innocuous things that catch you out.

Picking ourselves up we headed through Rakis Tunnel, an abandoned rail tunnel. At about 500m long with no lights, it was an unsettling experience getting to the middle and not being able to see either end. We might as well have been riding with our eyes closed.

There is an alternate route for those that are a little claustrophobic but we were glad we took the tunnel. It was refreshing to see the tunnel in the state it was; not boarded up and not spoiled by bright lights. That was one of many things we noticed in New Zealand — more seems to be left untouched. We kept saying to ourselves, “if this were Australia, there’d be a guard rail there.”

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

“The whole ride was completely focused on the journey, not the destination.”

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Heading into Oamaru we had a spin through the local gardens and then rode down to the sea; the end of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. I’m sure we would have jumped off the pier into the sea if it had been warm, but unfortunately it wasn’t a postcard-like day. Cold, wet and with tired legs, we were quietly content to sit by the water and reflect on the journey.

It had been three days of some of the best scenery we’d ever witnessed, and experiences we wouldn’t have had in a car or on a guided tour. The whole ride was completely focused on the journey, not the destination.

Reflecting on this trip, I can’t believe I hadn’t been to New Zealand before. It’s quick to fly to the South Island than it is to get to many places in Australia, and the landscape is unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. It’s a country with so much to offer and so many different experiences to enjoy. And one thing’s for sure: take your bike over to New Zealand and you won’t be disappointed.

Click through to see the Strava Route for day 3.

Photo gallery

Large MPU

Tips for getting the most out of the trail

  • The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is achievable enough on a mountain bike over a week but on a cross bike it’s a fun challenge to do it in three days. It’s probably even doable in two days, but you won’t get to spend anywhere near as much time enjoying the scenery.
  • Do it on a cross bike if you can. It makes the rocky sections a fun challenge and means you can really enjoy the road climbs and descents.
  • Don’t forget to look back. The Alps are an amazing backdrop but you’re generally riding away from them so make sure you stop lots to take it in, particularly in the first few sections.
  • Wear mountain bike shoes if you have them. It makes it easier to walk around on the rockier/ muddy sections. Our road cleats were absolutely destroyed!
  • Wear gloves, particularly if you’re not used to riding off road. Our hands were pretty sore from riding the bumps of the trail.
  • Get a tour operator to transport your luggage from each section. They’ll be able to work with you so you can get the most out of it. Riding it with packs on will limit what you can do. We used The Jollie Biker.
  • There’s plenty of single track for you to explore along the way so make sure you get off the trail and see where it takes you. Some of the little detours we took led to some unexpected gems.
  • Attempt the Ohau ski fields climb. It’s tough, a bit loose and a challenge on CX bikes but very doable on mountain bikes. No matter how far you get up, the views are worth it.
  • Swim in one, or all, of the freezing lakes.
  • If you stay in Omarama, definitely have a soak in the hot tubs; it’s the perfect after-ride recovery.
  • Explore the towns you stay in along the way and ask the locals where they go. We particularly enjoyed Shawty’s Restaurant in Twizel, Ladybird Winery in Omarama, Kurow Winery and Lake Ohau Lodge.
  • If you’re flying in or out of Christchurch, make sure you do a ride in the Port Hills area. It’s some of the best road riding you’ll find that close to an international airport.

Places we stayed

Places we ate

With thanks to …