Bikepacking New Zealand’s South Island: 10 days, 1,200km and plenty of gravel
In late 2019 Minas Aroney and his mate Karl got off a ferry at the top end of New Zealand’s South Island and started riding. Over the next 10 days they’d cover roughly 1,200 km with around 16,000 metres of climbing. It was an adventure designed to put Minas’ gravel bike through its paces and it certainly did that — hundreds of kilometres of gravel, unforgiving weather conditions and challenging terrain made this one ride to remember.
Cycling trips start for many reasons – a dare, a dream, a destination. For me it was a bike. Like a chef heroing an ingredient, I simply wanted to hero a bike: my sky blue Niner RLT (Road Less Travelled). Previous trips had favoured my road or mountain bikes, but neither has ever filled me with as much carefree contented happiness as my gravel bike, so I owed it to my O.G. all-road smile factory to do a memorable trip. I just needed a location and route which would play to the bike’s strengths while providing a backdrop for FOMO-inducing photos for friends back home. Enter New Zealand’s South Island.
New Zealand is a seismologist’s dream. Geologically rugged, thermally active and as recent earthquakes attest, still grinding away. A jagged alpine spine separates the island’s east from west and in so doing gives rise to two distinct climates – a super-wet west coast and a not-as-wet east. It also means limited options to traverse, so route planning isn’t exactly straightforward.
The famous Tour Aotearoa biekpacking route was reviewed but largely dismissed given it follows the West Coast highway for long stretches. Nothing kills the mood like long stretches of highway, or rain, and the West Coast has both. The Pioneer route was also consulted for directional cues but was of limited use given it favours mountain bikes and private roads.
Then, through a colleague whose father’s cousin’s Kiwi friend had recently visited, I learned of the Awetere Valley and its remote high country sheep stations accessible only via 140 km of unsealed vitamin G. Bingo!
Fast forward a few months and I’m at the Wellington docks on a blustery Sunday morning boarding a monolithic white InterIslander ferry, route in hand and friend in tow. Karl was a very important addition, firstly because he has a Garmin and secondly because his Garmin has maps. He’s also an affable, well-read straight A’s bike geek and a handy wheel to follow when the road turns tough.
But no sooner had we made landfall in Picton and disembarked from the bowels of the man-made Moby Dick than Karl’s framebag zipper exploded. Said zipper would prove to be a source of recurring frustration throughout the journey.
Road Less Travelled. It’s not just a bike model, but the inspiration for the route. This meant that back roads, farming tracks, or in special cases single track were preferred over sealed surfaces. Thus seemingly short/easy sections on paper were never underestimated.
The first day’s relatively short 70 km would in fact take several hours longer than expected, include a brutal 30 km / 1,800 m gravel stretch with an elevation profile resembling a Bitcoin bull market, and ultimately see us roll into Blenheim with fatigue and dusk as unexpected companions. We’d get to know both quite well throughout the journey.
Next morning dawned with a foreboding sensation of dull legs (a fact kept to myself for fear of making Karl regret his decision to accompany me) contrasted against the invitingly picturesque climb out of Blenheim over Taylor Pass and down into the Awetere Valley. As bitumen turned to gravel, Marlborough vineyards gave way to grazing paddocks. Ahead of us lay a day of false-flat finishing at the aptly named Middlehurst Station.
Sitting precisely 115km from each of the Awetere Valley’s bookend hamlets — Hanmer Springs and Seddon — the only pre-arranged lodgings of our trip were a necessity. Camping is great in theory, with a palpable sense of back-to-basics, hardman appeal. But … having learnt through experience, the novelty lasts one (maybe two) nights before the realities of crap sleep, insufficient carb replenishment and enveloping fog of miserableness take their toll on even the hardest of hardmen (It’s supposed to be a holiday after all).
So with camping ruled out and given the remoteness of the terrain, a farm stay on a working sheep station seemed the perfect answer, not to mention cultural immersion. How right I was.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of being met at the end of a hot, tiring gravel grind with cold beers that barely touch the side and a cheese platter of Bacchanalian proportions, do yourself a favour and see Sue at Middlehurst Station. If you want to experience true paddock-to-the-plate succulent slow-cooked roast lamb, do yourself a favour and see Sue at Middlehurst Station. If you just want to sit back with a locally pressed Pinot to wash down honest, salt-of-the-Earth-farming stories from a family trying to make a living on a 50,000-acre sheep station, teaching their kids by correspondence, and eating what they grow, then do yourself a favour: See Sue at Middlehurst Station.
With all of my prior knowledge of NZ sheep-farming gleaned exclusively from Footrot Flats, it goes without saying that I learnt a thing or two. I was also informed that, despite being a choice song, “Slice of Heaven” is no longer topping the NZ music charts.
Day three came way too soon. We bid farewell and started the gradual climb over Wards Pass and descent towards Molesworth station. At 500,000 acres, Molesworth makes Middlehurst seem middle class and rightfully claims the undisputed crown of being New Zealand’s largest sheep station.
It took a solid hour of gravel to pass through Molesworth when, out of seemingly nowhere, a mid-morning hail storm was timed to cruel perfection with a zipper fail, an absent-minded distraction, a sharp rock, a tubeless tear, and a plug-leak-tube-puncture-patch-puncture-second-tube sequence. While some combinations can claim to be a match made in heaven, Latex, frozen fingers, and hail are not. Thankfully the midday sun re-emerged and Middlehurst’s packed lunch of scotch egg, sandwiches and caramel slice helped calm the nerves.
The gradual descent into Hanmer Springs soothed things even more. We’d planned to complete the relaxation trifecta in the thermal springs for which Hanmer is known, but at $25 a pop, as Darryl Kerrigan once said: Tell him he’s dreaming!
Day four can be summarised thus. 140 km. Sealed. Wind. Rain. Cold. Fatigue. Meh.
Reefton is where our route intersected with the Tour Aotearoa. Our original intent was to follow the official route through a notoriously challenging section called the Big River Trail, but it proved difficult to get a read on conditions beforehand. So when a local mentioned that it’s arduous even for plus-sized mountain bikes let alone 40 mm WTB Nanos (never mind the recent heavy rains), my conviction wavered. I found my head nodding involuntarily upon Karl’s suggestion of a more sedate alternative. 150 km of good progress later, we crested Arthur’s Pass and found a hostel in town.
Sealed, unsealed, sealed, unsealed. As the days ticked by and remaining kilometres fell away, our final destination of Queenstown seemed within grasp. We’d successfully completed the entirety of the West Coast portion of our trip in a single day, without a single drop of rain (even passing through Inchbonnie which averages five metres of rainfall annually). But Aotearoa doesn’t give up so easily. No bikepacker can rightly claim the land of the long white cloud without experiencing some of the weather extremes for which it is famous.
The unpredictable elements had been our main concern in the lead-up and while we’d largely avoided any deluges, day eight through the Mackenzie District kicked up such fierce headwinds that even birds found it quicker to walk. It was several hours of swapping turns, grimacing through aero-tucks our tired bodies struggled to maintain, waging war against a ceaseless foe. Each flick of the elbow was like summoning Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friend”. I will never, ever, complain about Sydney breezes again.
At just 70 km our final day was again relatively short which allowed for a relaxed breakfast in the stunning lakeside town of Wanaka. An hour up the road in Cadrona, an even more relaxed second breakfast was called for. Looking south towards the Crown Range in the distance, we could almost smell a third in Queenstown. It was a sight for sore eyes eventually cresting the pass and catching our first glimpse of the finish line in the distance below.
Pausing to admire the view, the end of our journey within touching distance, mixed emotions began to take hold. Part relief, part pride, all accomplishment. The last descent and final blast into town seemed effortless, almost as much as the beers on the banks of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu.
After 10 days, multiple mountain passes, nearly 1,200 km and 16,000 m elevation gain I glanced over at my Niner. My sky blue O.G. all-road smile factory, coated in dust yet glowing in the sun. My lips curled involuntarily. A wholly contented smile, just like the day I bought it.
My Niner RLT (2015/16) is a 1x setup. A 40T front ring paired with a SunRace 11-46 rear cassette made it somewhat easier carrying the load, split across an Apidura saddlebag, Ovejo Negro frame bag and generous Attaquer handlebar roll. I ran 700×40 mm Nano WTBs (tubeless) but after nearly 1,200 km (approximately 35% unsealed) the worn rear tyre tread could do with replacing.
Karl’s Grove R.A.D (also 1x with a 42T front, 11-42 cassette config), was decked out with Apidura frame and saddle bags and a petit Roadrunner’s burrito handlebar bag. Being a bike geek he debated ad nauseam about tyre selection, ultimately settling on the Panaracer GravelKing 700×38 mm (tubeless) which are still good for another go round.
For route planning we used Strava’s Route Builder (still in Beta), Google Maps and Street View to see where gravel roads started and stopped. However, some of Strava’s elevation profiles seemed dubious, particularly the unsealed sections, so we put the same route into RideWithGPS and discovered another 4,000 m of elevation gain. Go figure!
Riding point-to-point meant logistics were a little more fluid. We packed our bikes into cardboard bike boxes for the flight over while at the other end in Queenstown there were numerous LBSs happy to donate surplus boxes and padding for the flight home.
Spring is “low” season so we didn’t feel the need to book accommodation in advance which allowed us to stop earlier, or ride longer as the sensations/conditions dictated. The only exception was the remote Middlehurst Station as there were no other food and lodging options for over 100 km in either direction. Everything else was left to chance in whichever town we happened to finish up in that day.
Day 1: Picton to Blenheim (Scenic route) – 70 km / 1,860 m
Day 2: Blenheim to Middlehurst (Awetere Valley Pt 1) – 97 km / 2,065 m
Day 3: Middlehurst to Hanmer Springs (Awetere Valley Pt 2) – 104 km / 1,627 m
Day 4: Hanmer Springs to Reefton – 140 km / 1,752 m
Day 5: Reefton to Arthur’s Pass (West Coast) – 155 km / 1,868 m
Day 6: Arthur’s Pass to Methven – 118 km / 1,444 m
Day 7: Methven to Fairlie – 121 km / 750 m
Day 8: Fairlie to Twizel via MacKenzie Pass (Headwind Hell) – 142 km / 1,568 m
Day 9: Twizel to Wanaka – 138 km / 1,233 m
Day 10: Wanaka to Queenstown – 77 km / 1,248 m
Day 11: Queenstown Epilogue – 36 km / 887 m