By Maureen McRae
The day before the tour we all met up at Queenstown while we waited for the Earnslaw steamboat to take us to Walter’s Peak. It was quite interesting seeing how everyone had set up their bikes. Ron, Susan and Louise had bike touring panniers, Sue and Kathy had bike packing gear, while Andrew, Anthony and I had a mixture of both. We had all decided it was slightly more difficult coming to the South Island where we must be prepared for all weathers. Of course, we were all carrying tents.
After a pleasant 45-minute journey across Lake Wakatipu on the beautiful old steamboat, we arrived at Walter’s Peak High Country Farm and Historical Homestead.
We enjoyed a look around the beautifully kept premises before a very short ride around the corner to the DOC camp. It is very picturesque, just a pity the wind didn’t let up.
DAY 1: Walters Peak to Mavora Lakes
We then rode through Mt Nicholas Station. After 16 km we changed direction to enjoy a northwest gale on our backs for the rest of the day. What a great way to start a tour! Now we know what it must be like riding an electric assisted bike. We had morning tea by candlelight at the Old Nic’s stone cottage, with many thanks to someone finding the key to get in. We arrived here in dry but windy weather, but we were met by rain as we were about to leave. I was most impressed by all the newly built shelters and toilet blocks along the way, even collecting rainwater into tanks. At our lunch stop we were overtaken by a couple of the very fast and rather serious Tour Aotearoa (TA) leaders. The first guy was looking strong and fast and the next guy was looking rather stuffed and unfriendly (or maybe he was just in a world of pain?).
Upon arriving at Mavora Lakes we were met by the DOC Ranger who collected our money and gave us a tag to display. We had plenty of time to enjoy this wonderful place and shared it with a very friendly South Island Robin bird! After finding a spot to pitch our tents we had time to either relax or go off exploring the other lake nearby. That night, there was lots of night life, like a mouse that ran up Anthony’s back while he was in bed, (rather him than me!), a rat going past Susan’s face, along with hedgehogs visiting Kathy and possums I was also told about.
From the DOC camp, we rode 58 km on a good gravel road. This is all part of the “Around the Mountains Trail”. Today’s ride started out straight into a headwind up Von Valley. We then had a compulsory stop for a low loader truck which had to off load it’s “digger”, in order to cross over a small bridge. Then the truck needed a shove using the digger’s bucket to push the truck since it couldn’t get any traction.
Day 2: Mavora Lakes to Athol 100 km
There was plenty of gravel that day and mostly tail wind. After Centre Hill we got onto the “Around the Mountains Trail” which took us all the way into Mossburn where we stopped and “refuelled”. Also, there was a lot of water damage to parts of the trail from the recent heavy rains. The sheer force of the water had done some major gouging out. We saw thousands of wrapped bales with farmers being able to get a second cut, a few dairy farms, and wheat being harvested. We stopped at Mossburn, the “Deer Capital” of NZ, where there were a couple of cafes and a very basic store. Then we took the road to Five Rivers, where we got back onto the trail again.
At Eyre Creek we were clearly on an old railway line with a lovely downhill gradient, which eventually meandered all the way into Athol, which is a small village with a couple of newly opened art galleries and two places to eat. That night, we stayed at The Lodge and camping grounds where Pam the owner is presently busy upgrading. Dinner was at The Brown Trout where “Athol Burgers” were eagerly eaten.
Day 3: Athol to Nevis Valley 55 km.
It was an easy start to the day along with the Around the Mountains Trail. We stopped at the Coffee Bomb caravan at Garston, which was a real treasure. Their freshly-baked muffins, which came straight from the oven, quickly disappeared! There were quite a few nice new shops, art and crafts, furniture and the old hotel across the road. Soon after that, the real work began with climbing and a fair amount of pushing fully laden bikes up 8 km of Nevis Hill which zigzagged upwards.
Unfortunately, I managed to hold up the group with bike rack issues. My Thule rack had slid down and was rubbing on the back wheel. Thanks to the group it held together with “pretty pink rope” and cable ties. You never know what others have hidden in the bottom of their bags! We met a French man riding in the opposite direction at “Welcome Rock” ski hut. It was reassuring to know he got through after some extremely heavy rain a few weeks earlier. The views were amazing. We passed some extremely docile Angus cattle that were on a large station and were probably not handled that often. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world! We also crossed about 25 streams that could be forded meaning that we could not keep our feet dry. They were all different depths with the deepest being well up our legs. It had been a long hard day on the bike, but we were rewarded by a great wilderness camping spot just past Commissioners Creek.
It was quite surprising how busy the Nevis road was with it being a Saturday with motorbikes, All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and 4-wheel drive vehicles. The following paragraph is a history lesson provided by Louise:
“The Nevis Valley was first used by Maori as a trail route and Moa hunting ground. In 1917 an amateur archaeologist digging in the Schoolhouse Creek area came across what he described as a large ‘moa-butchering site’ with remains of a campsite, adzes and bones estimated to date from about the 14th century. Unfortunately, the activities of subsequent gold miners destroyed most of the site. When the gold rush hit central Otago the Nevis Valley was not spared and by 1862 the first Nevis township on the eastern banks of Commissioner’s Creek provided services to upward of 1500 miners and 60 businesses lined its main street.
It is hard to believe as we camped in our peaceful spot that this was where the town would have been situated. By 1864 most of the gold rush was over but small-scale gold mining continues to this day. Some facilities hung on in the valley, but when the Nevis Hotel closed in 1952, that was closely followed by the closure of the school, the library and the hall also disappeared.”
Day 4: Nevis Valley to Cromwell 45 km.
After a very short distance we arrive at Nevis Museum, which is very neat and tidy, considering it is out in the middle of nowhere! We had plenty of climbing again with spectacular wide-open spaces seeming like we were in another world! We finally made it to Duffers Saddle, at 1300 m being New Zealand highest public road!
As we neared Cromwell, the views over the town were amazing. We found a perfect spot to sit back and enjoy our lunch before the long easy descent. We rode through Bannockburn before arriving at Cromwell where most of us headed into “The Old Town“, which is rather special. That night, we stayed at “The Top Ten Holiday Park“. Here, I took a cabin, which was a big mistake because not only was it expensive, but the room was so extremely hot that it was difficult to sleep. The others weren’t impressed either. Even those who camped were affected by noise coming from a major construction right on the boundary. Ron and Susan had parked their car at Cromwell and then took a bus to Queenstown in order to commence the tour.
Ron and Susan decided that the next day they would “leap-frog” their car ahead, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to lighten up my load and put what I can live without into their vehicle. I also sought help from the two professional super lightweight travellers, Sue and Kathy, who helped go through my gear with a fine-tooth comb.
Day 5: Cromwell to Omakau Domain 58 km.
For the first 15 km we rode along SH 8 then turned off onto Bendigo Loop Road. We rode past a large vineyard and then stopped at the remains of the historic Bakehouse building. It was after here that the navigating became a challenge! What didn’t help was a sign saying “Thompson Gorge Road this way but private property construction site – keep out”.
We were all rather puzzled by this large new road that went in. I learned later that it is to be for future lifestyle blocks. Today we rode on a very remote high country 4 Wheel Drive track across the Dunstan Mountains.
It proved to be a rather tough day with climbing up to nearly 1000 meters. Thompson Gorge Road could be summed up as being rather challenging to say the least! Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Ron and Susan didn’t ride that day. I also learnt that my speedo does not record below 3 km/hour when walking. For several places, it was hard to get traction underfoot.
Andrew had the unfortunate bonus of riding a very large hill twice when he realised he had left his backpack behind with his lunch inside it at the top of a big hill a fair way back, so he had to go back to get it.
The rest of us relaxed in front of an Old Stone Hut, eating our lunch while he headed back. But what goes up certainly comes back down again and at least the wind gods worked in our favour! At one stage, with gale gushes it was possible to mount our bikes on an incline while hardly pedalling. What a day! Everyone got off to push their bikes at some stage during the day. We had the odd stream to cross – so yes! – wet feet again and lots of gates to open and close along the way.
What an achievement when we finally came to the end! We were rewarded with a strong tailwind along Racecourse Road where we let off some steam. This was a great moment to test out my new Schwalbe Hurricane tyres with beautiful smooth centre lines, which I am pleased to report performed very well. Even with a fully laden bike we sure did get them flying along arriving at Omakau in record time.
We stayed overnight at the lovely camping grounds with beautifully renovated ablution blocks all at a very reasonable price. We also had a great meal out that night at the local hotel.
Day 6: Omakau.
Although this was a Free day some of us rode 95 km on the Otago Rail Trail to Alexander. I then continued down to the beautiful historical Clyde. I then rode back on The River Trail, to return to Alexander and Omakau. From here there was just a short ride out to historical Ophir, to see the famous Bridge. There was far more at Ophir than I realized including the beautiful Old Stone Post Office, and other very old buildings. We visited the Pitches Store award-winning restaurant and Boutique Accommodation built in 1883 of schist stone, which is very charming.
Day 7: Omakau to Naseby via rail trail 64 km.
We rode off together for the first 10 km on the rail trail to Lauder, passing big irrigation units and dairy herds. From here, I split off from the group and went and explored the Stationside Café, which was a sheer delight! Not only was I made to feel very welcome, it was set up beautifully to cater for the many cyclists passing by. They had bean bags outside for weary cyclists to relieve their sore backsides.
From Lauder I passed over the Manuherikia Bridge, Poolburn Gorge and two tunnels, followed by Poolburn Viaduct, then on through the lovely Ida Valley. My next stop was Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead, which was the reason I rode alone today. I loved this place, I found it fascinating and very interesting. In the café/store they sold some very interesting bits and pieces regarding cycling, including cards, jewellery, bags and book markers to name a few.
Ernest Hayes was a bloody genius, making all sorts of things, from fencing tools, wire strainers, pest control, revolving clothesline, nuts and bolts just to name a few. His wife Hannah, who in 1895 became New Zealand’s first travelling saleswomen, by biking Central Otago remote passes, peddling her husband’s ingenious tools to farmers across the region while leaving her very young daughter at home to care for her six young siblings. It is a bit bizarre that Ernest’s factory was out in the middle of nowhere, only to be right on the Rail Trail many years later.
It sure was busy with cycle touring groups calling in while I was there. Just a few hundred meters down the trail I stopped at Oturehua General Merchants, which is a store/cafe cum museum all in one. Then I rode in the Marchburn area followed by the highest point of the trail then onto Wedderburn and I eventually arrived at Naseby which was very quiet. I then checked in at the lovely Camping ground just ahead of the others.
During the day, the weather temperatures had been a bit of everything. In the morning it started rather cold then heated up beautifully, but very quickly a cold southerly wind arrived. Fortunately, when we went out for dinner at the Royal Hotel the sun reappeared, and we were able to enjoy lovely al fresco dining and watch local bikers gather up for their ride.
Here is Kathy’s notes of today’s ride up to St Bathans: “Leaving Omakau Domain Camping Ground on the quiet SH 85, and heading for Naseby first stop was White Horse Hotel and antique shop, Becks, for a second breakfast and a browse of the well-stocked antique shop.
Our hosts provided a warm welcome saying, ” yes we are open” and shared stories of the local filming location up Home Hills Run Road and the how articles from the antique shop were used. When heading to St Bathans, we rode on a quieter Loop Road and had stunning view of the surrounding mountains.
After a side trip to explore St Bathans Domain campsite, the next stop was Blue Lake to explore St Bathans. There was a buzz of activity with building works, house renovations, plenty of visitors and of course the Vulcan Hotel. We then rode back onto St Bathans Loop Road and headed for Idaburn. We could see the well graded and quiet Otago Central Rail Trail from SH 85 but there was no way we could join it until arriving in Wedderburn.
Keeping on SH85 we took Naseby Link Road and enjoyed a rolling ride into the famous Naseby home of Indoor Curling.”
Day 8: Naseby Free day 40 km.
Sue and I set off to explore Ranfurly and its “Art Deco” theme. We visited the Curiosity Shoppe, which was full of all sorts of various items. We saw a 1980 Bedford bus “Department of Recreation”, which was an old school bus converted into a motorhome and owned by a Dunedin couple for the last 18 years.
Upon returning back to Nasby I visited the Blackforest café where I met two “Good Sorts” ladies, who were busying packing up large handbags for women victims of domestic violence. This was part of a campaign in memory of Grace Milane from the UK who lost her life in NZ but had a love of bright coloured handbags. I thought this was a wonderful gesture.
We returned to the camp where Ron and Susan had re-joined us again. They had come from Clyde, but their car had been parked at Fairlie.
Day 9: Naseby to Dansey’s Pass 50 km
Most of the day we were on excellent rideable gravel. It was a picture-perfect, lovely, sunny and glorious morning. We rode all the way on Dansey’s Pass Road. We experienced a real treat stopping at Dansey Pass Hotel with café and accommodation after riding 17 km. Out in the middle of nowhere, it was a beautiful old stone building with lovingly cared for surroundings and a rather unique outside bar.
From here it was onwards and upwards where we came across a young dog tied up, provided with shelter and water guarding an old in effective cattle stop, keeping the sheep in their rightful place. Lunch break at the top of a hill where there were spectacular cloud formations over the vast hills. Today we saw a lot of tussock grass. We enjoyed a great downhill run then in for a wee surprise being a Lavender farm, where the owners were pleased to see us. Selling soaps, lotions, honey and what was very popular with our group, Lavender flavoured ice creams. Soon after, we had a good climb getting out of the valley, followed by a great flowing section of tarseal to Dansey’s Holiday Park. Some of us stayed in the very old, but well laid out, cabins whiles others camped down by the river.
Day 10: Dansey’s Pass to Otematata via some of the Alps to Oceans trail
I rode 82 km and Andrew, Anthony and Sue rode a bit more being the whole way on the trail. It was another great day, not too hot or cold, but it was a shame the wind got up later in the afternoon. We then set off on a tarsealed road, with our first stop being at Elephant Rocks, which was amazing. We then continued along on the Alps to Ocean (A2O) trail, all the way to Duntroon, where there wasn’t a lot apart from the hotel that served coffees, an interesting historic Blacksmith shop, a Fossil & Geology centre and a rather unique shaped church building. Sadly, the old Flying Pig Cafe is now permanently closed. Probably the most interesting thing here is the brilliantly painted public toilet block with rabbits riding bikes.
We then rode past the historic Maori Drawings on cliff rocks and continued on some more of the A2O trail before arriving at Kurow, which is “Richie McCaw” country, where it was time for a feed. The gravel surface on the trail was brilliant to ride. We had passed a few dairy farms and more ground being irrigated.
We passed by the huge Waitaki dam, followed by the Aviemore dam. Those of the group who rode all of the trail rode over this dam, while some of us saved a few kms and continued straight on the road into a decent headwind. We saw quite a few rally cars at this stage, that would have been driven on The Nevis road stage being part of the Hayden Paddon organized rally, which we got to view later on TV news. It was impressive seeing aerial shots of where we had ridden.
That night we were at Otematata Holiday Park and Lodge, which hasn’t changed a bit in the last 50 plus years. Let’s just say it was clean and provided a roof over our heads, but badly needed some repairs and maintenance. We had excellent meals at the nearby hotel.
Day 11: Otematata to Black Forest Station.
We only rode 36 km today but climbed up to 1100m over three saddles. When setting off in the morning we rode out to, and over, the Benmore Dam, which was rather impressive. It is renowned for being NZs largest earth dam and the first to use “prestressed concrete”. Today’s ride was on a private four-wheel drive track, which we had obtained permission to use. It wasn’t as difficult as we had expected so long as one was prepared to walk their bike for short stretches.
We were rewarded with magnificent views. The day started out mild, but light cooler rain developed by midday. Towards the end of the day there were quite few motorbikes and a few 4 WD vehicles coming towards us.
After covering 24 kms, it was one big long downhill all the way to Blackforest Station shearers quarters, for the night. The accommodation was excellent. Afterwards, the weather cleared, and we were able to walk over and explore Lake Benmore. The GROUP COMMENTS of today’s ride were: “Very scenic looking back on where we had been. A fabulous ride. Awesome. Great colours in the lake’s water. We had a morning tea stop at a very picturesque Lake edge. Someone wasn’t feeling great. “King of the Mount” award must go to Andrew for pedalling as fast as walkers.
Day 12: Black Forest to Fairlie, 82 km.
After leaving the Blackforest Station shearers quarters gate we rode into fog and experienced a gentle gradual uphill for quite some time. We then stopped at the old historic Haldon School, which was recently closed, but still with beautiful old fruit trees in the playground. The highlight of the day was when we stopped for morning tea and Mt Cook appeared in the distance. MacKenzie Pass was an easy ride, (compared to where we have been), with a grader that worked in our favour, by clearing a smooth path. This area was made famous by James MacKenzie, a very clever sheep rustler and his silent working dog “Friday”.
When we arrived at Fairlie we had to go and check out their famous pies, bacon and salmon, also pork belly with apple sauce and crackling on the top to name a few, which went down a treat. We stayed at the lovely Fairlie Holiday Park, which was an easy walk to town. There is a very impressive photographic display of the area on the main street taken by the local members of the photo club.
Day 13: Fairlie to Peel Forest, 89 km.
Ron and Susan left us this morning and we missed them. Here’s a bit of a funny story. They were travelling with Ron’s other female friend being, Daisy the dog. Some of the places they had stayed at on their travels did not allow dogs inside for the night. So, what did Ron do? he slept out in the car with Daisy!
Apparently, Ron could be a bit grumpy the next day, since the car wasn’t long enough for him to get comfortable. Looking on the bright side at least, Susan got a bed all to herself. The lengths some people go to for their pets surprises me. Not to mention the cost of keeping Daisy at country retreat boarding kennels she enjoyed while the Jacksons toured with us. Ron even splashed out and purchased a pretty new red “dog jacket” for her!
We took brilliant back roads today from Fairlie to Geraldine. The Middle Valley road was a real joy to ride. We rode past “Raincliff Reserve” then to St David’s Church where there was also a youth camp and Scott camp across the road. When going up Gays Pass, we stopped to talk to a friendly farmer who plans to ride the next Tour Aotearoa himself. We stopped for lunch at pretty Geraldine, where they were the first in the world to sell “deer cheese” at around $160.00/kg. I noticed there were no free samples of that to taste on the counter. We then rode the main road out of Geraldine for a short time. Unfortunately, the rain caught up with us just before we arrived at Peel Forest DOC camp. Five out of six in the group thought a roof over our heads would be a sensible option, apart from Kathy who must enjoy putting her tent up in the rain. The camp was exceptionally good and amazingly clean and tidy with Tim as a volunteer camp host.
Day 14: Peel Forest to Lake Heron, 94 km.
On this day we were now down to a group of four, having farewelled Kathy and Anthony who were both making their own way back to Christchurch. We rode out of Peel Forest on a cold and drizzly morning and backtracked to The Green Man cafe, only to peer through the window since they weren’t open. We then rode onto Ferry Road, which had a sign up at the end saying “Road Closed” – bugger it! Two of us turned around and backtracked while the other two continued onwards pushing their bikes for a very short time, which we found out afterwards.
Sorry, Andrew, I should have listened to you, but you had led me astray before today. We saw large mobs of beautiful deer along with dairy herds and beef cattle. One very noticeable feature of today was the long Canterbury flats. We stopped for morning tea at the small village of Mayfield, “where if you blink you will miss out” or at least that is what the sign said!
As we were about to leave town and by pure luck, the” OverFlow ” shop, which included a collection of everything imaginable was open for a brief time to enable a truck to deliver. This was long enough for us to get our foot in the door.
We could have spent all day here and not seen half of the stuff! Normally, it only opens in the weekends and is run by an elderly lady. Lunch stop was at the lovely domain at Mt Somers, where we sat beside a Musterer’s Hut, built in 1910 which had been beautifully preserved. From here, we had 40 km mostly uphill still to go. We stopped on the way at Hakatere Station Historic Building run by DOC, which is a high-country sheep station first settled back in 1857 by Thomas Potts, who also became NZ’s first conservationist.
From here, we only had 15 km to go, and if the grader from the day before had been available, it would have been a great ride, but instead, it turned out to be the most challenging gravel road on the whole tour, just like riding continuously on ball bearings! Even with that said, it was like entering another world, with a vast open landscape. Quite sometime later we arrived at our destination being “Clent Hills Historic Station” established in 1860, being part of Mt Arrowsmith Station, where we stayed in the fabulously renovated shearers’ quarters. Many thanks to Louise for finding this little treasure. The facilities cabins and lodge here are superb. Later, that evening a glorious low cloud cover came down, over the hills, and was a real sight to behold.
Day 15, Free day.
We said farewell to Sue who left early this morning to head back to Christchurch. Meren, our lovely hostess personally delivered freshly baked muffins. Louise and I had a grand tour of the seven-bedroom homestead, where she had spent a serious amount of money to bring it back to its former glory. We went back to our shearers’ quarters for bacon and eggs for lunch. Today was like “the icing on top of the cake” or perhaps I should say bacon and eggs on a plate courtesy from our hostess. Afterwards, we all rode 10kms down to Lake Heron. I continued a little further until the road resembled something more like a dried-up riverbed before I decided to turn around, and passed mobs of merino sheep, which looked very pretty with lightly snow-capped mountains in the background.
Day 16: Lake Haron to Methven 74 km.
Just the three of us rode out of the gate this morning into a cold fog, after Andrew repaired a flat tyre. We rode over the gravel in a fraction of the time it took us to arrive because it was much easier going slightly downhill. From here, it was plain sailing past Mt Somers Station dairy farm. We then went back to Mt Somers, where there is a pub, hall, library, domain and a quirky general store with a cafe. Here they sold all sorts from, local honey, woollen blankets, right through to locally grown organic Quinoa, which is a new crop being grown at Methven. As we were leaving Mt Somers we arrived at an amazingly manicured hedge.
Shortly afterwards we arrived at Staveley, where there are two beautiful old churches, a hall and another general store/cafe. We then went along to Alford Hall, and the two Moa statues. This was followed by “Pudding Hill” where Andrew had to stop for a feed of blackberries, then we went over to the “Water Works” raceway established in 1944 for the last time. We arrived at Methven in time for lunch where we checked out the “Topp Country Cafe“, (which is owned by one of the Topp twins) before checking into the camping ground located close to town and right in the middle of the A&P show grounds, where it pays not to judge a book by its cover.
My cabin was very old, but everything was clean, while Louise and Andrew stayed in one of their newly installed “Pods”. There was a hive of activity today including cutting grass, rowing up, baling, chainsawing trees, fencing and placing out bales for the show next Saturday. Obviously, there is a strong community here with several people in the working bee.
Methven is a good-sized town and obviously a ski town. I also stumbled into the “Primo” cafe which was like stepping back in time with its excellent massive museum-like display. Day 17, Methven to Christchurch 125 km. Our last day! We headed off and out into the fog for a while, but luckily it cleared at Rakaia Gorge. We made good time getting to the Hororata cafe. It was easy cycling drafting behind Andrew into a slight headwind, to Kirwee, where we found their lovely domain for our lunch and free entertainment watching the locals playing tennis.
The one and only Hotel read “accommodation available”, which wasn’t true due to a major fire. We rode along further onto Old West Coast Road, then around the back of the airport past McLean’s Island. It was interesting today passing dairy farms and one milking sheep herd, a few large crops of potatoes (the first we had seen so far), some green grass being irrigated while other paddocks were bone dry. Soon afterwards, I said goodbye to Louise and Andrew and started making my own way into Christchurch to stay with friends for a few days.
Well it’s the end of yet another amazing ACTA tour and here are the names of the Seven Passes we rode over, Vons Pass, The Nevis, Duffers Saddle, Thomson’s Saddle, Dansey’s Pass, Benmore East to Black Forest, and a fair amount of hills in between. Many thanks to everyone who rode and those who organized things behind the scenes.
This tour ended in an unforgettable manner. Since we arrived at Queenstown the Coronavirus has made its way into NZ, and after listening to the news, I decided to head home earlier than I had planned. Soon afterwards our world gets turned upside down with NZ going into Lockdown.
This really makes me appreciate the freedom we enjoy while away. I must say I was pleased to get out and away from Christchurch airport for fear of picking up the virus myself. I don’t think life will ever quite be the same again!
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