South Island Biking

My plan leaving Te Anau was to head up to Queenstown, the biggest tourist hub in Southland, then head northwest over Haast Pass to the west coast and make my way north from there. The Southern Alps are a range continuous with northern Fiordland, then heading east and form the spine of the South Island going up its west side. The highest point is Mount Cook at over 12,000 feet; I didn’t see Cook, but caught a glimpse of nearby Mount Tasman. These are serious mountains: young, pointy and heavily glaciated, and if I knew anything about mountaineering I’m sure it would be great fun to explore them. As it was, I had been hoping to spend a few days in the lower areas of the Alps, but a sketchy weather forecast combined with time pressure to head north kept me from seeing much of them at all. Will be back.

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To bike from Te Anau to Queenstown, there are two options. You can take the highway, which is crowded with cars and buses making their way between the two towns, or you can wind up 85km of gravel roads to Walter Peak, a farm with sheep-shearing demos and other tourist stuff, before taking a passenger ferry across Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown. I opted for the latter. For the first third the road’s gravel was thick and often loose, difficult and aggravating to take a road bike on, and a couple times I nearly turned around to take the highway. Continuing on, the road cleared to mostly hardpack, going through open pasture with cows meandering across the road, a serene feel and great scenery, some of the best biking of the trip.

From Queenstown, I crossed over the Crown Range to continue on up towards Haast. This range is a finger of mountains coming off the Southern Alps; the crossing has a stiff 700 metre climb making its way above treeline, and offering nice views at the top.

Biking from Wanaka towards Haast Pass can be crossing a gauntlet if done in the wrong weather. The predominant winds in the west of the South Island are coming off the Tasman Sea from Australia, and this section of the highway goes right into them. It was very windy as I came into Wanaka, and while camping under a large willow I could hardly sleep from the wind blowing through the tree all night. It kept up in the morning, but was forecast to tail off later before resuming the next day. I didn’t want to wait in Wanaka — it’s a nice town, quieter than the bustle of Queenstown, but after meeting a guy who’d been stuck three days from the wind I only wanted to keep on going, a base urge to move that propelled me most of the way to Cape Reinga.

For the first 60km north of Wanaka, things did turn out very windy in the exposed areas. This isn’t terrible, it just makes it harder to bike (like constantly biking uphill) and you have to be careful for gusts while coasting. Pretty manageable until the approach to the neck where the road crosses from Lake Hawea west to Lake Wanaka, a short pass funneling a tremendous amount of wind off of Wanaka. A few places I was in first gear on flat ground and still struggled, and when stopping near the neck it was hard to stand up. Afterwards things immediately improved greatly, then gradually so as the road went into protected forests on the way to Haast Pass. Lake Hawea:

After transiting the lakes, Haast Pass itself was easy; I didn’t even realize I’d crossed it until a kilometer later. The pass is one of the lowest points in the Alps, about 560 metres, and the only road crossing in the southern half of the island. The approach from the north is much cooler than from the south: lots of waterfalls and rapids as the road drops steeply to the river basin below.

The Haast River basin, along a nice and flat 40km section of road approaching the west coast:

Following the west coast highway from Haast to Greymouth (about 315km) was very nice. Heavily forested compared to most of New Zealand, and good scenery most of the way.

Unfortunately, along the highway there are only a few places to see the coast itself. This is the lookout at Knights Point, about 30km north of Haast and the best view of the coast I found:

The day after staying in Haast, I headed north to Fox. The towns of Fox and Franz Josef are both near large glaciers that come close to the coast, and both towns have access to the glaciers and tourism services for doing guided trips, helicopter tours, etc. I stayed in Fox a day to do an all day guided hike on the glacier there, which was very cool. We had a break in the weather (it had poured the previous evening and the forecast was rain all the next week), and walking around the ice was fun. I’d like to learn basic mountaineering and glacier travel techniques to be better prepared to explore this sort of area, but not sure when that will happen.

Between Fox and Franz Josef the road is nice and hilly and pretty, then flat for a long while heading to Greymouth. I made the 180km from Franz Josef to Greymouth in one day (second longest day of the trip), in steadily deteriorating weather. North of Greymouth the road looked to be pretty scenic, following the coastal bluffs to Westport, but I opted to head inland through Reefton instead. The rain, fog and winds in the forecast made keeping to the coast look like a fool’s errand, and the weather even a short distance inland was much better. This was a very nice route, going through pastoral country before rejoining the route from Westport and following the Buller Gorge to Murchison.

About 15km west of Murchison there is a nice bridge suitable for jumping into the river, which I was talked into doing by several guys there who had just done it. View from the top:

Me jumping. Fun! (And not the sort of thing I normally do). One guy said this bridge is 21 metres high, which looked right.

Past Murchison the road continues on its way to Nelson, one of the South Island’s biggest cities, then along the coast to Picton, where the ferry to/from Wellington comes in. The whole section between Nelson and Picton is really nice, especially the quiet Queen Charlotte Highway hugging the coast between Havelock and Picton. The town of Havelock:

I stayed a few extra days in the Picton area to hike the Queen Charlotte Track. The area north and west of Picton is the Marlborough Sounds, a maze of inlets I’m sure would be great kayaking. The track is an easy and scenic 71km following ridgelines overlooking the Sounds.

This track has a lot of Wekas. These are a native bird the size of a chicken, with wings but (I think) flightless. Fearless, they’ll happily wander through your campsite looking for food when you’re right there, or peck at your backpack while you take photos, as the one below did. Several of these bugged us when hiking with Sean at Abel Tasman (west of the Sounds), and I came across several on the Milford Track.

I took the ferry to Welllington in the evening after finishing the hike. This was February 10, after spending about five weeks on the South Island.

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