My first thoughts after landing on the South Island in Christchurch were, “wow, it’s colder here,” and “this already feels more like home.” Before I left for this trip, everyone I talked to that had been to New Zealand warned me to not get too caught up on the North Island because once I headed south, I wouldn’t want to leave. And right they are! It’s amazing here, and I’ve only seen a bit of it. Something about it feels familiar and has eased my nostalgia–nostalgia for a home of sorts; a place that doesn’t exist for me yet.
The three-year anniversary of Christchurch’s big 2010 earthquake was a few days ago, and the wonderful woman I’m staying with took me on a driving tour of the city to see some of the damage that still exists. It’s quite a sight to see, but amidst all the rubble and destruction is a large amount of clear and visible hope. Vibrant street art and pop-up vendors are all along the streets, and there’s just a general feel of good vibes, to put it very ineloquently. And they have an amazing farmers market where I had the world’s best macaroons. If that’s not reason enough to love a place then I don’t know what is.
So after spending my first South Island week planning, I biked out of Christchurch on a 10-day bike tour. If anyone is planning to do something similar, I would highly recommending getting bikes from City Cycle Hire–all the panniers, tools, water bottles, and helmet are included and the owner, Craig, drops off the gear at your front door. Can’t get better than that! The plan was to go from Christchurch to the start of the Alps 2 Ocean trail (this and more great rides are listed on the New Zealand Cycle Trail site), bike the trail, then head back to Christchurch along the coast. In the end, I decided to take a bus from the end of the trail back to the city to avoid biking on the busy and boring SH 1, and that was a good decision.
Day one was an extremely flat 42 miles from Christchurch to Glentunnel (population 120) across the Canterbury plains. It took a while to get used to carrying a hefty load of gear in panniers, but it was pretty smooth going all in all. I got to eat lots of trail mix and look at sheep, mountains, rivers, and cows. Next time, though, I would definitely bring less food from the get-go.
Day two was a Valentine’s Day ride over 37 miles of rolling hills from Glentunnel to Mt. Somers. Rolling, that is, until I reached the gorge from hell near Mt. Hutt. It was terrible. But the view of the water from the top was worth it, I suppose. That being said, you couldn’t pay me to bike over that thing again. The third day was the longest (roughly 60 miles), and my favorite. The first 30 miles from Mt. Somers to Geraldine were totally flat and there was a nice wind pushing me along so I was there in no time. I had planned to only go a bit further, to Gapes Valley, but decided to trek on to Fairlie. The road was starting to get hillier and I didn’t want my next day to be too much. The second 30 miles of the day were beautiful and I really enjoyed the ride, despite going over another long and windy mountain pass. At the top of the pass, it was a nice descent into Fairlie.
Day four was an easy 25 miles from Fairlie over Burke’s Pass (which is just a big-ish hill) to Lake Tekapo. After cresting the hill I got my first really good look at the snow-capped Southern Alps, right in front of me. That, plus the amazingly vibrant blue of Lake Tekapo had me grinning a mile wide as I coasted down the hill into town. I found a campsite right on the shores of the lake and proceeded to jump in the freezing cold water immediately. It was so clear and calm and blue–I’ve never swam in anything like it.
The lake was so nice I decided to take a day off and enjoy the town a bit for a day. And enjoy, I did. I coughed up $20 for an all-day pass to Tekapo Springs and consequently spent all day soaking in the hot pools, taking breaks only to eat embarrassing amounts of food (not limited to but including a cheeseburger, bacon, and NZ-style hotdog, said the bad vegetarian…) and take a quick hike up to the Mt. John Observatory, which is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve and home to some of the best stargazing in the world. Much to my dismay, it was a full moon while I was there so I couldn’t see the stars in all their glory. But nonetheless, the moon and the sky were magnificent.
The next day I biked away and into a strong headwind to Lake Pukaki, where I’d finally meet up with the actual Alps to Ocean trail. Once I had finally conquered the wind, I was met with amazing cloudless views of Mt. Cook and a chance to swim in the even bluer, clearer waters of Lake Pukaki. After lunch and a swim, I hopped on the Alps to Ocean trail, which had a bit more gravel than I expected. Not ideal for touring bikes with heavy panniers. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely want a mountain bike to traverse the trail. The trail took me over the Pukaki Flats for a total of 35 miles into the small town of Twizel, where a tableful of old cyclist dudes invited me over for wine and a chance to talk to “old buggers.”
It was drizzling and gloomy in the morning, but I set out for Lake Ohau via the narrow trail along the lakeshore. It was beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed taking a pit stop at the Lake Ohau Lodge. They had comfortable couches and the Olympics on. It was pretty tempting to stay, but I forced myself up and continued onto Omarama (49 miles). I found it nice to bike through these small towns. I think if I had been on a bus I would have missed half of them if I blinked.
After Omarama it was onto Kurow (42 miles) over land with lots of dams and hydro plants, and the final day was Kurow to Oamaru (49 miles). I had budgeted a few extra days to complete the ride, but ended up not using them so I was able to hang out in the coastal town of Oamaru for a night and head back to Christchurch the next afternoon, glad to be done biking. Oamaru’s most popular attraction seems to be their Victorian precinct and Steampunk culture. There’s all sorts of old-timey streets and limestone buildings and funny bicycles. I spent my last day in Oamaru eating an incredible BLT and basking in the sun before boarding a bus back to Christchurch driven by an Elton John lookalike. So, bike trip = success! Now I have a few days to let my butt recover before the next adventure…’til next time!