Civilized Remoteness

  • Picton to Nelson (By Car)
  • Day 27 Nelson to Tapawera 66 kms 489 m
  • Day 28 Tapawera to Lake Rotoroa 63kms 750 m
  • Day 29 Lake Rotoroa to Murchison 32kms 273 m
  • Day 30 Murchison to Maruia Hot Springs and Spa 93kms 1200m
  • Day 31 Maruia Hot Springs to Reefton 60kms 400m
  • Day 32 Reefton to Greymouth 91kms 525 m
  • Day 33 Greymouth to Hokitika 89 kms 780 m
  • Day 34 Hokitika to Ross 34 kms 65 m
  • Day 35 Ross to Hari Hari 47 kms 350 m
  • Day 36 Hari Hari to Franz Josef 66kms 530 m
  • Day 37 Franz Josef to Bruce Bay 71kms 780 m
  • Day 38 Bruce Bay to Haast 76 kms 654 m
  • Day 39 Haast to Makaroa 79 kms 1052 m
  • Day 40 Makaroa to Wanaka 75 kms 700m
  • TOTAL SO FAR 2534 kms 23,324 m

Nelson is inaccessible by bike until mid December. A rain event washed out the trail AND the only highway. The workaround highway is jammed with cars and massive trucks. We rented a car at the ferry terminal and drove through the vineyards of our favorite Marlborough wines. We only stopped at Rimapere, but found they had not yet opened their tasting room. But in typical New Zealand fashion, the staff gave us a tour of the vines and a free tasting of their Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. Sadly, they could not sell us any as they weren’t “open” yet.

We were lucky to enjoy a couple of days with good friends Kate and Stephen and kids Alice and William. They moved to Nelson from Canada 7 years ago mainly because, as Stephen describes, “It’s the most remote, civilized country in the world”. Civilized remoteness. That’s it. That’s what describes a lot of what we’ve been feeling here. Everything feels so remote, but with no predatory animals or plants harmful to us humans, it is so….civilized. Grocery stores and cafes are abundant (when not randomly closed) and still so ….remote.

There is a lot to like about Nelson and the South Island. Just ask William who is a competitive mountain biker, a windsurfer, a free diver, a fisherman and a hunter. Or Alice when, with guitar in hand, she gazes out the window at the amazing seascape and offers, “You kind of get use to it, but it is a pretty special place”. We had such a wonderful time. A trip highlight for sure. What a beautiful home, great hospitality and wonderful visit. Gear Guy, “We should just stay. I could learn about chickens and sheep and stuff.”

Our bikes got a rebuild from The Bike Station – full drive train and brake pads. Gear Guy can’t say enough good things about the Bike Station in Nelson. Not only did they have the expertise, they also had a fully stocked inventory of high end parts and gear. The Aotearoa ride is wonderful but hard on equipment. We attribute the worn out drive trains to the huge amount of single track we did as well as the considerable grade on many rides. For Fernieites, it was sort of like riding on Ridgemont trails for days on a fully packed gravel bike.

Gear guy is enamored with Nelson. Not only because of the multitude of activities available including mountain biking, gravel biking, hiking, kiting, windsurfing, swimming…but because of the impressive bike and gear shops. One of the shops appropriately called “the Gear Shop” offered all the same brands we’ve come to know and love. And like the Bike Station, well stocked with inventory. We picked up several little things (that will stuff into our packs), but the highlight is the spatula. A $10 tiny spatula that will flip our fish filets and omelettes like nobody’s business. Although somewhat expensive, I was reminded – “Good gear is priceless.”

Dragged Jay out of Nelson to head south down the West Coast. We met two Kiwi ladies, Annette and Moira who have cycled most of New Zealand over the years and were currently touring the Nelson area. They sheepishly added “E Boiks, for the first time”. Their tire went flat while we were at the motel in Tapawera and they were confident they would fix it. We checked on them after our dinner and Gear Guy was indispensable in fixing it. “We would have figured it out – would have just taken more time.”

Kiwi Tough – Annette and Moira
Continental Breakfast – some are better than others

We stayed at a Backpackers in Lake Rotoroa hosted by Louise and Tony. “Pensioners”, they described themselves. But it would be hard to keep up with Louise. Louise ran the backpackers and had made us a huge delicious breakfast, was doing laundry, delivered a caged possum to a neighbour “to take care of” and was out walking our bike trail. All ahead of us leaving. A bit like trying to keep up with our local legend Linda S. Tony offered up some great fact and folklore of the area. It included a drunk fisherman who fell off his boat and was never seen again. Divers were called in to search for his body and did not find it but refused to go back in the lake. “Why?” The simpleton tourist in me asked. “Not sures, may have been the eels.” Down to the lake we went and watched the local kids jump in and swim around. “Of course they bites. It can hurt. But they usually prefer tourists”. Ahh. Kiwi humour. I skipped the swim.

There was only one accommodation near our next destination – an upscale hot springs spa and it was 14kms out of the way – each way. I don’t typically do “out of the way” (except to Jay’s cousin “Yukon’s” place). No matter, the spa was just what we needed following a longer than expected into the wind ride. Outdoor natural hot pools with hot circulating water, a lovely restaurant, a yoga class and a massage. It’s not all tough.

We now crossed into the West Coast – a unique part of New Zealand – squished against the Tasman Sea by the Southern Alps. Known for spectacular coast line. And rain. Lots of rain. The only benefit of the rain is the endless spectacular rainforest that we biked through. The people of the West Coast are unique – laid back, friendly and speaking a foreign English language. Think Newfie in Kiwi.

We take every route we can to avoid the milk hauling double tankers and other highway traffic. The West Coast Wilderness Trail is a Great Ride we are glad we did not miss – it crossed our minds due to the extra 50kms, elevation and single track! What a spectacular ride. Rest stops can be tricky as another thing the West Coast is known for is sandflies – voracious – vicious – just like our Canadian blackflies. They seem to have an affinity to me. I have been missing Terese who is usually the target.

Everywhere we ride we see “poison” signs on the side of road. This is the country’s attempt to eradicate pests by 2050. Pests are any non-domesticated mammal that did not exist when humans arrived – which is everything but the brown bat. Rats, stoats, possums, hedgehogs and rabbits are the main targets of the program. Our statistical survey of road kill would indicate that the possum is the largest problem. The very same endemic possum that is endangered and protected in Australia. In New Zealand there are no predators and they are rampant and impacting the native bird population. There are a lot of merino / possum garments available here!

Our next stretch took us on a State Highway (6) for 6 days, leading us through the glaciers. There is no other way. Helicopter. That’s a way. But it’s a bike trip.

Summer is arriving in New Zealand – evident not by the weather but by the heaps of rental motor homes now on the road. But in fact, the highway gets a “not terrible” rating from us because most of the many bridges are one lane in width – slowing all traffic down but especially nervous motor home drivers. There was no paved shoulder, but plenty of grass that we used for the occasional truck. Gotta love those 2 inch tires of ours. We also adopted an 8 am departure schedule; which did not get immediate cheery acceptance by all members of the team. But it was apparent that motor home driving tourists also prefer to sleep in. That and the regular wind and rain squalls seem to occur more frequently in the afternoon. So, early departure it is. We’ve been wet and we’ve been dry. Dry is better.

After taking the obligatory photos of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers we were chatting with locals who told us they were going to Haast specifically for the best venison burger “in the World”. Skeptical but curious, we pulled into Haast anxious to try the local cuisine. The Hard Antler Bar and Grill, as you might expect, is a classic Kiwi bar complete with pool tables, dart boards, dead animals…and 70’s disco balls that light up the surrounding carcasses. But the decor was surpassed only by the awesomeness of the Classic Hard Antler Venison Burgers. If you are ever near Haast, you must, you must, have one of these as they may actually meet the claim of the locals.

The Haast Pass is one of the three routes to get from the west side to the east side of the South Island. The west side, as I may have mentioned is notoriously known for being wet. The annual average of rain on the west side is 2,640 mm. The east side by comparison gets an annual average of about 300 mm. And the west side has swarms of sand flies while the east side, none. So you might ask, “Why in the world would you cycle down the west side?” Well, because it’s beautiful and the trails are spectacular. But you pay a price. And we paid it in spades on the Haast Pass. Wet, cold, windy and steep with 13% grades. We were astonished to find a rest site with a shelter to change wet cycling clothes and warm up with soup. But whatever goes up must come down and the road down was wonderfully less wet to our stop for the night, a Tee Pee. Still, no tent.

Wanaka – the Canmore to Queenstown. Perfect town for a 2 day rest after a 10 day cycle streak. Especially perfect given the forecasted heavy rain materialized for most of our 2 days there. Airbnb house kept us dry and warm – a tent would not have been fun. In the home stretch of the southern tip!

Kiwi Tough (in the background)
#That Wanaka Tree – famous for being famous.

Bikepackers Paradise, even if you are going Nowhere

  • Day 11 South Auckland to Kaiaua 67 kms 459 m
  • Day 12 Kaiaua to Paeroa 70 kms 11 m
  • Day 13 Paeroa to Te Aroha 45 kms 121 m (side trip on Karangahake Canyon)
  • Day14 Te Aroha to Matamata 38 kms 57 m
  • Day 15 Matamata to Mangakino 103 kms 1326 m
  • Day 16 Mangakino to Pureora 47 kms 888 m
  • Day 17 Pureora to Timber Trail Lodge 42 kms 787 m
  • Day 18 Timber Trail Lodge to Taumarunui 71kms 720 m
  • Day 19 Taumarunui to Whakahoro 66 kms 1085 m
  • Day 20 Whakahoro to Pipiriki 40kms 0 m (Jet Boat! Around the trail closure due to “slip”, stopping at the Bridge to Nowhere.)
  • Day 21 Pipiriki to Whanganui 76 kms 670 m
  • Day 22 Whanganui to Palmerston North 132 kms 885 m
  • Day 23 Palmerston North to Le Gra Winery 106kms 1240m
  • Day 24. Le Gra Winery to Martinborough 58 kms 374 m
  • Day 25 Martinborough to Lower Hut (Wellington) 87 kms 640 m
  • Day 26 Lower Hut to Interislander ferry 15 kms 2m
  • TOTAL NORTH ISLAND – 1592 kms 14,776 m

The missing link is where we took the jet boats.

After leaving the hilly northland and mazing through the complicated Auckland mass, we were rewarded with 5 days of fabulous rail trail on Hauraki Great Ride. Not great ride. It’s “Great Ride”. New Zealand has categorized and sub-categorized many bike routes: 1. 23 Great Rides – “showcasing must see sites”; 2. 16 Heartland Rides – connectors of the Great Rides (mostly); 3. Bikepacking Rides – selected rides elsewhere; and 4. Others. But there can be no denying this – all of the rides we’ve been on are truly great rides.

Hauraki Ride – Thames Valley along the Firth of Thames at the foot of Coromandel Peninsula

Each ride is made up of many individual rides, so when the Arataki ride is closed due to a slip and you spend hours choosing a reroute, and then departure time arrives and the local motel owner says “it’s no problem mate, just go through – she’ll be right”. We asked, “Does it matter that the Department of Conservation (DOC) have been turning bikers back?” Kiwi guy blasted, “Just tell em to piss off!”. And being turned back would mean at least a two day workaround. We went anyway as any self respecting Fernie rider would do.

Many of the rides are technical single track which, for loaded gravel bikes, are awesome but can be a bit challenging, or “sporty”, as you know who would say. So far we’ve managed with only one slight mishap resulting in one bent derailer hanger. Gear Guy replaced it with one of the dozen extras he brought.

Our accommodations have varied greatly. More than for our x-Canada ride. The highs are perhaps higher but the lows are undeniably lower. Heading into the Timber Trail ride in the town of Mangakino we hit a new all time low – beating the record set in Moosimin, Saskatchewan in 1999. The owner toured us down a dark corridor and showed us our room, where at least three cockroaches rested peacefully – dead on the floor. The lounge was adorned with aged overstuffed filthy faded flower couches. The washroom was decorated with a cobweb and cockroach theme. Still, no tent policy endures.

Next ride, the Mountain to Sea Ride, presented logistics – no internet, limited accommodations, a slip to work around, and multiple jet boat bookings. On that trail we overnighted in a DOC bunk house that felt like a Fairmont compared to the Coachroach Cabin. Gear Guy was not enthused about it and considered breaking out the tent until it was apparent that a hiker, young Sarah from Austria, was also staying in the same hut. Gear Guy: “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s stay in the hut.”

The Mangapurua Ride (on the Mountain to Sea Great Ride) was also closed because of a major slip. We wondered if we could sneak through this one too. But all seemed to agree, this one was “Unpassable Mate”. The only way around was to organize two jet boat rides, with two different companies. No phone, no wifi, no people, no signs to the first jet boat ride that was scheduled to leave at 7am. We knocked on the door of a farmhouse to get directions to where the guy is with a jet boat. “Just out back Mate”. Of course he is. And amazingly somehow Michael, the jet boat driver, got our messages and was waiting to jet us down the river around the slip.

Killing some kilometers on the Whanganui River

Michael is really a hunter who drives jet boats so he can afford to go hunting again. So it was a bit suspicious when Michael dropped us off at a seemingly random rock ledge; no dock, no building, no signs of any inhabitants and as he pulled away, he yells “Yous guys arroinged for pick up right?” We did, but had not received confirmation as we had no internet for 3 days. We figured out that we were dropped at the trailhead to the Bridge to Nowhere. Which was appropriate because that is exactly what it felt like.

Several hours and a few cold rain squalls later our next jet boat ride finally did arrive. With 18 seniors destined to walk to The Bridge to Nowhere. In fact, they looked rather ill equipped for the squally weather. But Kiwis are tough. And Senior Kiwis even tougher. No problem for them to make the uphill 5km hike to the Bridge to Nowhere and back to the rock to be picked up by the jet boat. We joined them and had a marvelous day.

The Timber Ride is a highlight so far. The sights are mesmerizing. The sounds are tranquilizing. The scents are intoxicating. This Great Ride is a 84-kilometre cycleway only opened in 2013, with 35 bridges, including eight large suspension bridges. The longest of which is 141 meters long and perched above a massive gorge. The trail winds through virgin rainforest, endless unique bird songs and a fantastic, if challenging for loaded gravel bikes, pathway. And if that isn’t enough, there is a Shangra La type of Lodge that appears out of nowhere. We would do this again. And again. Incidentally, you might notice our bright colours on our backs. We wear those not just for the little traffic but also for hunters. Hunting is year round in New Zealand. Mainly for deer, wild bore and goats.

After 5 days of single track and no internet, we were surprisingly happy to bike on tarmac and return to civilization for two days off which coincided with a heavy rainfall forecast and Jay’s birthday.

Bacon and Eggs – Birthday Breakfast

Next segment we deviated from the Te Aotearoa Trail and use Gaia and Nav Man as our navigational tools. Big mistake. As there was no or little shoulder, we spent the day pulling off the road to allow massive double trailer trucks thunder by. We arrived at our destination town 130km later at 7pm. But then Nav Man detoured us to the furthest grocery store in town – adding an extra 10 kms. A sugar low no doubt. There are no future plans to deviate from the tour trail again. Ever.

What a treat to stay at Le Gra Vineyard in the Martinborough wine district. Brian, Nicky and Orlaith Geary were a joy to visit with and we had a tour of their lovingly manual wine production – from hand picked grapes to hand labeled bottles! We savoured 2 of their 10,000 annual bottle production. Our left overs once again replaced water on our bikes.

Heading towards Wellington and our eyes on the South Island, we got clobbered by the 80kmph wind gusts which knocked us over several times, but we forged on hoping the Remutaku Great Ride would be more protected. It wasn’t and we had to push our bikes sections of the rail trail tiny grade of 3%.

This was a calm spot for a short break…

The long tunnels were fine, but there was no mention of the Siberia Gully Bridge. Gear Guy intentionally stood in front of a historic marker so I couldn’t see the monument commemorating the tragic incident where 3 rail cars were blown off this bridge by the 150 kmph “harrowing winds that frequent this area”. This was a terrifying, mind over matter, one step at a time, get my butt across this bridge. Close to tears once over, I took a long swig from my “water” bottle.

Gear Guy’s wind shedding technique was more effective than mine, and I was pushed into the side several times.

1600 kms and almost 15,000 vertical meters – Farewell to the North Island. Bring on the South!