Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Easter Tour on the fat-tyred roadie

Much to Sarah's chagrin, a couple of months ago, I booked an Easter flight to Dunedin with Brendan.  He and I were meant to ride together down there about a year ago, and what better use of the Air NZ credit than to try again.  It wasn't a straight replication though - my 7 day loop was shortened, and Brendan's one-way trip to Queenstown lengthened, to give us five full days' riding together.  

We flew down independently, and once I got clear of my Thursday morning lecture, I headed to the airport early for a bit of a wind-down.  Upon landing in Dunedin, I unpacked my bike before ditching the bag and my travelling clothes in the $5/day luggage room - a great service, and one which I'd love to see replicated everywhere.   About an hour or so later, and a short leg-loosener on some pan-flat roads, I hooked up with Brendan on the main drag in Mosgiel.  After a bite to eat, we headed to our overnight accommodation a few kilometres towards Outram. 



Day 1 - Mosgiel to Alexandra

We awoke fairly early on Good Friday - even though we were on holiday, the first day was planned to be our longest, and better to use available daylight on the bike than in bed.  It was beautiful and warm while we ate, suited up, and packed.  However, about five minutes before roll-out, we could literally feel the air temperature taking a dive as a southerly front passed through.  There wasn't anything to do but rearrange clothing, and get out into it.  

It was a short ride to Outram, where we were hoping to find a second (and better) coffee.  After one pass through town, we doubled-back past the closed café to the 4-Square.  I decided on a pie for second-breakfast, washed down by a coffee.  That done, it was time to get stuck into the sealed climb up to Clarks Junction.  


We'd both ridden the first part of it, having each done a Dunedin round of the Calder Stewart series which finished just shy of our turn off.  As we climbed, it got colder and colder, and we became more exposed to the wind.  At our second stop to add more clothing, I put on my insulated Shake-dry jacket, and finally became comfortable.  Despite the low speed and climbing effort, rain-(and wind)-proof overtrou and cap, gloves, and uninsulated jacket simply hadn't cut it.

When we reached Clarks Junction, we turned onto Old Dunstan Road, and Brendan immediate pulled over to put some warmer clothing on.  The spot he'd chosen was very exposed to the wind, and as I watched him walk through tall wet grass in search of some shelter, I could feel myself cooling, and went back to hide in the lee of an old pub.  He joined me soon after, and was fortunate that in the interim, someone had emerged from the building and offered a room to get changed in.  (We politely declined a seat by the fire, for fear that we would never be ready to leave.)

It sounded like the change into dry gear had come too late for Brendan (he reported being "very cold"), and given my experience waiting in the wind, I feared that things might rapidly turn sour if we stuck to our original plan.  The best option, as I saw it, was to head up the road to Middlemarch, where we would be able to get a hot drink before taking the long way around the Rock and Pillar Range.  It would make for a long day, but at least we would be within cooee of help if we needed it.  Brendan didn't take much convincing!


Both the weather and our bodies had warmed up a tad by the time we made Middlemarch, and large coffees made the world of difference also.  The café was busy, and I thought I recognised a cyclist who'd queued up near our table.  The fella who looked a lot like my colleague Ronnie blanked me initially, but then we sorted things out (it was Ronnie) and had a quick catch up - he'd just finished a 5-day ride of the Rail Trail with friends and family, and I didn't have the heart to tell him we were planning to knock it out before bed time (with an action-packed 60km already under our belts).

Even though the weather was showing signs of perking up, relitigating our earlier call was pointless, and besides, both Brendan and I seemed comfortable with what lay ahead.  We made our way onto the Otago Central Rail Trail, and got underway.  When we were moving, progress was rapid, courtesy of a great tail wind.  But, said wind was still chilly, and we seemed to be constantly fiddling with our attire.  


I'd never ridden the rail trail, and was glad to be ticking it off.  The design was elegant, and the low gradients and gentle curves were testament to the engineers' cunning and attention to detail.  Despite it being the first day of the Easter period, we struck a large number of people nearing the end of their ride - most were on e-bikes, so were only looking despondent on account of the morning's rain, rather than the brisk headwind they were pushing into.  

One of the weirder features of the trail, were regular "planets"

Nearing Ranfurly, the trail started to turn westward, and as a consequence, we started battling the wind for the first time.  I had a bit of a low-patch energy-wise, so was glad to be able to top the tanks up and have a bit of a break in the town.  We would soon be turning fully into the wind, and our open question was to what extent the downhill gradient of the trail would take the edge off it.  Only time would tell.  

The "summit" came soon after a road crossing at Wedderburn, and not long after that we began our push in a south-westerly direction, delighted to find that progress remained very good.  


We passed the most interesting features of the route in the late afternoon, and it wasn't lost on us that most of the riders we'd seen seemed to be having their happy ending at the beginning of their ride.  The area around the Poolburn Gorge - replete with a spectacular viaduct and tunnels - was a particular highlight.

Spectacular viaduct

Tunnel

The last 25km or so into Alexandra were a real treat, partly on account of the beautiful late-afternoon light.  There was masterful design to negotiate the steep drop into Chatto Creek, and on the final kilometres into Alex, our energy levels were such that we weren't tempted off onto various more direct routes into town.   


We knocked off for the day with just under 210km on the clock - about 60km longer than we'd planned, but better that than coming unstuck on the Old Dunstan Road.  Even though we'd amassed about 2.5 hours of stops along the way, it was nice to arrive without needing lights, and before it got difficult to find dinner!!

Stats:  209km ridden, one bullet dodged


Day 2 - Alexandra to Queenstown

There was no need to rush in the morning, with a relatively short road ride through to Queenstown on the horizon.  For a while, it looked like we may have been able to ride the new Lake Dunstan Trail, but delays had pushed the opening out, unfortunately (now confirmed for Saturday 8 May).  

It was very cold when we set out, and perhaps for that reason, we didn't go out of our way to ride the final 8km of the rail trail into Clyde, preferring to stick with the road.  Half way along the stretch, I was frustrated to remember that we could have crossed the river to ride a second off-road trail between the towns.  In any case, it wouldn't have cut out a decent climb on the highway to a lookout point above Clyde Dam, one of NZ's "Think Big" projects, which occurred around about the time Brendan and I were becoming news-aware.   

Clyde Dam

Despite being along a very flat lake, the highway to Cromwell was arduous, and afforded us frustratingly good views over the to the off-limits cycle trail.  Never mind - it'll keep!


We stopped briefly above the confluence of the Clutha (Mata-au) River coming out of Lake Wanaka, and the Kawarau River draining from Lake Wakatipu.  Signage indicated the old bridge into Cromwell was still in place, about 10m below the lake surface.  We both tried to imagine what it must have been like for the townsfolk to watch their town's infrastructure disappear when the lake was finally formed.  


After crossing the new bridge (several metres above the lake), we peeled off, and were soon ensconced in a lovely wee café in the Heritage Precinct.  I had a couple of cheese rolls (when in Rome, etc...) and a quad-shot bowl flat white, which really did take the edge off the still-chilly air temperature when we got back out into it.


 

We rode an off-road path (part of the Lake Dunstan Trail) through to the Bannockburn Rd bridge, before rejoining SH6 soon after.  The Easter traffic volume wasn't notable, although the extent of (e-)bike-haulage definitely was.   

"Roaring Meg" was signposted a few kilometres out, and we stopped there to admire her - a small hydro scheme (the second of two being fed by a small man-made lake up in the hills).  


Even the occasional downhill stretches of the highway above the Kawarau River seemed like a lot of effort, and it was hard to know what to put that down to - perhaps the long day prior, or the nasty chip seal, or the cold air, or all of the above?  

At Gibbston, we were finally offered an opportunity to get off the road - onto the furthest extreme of the Queenstown Trail.  Even though we knew we were travelling slower on the unsealed surface, progress seemed better, and markedly so, prompting us to wonder whether it the effect could be solely psychological,  

Google had suggested we turn off onto Chard Road, just prior to the Kawarau bungy bridge.  It seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but there was Queenstown Trail signage to Chard Farm, so we gave it a whirl, only to come to a locked gate 10 minutes or so later.  Forced to back track, at least we got stunning views over the river for our troubles.



The lack of homework bit us again a short while later.  The Queenstown Trail sounded so much like a single trail to Queenstown, and when I followed the route to Arrowtown, I didn't notice Queenstown dropping off the distance markers for a while.  When Brendan alerted me to my mistake, I sensed he was a bit miffed, but we agreed to continue on to Arrowtown. 

A bridge under a bridge, on the Arrow River Bridges Trail

When we did finally arrive there, I organised a couple of chocolate shakes as pennance, and we sat in the sun for a while to partially recharge.  


When we set off, I was keen to drop back down to the trail we should have been on, but Brendan advocated for the road through Arthur's Point.  While I'd ridden this way before, a significant (and of course, unexpected) plus was that we bumped into Jonathan and Julie (organisers of the Tour de France trip back in 2018).  It was very lovely to see them, and funny that had I had my way, I would have been oblivious to them being in the neighbourhood.

The ride finished wonderfully on that front, but also with a scorching descent into town (we agreed that every bike ride should finish like that)!  We settled on an underground pizza joint for dinner.  I deliberately ordered a massive pizza, and managed to avoid eating all of it.  The leftover couple of pieces warranted purchase of a roll of tin-foil on the way back to base.  While I was a bit anxious about having cold pizza against my lower back all morning, but that seemed like a small price to pay for real food for lunch.  

It was the last day of daylight savings, and of course we had a time-sensitive start in the morning - a vigorous debate ensued.  It would have been quite hilarious to listen to two tired but otherwise well-educated, middle-aged men try to work out what exactly was going to happen, but we chased each other round in circles for a long while, pulling in such clues as "spring forward, fall back", an "n/a" for the 2-3am period in Metservice's weather forecast (is it because it doesn't exist, or because it is experienced twice?!), and how long our phones thought it was until the morning's alarms went off.  We did sort it out eventually, but after a comically long discussion, and despite being fairly certain that our phones would sort it all out for us while we slept (they did, as they do every year).

Stats:  112 surprisingly arduous kilometres, and a couple of bad turns


Day 3 - Queenstown to Lumsden

The third day was the one I'd been looking forward to the most.  The reason for all the angst, was that we had booked on the 9am staff boat out to Walter Peak Station - Real Journeys don't seem to advertise this, but at $40 a head (including bikes) it sets you up really well for a good day's riding on the Around the Mountains cycle trail.  

After our meticulous evening's planning, of course we woke at the right time, and were able to get coffee before jumping aboard the boat.  Next time, we'll have to budget time for a second round.   

The TSS Earnslaw was not our boat - that's saved for properly paying customers

Aboard the boat, we were joined aboard by a handful of staff, a couple who were e-biking the TA route and three of their family/friends who were joining them for a few days, and a young couple on MTBs who were going to be camping overnight at Mavora Lakes.   

The ferry ride was spectacular, and I spent most of it up top, enjoying the very fresh air, and fascinating views.  At our destination, I was amused by the parking mechanism, with the skipper simply running the boat aground alongside the jetty.  Presumably without doing that, we would have been awkward to offload, and done carefully, surely was cheaper than extending the wharf!

Arriving at Walter Peak Station

A second coffee had evaded us in Queenstown, so when one was available at Walter Peak, we leapt at the chance, despite my suspicion that the coffee machine would need to be warmed up.  There was indeed an agonisingly long wait, but when the coffees finally arrived. they were perfect sculling temperature, and were down the hatches before you could say "fuck, that was a long wait".  

We had an initial battle with the wind, and soon caught the impatient one of the party of five.  He'd given up on his coffee, and was keen to know if we'd had ours.  I felt bad giving him the thumbs-up, but I'm sure he'd have found out from his friends a little later anyway.  

Brendan lost a camera case to the wind before we reached the turn inland at the Von River, but perhaps it was a sacrifice to the wind gods that set us up for a brilliant day.   

Looking up Lake Wakatipu towards a wet Glenorchy

Despite climbing up-valley, the howling westerly wind was now in our favour, and progress was fantastic.  While we were relishing the tailwind, we saw some e-bikers heading towards us, no doubt glad they had pedal assist to help them get down the valley!  

Not a bad spot for an airbnb (unless you need to pop to the dairy)

Eventually we arrived at the base of the only major climb of the day, and our first proper hill since leaving Outram on day 1.  There, Brendan discovered he'd left his second drink bottle back at Walter Peak - while his remaining one has a sophisticated filter mechanism, it isn't designed to be used on the fly.  


At the top of the climb, we had another stop for a bite to eat and some wardrobe adjustment, and when the road crossed a stream soon after, Brendan stopped again to fill his bottle.  From there, we made our towards Mavora Lakes - the gentle climb was more than negated by the scorching tail wind, and about the only thing that slowed us down was the second of the day's fords.  With care, we got through both without getting wet feet, which was welcome.  


Near Mavora Lakes, we skirted around some impressive native forest, before finding a spot out of the wind for lunch - my pizza slid down very well indeed.  Even with the time gained and effort saved by the wind, neither of us was sufficiently keen to ride the dead-end road up to the top lake (apparently a 16km return trip), and even the young couple heading up there didn't sway us.  We all presumed Brendan and I had passed them while they were sitting in one of the many small shelters along the road.  


After lunch, it was a gentle downhill through to our overnight stop at Lumsden.  Factoring in the wind, it felt like we were descending off a mountain!  

We continued on the gravel road for about half the distance, before turning onto a purpose built section of the cycle trail.  This followed a stream, and on occasion, we were treated to a short section into the wind - it was pretty insane, and was hard to imagine what the day would have been like in the opposite direction - we assumed nigh on impossible.    


The ducking and diving began to wear a bit thin, so we were glad when we finally arrived in Mossburn.  There, we stopped at a café for a pick-me-up, before embarking on the final stretch to Lumsden.  For the most part, this consisted of a power-pole slalom adjacent to the main road.  While it did seem preferable to riding on the road, the design was curious, to say the least!


We were booked into the Lumsden Hotel, and we were glad to find they were serving dinner.  I had a mighty fine bit of pork belly, washed down by an ice-cream that I'd cheekily procured from the 4-Square before it had closed at 7pm.  

The wind forecast for the next day was much the same, which was perfect, given that we were continuing eastward.  

Stats:  127km ridden, plus a 12km boat ride


Day 4 - Lumsden to Beaumont

The hotel provided a continental breakfast of sorts, and I supplemented this with some hot-cross buns from the supermarket.  We were ready to roll by 9am, but didn't go far, since the café just down the road had opened up, and were glad to serve us coffee.  There was most of a 1950s Dodge Kingsway inside, which seemed to be serving as the local post office desk, and had been chopped up after entering the building on its side - from the front right, it looked like a full car, but from the back left, it more closely resembled an L-shaped desk.  

The AA map I'd been using for planning indicated a plethora of choice to get to Waikaia, beyond which our route was fairly simple.  I'd randomly chosen roads which were shown as predominantly unsealed, and wouldn't involve too much ducking and diving, nor unnecessary distance.  

After a few minutes on the main road towards Gore, we turned off onto the crunchy stuff for the first time.  The wind was again in our favour, and vigorously so! 


We skirted around Balfour, and a couple of times had crosswind sections which hammered home just how lucky we continued to be with the wind.  We passed a burnt out tractor, which I hoped wasn't a symbolic reflection of how my day would turn out...


On our last gravel section before Waikaia, we passed a number of quirky signs reading "Caution - Road Oiled".  The purpose of the oil seemed obvious - to keep the dust down around houses - but the necessity of the warning seemed less obvious.  I found it hard to imagine any passing motorist benefitting from the alert, but perhaps I was underestimating the local drivers.  


We stopped in at the store in Waikaia - it seemed to be a bit of a one-stop-shop, and was suitably busy.  I had a coffee, and another couple of cheese-rolls, but didn't grab any extra food for later - I already had a ham and egg sandwich precariously bungeed to my saddle bag, and plenty of other riding snacks (one-square-meals that I was hoping not to eat, some honey roasted peanuts, and a bag of froozeballs).  

We left Waikaia on Winding Creek Road, which almost instantly turned to gravel.  There was a neat looking old church perched on a hilltop which I did a quick detour for before rejoining Brendan. 


The road was lovely, and passed a couple of gold mining claims (according to the signage), and a nice tract of native bush - a rarity on our ride up to this point.  The sun was in a lousy position for photographs of the bush, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the sight - simultaneously uplifting and depressing, the latter to think that the entire country would have been like that before people started hoeing into it.


After a short climb, and an even shorter descent, we came to an intersection and our turnoff.  

What could possibly go wrong?!?!

After marvelling at the potential confusion that might arise at this particular intersection, we got out of the wind for a few minutes behind another local oddity - hay bales wrapped in a continuous length of plastic to create massive hay-sausages.  We wondered what sort of machine created them, and imagined some grand contraption eating up hay bales and shitting out a great big plastic wrapped hay-poo.  We may ride like grown men, but in some respects, the boys remain.


After sharing the ham and egg sammy and otherwise recharging, we saddled up again, and after a relatively stern climb, enjoyed a lovely stretch of undulating road through to our next turnoff.  While we stayed on Switzers Road, it became sealed, and not long after tipped up quite savagely.  Once we'd recovered from that, the next unpleasantness was the cold wind up on the tops.

The next section of road network was quite confusing, but givcn we'd mapped it out, it was a simple matter of trusting the GPS course, confident that it would all make sense eventually.  Not that it needed to - so long as it got us there!

An old church on the corner of Monument Road

At Edievale, we turned onto a major road through to Raes Junction.   We'd originally looked for accommodation there, before settling on Beaumont a few kilometres down the road.  After a scorching descent, we discovered that the junction was merely that, and any hopes we'd had of a late coffee stop were dashed.  

A road sign guaranteed to put a smile on any passing cyclist's face

We'd overestimated the scale of Beaumont too - crossing over the Clutha River, only to find the "town" was simply a collection of homes, and that the hotel we'd passed just before the neat one-lane bridge was all that was on offer.  We grabbed a bit of afternoon tea there before checking in to our swanky Mata-au Lodge just down the way.  I'd treated myself by hauling around my Allbirds slip-on shoes, so walked to the hotel for dinner, while Brendan rode.  

I celebrated another great day's riding with a whitebait sammie and a seafood basket.  I even treated myself to a small beer, which slid down very nicely, and satisfied my typical annual alcohol quota.


Dessert was back at base, courtesy of a neat selection of pay-as-you-go goodies on offer there.



Day 5 - Beaumont to Mosgiel

Beaumont lay about two-thirds of the way along the Clutha Gold Trail.  While it looked like we'd missed out on a great section north of Beaumont, riding it would have required quite a detour from Raes Junction to get across the river.  Another bit of local infrastructure that I look forward to returning to.

Lawrence wasn't far away, so we didn't pop into the hotel for coffee, and instead made our way across the river and onto the trail.  For quite a while it ran alongside the highway, but sans lampposts, fortunately.  Eventually it drew away, and we passed through an old rail tunnel.  Towards the middle, there was a shipping container that seemed to be protecting passers-by (passers-under?!) from a nasty looking rock sticking out of a hole in the ceiling.  

Mind your head!

We passed a family having an early picnic in the sun - they looked like they were having a ball, with parents' bikes loaded with gear and giving the relatively young kids a neat bikepacking experience.  I regretted not stopping to tell them what an awesome sight they were.

The trail didn't use the old railway bench often, but the last kilometres into Lawrence were a notable exception.  There's something delightful about a railway lines gentle curves, and aside from being easy on the eye, and kind on the legs, the mathematician in me is full of respect for the talent that has gone into it.

We pulled into the first café I'd seen, only to find that they were only serving counter-food.  I'd already ordered by the time Brendan couldn't, but he made do.  

The day had warmed up nicely while we'd been inside, and a big climb soon after we left town ensured major wardrobe adjustments eventually occurred.  Waipori Road was gravel, but big and wide, no doubt to accommodate the logging trucks servicing the significant pine forest we were passing through.

Our overnight host had warned us about nasty corrugations, and for the most part, he was wrong.  On the other hand, he could have mentioned a deep gully that the road dropped steeply into, before climbing just as sharply back out!


Waipori Road took us up alongside Lake Mahinerangi - created over a century ago when the Waipori River was dammed.  We'd scoped out a couple of options back to Mosgiel.  One was to cross the lake at its midpoint, and ride through Lee Flat before taking a back road loop through Hindon to Outram.  
Instead, we opted for the unsealed route through Waipori Falls.  

The bridge we didn't take

The lake wasn't done with us yet though, and before we started our long descent, we passed a pine block in the process of being logged, and had trucks to contend with for a while.  We managed to avoid one by pulling off the road for a picnic beneath the bridge across the outlet of Loch Luella.  


The next truck was a different story, but at least we got plenty of warning, and could get off the road...


We'd independently mapped the route, and while Brendan's GPS wanted him to turn off down to the dam, mine took us through Waipori Falls "township", and that's the one we went with (while I was slightly disappointed not to have checked out the dam, it isn't completely clear that the through-route existed, or at least, was kosher).  We ignored a turn to the right soon after, though suspected that the trucks were turning off there.

The descent to Waipori Falls was steep, but it was wonderful to be riding through native bush.  The township seemed to be on a loop road marked as private, and we respected the signage.  The falls also were off limits, apparently due to earthquake risk.  But, the detour gave us a great vantage over the first of three small power stations along the road.  

The native bush continued to be awesome, and we were both delighted we'd chosen to come this way.  Strangely, the power stations seemed not to take the shine off the natural amenities, and we got to the bottom of the valley fizzing about the brilliant scenery.


Down on the Taieri Plains at Berwick, it was fascinating how lame the valley we'd just emerged from appeared, belying the beautiful bush and hydro-electric infrastructure that lay within.  

I advocated for a trip to the beach, and we were soon crossing both SH1 and the Taieri River.  There, Brendan filled his bottle, before we tackled Christies Gully Road.  It was absolutely brutal, but perversely, I absolutely loved it.  While I did feel somewhat guilty about inflicting it on Brendan, there was something about muscling up an unsealed road at over 20% gradient!  

Christies Gully Road from the air, the following morning

The savagery didn't last for ever, and what followed was a lovely roller-coaster, which invariably demanded considerable effort, but on which you could enjoy carrying momentum into most uphill sections.  We were rewarded by great views over the ocean.  


While the Tuesday was a university holiday, we expected there to be a bit more signs of life in Brighton.  A café there seemed to have just closed up, but Brendan was able to use the loo there while I waited for the coffees at the adjacent dairy.  Alone, they might not have been worth the trip over the hill, but in combination with the great views of the swells rolling in, it felt like a good choice to come.


On the other hand, we did scope out the best exit option, and it turned out to involve less climbing than the route I'd mapped.  Less, but still plenty, and by the time we reached the top of McMaster Road, and got our first glimpse of Mosgiel, we were both ready to call it a day!


That we did soon after, and within the nick of time for Brendan, who otherwise would have had to replace his rear tube on account of a whopping thorn he'd picked up on the descent.  

We were right on the edge of town, but there was a nice restaurant within walking distance - fitting to celebrate a tour well done.  

Stats:  110-glorious-kilometres, and countless "wow" moments


* * *

I was up and ready the next morning before Brendan had emerged from his room, so took a slightly convoluted route to the airport on my own.  Brendan had left soon after but took a direct route, and was well underway with his bike-packing when I arrived.  

Within the hour we were both taking full advantage of Air NZ's lounge buffet, and not long after that, jetting back to Wellington.  We sat apart, which meant we were each independently able to start processing the five wonderful days of riding we'd shared.  Just about everything had gone perfectly, and the few issues we'd had to resolve only served to make it feel like a real adventure.  

We'd forged our friendship on race bikes, but I think we're both pretty happy to be doing this now. And, I expect we're far from done.  

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Milford Sound - go now, thank me later

One of the various cancelled trips in 2020 (contributing to an eye-watering amount of Air New Zealand credit) was a week-long ride out of Dunedin.  The first half was going to be with Brendan through to Queenstown, and among the options I'd considered afterwards, was a ride out to Milford Sound - one of a few top-shelf tourist destinations in NZ that I've never been to.  

Even before COVID intervened, I'd ruled it out - the 240km return trip out of Te Anau would either have chewed up too much of my available time, or I'd have to rush and risk a superficial visit.  Neither appealed.

Some 12 months later, the border is still closed, and rather than griping too much about an inability to travel abroad, many Kiwis have sensibly thought about what to do at home.  In my circles, the pondering has extended beyond "what would I like to go and see...", to include "...while no overseas tourists are here doing the same thing?"  

Among my friends, Simon, and Karl at Ride Holidays, had both publicly noted that the traffic volumes on the Te Anau-Milford Highway (SH94) would be a fraction of their normal levels, and it was on my radar too.  That said, the trip materialised out of the blue one evening while hosting ex-Wellingtonian and now Wanaka resident, Ashley, for dinner.  An innocent "when are you going to visit again?" query turned into a flurry of calendar checking, web searches and online booking, and before she'd left for the evening, we were locked and loaded.  Ironically, we'd booked at a near-perfect time -  a couple of weeks into the school year, we could expect few tourists of any kind.  

A little over three weeks later, Ash picked Sarah and I up from Queenstown Airport off an afterwork flight, with some slightly disappointing news.  Her hubby, the handsome Park Ranger, was tied up with an emergency and wouldn't be able to join us.  The slight upside was that the car loading 3D jigsaw was ever so slightly easier to complete.  We had plenty to talk about, and the drive to Te Anau passed quickly.  


Friday - Te Anau to Milford

We woke to beautiful clear skies.  I'd unpacked our bikes before going to bed, and it was pleasing to note that my recently replaced rear tyre was finally holding air.  Despite Ash packing some breakfast supplies, we decided to head to a local cafe for a cooked breakfast.  

Suitably fed and watered, it was time to hit the road.  I made a quick dash across the road for some insect repellant, a few OSM bars, and some cash, and after brushing teeth, we were clipping in and rolling out.  Sarah and I initially rode alone, with Ash knocking out the first 30km or so to Te Anau Downs in the car.  

As per my usual approach to these things, I hadn't done any homework and knew little about the route.  Sarah, on the other hand, had driven it twice, once with Khulan about a decade ago, and again with her sister Saruul more recently.

The road alongside Lake Te Anau was undulating, and it took us a wee while to get our clothing dialled.  Aside from a few stops to re-adjust, the distance through to Ash's parking spot passed quickly.  We didn't see her car at the Lodge there, and nor did I make it out at the effective Milford Track trailhead (where the walkers jump on a boat to take them up the lake).


Sarah climbing away from Lake Te Anau, with Middle Fiord over her left shoulder

Ironically, once we got away from the lake, and started to ride up the Eglinton River valley, if anything the terrain mellowed. As expected, traffic was few and far between, and those vehicles that were on the road tended to give us plenty of space.  Eglinton Flats seemed to be a popular stopping point for cars, though one of the regular "No Drones" signs along the road reminded them they needed to do their selfies themselves.

Eglinton Flats

Not long after Eglinton Flats, we approached the Mirror Lakes.  Despite Ash still being ahead of us, the weather was so fantastic Sarah and I had agreed to stop and take a look.  Upon arrival, we found Ash's bike parked up, and consequently, we were able to enjoy the incredible effect without feeling the need to rush.

Must've been a still day when these lakes were named!

At the far end of the viewing boardwalk, not only did we find Ash, but also a very welcome coffee cart!  The cash I'd withdrawn before leaving Te Anau had been an afterthought, but a fortuitous one, since there's no better thing to spend it on than a coffee in the middle-of-nowhere.  The barista seemed very well set up, from his machine right through to the heavy coat and hat he was wearing.


Hot drinks demolished, the three of us set off together finally, and while Sarah and I had been moving a bit faster than Ash up to this point (while she was riding at least!!), there were no pace-related teething problems as we adjusted to riding as a trio.  

I was contemplating suggesting we stop at Lake Gunn for lunch - preceded by a short climb, it looks like it may have been formed by an ancient landslide blocking the river.  Fortunately, we continued on further up the road to The Divide shelter, where unbeknownst to us at the time, the sand-flies aren't quite as voracious.  The carpark there was a wee hive of activity, by virtue of it being the southern road end of the multi-day Routeburn Track, and a shorter walk or two.  

From what was displayed on my Garmin map screen, I couldn't quite get my head around the route ahead, having incorrectly assumed that the river valley we were about to descend into drained towards the coast.  I soon discovered my error, and after admiring the Hollyford River from a couple of lookouts on the steep drop into the valley, we started climbing again, up-river towards the Homer Tunnel.

Looking over the Hollyford River towards Lake Marian

The Hollyford River valley was steeper than the Eglinton had been, but the gradient was still very mellow, and the riding conditions really couldn't have been better - it was warm but not hot, and whatever wind there was didn't register.   

I usually completely miss these, and this time, I just missed myself

The valley was very impressive, with steep cliffs either side.  There were plenty of small waterfalls above the road, and it clearly would be a sight to behold during, or immediately after, heavy rain.  

Mt Talbot, if my map reading is half decent

About 3km short of the tunnel, we stopped and had a proper lunch by a stream.  At about 900m above sea level, and a kind of random place to stop, we were unmolested by sand-flies, and were able to enjoy sitting in the sun.  We filled our bottles from the stream and enjoyed the cool, fresh, and undoubtedly clean water.  

A late lunch spot.  Photo:  Ashley Peters

The last of the climb up to the tunnel was sweet, and sprinkled with distractions.  There was a road crew quarrying rock out of the riverbed, and a trailhead for the Gertrude Valley which seemed popular.  

Looking up towards Gertrude Saddle

The tunnel didn't come into view until the last few hundred metres.  After passing a phone box, we pulled up at a "wait here" sign.  From a loudspeaker came a voice:  "wave if you want to ride through the tunnel".  We waved up at a surveillance camera, and were immediately told to go up to the portal, and wait for the next command!   Once there, a few seconds later, we were told there were no cars coming, and that we could go through.  

The eastern portal of Homer Tunnel

The tunnel was not at all what I was expecting.  I'd imagined something like the single-lane Hataitai bus tunnel, or even the unlined Summit Tunnel on the Remutaka Incline.  Instead, I found a sealed and well-lit tunnel with what seemed like almost enough space to have two lanes for much of its length.  There was a crew working inside it, and between that distraction and the 10% downhill grade, the 1.2km seemed to pass by in no time at all, and with little time to fully observe the structure.  No need to worry about that though, the uphill passage would surely be done at a more leisurely pace!

The climb from Te Anau to Homer Tunnel happens over almost exactly 100km, whereas the full descent to Milford at sea level is only 20km.  It starts with a few switchbacks, before joining the Cleddau River valley at the Chasm.  We'd hoped to see the chasm ourselves, but the track was sufficiently well closed that we thought better of sneaking along it on foot.

Looking down-valley from just below the Homer Tunnel

Just above the crossings of the Gulliver and Donne Rivers, there was a random digit "2" painted on the road - I had just enough time to try to wonder what on earth it meant, before rounding a bend and riding over "SINGLE" "LANE" "BRIDGE" written in much quicker succession.  

A wee bit further down was a photogenic old suspension bridge over the Tutoko River, which we took, reserving the highway bridge for the return journey.  


Our accommodation, at the Milford Sound Lodge was the next thing we reached, but given the lovely conditions, we agreed to stay on our bikes and explore the village.  (We'd left Te Anau at 9am, and first passed the lodge just after 3:30pm.)  That didn't take long, but included a visit to the marina at Deepwater Basin, the airfield, a board-walked foreshore loop track, and the grand but slightly grotesque (for my tastes) cruise terminal.  Most of the residences were down a street marked as private, signage which we begrudgingly respected.  

Looking down the airfield towards Mitre Peak

We hit up a riverside path to get back to the lodge, only to discover it was a work in progress in places, necessitating a bit of walking.  It was a bit of an inauspicious way to end a fantastic day's riding, but thankfully the scenery made up for the hike-a-bike, and there were no complaints from my hard-core companions!


At check-in, we booked a table for dinner, and then retired to our rooms for unpacking, washing, and resting!  

Given we felt like beggars rather than choosers, we were all really impressed with the quality of the dinner.  The alternative for Sarah and I was OSM bars, though it wouldn't have surprised me if Ash, world famous for the quality of her snacks, had something more delicious stashed in her frame-bag.  

The walk back to our chalets started badly - Ash had stopped inside, and while waiting for her, I found myself surrounded by sand-flies.  Flapping of my arms and frenzied bug squashing didn't seem to be an effective strategy, so I resorted to running until I was safely inside our chalet.  


Saturday - Tourist Day

The next day started with breakfast being delivered to our rooms, and beyond that, we whiled away a few hours waiting to hear back about an enquiry with a local helicopter company.  Just as I'd never been to Milford Sound, nor had I been on a helicopter, and this seemed a perfect place to right that wrong.

Eventually, the call came, and soon after a great lunch at the lodge restaurant, we were reporting to the office at the airfield.  While low cloud was preventing us from landing at Tutoko Glacier - the option we'd originally requested - our pilot told us that the consolation trip we were doing up to the top of Sutherland Falls was, in his opinion, the better flight.  


Needless to say, the views were spectacular, and it was also fascinating to watch the machine being flown.  We were subjected to one very hard clmbing turn where my brain really struggled to understand quite what was going on - no doubt the point of the manoeuvre!

After flying up the top section of Sutherland Falls, we landed for 10 minutes or so at Lake Quill, from which the falls drain.  Then, it was back into the 'copter for the short trip back to the airfield.  

Lake Quill in the background, with Sutherland Falls below it

From the airport, we headed slowly down to the cruise boat terminal, via the foreshore walk again, and the Information Centre cafe.  Ash had booked us all on an overnight cruise aboard the Milford Mariner, and after stashing our bikes in their back office, we boarded (wearing most of our luggage!) and set sail.  

The format of the cruise was great - a "half cruise" of the fiord, before anchoring at Harrison Cove for the night.  Once at anchor, we were presented with an option of kayaking, a blat in one of two "tenders", or neither!  I'd left my board shorts and my riding gear with my bike, but FOMO prevailed, and I risked getting my evening-wear damp and joined the better prepared (and more keen) women.  It was more fun than I expected, and as always, better to regret something you did, than something you didn't!

Returning to the Mariner - which even has a special hole in the hull to streamline the kayak loading

After kayaking was a hefty buffet dinner, a good sleep, and breakfast fit for hungry cyclists about to ride back to Te Anau.  Once we'd finished our early breakfast, the engines were fired up, and we briefly popped out to the Tasman Sea, being treated to a few Fiordland Crested Penguins ashore on the way out, and dolphins on the way back (swimming, naturally).  Animals aside, there were wonderful cliffs, waterfalls, and forest in abundance.  Great success!!



Sunday - Milford to Te Anau Downs

The beauty of leaving our cycling clothing onshore, was that by the time we'd got suited up to ride, the drivers on the boat had all returned to their cars and driven off, giving us the road pretty much to ourselves.  

Before we got stuck into the ride proper, I stopped by the airfield control tower.  I'd happened to mention to our pilot the previous day that my uncle Colin's best mate had been an air traffic controller at Milford.  I was somewhat stunned to learn that about 40 years on, Perry was still doing it!  Unfortunately, Saturday and Sunday were his days off, so I was sad to be unable to say gidday, despite dreading having to admit that I haven't been in touch with Col for years.  


We knew the climb ahead was significant, but it turned out to be easily dispatched, well rested and fed as we were.  Having so recently ridden it in the opposite direction, it was not completely unfamiliar, though it is often difficult to anticipate what a fast descent will feel like when ridden uphill.


Unlike the other side, the tunnel was in view for a wee while before we reached it, by virtue of the switchbacks below it. You can't easily make out the tunnel itself, as the western portal is shrouded by an avalanche shelter, but the shelter sticks out like the proverbial.  


We had a longer wait at the traffic control point, albeit with a countdown, courtesy of NZTA.


With about 30 seconds left on the clock, we were given the green light, and got to the shelter just as a queue of cars emerged from the tunnel.  Our "guardian angel" on the loudspeaker was giving them a stern telling off as they passed - it seems that they'd ignored requests to wait and entered the tunnel under their own steam.  Tsk tsk!


True to form, it was much easier to observe the tunnel itself while climbing its 10% gradient.  

Lined, just inside the entrance.  Photo: Ashley Peters

I was fascinated that my GPS didn't seem to be bleating that it had lost satellite coverage, and on the contrary, it seemed to know exactly where we were (well, apart from the adjective being used).

Not quite, Garmin, but close!

Wholly sealed, but not entirely lined, the tunnel had regular signage indicating progress.  There was a fair bit of water in it, and around the midway mark was a shroud whose role seemed to be diverting water from the ceiling down into the gutters.  

Unlined, 1000m still to ride!

In the opposite direction, we'd had the tunnel to ourselves, but given our relatively low speed, it wasn't that surprising that oncoming cars were let through.  That said, bikes are wonderfully narrow, and it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that the cars had been warned of our presence.  Despite how long it might have actually been, even 1.2km at 10% goes fast when it is along such a fascinating stretch of road (the Wikipedia page is well worth a read).  

What goes up, must come down, and upon emerging from Homer Tunnel, we were treated to a very enjoyable gravity-assisted recovery.  I stopped to fill my bottles at the tried and true stream we'd drank from two days earlier, before using my superior mass to good effect and passing Sarah and Ash before we bottomed out at the Lower Hollyford Road turnoff.


I'd earlier gauged interest in checking out the dead-end, and between times had slightly cooled on the idea myself.  After initially ignoring the turnoff, I got told I was silly, and turned back with Sarah in tow!

Sarah and Ash about to cross the Falls Creek tributary

The road turned to gravel about a minute from the intersection.  The surface was really good, though in one place was wet, and we got a bit covered in lime spray, which was annoying.  We passed through Gunn's Camp, but deferred a stop until the return trip.  

A few kilometres short of the road's end, and the start of the Hollyford (tramping) Track, we came to a closure.  Judging by the many vehicles parked up, the track was still accessible on foot, but we chose not to proceed beyond the gate.  


Prior to reaching Gunn's Camp, about half way back along the 13km section of road, we were treated to sweet native bush, occasional fat kererū, and altogether very pleasant riding despite that we were now travelling upstream.


When we reached Gunn's Camp, it was a little unclear what had happened.  It was pretty obvious a landslide had come through, but when the road had been cleared, rubble had been piled up rather than removed, so it was a slightly confusing scene.  

While we were having a bit of a look around, we were accosted by a road-worker, who we engaged in conversation.  His disdain for our ignorance was clear as he explained the tragic events surrounding the closure of the camp, but in many ways, it was a fair tone to take.   He seemed to warm to us slightly as we listened to his history lesson, but frustration and anger at the events he was describing remained apparent.  In any case, the storm the locals endured back in February 2020 looks to have been a harrowing experience, and with the pandemic sweeping in not long after, it is no wonder that the community is feeling a bit neglected and overwhelmed.  If the stories he told about theft and vandalism at this site were true, his bitterness seemed well placed, but it was still annoying to be tarred with the same brush as the ratbags, and we seemed on a hiding to nothing - judged for having the ability to come in and put a bit of money into the local economy, rather than thanked for it (as had been the attitudes of the various operators in the sound).  

An old marine buoy, disguised as an "H-Bomb".  In better days, it read: "Property of the USA Government.  Deactivated by the New Zealand Prime Minister"

As we rode away, it took me a little while to come to terms with the conversation, but in the end, it was easy to empathise with the fellow whose community had been given the rough end of the stick, both by mother nature and their fellow man.

Before too long, we were back at SH94 and had knocked out the climb to The Divide.  Although we knew Ash would be waaaaay up the road by now, we pulled off at the far end of Lake Gunn, as I wanted to quickly check out the outlet.   

The first loop we rode was great fun - nicely manicured singletrack through beech forest - but a second track wasn't maintained for the types of bikes we were on.  It came with a just reward though, in the form of two musicians, who'd set up a recording studio of sorts, and were playing sweet, sweet music.  We stopped to listen for a bit, and I couldn't resist giving them $20 (the smallest currency I had!).  Ironically, we didn't hang around for the end of their second tune, given that the local sand-flies had become aware of our presence.    

Not what you expect to find when you're riding in the bush!

It was strange trying to play memories of Friday's ride backwards to work out what came next.  Strangely, I had absolutely no recollection of the accommodation at Knobs Flat, but when we passed the Deer Flat campsite moments later, knew that the Mirror Lakes were imminent.  The big question on my mind was whether or not the coffee guy would be there!!

HUZZAH!  His flag was flying, and not only was he there, but so too was Ash.  Fortunately, the buskers hadn't got my last twenty, so an order went in, and before it was delivered, we'd lathered ourselves with insect repellant.  It was surprisingly oily, which was frustrating in its own right, but made worse when I spilt a little bit of oil from our tuna-lunch sachet, and then couldn't work out which oil I should be wiping off, and which I should be rubbing in.

Before leaving, Sarah and I did a quick pass of the lakes, only to find that between a bit of breeze and a duck paddling around, the effect that we'd witnessed a couple of days earlier had ben completely ruined.  

Unfortunately for us, not only did that annoying breeze hang around, it intensified, and was in our faces for the rest of the ride.  While I did a good job pushing into it up front, Sarah and Ash did a good job in the back, and between us we made acceptable progress to the unmolested car at Te Anau Downs.  


Neither Sarah nor I had any appetite to continue, and were glad to be able to put our bikes on the car and change out of our riding kit!

What with Steven back in Wanaka, we'd suggested to Ash that she have dinner with us in Queenstown, before continuing home, a plan she endorsed.  En route to Queenstown, when not distracted by yet another sign to the Round the Mountains cycleway, I booked a room at the Sherwood.  After chowing down a rather large pizza at Sal's in Frankton, Ash dropped us there and we began the series of farewell hugs.



Monday - fun day

Our flight back to Wellington wasn't until 4pm, so a decent ride was definitely possible.  My first suggestion was Skippers Canyon, but Ash hadn't thought we would have enough time to do it, so after breakfast, instead we headed towards Glenorchy.  In theory, we had plenty of time to get there and back (about 100km return from Queenstown, with six hours to play with).   

Gravel path around Queenstown Gardens

The first few "off-road" paths we took were great - slightly slower than being on the road, but fast travel nonetheless.  That all changed on the Sunshine Bay track, and between that and the Seven Mile Track that took us unexpectedly into a mountain bike park, we started to haemorrhage both time and energy.  Sarah was in no mood to rush, and I was in no mood to worry about being late.

Sunshine Bay

I should have known better than to assume a lake-side road would be flat, and as we neared the dog-leg in Lake Wakatipu, it was clear getting to Glenorchy and back would be unduly stressful.  I had a bit of a look at my Garmin map, and we checked out a potential loop past Moke Lake.  One access track seemed to be someone's driveway, and another was walkers-only, so we continued towards Glenorchy for a while longer.  At Bennett's Bluff, a crew were working on a parking area, and after checking out an old track to a lookout, we decided this would be a perfect place to turn around.

Looking towards Glenorchy from Bennett's Bluff

The relatively early call gave us an opportunity to ride a few of the side-tracks we'd skipped after the mountainbike park.  Without the time pressure, the views across the lake and our more immediate surroundings were even sweeter.

Sarah on the jetty at Bob's Cove

An old stone ruin

We grabbed lunch on the Queenstown waterfront before riding back to the Sherwood.  My plan was to collect a couple of small bags with a change of clothes each, and ride to the airport, before getting changed and going back to pick up the bike bags in a cab.  Sarah didn't think much of my route to the motel - nor did I, to be fair - it was shockingly steep, but at least came with cracking views up the lake!


While I was getting our backpacks out, I happened to engage a woman standing nearby in conversation.  In response to a grumble about what a hassle it is to travel with bikes (while of course noting how wonderful it is to ride them!), she said she was about to drive to the airport, and offered to ferry our bike bags!!!  That offer kindly accepted, our arrival at the Air New Zealand lounge was half an hour earlier than it otherwise would have been.  While the buffet was closed due to a COVID level increase, at least our flight wasn't canned, as it might have been had we been going to Auckland.  


* * *

It is always lovely to see Ashley, and while we'd missed also seeing Steven, we were all still able to enjoy the (long) weekend's activities.  

I've been privileged to spend some pretty incredible days on the bike in places that are just off-the-scale - Taroko Gorge in Taiwan (Day 6, here) would probably sit at the top of the list; Las Cuevas to Los Andes (switchback doping on Day 3, here) was almost as incredible and a close second; any day in the Pyrenees or Alps in France from the 2013 trip; New Caledonia had some crackers, from which it would be hard to pick a favourite; The Road to Hana on Maui, was good enough to make number two on Sarah's all-time list (she also picks Taroko Gorge at #1). 

Reflecting on the ride from Te Anau to Milford, I'd be hard pressed to nominate a more spectacular one- day ride in New Zealand, and I'd not hesistate to place it in amongst the fine company above.  SH94 was amazing, and unlike those international highlights, it was surprisingly benign.  For the distance, and remoteness, you get incredible bang for your buck.  The way the scenery unfolds, and its quality, give you constant reward for your effort.  The tunnel is a nice bonus for those of us who get a kick out of engineering projects (or simply are glad not to have to climb over the top of whatever it takes you through).  The happy ending - a descent where you barely have to turn the pedals if you don't want to - is a nice way to add the final 20km to the ledger.  And the destination itself is something to behold (provided you're suitably lathered up with insect repellant).  

I've no doubt my experience was improved by the clement weather and the mighty company, but even absent those, I imagine this road would deliver.  Even if a trip there is not possible before the hordes return, I'd highly recommend both the ride, and the format we adopted. 

Until such time as the borders reopen, I feel very lucky to live in a country which happens to have managed itself so well through this pandemic, granting us access to fantastic locations like Milford Sound.   I feel lucky to have such fantastic riding companions, and lucky to enjoy one of the best sight-seeing modes of transport there is.  And, I'm glad I'm taking advantage of all of that.


Foonote

NZTA publish State Highway Traffic Volumes online, and the data tables there make interesting reading.  Historically, traffic along SH94 peaks during the summer, at around 2500 vehicles per day, an order of magnitude less than typical Wellington commuter traffic, and less than half the traffic you might expect on the much tighter Remutaka Hill.  Short version:  even when it is busy, it ain't that busy...