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.
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.
|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
|A late lunch spot. Photo: Ashley Peters
|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
|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.
|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!
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.
|Returning to the Mariner - which even has a special hole in the hull to streamline the kayak loading
|Lined, just inside the entrance. Photo: Ashley Peters
|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.
|Sarah and Ash about to cross the Falls Creek tributary
|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"
|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!!
|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.
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.
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...