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.
|One of the weirder features of the trail, were regular "planets"
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.
|Reaching for a bidon on the rail trail. Photo: Brendan McGrath
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!!
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.
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!
|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.
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.
|Helmet done up to keep my hat from flying off! Photo: Brendan McGrath
|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.
|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)
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!
|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.
|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.
|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 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.
|Christies Gully Road from the air, the following morning
|Photo: Brendan McGrath
* * *
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.