Having cycled the West coast route in order to bag all 3 alpine passes (Lewis, Arthur’s & Haast) I knew I’d miss the chance to go through McKenzie country on the East side of the Alps if I didn’t hire a car for the 3-4 days that I had to spare. A few days ahead of arriving in Queenstown I booked a very cheap economy HATCHBACK so as to just about fit my bike and I. On arrival in QT I received a call saying my little car was not available and I had been upgraded to a Nissan Tiida (upgraded my arse!). I refused the car on the basis it is not a hatchback (as well as being the south islander’s worst enemy tourism car – little chugging mite that it is) and was instead given a Toyota camper van (the other tourist rental clogging the island’s roads) for the same price! Feeling slightly guilty re my carbon footprint, I set off for the North in the chucking down rain.
First stop, Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel. Being the rowing geek that I am, Twizel had been on my radar as one of the 2 lakes to hold the nationals in NZ. I hopped out of the car at the starting pontoons for a quick selfie with the vibrant blue lake and its lane markers, then went for my fourth coffee of the day locally to warm up again.
Onwards to Mount Cook! Even in the downpour Lake Pukaki was stunning. The drive takes you along its western side and the mountain range with Mt Cook the highest summit, sit just beyond its north shore. Now obviously I couldn’t see any of this, but had it on good authority that the next day would be sunny and clear. And boy was it!! Well until I had completed the Hooker Valley Walk and came to that fantastical moment of seeing Mt Cook reflected in Hooker glacial lake….that’s when the cloud passed perfectly in front of the mountains once again. FFS. Driven by the need for a pee and also with the hope that my next walk to the Tasman Glacier view point would bring better mountain sightings, I took on a trail run the entire way back across the valley. Chinese tourists in there 10 strong groups made for tough obstacles, but the other European walkers all hugged the sides of the track to let me “fly” past. Near the start of this track is a memorial stone sculpture for those lost on the mountains mostly to avalanche. The plaques are a somber and heartfelt reminder of the perils of mountain exploration. Tears escaped me (camouflaged by my sweat) reading the tributes and on many the quote “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die”.
As the clouds cleared I set off for Lake Tekapo with the hope of star gazing in this famous region with laws against light pollution and free of any flight path. I was in luck, the clouds stayed away and at 10.30pm I started my lesson in astrology. Our guide for the evening Matt, got us acquainted immediately with the Southern Cross and how to find polar south. I learnt about light years, the brightest, oldest, furthest stars etc. The Milky Way showed off in splendour and hand on heart I can say this was the most beautiful night’s sky I’ve seen. From the comfort of our floating noodles in the hot springs, Matt told Maori myths of the world’s beginnings as we watched Jupiter and then the moon rise. Well worth the late night and dark drive out to my campsite ready for my second night “camping” in the back of the van with Tommy Tomac my trusty steed.
Returning to Queenstown via state highway 8, then 6 brought with it another high. This is likely the most breathtaking drive you can do, which explains the high NZ head on collision rate. It takes in the blue glacier lakes, the snow capped mountains of the mid to southern Alps, then the Lindis Pass with its dryer rolling hills and winding road. On to the Kawarau Gorge surrounded my imposing craggy drops to the pristine blue roaring river and past the famous swing bridge bungee jump (no I didn’t).
After a rather late night with the Germans, the last day with my camper was spent in Glenorchy, Lord of the Rings country. Without enough time (or energy) to tackle a few km of the Routeburn Track, I was still satisfied with the beautiful drive and made it back to the rental garage with time to knock out 40km along Lake Wakatipu to Kingston for the night. I fought sleep the whole way and was rewarding with fish and chips and an early night in my freezing tent. Every item of clothing donned I shivered my way through a hefty 10 hour sleep.
As I head south from here I find myself trying to extend the ride. It would take just one more day to make it to Bluff, but no, I’m going a longer way around via Te Anau to take in the Fiordland National Park and frankly to extend what has turned out to be another ride of a lifetime. How do you top this place? How can I extend my cycling adventure/s?