New Zealand: one of the last major landmasses to be settled by humans due to its remoteness. The Māori, whose Polynesian ancestors first settled the country in the 13th century, named it Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud”. Today, around five million people live in New Zealand – not a whole lot, compared to the UK’s 66 million at a similar size. Our route of around 3,600 kilometres across both main islands – a distance-cycled to size-of-country ratio only surpassed by our abodes in the microstates of Singapore and Brunei – took us around the foothills of snow-capped mountains, rugged coastline, picturesque fiords, lush rainforests and volcanic plateaux.
14th November 2019 – 20th January 2020
“We’ve cycled toured in England and we couldn’t believe how good the drivers were!”, one of our Warmshowers hosts told us. If you’ve never cycled in the UK, this statement might not mean much to you, but to us, it encapsulated how we felt about a large proportion of drivers in New Zealand – if, by comparison, the drivers are courteous to cyclists in the UK, things must be pretty bad where you’re from. Especially on the South Island, the few roads there are are mostly quite narrow and don’t have much of a, if any, hard shoulder. The official New Zealand road code asks drivers to allow at least 1.5 metres between themselves and cyclists when overtaking – a requirement not even the transport agency seems to expect drivers to adhere to, judging by road signs with the words “SHARE THE ROAD” written underneath the pictograms of a cyclist being overtaken by a car, the clearance between the cyclist and the car roughly equal to the width of the cyclist’s shoulders. You start having imaginary conversations in your head with drivers overtaking dangerously closely and confronting them with their recklessness; their justification would probably be that there was no room for them to move any further into the middle due to oncoming traffic. Oddly enough, when there’s a nonhuman obstacle in the road, such as a fallen tree, or when approaching one of Aotearoa’s many single-lane bridges, drivers seem to be perfectly capable to slow down and, if necessary, stop behind the obstacle until there is enough space to pass. But when a human being’s safety is on the line, it appears that ain’t nobody got time for that. Even more baffling was being closely overtaken without the presence of any oncoming traffic, which also happened regularly.
But of these woes we didn’t yet know when we landed in Christchurch, full of anticipation for this mythical country at the end of the world, which would be the furthest away from home we’d ever been, about which we’d heard so much praise and whose beauty we had seen in photos and films. We were delighted to find a free bicycle assembly station at the airport and liberated our bikes from the boxes they had inhabited since Bali. After crossing Australia’s Outback and then riding along the coast on a tandem, getting back onto our combined four wheels felt like learning to ride a bike again for the first time. We wobbled our way into town and to our first Kiwi Warmshowers hosts Alice and Jeremy’s place. The assembly station at the airport, cycle lanes in Christchurch’s centre and the sheer number of bike shops that existed in this city that otherwise felt more like a large town were promising signs of a cycle-friendly country.
Soon after we left the South Island’s most populous city, the elements started battering us: we got drenched in torrential rain and barely managed to keep control of our bikes in gale-force head- and cross-winds, through some of which we had to get off and push our bikes despite being on flat ground. We became increasingly aware of our vulnerability when drivers didn’t seem to adjust and increase their default 20-30 centimetre overtaking clearance on one especially miserable, cold, wet and windy afternoon despite the (to us, at least) obvious possibility of a gust hurling us into the road. We were shivering and feeling borderline hypothermic, so we sought shelter at a remote homestead amidst fields and forests. We were unable to locate anyone to ask if we could warm up somewhere but discovered one of the buildings unlocked and mostly empty, so decided to enter. As we were having our lunch and waiting for the worst of the rain and wind to die down, we heard a noise coming from the wood burner in the building’s otherwise empty living room. We realised that a bird was trapped inside, apparently having fallen down the chimney. We made sure the bird wouldn’t meet the same fate as several other lifeless birds we discovered within the stove, carefully took it out and released it out of the room’s window. The bad weather had led to something positive after all.
Roughly in the centre of the South Island lies the Mackenzie Basin, a popular tourist destination due to its glacial lakes and views of the adjacent Southern Alps’ snow-capped mountains. The first attraction in the basin that we passed was Lake Tekapo, an iridescently turquoise glacial lake on whose shores myriads of pink and purple Lupins can be seen flowering for a few weeks in November and December every year – luckily for us, our visit coincided with this period. The views were absolutely stunning and the weather granted us some perfectly-timed blue skies and sunshine.
Another respect in which New Zealand had sounded great for cycling was a network of cycle routes and trails across both main islands. From Lake Tekapo, we joined the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, leading from the foot of Aotearoa’s highest mountain, Aoraki / Mount Cook, to the Pacific Ocean. We were planning on following part of the trail – in reverse – from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook Village, and then possibly follow it down all the way to the sea. The trail was – by design – devoid of much or any motorised traffic and the views were lovely, but we soon discovered that the Alps 2 Ocean, as well as most other cycle trails in New Zealand, are mainly suitable for mountain bikers, not so much for people on touring or road bikes. The surface of many sections was made up of relatively loose gravel, riding in which with our tyre widths was made even more difficult by strong winds. The existence of metal gates, erected to hinder motorbikes from entering the bike-and-pedestrian-only stretches led to further frustration as they also hindered us from being able to manoeuvre our fully-loaded bicycles through them. The planners of these structures apparently didn’t take into account that many cyclists using these trails will be carrying panniers: the gates were too narrow and too low.
Eventually, we approached the southern shores of Lake Pukaki, which is fed at its northern end by the braided Tasman River and is the largest of the three alpine lakes in the Mackenzie Basin. Its distinctive colour is caused by finely ground glacial rock particles known as glacial flour, and from its southern shore, a supposedly gorgeous view of Aoraki / Mount Cook can be savoured – supposedly, as the mountain was shrouded in cloud at the time of our visit. From the southern tip of the lake, the Alps 2 Ocean Trail carries on along its eastern shore. Fortunately, we realised in time that this option was only possible when following the trail the “right way around”, i.e. starting at Mount Cook Village, and would have included a helicopter ride across the Tasman River. We wondered how many cyclists had unsuspectingly followed the trail’s map in reverse for 60 kilometres along the lake, only to arrive at a dead-end, 2 kilometres from where they want to be but with no way to get across the Tasman River. Our only option was therefore to join the main road to Mount Cook Village.
When we did so the next morning, we were once again hit with intense headwinds, once again we had to push our bikes on the flat at times, and once again, the drivers were as relentless as the wind. Mount Cook being one of the South Island’s main tourist attractions – the national park welcomes around 250,000 visitors per year – there was, unsurprisingly, a high volume of traffic, much of which presumably made up of foreign drivers unfamiliar with New Zealand’s narrow roads and possibly with driving on the left side of the road. On the plus side, the clouds had lifted so during our ordeal we were at least pedalling towards the awesome sight of Aoraki.
Once we reached Mount Cook Village, 15 kilometres south of the mountain’s summit, we found a spot for our tent at the White Horse Hill camping ground, dropped off our luggage and embarked on the Hooker Valley Track, a popular, five-kilometre walking route. The track includes three swing bridges and ends at a lookout point at the shore of Hooker Lake which has been forming through the retreat of the Hooker Glacier over the past 50 years. The lookout point is also the closest any walking track comes to Aoraki, revealing unobstructed views of the mountain and Hooker Glacier in the valley below.
Back at the campsite, we ran into two cyclists we had met before at a supermarket in Tekapo: French Canadians Romain and Luc. As we were all heading in the same direction, we ended up cycling together for a few days from the next morning. The next morning, however, was a long, windy night away. We were grateful for the large shelter at the campsite in the evening, when we cooked our dinner and sat with Romain and Luc, watching the tents outside be blown around in the gales. One unfortunate couple had an inadequately cheap looking tent, and the outline of a woman was clearly visible from the outside as the poles yielded and the fabric of the tent clung to her body like a wet shower curtain. On the mountain, the wind was forecast to be up to 120 km/h, and we lay awake in the tent for most of the night, bracing its sides lest the poles would snap under the wind’s intense force. Fortunately, the poles didn’t snap – some of them are, however, a little bent now – and a bunch of tired-looking campers congregated in the shelter the next morning, mumbling “What a night”s. The couple with the cheap tent seemed to have either surrendered at some point before dawn broke or been blown down the valley as they or their tent were nowhere to be seen.
The wind was still strong and not forecast to decrease, so the possibility of the longer, tougher hike to nearby Mueller Hut with an ascent of over 1,000 metres was off the cards. We packed up and for once, the prospect of backtracking the same way we had come filled us with excitement, as the wind also hadn’t changed direction, so a howling tailwind accompanied us on our return journey from Mount Cook Village, along the western shore of Lake Pukaki. Despite being in their late fifties (and, as we tell ourselves, due to their lighter setups), Romain and Luc had no trouble keeping up with us. Luc had joined his friend to explore Aotearoa’s South Island by bicycle for several weeks, for Romain it was part of a longer trip which had already taken him around Australia and the North Island. We hadn’t cycled with anyone else since Malaysia and were delighted to have the two genial men as travel companions for a few days. We rode and camped together, conquered the Lindis Pass – 971 metres – and eventually parted ways, exchanging invitations to each others’ homes, when our routes diverged.
After staying with lovely Warmshowers hosts Kelly and Michael in their guest yurt next to their ‘tiny house’ near the town of Alexandra, and a quick spin on their tremendously fast jet ski, we carried on towards the Catlins, an area in the southeastern corner of the South Island. The weather was mainly grey and drizzly, but our efforts were rewarded with dramatic coastal views including the steep headland of Nugget Point, surrounded by rocky islets known as The Nuggets. We saw fur seals relaxing on the rocks and were lucky to spot some rare yellow-eyed penguins at nearby Roaring Bay. A little further along the coast, at Curio Bay, we visited a remarkable fossilised forest. The petrified trees were alive some 170 million years ago – before grasses and flowering plants had come into existence – and are believed to have been covered by a flood of loose volcanic material rich in silica. The silica eventually turned the trees into rock, preserving stumps, logs and leaves.
Curio Bay was the southernmost point we had ever been and would most likely be over the course of our whole journey. While we didn’t go to Slope Point, the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand, we did visit the southernmost town in mainland New Zealand, Bluff, on the next day, and took the obligatory touristy photos in front of the signpost at Stirling Point, indicating the distances to faraway cities around the world.
After having pedalled further and further away from the equator over most of the previous five months (bar the last couple of weeks in Australia from Melbourne to Sydney), we would now be getting closer to it again for the rest of our trip, by generally heading north for the remainder of our time in the southern hemisphere and south once we would arrive in the USA. The next main point of interest on our route was Queenstown, a scenic lakeside town surrounded by mountains. On our way there, we were still regularly getting buffeted by rain and headwind. At one point, we met another touring cyclist and had a brief chat by the side of the road, during which he bemoaned his struggles through the past few days’ weather. He was from Ireland. If you don’t know what the weather is like in Ireland, watch this 7-second video.
We stayed with many amazing hosts and camped on other nights, either stealth-camping or at official, ideally free campsites. Finding spots of the latter category was a little more difficult than what we had become accustomed to in Australia, where one can camp for free at pretty much any rest area that doesn’t indicate otherwise. New Zealand has a fair number of free campsites, but the vast majority of them only allow overnight stays for self-contained vehicles, i.e. those that have a toilet and tanks to hold the waste inside. From what locals told us, there used to be far fewer restrictions with regards to freedom camping in New Zealand, but increasing numbers of tourists led to popular spots being overcrowded and inundated with human waste and rubbish. While we found it understandable that laws had been put in place to ban freedom camping at rest areas without toilets, it was somewhat frustrating that even many spots with toilet facilities would only allow self-contained vehicles to stay overnight.
We did some sightseeing and a short hike in Queenstown, which is known for its sports and adventure opportunities such as hiking (called tramping in New Zealand), mountain biking, bungy jumping, and snow sports in winter. We also did a day-trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most spectacular natural attractions. We had considered cycling to the famous fiord, but this would have entailed riding along a busy, narrow, steep road for 120 kilometres over the course of which we would be subjected to over 1,300 metres of uphill and over 1,500 metres of downhill, and either cycling back the same way (i.e. this time it would be 1,500 metres of uphill) or returning on an expensive coach that’s not guaranteed to accept bicycles. The prospect of this, in combination with the fact that there would be nowhere cheap, let alone free, to stay in Milford Sound, the weather forecast still looking pretty atrocious, and our realisation that the one-way coach journey would have been more expensive than booking a coach-and-cruise package from and to Queenstown, led us to choose the non-masochistic option. The coach was going at a speed of roughly one cycling day per hour (we were partly going back the way we had already cycled so about twice an hour we would point out to each other one of the previous days’ camping or lunch spots), the bus driver entertaining us with fun facts and puns about cows’ fondness of going to the moo-vies. If our decision not to cycle hadn’t been validated by the rain and at one point hail drumming on the windows, the Homer Tunnel certainly would’ve done it: a 1.2 kilometre-long, dimly-lit, bumpy-surfaced tunnel with an average gradient of 10%. The only downside to being on the coach was that, unlike on a bike, you can’t just pull over whenever and wherever you want to take in the views and take photos, so until our arrival in Milford Sound, we were left to watch the magnificent scenery of Fiordland National Park roll past behind a sheet of glass like a film you can’t pause. Once at our destination, we boarded the catamaran with which we had booked our cruise and sailed around the fiord for two hours of marvelling at towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls, seals and dolphins. It was so windy that we had to hold on for dear life when going on deck, but we didn’t mind – it wasn’t like we had to pedal the boat forward.
After spending another night at our Warmshowers hosts Helen and Ian’s place near Queenstown, we continued northwards the next morning. We stopped to watch a few people jump off nearby Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, the world’s first commercial bungy jumping site, then made our way towards Wanaka via the steep and winding but pleasantly quiet Crown Range Road. On the sweat-inducing uphill, we were sprinkled with a refreshing drizzle, which however changed into a heavy downpour just before reaching the top of the pass, making us quite cold on the downhill. We were glad we had another Warmshowers host lined up near Wanaka and received a warm and warming welcome from Liz and her family. Our plan had been to carry on the next day, towards and then along the west coast, but we found out that several sections of Highway 6 along the coast – not just one of the roads in the area, but the only road – had been severely damaged through slips and flooding caused by the heavy rainfall. We followed the Transport Agency’s updates but by the next day, it looked unlikely that one particularly badly damaged stretch would be repaired and reopened anytime soon, possibly not for weeks. At least we weren’t on the North Island, where a volcano had just erupted and killed nineteen people.
Our only option to get to the northern part of the South Island was now to go back the way we’d come – all the way back to Christchurch. As at least five days’ worth of backtracking didn’t sound overly appealing, we decided to do something we hadn’t yet done on our entire trip: we hired a car. After booking the rental, we found out that both east coast roads connecting the southern to the northern part of the island were now also closed, so as it stood, we were completely cut off. It did however seem realistic that at least one of those two roads would have reopened by the time we would get there.
So the next day – a beautiful, sunny day with a tailwind – we rode back to Queenstown (we didn’t go back over the Crown Range though), took a nice cycle path for the last few kilometres which surprisingly didn’t have any metal gates that we didn’t fit through, but which, perhaps unsurprisingly, being called the Twin Rivers Trail, did have some flooding that had us wade through knee-deep waters, stayed with yet another Warmshowers couple and picked up the car from the airport the morning after. Then, we fast-backwarded through the first week of our route through New Zealand, before we got to the Catlins: the bridge where we said goodbye to Romain and Luc, Lindis Pass, Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo, and again the game of “We camped there!” and “We had lunch there!”. One of the east coast roads was indeed open and we dropped the car off in Christchurch without incident. As would learn at some point, the west coast highway was only re-opened about two weeks later which, looking at the Transport Agency’s gallery of the damage, is still quite impressive.
We were back where we had started, but our bad luck with the weather had given us the opportunity to cycle the scenic Arthur’s Pass, which we would have otherwise not been able to fit into our route. So this time, we headed northwest to cross the Southern Alps and still get to the west coast, north of the road closures. The road leading over Arthur’s Pass was hard work, but in a good way – it made for some of the most enjoyable riding we’d had on the South Island. It wasn’t overly busy, it was steep in parts but under the right circumstances pushing yourself up a hill can be a lot of fun, the weather was good and the backdrop of mountains, meadows and limestone boulders phenomenal.
On the way to the coast, we followed part of a cycle track known as the West Coast Wilderness Trail, leading through rainforest and wetlands, on firm gravel and again without any annoying gates – another pleasant experience. We also had some delightful wildlife encounters, such as the cheeky and inquisitive flightless weka bird, and some of the more irritating and bitey persuasion (although Tim also got bitten by a weka but that was arguably his fault for stretching out his finger towards it to see what it would do), namely the reason we had been carrying around a huge can of heavy-duty insect repellant for weeks: the sandflies we had been gravely warned about. Luckily, these turned out to be a much more localised problem than we had feared, and it looks like we will be carrying two-thirds of the huge can of heavy-duty insect repellant around with us for the foreseeable future.
We joined Highway 6 and followed it along the coast and back inland, spent a night at a free campsite atop a hill with splendid views of the valley below and rode parts of another cycle trail along a disused railway line which included 1,400 metre-long Spooners Tunnel, New Zealand’s longest decommissioned rail tunnel. Our last Warmshowers hosts on the South Island were Symon and Julie: Symon’s workshop was the stuff dreams are made of (we had our chains cleaned ultrasonically!) and he was a great help in planning our route for the North Island, and with Christmas fast approaching, Julie spoilt us with home-baked delicacies.
After one more night of camping near the seaside town of Picton, it was time to cross the Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands, by ferry. After about three hours, we approached Wellington, the southernmost capital city in the world, where we would spend the next three days exploring and relaxing. On our way to our Warmshowers host Robin’s place, we struggled with the hilly terrain, but the city felt a lot flatter the next day when we went for an extended cycle around without our panniers. Even though it was a shame that we had missed the opportunity to visit Tim’s sister while she’d lived in Wellington – she, her partner and their baby moved back to the UK last year – we at least had the pleasure to meet up with one of her good friends Nina. Another Warmshowers host had invited us to spend Christmas with him and his family, but due to some miscommunication or changes of plan (we’re not sure which), this fell through so we ended up camping at a forest park north of Wellington on Christmas Eve and cycling on Christmas Day. As all other restaurants and shops were closed, we had our Christmas lunch at Pizza Hut.
During our first week on the North Island, we dealt with some of the same issues we had faced on the South Island: cycle trails designed for bikes without panniers and with much wider tyres than the ones we were running, narrow, busy roads with inconsiderate drivers, strong winds. After Palmerston North, however, things started looking up and the final three weeks of our two-month stay made us almost forget how tough some of the earlier stretches had been. There were now more, less busy roads to choose from, main highways mostly had at least some form of shoulder, it hardly rained and we were even blessed with a fair number of tailwind days. We passed through Middle Earth-esque countryside of verdant rolling hills and stayed at some beautiful free campsites in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, after which we powered up a tough ascent onto the volcanic Central Plateau.
The plateau is home to Tongariro National Park, in which the three active volcanoes of multi-cratered Mount Tongariro, conical Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) and snow-capped Mount Ruapehu are located. On New Year’s Eve, we camped at a hostel and had a low-key celebration with other patrons, before embarking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next morning. The 20-kilometre walk is among the most popular day hikes in the country, and offers terrific views of the volcanic terrain and crater lakes coloured by the minerals dissolved in them. The six-hour hike wasn’t overly strenuous, although other people, who presumably haven’t been doing four to six hours of daily exercise for the past twenty months, seemed to struggle a bit more on some of the steeper bits. However, as we used completely different muscles than we normally do while cycling, the next few days were filled with quite a lot of moaning about how much our legs hurt.
Between Lake Taupo and Lake Rotorua, Aotearoa’s largest and second-largest lakes, respectively, we went for a swim at Kerosene Creek, a bathing spot where hot water from a subterranean spring flows into the cool waters of the creek, creating a bathtub-like temperature to relax in for a little while and soothe our sore muscles. The area is known for its geothermal activity; other nearby attractions include geysers and mud pools. Near the city of Rotorua, we cycled through Whakarewarewa Forest, the location of a remarkable stand of Californian Coast Redwoods. The sequoia trees, which can reach staggering heights of up to 115 metres, were planted in the early 20th century and turned out to grow faster than in their native homeland due to the area’s richer soil and more even rainfall distribution throughout the year. As we won’t get to see the giant redwoods in California, our next destination after New Zealand – after much deliberation, we had acquiesced that January/February wouldn’t be a good time of the year to visit Yosemite, that we weren’t overly bothered about cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles and that we would therefore fly straight to LA – it was a welcome opportunity to walk and cycle among the wooden giants anyway, even if they might not be quite as big and tall as those in the States.
As with our last two flights from Bali to Australia and from Australia to New Zealand, we had budgeted too much time before our departure and realised that we would arrive in Auckland way too early. So for the last 500 kilometres before Auckland, we tried to take our time as much as possible and had as many rest days as we could without feeling like we were overstaying our welcome at any Warmshowers or Couchsurfing hosts’ places. We spent about a week in Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city – sightseeing, organising, spending time with our hosts and relaxing – at the end of which we boarded our fourth flight to the fourth and last continent of the trip.
Looking back at two months in Aotearoa, we sadly can’t call it a great country for cycle touring, at least not if you’re predominantly set up for on-road touring like ourselves. Not all drivers were terrible and put us in serious danger, not even the majority. But the frequency of near misses and the percentage of inconsiderate drivers were among the highest we’ve experienced over the course of 31 countries throughout Europe, Asia and Oceania. If you want to visit, we would recommend renting or buying a campervan – ideally a self-contained one with which you would be able to stay at lots of free campsites at which we weren’t allowed to stay – drive around, go tramping, rent or bring a mountain bike and ride one or several of the many off-road cycle trails. New Zealand is home to heaps of amazing natural wonders and they are well worth seeing, but its roads and drivers weren’t quite suited to our mode of transport. That being said, the carelessness of some drivers was offset by the generosity and kindness of the many people who opened their homes to us, most of whom we would have never met if we hadn’t been travelling by bicycle.
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Thanks to our hosts in New Zealand: Alice and Jeremy in Christchurch, Kelly and Michael in Alexandra, Alex and Anna in Invercargill, Helen and Ian in Arrowtown, Liz in Hawea Flat, Kim and Drew in Queenstown (not pictured), Dennis and Kathy in Christchurch, Julie and Symon in Richmond, Robin in Wellington, Jennifer and Michael in Palmerston North, Karen and Tony in Taupo, Natalie in Te Aroha, Janet and Peter (and Fred the dog) in Thames, Zoe in Auckland, Mathilde and Cyril in Auckland and Taro in Auckland.
- We cycled 3,600 km from Christchurch to Auckland (2,300 km on the South Island, 1,300 km on the North Island), making a total of 36,900 km for Tim since leaving England and 36,400 km for Linda. Between blog posts, you can check our current total distances on our Stats page which we update a bit more frequently.
- Our average distance on cycling days was 82 km (86 km on the South Island, 75 km on the North Island), compared to 84 km for the whole trip since Germany.
- Our average day-to-day spending was 6.66 € per person per day, compared to 6.37 € for the whole trip since Germany.
- We camped on 34 nights and stayed with 17 Warmshowers/Couchsurfing hosts for 33 nights. From Germany to Auckland: 268 nights camping/empty buildings/places of worship, 176 nights WS/CS/friends/family, 122 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay), 35 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work, 7 nights ferry/train/plane.
- Puncture score: Tim 2 – Linda 4. Total from Germany: Tim 15 – Linda 11.
- Bike and equipment problems: Tim’s carbon fork got damaged during transport as we discovered after landing and unboxing our bikes in Christchurch, so he replaced it with a Surly steel fork. He also changed one of his chainrings, chain, front gear cable and had his headset bearings replaced. Linda changed her chain and after getting an increasing number of punctures on the rear tyre, temporarily put the spare tyre on and eventually bought a new rear tyre. As her phone stopped recognising the SD card, she bought a new phone, which she promptly dropped on the road a couple of days later, breaking the screen into a hundred pieces. On Christmas Day. Yay me.