Cycling the South Island of New Zealand

Cycling the South Island of New Zealand. The plan was to ride for 14 days and over 800 kilometres through New Zealand’s South Island. I was feeling a little intimidated.

I AM FAR from an expert cyclist. I have a Giant hybrid that I use for commuting. But with two weeks until the Christmas holidays and no plans, my partner and I decided to go for it, (who needs training, right?) and finally make the trip down the West Coast that we’d always talked about.

We turned to Google and typed in our route. “6,800 metres of climbing!” I blurted out. We agreed to travel light, staying in cabins and motels to save lugging camping gear around. While explaining our plan to a friend, he referred to it as credit card touring; it was a bit more expensive, but the lighter weight riding felt priceless.

day1_6starnaud-2Day One and Two: Picton to St Arnaud, 131km
Our longest ride was planned for the first day. Why? I hear you asking. Our thinking was that we would be full of adrenaline, and once we had finished the 131 kilometres, the worst would be behind us! 

As would become a theme during the trip, about 20 kilometres in and we were ready for a café stop. We were feeling a little sheepish about stopping so soon, but the muffins at Heritage Bakery convinced us we’d made an excellent decision. The owners sent us offff with a “Best of luck”, adding that it was all uphill to St Arnaud. However, it was far easier than we expected as we gradually climbed 700 metres over the next 100 kilometres, most of the uphill coming in the final climb to Rainbow Ski Field. 

We had survived the first day and our first eight hours of riding. I started to believe it wouldn’t be as gruelling as I’d first thought.

Day Three: St Arnaud to Murchison, 59km
What does everyone want on Christmas Day? A ride of nearly 60 kilometres of course. I didn’t expect to be keen to get back on the bike. I expected my bottom to be sore. I expected my legs to be sore. Miraculously, they were not. To our surprise the petrol station was open, so we took the opportunity to stock up on Whittaker’s Peanut Slabs and cruised downhill to Murchison in two hours.


Day Four: Murchison to Reefton, 84km
Milk tankers are early risers too, but that’s about the only traffic we saw all morning. The low-hanging fog made for a chilly, yet atmospheric ride. At the 50-kilometre mark, we spotted a sign “New season whitebait fritters” at the Inangahua Junction Café. While on the West Coast, it would be rude not to stop, right? 

The heat was reflecting off the road, making for thirsty work and rapidly dwindling water supplies. We pulled into a farm to ask if we could refill. “Sure, no worries” a guy responded from his 4×4 truck window as he pulled away. Holding our bottles to the outdoor tap, we turned it and waited… nothing happened. Damn, the water must have been switched off. Feeling deflated, we kept riding in the baking heat until we saw a cottage where the owner refilled our bottles for us; a moment of appreciation for the kindness of people on the road. 

The sun continued to beat down as we cycled slowly through shade-less farmland. Looking for a distraction, we devised a game. We would yell out every kilometre of the remaining ten kilometres. But the game quickly became torturous as fatigue set in and we frustratingly watched metre after metre of slow progress on our Cateye (wireless cycle computer) as we crept our way towards Reefton.

Day Five and Six: Reefton to Hokitika, 118km
Fully laden with copious amounts of water – so as not to be caught short again – we were on the road as the sun rose, following the Grey River. I was looking forward to Greymouth, as they had a cinema and ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ was showing! The Southern Alps, the ocean and the early morning light made us feel much more energised than we usually feel pre 6am. The “Ho Ho Hokitika” sign welcomed us into town, and deciding we needed a little treat, we both booked a one-hour massage. It ended up being two hours of pleasure and pain – an extra hour gratis – as the masseuse very generously didn’t want to send us away until we were sorted.

Day Seven: Hokitika to Pukekura, 48km
Ross, in my opinion, is home to the best freshly baked apple turnovers in New Zealand. If you are passing through, make sure to stop at the Roddy Nugget Café to eat one, or two as it turned out for us. We shared one and swiftly returned to the counter to get a second. I attempted to take a third for the road, but unfortunately they had run out. 

Pukekura claims to be the smallest town on the West Coast with a population of five!If we hadn’t rebooked, we would most likely have kept riding, as the 48 kilometres from Hokitika turned out to be much easier than we had expected. But with nearly the whole day ahead of us, we set off for a walk along a nearby road. It was one of those moments where you know that if you’d been driving, you would never have thought this road was worth heading down. It turned out we had a kahikatea forest all to ourselves, spotting kereru, fantails and tui

travel-inspired_cycling-the-west-coast-of-nz_southern-alpsDay Eight: Pukekura to Whataroa, 53km
The small township of Whataroa is home to New Zealand’s only nesting site for the kotuku (white heron). We took a boat ride into the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve and were treated to dozens of kotuku and spoonbill nesting on the bend of the river. It was a hive of activity, juveniles squawking for food while the parents flew in and out like a city during rush hour.

Day Nine: Whataroa to Fox Glacier, 54km
As we rode into Franz Josef en route to Fox, tour operators were rounding up people for glacier tours, yelling “Helihike tours” and “Full day hikes”. It was New Year’s Eve, and the activity level was ten-fold that of anywhere we’d been in the last few days. During breakfast, a waiter asked, “Which way are you heading?” I responded “Fox”. He replied “Good luck” and smiled. We left Franz Josef and quickly hit hills, all 800 metres of them. It became apparent why the waiter offered us luck, as we shifted down to our lowest gears.

Day Ten: Fox to Lake Paringa, 70km
Our Cateye stopped working as we were riding through Bruce Bay, just on the 50-kilometre point. We’d read that the Salmon Farm Café was 62 kilometres from Fox, so we tried to keep a running guesstimate of the 12 kilometres left until our destination. Riding for what felt like an eternity, we wondered whether the Salmon Farm had closed down, as we thought we had surely gone almost all the way to Lake Paringa. Eventually, just as we had given up hope, the Salmon Farm appeared, so I could finally order the flat white I had been dreaming about all morning.


Day 11: Lake Paringa to Haast, 50km
Knight’s Point Lookout – it’s one of those places that you have to stop at and gaze out at the ocean. We didn’t stay too long, though, as the West Coast’s deservedly infamous sandflies swiftly moved us on. We thought wed read that Knight’s Point was the highest point of the day, so after a short downhill, we were surprised to start climbing once again. After what felt like forever, we finally reached the real high point for the day. We gratefully coasted from there, riding through forest so dense on both sides of the highway that it absorbed any traffic sounds, making us feel totally alone rather than on a main highway.

Day 12 and 13: Haast to Makarora, 79km
I had to pinch myself… we had made it to Day 12. My bottom still wasn’t aching. And we were still, unexpectedly, full of energy. Passing through the Gates of Haast we began our ascent of Haast Pass. People beeped and gave us waves of encouragement. I began to count each rotation of the pedals. Just over an hour and 500 metres of climbing later, we hit the high point and felt an enormous sense of relief at having made it. Our second scheduled rest day was at Makarora. The scenery made it a worthwhile stop, as it overlooks the Makarora River and the ranges of Mount Aspiring National Park.

A short ride back down the highway and a one-and-half-kilometre stroll brought us to the aptly named Blue Pools. We stopped to watch people cannon ball into the strikingly crystal clear water while being cheered on by a growing number of spectators. Continuing to the Blue-Young Link Track, we walked through beech and tawhero forests and took a lunch break alongside the Makarora River before heading back.


Day 14: Makarora to Wanaka, 64km
We’d reached the final stretch. We cycled alongside the far end of Lake Wanaka toward The Neck; a small piece of land that divides Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. The turquoise water of Lake Hawea appeared and we followed the lake edge, making our way slowly over the endless undulations of the final 39 kilometres into Wanaka. 

As we got closer to the finish we caught up with another pair of cyclists who had connected their bikes with a bungee to give the rear rider a bit of a boost up the hills. That takes cycling as a couple to a whole new level! Wanaka. We’d made it. We headed to the lake shore and waded into the chilly water, reflecting on our adventure. I was stoked to have done it, proving to my doubting-self that it was achievable. I turned to my partner and said, “I would love to keep cycling for another 14 days.” She agreed.


Cycling the South Island was published in print, September 2016 by Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Volume 6. Thank you so much for publishing my story of Cycling the South Island.


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Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, freelance travel content creator living, working and supporting tourism in Timor Leste, South East Asia.

Adam Constanza

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