Self Guided Adventure on the A2O Cycle Trail

Val Henderson        By Valerie Henderson.

I’m pretty jolly lucky when a perk of the job is my partner Bruce and I have to go on a cycling holiday.  Before Adventure South plan to launch a new trip, Geoff sends us out to do a recce trip to iron out any kinks. So here we are on the Alps to Ocean checking out biking the trail independently and I’m also the guinea pig for our new electric bike. Bruce is using his trusty old mountain bike. I don’t regularly ride a bike so I’m quietly relieved that the e-bike needs a maiden voyage.

Val and Bruce starting the A2O trail
Val and Bruce starting the A2O Cycle Trail

I must confess I’ve had mixed feelings about an e-bike.  I feel like I’m cheating  but as we are doing this trip in 4 days if I am honest I simply wouldn’t be bike fit enough to enjoy  it. Bruce is a strong cyclist and we wouldn’t be compatible biking buddies either but the e-bike will make this a bit more of an even playing field, so we shouldn’t be divorced by the end of the trail.

Usually on a self guided Alps to Ocean trip during the cycling seasons between September and April, luggage would be transferred each day by a shuttle bus. We’re out of season and since I have a little Yamaha motor giving me a little assistance as I’m pedaling, I’m carrying our luggage on my bike.

The Alps to Ocean  (A2O) Cycle Trail

The trail starts at the Southern Alps and finishes at the small historic town of Oamaru on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.  This is currently New Zealands longest cycling trail. It’s a trail that really showcases New Zealand’s landscape beautifully.

The trail passes 6 lakes, through big sky country, and rural countryside. It’s grade 2 and 3 (intermediate) and  the trail is a mix of sealed road, dirt/grass, smooth and rough shingle. It’s definitely a step up from the Otago Rail Trail, it’s more undulating and requires a little more bike handling on some of the surfaces.

The trail can start at Tekapo or from Mt Cook.  Logistically Tekapo is a much easier option, there’s no helicopter required to cross the river and it can be difficult to get accommodation in Braemar. We decided to do the Alps to Ocean in 4 days:

Day 1) Tekapo –Ohau Lodge, 87km

Day 2) Ohau Lodge-Clay Cliffs-Omarama, 55km

Day 3) Omarama- Duntroon, 90km

Day 4) Duntroon-Oamaru, 55km

There are a variety of suggested itineraries from 4-7 days.  Adventure South will be offering 3 self guided options.

Here’s my account of our 4 day Alps to Ocean challenge:

Day 1:  Cycling Tekapo to Lake Ohau
87.8km,  5 hr 22 min cycling time

tekapo_ohau tekapo_ohau_elv After a warm breakfast at the local bakery and purchasing some lunch to eat later in the day we started our journey.  Tekapo is an alternate start to Mt Cook and doesn’t yet have signage so finding the start of the trail was a little tricky.  This would have been a little easier if we’d read the days trail description which clearly told us to head out of town and turn left at Tekapo Powerhouse Rd. I’d planned to ride in the lowest ‘economy’ setting on the bike as today was a long day and I was uncertain how long the battery would last.

Cycling beside Lake Pukaki. The rainbow followed us all day.

The trail took us beside the Tekapo Canal on a mix of gravel and sealed roads. There were some families fishing in the canals and the wind was starting to really blast us, nothing like a good head wind to blow out the cobwebs.

As we reached Lake Pukaki the trail became mildly undulating and the views were gorgeous across the turquoise coloured lake.  When we reached the head of the lake we stopped off at the Mt Cook Salmon shop and used the building to shelter us from the wind while we ate an early lunch. Views of Mt Cook were obscured by dark vicious looking clouds and the shoreline of the lake looked more like a beach with waves rolling in. We knew the afternoon was going to be a battle with the elements.

We continued on past more canals, the heavens opened up and the rain fell and the wind turned gale force, we were quickly introduced to an uncomfortable horizontal riding style.  At times my  speed dropped to 7km/h.  Geoff had warned me that it can get windy on the Lake Ohau stretch of the trail, I was getting a little worried if it was this bad what on earth were we in for.   We took shelter at the Ohau dam and had a bite to eat, the rain had stopped but it was still gusty.

I was chewing through my battery life and estimated we had about 20km to go to the lodge. It was a short ride from the dam to the weir and we were now skirting around Lake Ohau, the track narrowed and was lined with scrubby bush – this blocked out a lot of wind and finally the wind dropped to just a little breezy.  The trail was fun to ride; it would twist and turn and was a fast track, now this was more like it! The mountains were topped with snow and it looked very much like a postcard, except for the evil black clouds.

The last 10kms to the lodge are on sealed road, we were almost there, and then 5km out my bike battery died.  I was riding a dead weight, the battery on the bike is very heavy plus I was carrying our gear. Bruce was a gentleman and offered to swap bikes but I wasn’t going to let 5kms get me. Arriving at the Lodge was a relief; I must confess there may have been tears if it had been terribly much further.

Lake Ohau Lodge
Lake Ohau Lodge

The lodge was an oasis; we had a lovely hot shower and headed to the bar for a cold drink before dinner. The staff were so welcoming and it has a very homely feel. Louise one of the owners of the lodge joined us to eat the most delicious meal in front of the roaring fire.  After dinner I decided what better way to end the day then to sit outside in a hot spa in the fresh mountain air.

Day 2: Cycling Lake Ohau to Omarama
55km,  3 hr 27 min cycling time

ohau_omararma ohau_omararma_elv

Cycling through Ruataniwha Conservation Park
Cycling through Ruataniwha Conservation Park

Today’s ride became our favourite day on the trail.  Overnight it snowed on surrounding mountain tops so the air was crisp and the sky was blue with not a hint of wind. We bundled up in warm clothes and joined the trail at the entrance to the lodge.

The trail starts out through the Ruataniwha Conservation Park with beautiful views of the Benmore Range.  It was a gentle climb through forest with multiple bridged stream crossings.  The trail then narrowed and the shingle become rough and chunky and over the next 11km it climbs 300m on open hillside. The views along the way over the basin are breathtaking and you are well rewarded for your efforts.

The downhill from here is simply awesome. It’s long and fast.  There’s little need to pedal as we rode down at top speed on the gravel trail. As you near the valley floor the trail turns into a fabulous dirt trail surrounded by long grass.  It’s great fun and there’s a few streams to cycle through so be prepared to get your feet wet. This is one of those trails that once you’ve cycled it you could turn around and just do it again it was that enjoyable.

The fast down hill dirt trail

We then joined the sealed Quailburn Road and decided to take a side trip to the Clay Cliffs. This is a 15km return trip on a very rutted and pot holed gravel road- seriously my teeth were chattering. The Clay Cliffs were lovely but unfortunately the road in was just so unpleasant to cycle that we both agreed it was an avoidable low point in the ride.

Side trip to the Clay Cliffs
Side trip to the Clay Cliffs

It was then a short trip into Omarama.  This is the largest village we cycle through, with a number of restaurants to choose from and again a great kiwi bakery that even offers protein cream milk shakes. I had planned to visit the Omarama Hot Tubs for a treat when we arrived but yesterdays ride left me feeling tired so we put up our feet and relaxed for the afternoon.

Day 3: Cycling Omarama to Duntroon
90km,  4 hr 25 min cycling time

omarama_duntroon omarama_duntroon_elv

This morning we had a good breakfast at the Wrinkly Rams café and then headed out to seize the day.  It was a drizzling rain but nothing too unpleasant.  The trail out was an easy start and we made our way to Sailors Crossing.  This is a pretty location and a popular kiwi holiday spot beside Lake Benmore.

Sailors Cutting at Lake Benmore
Sailors Cutting at Lake Benmore

The morning challenge was the Otematata Saddle, a long gradual climb on sealed road- again it’s times like this the e-bike comes into its own.  I said farewell to Bruce, cranked up the power and headed up and waited at the top.  Bruce didn’t look terribly worse for wear and with rain still drizzling we headed straight into a glorious fast downhill taking us into Otematata. The cycle section from Otematata to Kurow is brilliant. It’s on quiet sealed roads and follows

Waitaki Dam
Waitaki Dam

Lake Benmore and Lake Aviemore and you cycle across both dams. Lake Benmore Hydro Dam in particular is quite grandeur.  The road is undulating and tree-lined, we enjoyed seeing the last of the Autumn leaves on the trees and in March/April this area would look like an oil painting. In summer this is a popular camping area for kiwi families and I can see why.

We cycled past the historic Waitaki Hydro Dam and stopped in Kurow for lunch before heading to Duntroon.  This 20km section is on straight long sealed roads so it’s efficient but not memorable.  A new trail that follows the willow trees along the Waitaki River will replace this section by summer.

When we arrived in Duntroon our host Jane from the Rua B+B took us on a town tour. It was great to get a locals insight into the area and to see some of the interesting fossil sights.

Day 4: Cycling Duntroon to Oamaru
55km,  3 hr 13 min cycling time

This is the hardest day- it’s politely called “undulating” terrain but seriously there’s lots of shortsharp climbs and great down hills, looking at the map it looks pretty easy but don’t be fooled it’s got a lot of little bites to it. I was very pleased to have the e-bike. I switched the bike into “high” power and raced up the hills and waited at the top for Bruce so we could race the downhill’s together.

Bruce cycling up the rolling countryside
Bruce cycling up the rolling countryside

Today’s ride passes through rural countryside, 1001 dairy cows and some pretty neat limestone outcrops.  I’m wary of cows and I got stuck on one side of a cattle-stop (a grate that stops cows crossing). I’d timed it just as the cows were making their way to the milking shed. I felt rather small on my bike, Bruce caught up laughed at me and boldly cycled through, promising they were harmless.  I cranked up the power to “high” once again and rode like the wind, I’d make a hopeless farmer.

Scary cows

The dairy farms in places are quite smelly and on one stretch of road there were little flies that were crashing into my sunglasses, they’re tasteless when swallowed but rather relentless.

Limestone in the countryside between Duntroon and Oamaru

The limestone outcrops along the way creates a fascinating landscape.  We had a quick roadside glimpse at Elephant Rocks but the weather looked like it was closing in so we decided to crack on. Nearby someone looked to be building a small castle made of limestone into the hillside, I later discovered this had been the beginnings of a movie set.

The trail into Oamaru village meanders through the impressive Botanical Gardens, past the Steam Punk Museum and through the historical quarter with its beautiful limestone buildings lining the pathway and then we raced to the Pacific Ocean. We’d done it woohoo!! My one regret- I should’ve dipped my toes in the sea!

The low points of the trip:

  • Running out of battery on the first day’s ride due to the gale force winds, the bike was really heavy to ride without pedal assistance.
  • I didn’t enjoy the side trip to the Clay Cliffs, the road is too rutted, it just wasn’t a good ride and the cliffs were nice but not memorable.
  • On the last day we cycled through a couple of short sections of dairy farming land that were smelly and small flies were unpleasant, caution- don’t breath through your mouth or you get an unwanted morning tea.

The high points:

  • Cycling around Lake Pukaki was stunning and really gave a wow factor to the start of the trip. The ride from the Ohau Weir to Ohau Lodge skirts around the edge of Lake Ohau and the trail gently rolls and twists. It’s fun and beautiful, the perfect end to the first days the ride.
  • Our day 2 ride from Lake Ohau Lodge, through the Ruataniwha Conservation Park to the top of the Tambrae track and then down to Quailburn road was my absolute favourite section of the entire trail. There were streams, fabulous mountain views and a real mix of terrain, seriously it is a ‘must do’.
  • Cycling around Lake Benmore. Up and over the hydro dam through to Aviemore Hydro Dam was charming, we had the last remains of the autumn colours and it was postcard pretty even in the rain.
  • The passing cars on the road sections were very considerate of cyclists, they gave a lot of space and we received a lot of waving support -I hope I didn’t look like I needed it!
  • We stayed in remote and rural locations at Ohau Lodge, Sierra Motels and Rua B+B and it’s very refreshing to have hosts that are so friendly and welcoming. Mike from Ohau Lodge was driving past Omarama and transferred our bag for us, and Louise joined us for a relaxed dinner beside the fire; Bruce master of the tv/sky remote controls managed to kill our tv at Seirra Motels and Cathy rescued the situation, and Jane from Rua B+B gave us a personal tour of Duntroon. It’s not often I remember names of motel/hotel hosts but they became a memorable part of our holiday experience.
  • The e-bike made this trip enjoyable for me. It’s not for everyone but it certainly removes barriers for people that may need a little assistance and makes cycling trails very accessible.

My verdict:

I loved this trip so much that my bike sitting in the garage at home will be getting a dust off and a service and I’m looking forward to riding- I’m a convert! The mixed terrain and the variety of scenery made this an amazing trip. I even had to buy an A2O tee shirt in Oamaru and I don’t do that sort of thing lightly.

Am I going to cycle this again when I graduate from an e-bike?  Yip and I can’t wait!
This trail exceeded my expectations and I recommend adding it to your bucket list.

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