Wow! It’s wild, it’s rugged, it’s remote, it’s spectacular – and in a day and a half it feels like you’ve been to another planet!
We witnessed the full force of typical south-west coast weather for our sojourn into the
Hollyford region but it just seemed to add to the mystique of this corner of New Zealand. And our local Hollyford guides didn’t bat an eyelid; ever the consumate hosts, entertaining us with stories, good humour, an encyclopedic knowledge of all things botanical, historical and geographical, and all the while keeping a subtle eye on our well-being.
So it started with a midday helicopter flight over Milford Sound. We took off into a headwind
with the sleet pelting against the glass bubble around us. Impressed with the pilot’s psychic ability to avoid every towering cliff around the Sound while visibility was zero and thunder cracked overhead, we suddenly forgot the practicalities as the clouds parted and a view stretching beyond the horizon unfolded below us. A carpet of untouched, unspoilt rainforest draped across mountains while the sea smashed against a rugged, rocky coastline. There is no sign of human habitation although we were to learn that several pioneering families temporarily braved this inhospitable land in days gone by.
A brilliant rainbow greeted us on landing at secluded Martin’s Bay, as if deliberately orchestrated to have us believing we’d found the pot of gold. We enjoyed a picnic lunch that
appeared out of nowhere and was set up in a thoughtfully designed tent to protect us from the elements. The afternoon was spent exploring the forest, the estuary and the coast on foot. The high water mark, some six feet above our heads, from a massive flood several years earlier reminded us once again of the power of nature and how privileged we were to be visiting this place. Out on the rocky coast, a close encounter with some New Zealand Fur Seals was a special moment. Add to that the incredible bonus of watching rare Fiordland Crested Penguins snuggling together in a sheltered corner (there is a narrow Nov/early Dec window in their seasonal schedule when they visit these shores) and we are convinced we have indeed found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Martins Bay Lodge is our cosy home for the evening, after the wild west coast weather closes in
again and chases us indoors. Discretely located, with hot showers, comfy sofas around an open fire and delicious gourmet meals prepared onsite by our hosts this is the perfect indulgence. Enjoying a glass of wine while the rain beats on the roof, we have exclusive use of the lodge. There is no evidence of human habitation beyond our cosy cocoon and once again we feel privileged to have access to this remote corner of the universe.
In the morning the river in front of the lodge is mirror-like with a light fog hovering magically a few metres above the surface. Bird calls have already heralded the dawn, even though the sun hasn’t made a full appearance. We’ve enjoyed more fantastic food for breakfast and are skimming along the river in a jet boat to the confluence of the Pyke and Hollyford Rivers. Our guides cheerily tell us that rainforest is so-called for a reason (ie. it’s wet) as we step off the boat to begin walking on the Hollyford Track. We meander along the track of easy gradient, enjoying the brilliant lushness and vibrancy of the colours that the rain has emphasised throughout the forest. The smell of dampness is pungent yet refreshing. Waterfalls spill over crevices in rock walls or
plummet from high cliff tops, colourful fungi pop out of the mulch beside the trail and many different fern varieties beg for our attention. Our own thoughts during the 18km walk are meaningfully interspersed with interesting facts about the birds and plants we are passing. A picnic lunch along the way keeps our appetites satisfied, and before we know it we find ourselves at the Hollyford Road End where our vehicle meets us. It is a strange sensation emerging from the wilderness, back to cars, roads and other people. It’s like emerging from another world that you can’t explain; like trying to describe a dream to someone .. and we’ve only been immersed for a day and a half.
The winter solstice isn’t really the best time to ride an unknown track like the Heaphy, but the stars aligned, the southerly snow dump held off enough and there were no excuses to hide behind. Christchurch to Browns Hut over in Golden Bay is pretty much a full days drive while at the same time Val, Bruce and Mel, drove to the Karamea end of the track and started the 17 kms running for that day into Heaphy hut on the west coast.
The shortest day means the longest night and a late start. Especially when the start is an 800m gradual grind to the pass far above. Luckily the gradient is gradual and the track occasionally rocky and hard. Things improved higher up and once at the shelter, the last 5 kms seemed so much easier. By lunchtime we were all at the flash new Lewis Hut with stunning views starting to open up.
The passage of time kept us moving and the downhill began, a twisting, sometimes rocky descent to a point overlooking Gouland Downs – a huge sloping plateau of vastness and views and emptiness. Just what we had come for. The Goulands Downs hut came and went and then a bit of climb, two troublesome swing bridges, and suddenly the smoke from Saxton Hut was in sight – meaning Val and Bruce were already in house! So much for the speed of two wheels.
The trail continued for a great 1.5 hours, finishing with a flurry on dusk, slightly ahead of the exciting downhill. The hut is big, warm, cosy and such a delight – with views out to the waves breaking on the coast. Warm food, a stoked up fire, and cosy beds meant a long nights sleep.
8.15am away and the start of the downhill, built up to be Very Very steep, lots of mud and technical riding. 2 hours later, our grins said it all – yes some mud, and yes I did face plant – but nothing compared to the beautiful downhill that went on and on and …. By now we were back at sea level and the coastal ride began.
Out to the river mouth and another beautiful hut. The technical 17 kms of coastal riding weren’t as I remembered walking them in the past and certainly a lot more technical than anticipated, but finally we were climbing over the final bluff and descending to the waiting friendly van. From here it’s a short drive down to Karamea and a relaxing overnight at The Last Resort. Christchurch was a day’s drive away and made easier by the rapidly developing plans for the Old Ghost Road – next on the agenda pre season.
The Heaphy is a multi-day tramping track walkers usually do with two nights en route.
The 70 km track has been opened on a trial basis by Doc for the past 3 seasons
( over winter ) with a final decision to be made on the future.
Doc continue to do great work in difficult conditions to improve the trail for all users.
There are shuttle services connecting the two ends – which are 480kms apart by road.
The track is graded 3-4 for MTBing which is a fair grade. Almost 100% is rideable but wet sections are best walked to avoid further damage.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.