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The brief was simple. Five days’ cycling downhill amidst dramatic South Island landscape. The opportunity to escape overly congested Auckland city was a no-brainer.
The 350km Alps to Ocean ride from Tekapo to Oamaru appeared to have everything New Zealand is famous for — mountains, lakes, rural countryside and warm southern hospitality.
As a child, I’d spent hours roving the streets of my neighbourhood on a trusty single-gear Raleigh bike. The urge to keep cycling never waned and I needed little persuasion to explore the region further.
We were definitely not the lycra-clad clique that you might see racing through the burbs. Rather, we allowed a comfortable five days to complete the trail, averaging around 70km per day. It can easily be done in less time, but we didn’t want to miss a thing.
After landing at Christchurch airport we transferred to the Cycle Journeys depot in Lake Tekapo Village to deposit luggage and assemble our pre-ordered bikes and panniers. Our luggage was to be transferred every day to various accommodations. Being free of heavy luggage on your bike makes a huge difference to the overall enjoyment of the trail.
The initial 54km cycle from Tekapo to Twizel started off the main highway in Tekapo township. A gravel road running alongside the canal indicated the beginning of the A2O trail.
It’s advisable to stock up on snacks and beverages before you leave Twizel, as there was virtually nowhere to stop along the way.
We were soon pedalling next to the canal and the aqua-blue waters of Lake Pukaki. A bunch of shags and gulls were perched above the waterways waiting hopefully for a glint of silver. In the distance, a carpet of bronzed tussock swayed against the snow-topped mountain peaks.
We followed a single trail that opened to a clearing. Evidently, we’re weren’t the only ones to appreciate the South Island’s unique beauty, and a bunch of camper vans were neatly parked up on the lakefront, equipped with bikes, washing lines, barbecues and cocktail chairs.
The High Country Salmon farm just out of town sold fresh or smoked fish. For a nanosecond I entertained the thought of it, but there was no room to accommodate fresh salmon in my pannier.
Food becomes a priority when you burn energy on the bike, so we were pleased to find Shawtys, a local restaurant that served unexpectedly delicious meals.
After a quick coffee stop at Poppies early the next morning, we were transported with bags and bikes to Mount Cook Village. You could easily spend several days exploring the various hiking and cycling trails here.
But we were on a mission to speed cycle to the Mt Cook airfield, before the inclement weather arrived. After a quick briefing, our bikes were loaded on to a crate and we boarded the chopper for the mini flight across the Tasman River. The pilot expertly navigated us around Tasman Point and on our approach I spotted a group of fallow deer grazing with fawns. Our bikes landed squarely on the river stones like carefully packaged gifts.
Mountain weather can be unpredictable and we were greeted by a bleak southerly wind that whipped through my leggings. The increasingly strong wind didn’t help as we pushed and pedalled through the deeply rutted track, now flooded in various parts. The loose river stones were a challenge, given our tyres were largely designed for track.
Station Cottage at Braemar was a very welcome sight, with stunning views that stretch across the Ben Ohau Range and Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook. The evening was spent curled up on the sofas with a well-deserved Central Otago pinot. I slept like a baby, until my alarm rattled to indicate a new day.
Back on the bike, we headed off in glorious weather. The flat 42km ride past the hydro-power station and alongside Lake Pukaki was a breeze.
We were met by the very engaging host Mel, who drove us to Lake Ohau Quarters.
Nestled on a grassy knoll on Lake Ohau Station, (an 8000-hectare merino and Angus beef farm), the stunning high country lodge was our base for the next two nights. With its spacious living areas and large wood-fired outdoor spa, it was total luxury.
You can self-cater or arrange to have meals organised in advance. We opted for the latter and were duly impressed.
Healthy lunches were packed and ready to collect the following day.
It was by far everyone’s favourite. We happily cycled 38km in full sunshine, absorbed in the beauty of Lake Ohau.
It was tempting to stop and have a swim, but after dipping my toe in, it signalled freezing glacial waters. There are numerous spots for a picnic and we sat in the shade of trees on the pebbled shoreline. We cycled on to the iconic Lake Ohau Lodge to enjoy sunset cocktails.
With a 42km cycle to Omarama and an additional 24km to Otematata, Mel was conscious we had a monster day ahead.
The first hour was a solid grind uphill the entire way. Reward finally came once we reached the top and the adrenaline kicked in for the fast and muddy downhill. The landscape was fairly barren on this stretch and the strong headwinds didn’t help. We stopped briefly for lunch at the historic Woolshed. I would’ve traded my entire lunch for an e-bike at this point.
Cycling around Lake Benmore was a treat, before tackling the steepest climb in what I later named "Pig Hill", on the final stretch to Otematata.
Our next day cycling to Kurow was perfect. It confirmed what I’d always suspected: you should really only cycle in sunshine.
Beginning with a small but steep hill, we were compensated with spectacular views overlooking the Benmore dam. The trail follows a quiet stretch around Lake Aviemore and Lake Waitaki, before crossing the dam to a peaceful, off-road track to Kurow.
This is definitely a town to explore. The main street is lined with a number of art galleries, the Ostler tasting room and an attractive 100-year-old renovated lodge, known as the Waitaki Braids, that offers local produce, good coffee and wine in a charming outdoor setting.
It was just a short cycle to Westmere Woolshed, a farm stay that I’d discovered during a search for lavender farms in the area.
The farmer treated us to a traditional barbecued lamb roast and vegetables. Sensing we hadn’t entirely finished the dinner, the pigs grunted approval when I spoon-fed them the leftovers.
Our last day of the trail was an 82km cycle from Kurow to Duntroon, to finally finish in Oamaru. Much of the trail is on the road until you reach flat farmland through the lower Waitaki Valley.
After 28km we discovered the small, historic town of Duntroon, known for St Martin’s Church, which was crafted in 1901 from Oamaru stone. The main street features an original jail with brightly painted stocks on the kerbside. The coffee truck with baked cookies was a big hit, before we mounted the bikes for the last leg.
With just 55km of the trail left, we pushed the pace in order to reach Oamaru while it was still light, for celebratory drinks.
We detoured briefly from the the Vanished World Trail to walk across farmland and discover the unique landscape called the Elephant Rocks. The giant limestone boulders and preserved fossils give you the feeling there could be a moa quietly grazing nearby. We stopped for longer than planned to listen to a group of musicians playing guitar and singing ballads on top of a gigantic boulder. A perfect fit against the vast backdrop of rugged, barren countryside.
The final part of the trail was a mix of short but steep road stretches. It was clear we were close to town, as we passed the stunning public gardens and the impressive old Oamaru stone buildings came into view.
Following the trail signs down to the waterfront, we took an obligatory photograph beneath the A2O picture frame. We were done and dusted and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
As a first-timer to Oamaru, it made sense to familiarise myself with the town. Aside from the waterfront, the main hub has galleries, quirky vintage shops, cafes and the steampunk museum, housed in whitewashed stone buildings.
Coming from Auckland, where city architecture is largely all the same and none of it particularly impressive, I found Oamaru had a charming European village vibe.
Riverstone Kitchen, just north of Oamaru, was on my to-do list. We meandered around the property’s extensive organic gardens, harvested mainly to serve the restaurant. The view looks out in the direction of Dot Smith’s Riverstone Castle, a lifelong dream for the fiercely determined, if not quirky, North Otago dairy farmer.
In comparison to building a castle, the cycle trail seemed like an easy conquest.
If there was just one bit of advice I could offer anyone considering the Alps to Ocean trail, it would be this — just do it.