Delight at each twist and turn

Sailors Cutting provides welcome shade.
Sailors Cutting provides welcome shade.
Eleanor Hughes sees the sights along the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail from Lake Ohau to Otematata.

When we rode around Lake Ohau yesterday, whitecaps whipped across its surface. This morning, it lies placidly and turquoise.

Day three of my Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail adventure has dawned with blue skies and it is already warm as we set off down Lake Ohau Lodge’s pine tree-lined driveway just after 9am.

The Tarnbrae Track rises slowly, giving views over the lake and Ben Ohau Range, tinged green, brown and yellow with a splatter of bright, white snow in its high valleys. After the first hour or so the rough shingle track narrows, twists and begins to climb. Thigh muscles burn, teeth grit, sweat pours. It’s a tortuous 5km to Tarnbrae Highpoint, marked with a sign that announces the elevation is 900m. Spread out below is the still world of a parched fawn-coloured basin and distant rolling, green hills.

Sailors Cutting provides welcome shade.
Sailors Cutting provides welcome shade.
My riding companions finally appear over the hill. They’ve taken breaks on the way up, stopping to fill drink bottles from the many dribbling, cool streams that cross the track. Me, I’d just wanted to get on to the 7km downhill stretch to Quailburn Woolshed.

The track, though, is covered in largish rocks. Riding over them judders and jars every bone, muscle and slack bit of flesh. It’s a workout for the arms and hands as I grip tight to my handlebars and brake constantly.

The corrugated iron woolshed, built in the 1920s, looks like a good storm would take it out and it’s surprising to discover that it was in use until 1996. Information boards there provide the history of the area. It turns out that the woolshed was once part of Benmore Run, a place so named after two men, both claiming rights to the land, raced horses over a distance of one mile to determine who should own the property. Ronald McMurdo, who was born in Benmore, Scotland, won.

View of the valley from Tarnbrae Track.
View of the valley from Tarnbrae Track.
Having taken three hours to ride 20km, it’s now lunchtime. Resting in the shade of a tree, we eat and then refill our drink bottles from a cool stream.

The next leg is downhill or along the flat on Quailburn Rd, but thick loose gravel has me almost coming off and fishtailing numerous times. I try keeping to the tyre tracks from cars as the gravel there is compact. Shade is longed for, but the vast open spaces only offer purple and lilac lupins, straw-coloured fields and far-off scarred mountains.

Cycling on to the smooth surface of tarseal is pure pleasure and we whizz along until the Henburn Rd intersection. A side trip to the Clay Cliffs is going to add another 14km ... we dither, but there’s plenty of time so we turn right towards the cliffs.

Adding 14km to the trip was worth it to see the stunning Clay Cliffs.
Adding 14km to the trip was worth it to see the stunning Clay Cliffs.
The road turns to gravel again and, as cars pass, I’m enveloped in clouds of dust, which sticks to the sweat on my arms, legs and face.

An entrance fee is paid at the honesty box near the entrance to the private road which leads to the yellow and orange cliffs. The cliffs, when they come into view,

jut up from the greenery. Their ravines and peaks resembling a jagged glacier. We lock our bikes to a pole where a few cars are parked and walk up the narrow path

between towering cliff walls. I walk through and into a wide open space encircled by spiky pillars. It’s stunning. Numerous crevices and cracks entice, but the path up is strewn with rocks and a short walk has me slipping and sliding. Not a good idea with a further five days of cycling ahead.

Lake Aviemore from the Wetlands Walkway.
Lake Aviemore from the Wetlands Walkway.
We battle a headwind back to Quailburn Rd, reacquainting ourselves with the taste of dust, then hit glorious tarseal again on the way to Omarama, where we can see several gliders flying high above.

Sadly, the Omarama Hot Tubs, close to the Top 10 Holiday Park where we’re staying, is booked solid, so instead I’m forced to lounge in the shade, watching campers arrive back after a day on the nearby lakes.

Thankfully, tomorrow is only a 24km ride so, with swimming gear packed into panniers, we decide to lazily hit the trail around 10am. The path, which runs parallel to State Highway 83, is fairly flat.

We reach Pumpkin Point on the shores of Lake Benmore and its mirror-like water tempts. Even though we’ve only ridden 10km, we change in a portable toilet and slowly immerse ourselves into the cool, clear water. Minuscule fish dart around our legs and we catch a few in our hands before releasing them.

The 1920s-built Quailburn Woolshed was  in use until 1996.
The 1920s-built Quailburn Woolshed was in use until 1996.
Drying in the sun, we chat to a Duntroon farmer taking the kids and grandkids water-skiing and ski-biscuiting. The offer of a water-ski comes up ... it has been a few years but it’s just like riding a bike: you never forget.

Back on the bike and riding along the shadeless lakeside, sweat trickles down my face and body. Sailors Cutting, 3km on, is picturesque with willow trees draped over the lake’s edge framing the jetty opposite. Beyond, caravans are tucked among trees.

From paradise to hell ... an uphill slog has me gritting my teeth. My thighs scream as trucks buffet me as they thunder past. At the crest, we stop in the roadside grass and drink our fill.

The breeze on the 6km downhill stretch into Otematata is bliss, although the speed wobbles are a little scary. Lake Aviemore sparkles like a jewel against the brown hills.

The view from Lake Ohau Lodge.
The view from Lake Ohau Lodge.
The air is furnace-like and heat shimmers above the empty black highway running through an almost deserted Otematata.

After an ice-cold cider at the Otematata Eatery, Bar and Lodging, we cross the road to Otematata Holiday Park and Lodge.

There are only three caravans and a camper van in the grounds beyond the historic lodge, which doesn’t look as if it has been redecorated, or maintained, since it was built in the mid-1960s. But don’t judge a book by its cover: our lodge flat is new and the covered swimming pool is gloriously cool.

As the day cools, we decide to visit the Wetlands Walkway and wander among native trees for an hour or so, enjoying the tranquil views over Lake Aviemore. It’s the perfect way to end the day before joining Otematata in its slumber.

Eleanor Hughes is a freelance writer.


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