Pack the puncture repair kit and a spare pair of lycra shorts, for little can beat the exhilaration of pedalling across New Zealand. Words: ANDREW MARSHALL.
It’s magnificent cycling country,” declared 62-year-old Andy Bremner when I met him inside the Adventure Cycles shop in Auckland. Tanned, fit and sporting a mile-wide grin, Andy was completing his third season pedalling New Zealand and had so far clocked up 3000km. “There’s nothing I like better than to pack up each morning, load the panniers on the racks, look over the handlebars and head off down that open road,” he said.
There can be no better way to experience New Zealand, and certainly no better speed, than by bicycle. My plan was to cycle from the North Island to the glaciers in the South Island, but when I got down to marking out my route, the line on my map zigzagged all over the place in an attempt to take in just some of the abundant points of interest.
It was a grey drizzly Auckland morning when I caught the ferry to the Coromandel Peninsula, a densely forested coastal strip across the Firth of Thames. The boat had barely pulled up alongside the dock before I was off, legs pumping, the salt air fresh in my lungs.
In the coming days I turned inland to the Rotorua region, world famous for its geysers, hot springs, mud pools and shimmering lakes. I spent endless days in the saddle skirting the very heart of the North Island, along the shores of beautiful Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake and on to Tongariro National Park. With its collection of mighty and still active volcanoes, Tongariro is one of the country’s most spectacular parks.
There was something surreal and otherworldly about climbing warily around the crater rim of a still-active volcano. Couple this with a fantasy landscape of volcanic dykes, swirling clouds of steam and turquoise lakes cradled in the folds of a grey desert, and what you have is the 17km Tongariro Crossing – one of the best ‘day walks’ in the country and a definite cycle-tour highlight.
The crossing from North Island to South Island is always a psychological milestone for any cyclist. Leaving the cultural and artistic hub of Wellington, I rode the ferry to the pretty town of Picton, situated at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound. The lack of traffic was immediately apparent as I pedalled off towards Nelson, revelling in magnificent coastal views over the Marlborough Sound.
For the weary cyclist like myself, the laid-back town of Nelson represents a cosmopolitan oasis; local pubs, great restaurants and the best chance to stock up on provisions for my three-day journey inland and across to Westport on the west coast.
Cycling New Zealand is certainly a challenge but despite its hilly nature, it attracts cyclists from all over the globe and stopping to chat is a common occurrence. You’ve got about five kms of climbing ahead of you, but it’s a great downhill after that,” is typical of the comments from fellow cyclists that you meet on the road.
From Westport to Greymouth, South Highway 6 hugs the west coast as tightly as a pair of lycra bike shorts. In a series of dramatic switchbacks the road snakes between the sea and the foothills of the rainforest-clad Paparoa Ranges, cloaked in tree ferns and stands of ancient beech, rata and rimu.
After weeks in the saddle sampling some of the world’s most glorious scenery, I was finally within reach of my goal – the Franz Josef Glacier situated in the World Heritage Westland National Park. Franz Josef and nearby Fox glacier are unique, for nowhere else on earth have they advanced so close to the sea at this latitude. Cycling is not the way to travel here – it’s much better to take a helicopter.
Flying over an immense river of ice that tumbled down a forested valley towards the sea, with superb panoramic views of the snow-capped mountains, we landed high up on top of the glacier between the ice-falls. Here, we were immersed in a surreal landscape of fluted towers, eroded pinnacles, tunnels, pools, crevasses and frozen waves.
Leaning on my ice axe I took a breather and savoured the view. Back down the glacier’s flank a group of hikers created a snaking ribbon of colour that contrasted vividly with the white of the ice, putting into perspective the immensity of this frozen world. It seemed the perfect moment to reflect on my expedition. Within a month I’d accomplished what I had set out to do; ride from north to south and reach the glaciers by pedal power – a journey of nearly 2000km.
Now all that was left was the bus, ferry and train back to Auckland. The thought left me feeling flat. Already I was yearning to be back in the saddle again, the wind in my face and the constant unlimited beauty of this green mountainous land filling my view. •”