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New Zealand: Ocean to Alps

From the South Island’s east coast town of Oamaru, through the Southern Alpine ranges over four days to Queenstown.

The previous few months had been a series of setbacks: a failed summit attempt in Australia, cramps that forced me to pull out of adventures, and a series of laughable mechanical failures. These had me curled up in a foetal position, wishing I had taken up reading or watching Netflix as a hobby.

Yet here I was, too committed to say no, agreeing to a trip with a few friends I hadn't met in person who had just completed a 3,100km bikepacking trip. I was in trouble.

Luckily, the plan for our ride in New Zealand was fairly simple in writing: ride from the South Island’s east coast town of Oamaru, through the Southern Alpine ranges over four days to Queenstown. Each day crossing high alpine passes on roads first created for Otago’s gold rush in the 1800s.

Words: Nathan Hennesy, Photos: Jeremy Hooper

Day 0: A ceremonial beginning

Although not 'officially' part of our route to Queenstown, the plan was to arrive in Christchurch, drive a few hours to Lake Ohau, and climb the nearby ski fields. It was somewhat of a ceremonial start, akin to the last stage of the Tour de France with champagne and a slow procession into the centre of Paris—except ours was nothing like that.

The plan was for 18 km, 9 km up and 9 km down. A quick Google search en route identified Ohau Ski Fields as 'one of the most dangerous climbs' in New Zealand—perfect!

This was underscored when we arrived in the fading afternoon light at a closed gate, with a large sign warning 'Road closed, use at your own risk'. Perhaps too hastily, we decided to get prepared and start climbing.

What followed were truly some of the most surreal moments one could have on a bike. Normally bustling with thousands of skiers in winter, the area was deserted except for the four of us. The views over Lake Ohau were boundless, easing the concern of the ever-increasing cliff edge. A few videos sent to friends over a couple of beers back at our accommodation were met with disbelief at the views and landscapes. Truly otherworldly.

Day 1: A Shakespeare Play

Day one began in the quaint East Coast town of Oamaru, with our destination 177 km away in the tiny town of Ophir, population 50. The next nine hours unfolded like a Shakespearean play, segmented into several acts.

The journey started with some of the finest single trails imaginable, weaving through farms into our first fuel stop, where toasties, lollycakes, and coffee were savoured. The only damper on our mood was the constant layer of disease ridden cow manure covering our bidons as we rode.

Midday to early afternoon passed somewhat uneventfully, marked by a river crossing puncture, several hike-a-bike sections, a minor bonk, and a brief detour around a trailside bull, reluctant to let us pass and a soft front brake threatening to derail the trip—nothing too unusual, just part of the adventure.

The last 40 or so kilometres were on the famous Otago Rail Trail. Known for its popularity among rich retirees on e-bikes (Johnny hasn’t fact-checked this one) the trail turned into a death march featuring dead-straight roads that stretched endlessly ahead, compounded by relentless headwinds and crosswinds, at times pushing us off our bikes into the bushes.

While Shakespeare's plays usually have a tragic ending - think Romeo and Juliet- our arrival into Ophir wasn’t tragic but rather a desperate plea for food. We found ourselves banging on the recently closed front door of the local convenience store, rather sadly begging the owner to let us in.

Not only did we manage to triple their weekly sales in one shop but we were given a bag full of pies, and ice cream on the house. A tragic play turned into a beautiful love story.

Day 2: Farmgates & Rivers

Day two on was the biggest day on paper, only 160km but with over 3000m of climbing, it was going to be a solid day out. We hit our first climb just on sunrise and were treated to an unbelievable ascent filled with cows and sheep scattered across the trail as we climbed. The only thing slowing our progress was a constant flow of farm gates and river crossings.

The days main challenge would arrive around midday where we climbed Nevis Road, the highest public road in New Zealand, an hour and a half ascent with a number of profanities sworn when we realised our gear ranges weren’t big enough for the steep grades, leaving a couple of us to walk a few steep sections.

A quick refuel and photo at the peak saw us then descend rapidly into rugged high country farming land and through the valley flats at sunset into our accommodation for the night, where we shared packet fettuccine alfredo and a bag of snakes for desert, beautiful!

Day 3: SOS

Temperatures near zero and a light sprinkling of rain met us on our final day. A relatively easy push into Queenstown, 160km but far less climbing than the first two days. Needing to make the ferry by 5:30 we left early, rolling out at 6am. First hour, nothing to report.

No coffee found but spirits remained high until the weather decided to severely turn on us. Torrential downpour and winds had us reaching for as many layers as we could physically wear.

A quick decision was made to push on in the hope of seeking shelter. Over the next hour, the fond memories of yesterday's sunset were quickly forgotten and instead had me close to pressing SOS on the Garmin Inreach. Feeling cold like we had never felt before, the notion of changing gears or squeezing a water bottle were near impossible as our whole body went numb with pain. What felt like hours, had us eventually seeking in a cafe.

In a state of involuntarily shaking, slurring our coffee orders and rapid heart rates we desperately stripped off layers in the middle of the cafe. (Five River Cafe - we are sorry). As we sat for what felt like hours, barely any words were spoken, yet each one of us realised it was a situation that could’ve gotten really dangerous, fast.

Once the storm subsided and we built up enough encouragement to leave our warmer quarters, we added a sixth layer, a down jacket and rolled onto Queenstown. The final hours into Walters Peak was a mix of telling each other we would never complain about being hot ever again and constantly shouting that it looked like a Lord of the Rings scene as we went around each corner. How something can be so quickly forgotten when the thought of a finish line is in sight.

The last 5km into Walters Peak was a ceremonial procession, reflecting on the last few days, deciding on where to eat and who was shouting the first round of beers.

A trip amongst friends. Beauty amongst adversity.