The South Island of New Zealand was made for bicycle touring. There are few places in the world where, in relatively short distances, it’s possible to move from alpine passes to beaches glittering with surf, from rainforest to tussock plains, and ultimately to glacial lakes and fjords.
The country’s mild climate, relatively quiet roads, and rapidly expanding off-road cycle network makes bicycle touring the South Island accessible to anyone, from beginners to hardened mountain bike tourers. Below are four suggested itineraries for seeing this picturesque island, ranging from 1-2 days to 8-10 days.
Route: Westport to Haast.
Distance: 420 kilometres.
Length: 8-10 days.
Expect verdant landscapes, foothills rich in native rainforest, wild beaches bordering the Tasman Sea, a view out to Mount Cook National Park on clear days, and fewer tourists than anywhere else on the South Island. While the terrain is undulating, the hills are rarely long or steep. Bring those waterproofs: the west coast holds the title as the wettest area of New Zealand. The route follows paved roads unless taking either of the detours suggested below.
Detour 1: The West Coast Wilderness Trail runs between Greymouth and Ross, near Hokitika. Its off-road route takes around four days to complete and is considered an easy trail.
Detour 2: The Old Ghost Road cycle trail begins close to Westport and finishes at the Mokihinui River, to the north. This 85-kilometre mountain biking and hiking track follows an old gold miner’s road and is recommended only for competent and fit mountain bikers. It takes about six days to complete.
Route: Haast to Queenstown via the Crown Range.
Distance: 206 kilometres.
Length: 4-5 days.
Expect windblown alpine passes, blue glacial rivers, mountain lakes and views that will have riders reaching for a camera every five minutes. The passes can be long and steep and the descents screaming, so a good level of fitness is required. Expect some mountain weather, but rainfall is low in the summer months. This route is completely paved, unless the two extensions suggested below are followed.
Extension 1: From Queenstown, the 180-kilometre Around the Mountains Cycle Trail is a circuit around Taka Rā Haka Conservation Park (Eyre Mountains). The trail takes about four days to complete and finishes in Kingston, just 40 kilometres from Queenstown.
Extension 2: Clyde, a town an hour’s drive from Queenstown, is the starting point of the 150-kilometre Otago Central Rail Trail. This easy, off-road route takes about four days to complete and ends in Middlemarch, a short train ride away from Dunedin.
Route: Ship Cove, Malborough to Hanmer Springs.
Distance: 290 kilometres.
Length: 7-10 days.
The first 70-kilometre section of this ride, from Ship Cove to Picton, is on the off-road Queen Charlotte Track, which traverses the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. The second 100-kilometre section, from Picton to St Arnaud, is on Highway 63, which winds through farmland and grassy plains along the Wairau River. The final 120-kilometre section, from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs, uses the Rainbow Trail — a true wilderness cycle route with runs through the Kaikoura Mountain Range.
The route features plenty of climbs, particularly in the final third. This tour is relatively remote, so it is essential to carry enough food for a couple of days and enough for water for at least a day of cycling. Recommended for more experienced bike tourers.
Extension: The 64-kilometre St James Cycle Trail extends the Rainbow Trail out to the west. Only for confident, fit mountain bikers, it heads even deeper into the mountain wilderness, and adds about a day to the Rainbow Trail.
Route: Mount Cook Village to Twizel.
Distance: 80 kilometres.
Length: 1-2 days.
Beginning below the snowy heights of Mount Cook National Park, the world-famous ‘Alps 2 Ocean’ route descends through the foothills of the Southern Alps, winding past the River Tasman, then runs along the shores of glorious Lake Pukaki. The route is a mixture of on-road and off-road, but has few steep or long climbs. This shorter version of the trail is highly recommended for anyone trying out bike touring first the first time. Bring waterproofs and check the weather forecast for strong wind warnings.
Extension: The original ‘Alps 2 Ocean’ cycle route continues southeast for another 200 kilometres towards Oamaru on the Pacific Coast.
The best weather in the South Island is in the summer and early autumn, from January to late April. Summer will see the better weather, but autumn has the bonus of fall colours and the first snows on the mountains. Expect rain at any time, though, especially in the mountains and on the west coast.
There are so many possible itineraries for the South Island, which vary in terrain, distance and difficulty, that there are many touring routes for people with reasonable fitness. That said, it is important for each rider to ride to their ability and to take into account the potential fitness of all the riders in the group.
Camping is the easiest and cheapest accommodation option considering the wide-open spaces of much of the South Island. Excellent Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites exist throughout New Zealand. These only provide basic facilities, but allow campers to stay in some truly isolated and scenic locations. Additionally, there are plenty of commercial campsites that generally provide more extensive facilities. Apps such Rankers Camping NZ are invaluable for finding quality tent camping throughout New Zealand. In larger towns there is the option of staying in backpacker hostels or motels.
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