Cyclist sets off to explore both trail and road on the South Island

In the foothills of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, roughly halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island, you might stumble across a little-known town called Twizel. Surrounded by the electric-blue lakes of Tekapo, Ohau and Benmore, the town was originally built to service the Waitaki Hydro Scheme in the late 1960s. These days, however, Twizel – population 1,100 – has its numbers swollen by adventurers of the two-wheeled persuasion. Cyclist pulled into this once ‘pie-stop’ town to take on the Alps2Ocean route and discover exactly what all the fuss is about.

Starting at the base of Mount Cook and meandering all the way to – you guessed it – the ocean at Oamaru, the Alps2Ocean route is a mix of unsealed paths and roadways over a 300km distance. The trail network was created as a way to experience some of the amazing scenery on offer around the area.

It’s suitable for a wide range of abilities; with its stage-like format you can enjoy anything from a single day’s ride all the way through to a six-day adventure.     

We had planned to ride a full two days on the trail, but given that it’s better suited to bikes with a tread (and we arrived with skinny-tyre road bikes) we instead eyed up a re-routed itinerary that started with a full day of eye-opening, jaw-dropping Alps2Ocean riding beneath snow-capped mountains and alongside Lake Pukaki and Ohau. Then, following a stop over at Lake Ohau Lodge, day two involved a crescendo of sorts up nearby Lindis Pass, New Zealand’s second highest point. Twizel resident and passionate Alps2Ocean advocate Jason Menard was on hand to help us track a few sections of the trail network, while our hosts at the lodge, Mike and Louise, provided us with all the motivation and directions we needed for Lindis.

While our regular-configuration road bikes were capable of handling the terrain of the Alps2Ocean trail (which is mainly graded gravel), we suggest hiring a bike more suitable for a smoother ride. Given that a group of
penny-farthing cyclists recently completed the entire route on their fleet of high wheelers, we could be accused of being soft, but each to their own. If armed with a mountain bike from a local hire firm, you should put aside about six days to fully enjoy the Alps2Ocean experience, but with only a day to play, our ‘ocean’ finish would have to be the water of Ohau, not the Pacific.

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Day one: Alps to ‘ocean’

It’s late morning when we arrive in Twizel, close enough to lunch, and so we meet Jason at Shawty’s for some of their renowned pizzas – not the standard pre-ride meal but Jason assures us this is the place to eat. We inhale pepperoni and fungi pizza before jumping aboard a Cycle Journeys shuttle to the start of our ride beside Lake Pukaki. Cycle Journeys is one of the partnered Alps2Ocean tour operators and offers both guided and self-guided tours along the route with bike hire and shuttle services also available.

Driving next to the lake is an experience in itself. It glows a fluorescent turquoise due to the glacial flour and silt that sits suspended in the water. This is our backdrop for the first few kilometres, so we know it’s going to be a good day. Marcus, our photographer, is all smiles.

The wind is crisp as we hop out of the shuttle shortly before Braemar Station – the official start of the section finishing in Twizel. This is on the eastern side of the lake and takes about 15 minutes to reach. We jump on our road bikes and, while the terrain is more or less flat, we’re kept in check by the twisting nature of the route. The trail is sealed, but with only 25mm-wide rubber we don’t push things too much.

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Each section of the 300km journey is given a trail surface rating and, for the most part, this particular ride is hard-packed or smooth shingle. There’s a recently serviced section      as we pass the dam wall and the option to hit the road is a little more appealing for those of us on road bikes. Jason continues along on the softer ground before we cross over for the next sector. It’s only a few hundred metres before it heads back onto the marked trail again and the surface is far better. A small downhill sends our adrenaline soaring and offers the chance to test our cyclo-cross skills, but it’s a little too smooth and packed to get into trouble.

Shortly after, we head across one of Jason’s favourite sections, Pukaki Flats, and it’s here that you start to really feel like you could be in the middle of nowhere. We’re less than an hour’s ride to Twizel and the only real sign
of civilisation is a few long-range power lines and a fence line. The only real shelter along this open plane is the toughened tussock grass and sprawling wilding conifer – which is in fact a weed, as Jason demonstrates when he
rips a few from the ground with disdain.

The bordering mountain range between Otago and Canterbury forms part of the distant background and is stunning on a clear day like today. Our leisurely pace combined with the cool air is enough to keep the jacket on most of the time, but the trail is tough enough to work up a sweat if you decide to give it a go.

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Across Pukaki and we’re soon back on the main road through Twizel. It’s a short ride to the other side of town where we make a left turn to follow the Ohau canals. Glen Lyon Road hugs the man-made stretch of water for a couple of kilometres towards the start of the next section of trail. The fast-flowing water houses an abundance of rainbow and brown trout primed for the catch and there’s a number of fishermen parked up trying their luck. If fishing isn’t your thing you can always pick up some salmon from one of the local farms – they’ll deliver fresh sashimi to your door and you won’t need to worry about a fishing licence either.

The start of the next sector is marked by a weir crossing, which floods from time to time. ‘We’ve got that covered,’ says Jason. ‘There’s an alternate route you can take when coming through town.’ There’s no chance of us needing to utilise Plan B today, though; up and over the steeple-like ramp and we’re onto the white gravel of Lake Ohau Track. From here it’s about 5km of easy riding along the lake before stepping back onto the main road to Lake Ohau Lodge.

As we make our way along, the grand Ben Ohau Mountain towers above and seems to be creating its own weather pattern not even a kilometre away from here. ‘There’s a storm coming,’ remarks Jason as he hurries us along. He’s not kidding. The sky is darkening by the minute. Lucky for us we don’t have far to travel. It’s less than 10km to the lodge after we turn onto Lake Ohau Road, which is flat, smooth and follows a number of enticing shorelines. If it wasn’t for the clouds rolling in and the overly invigorating temperature, we’d go for a dip.

Alas, it’s starting to sprinkle, and Tom and Terry – formerly of The Modern Pantry in London and now heading up Lake Ohau Lodge as head and sous chef respectively – are expecting us for dinner.

We make our way through Ohau Village and arrive at the lodge just as the rain starts to really get serious. Our hosts for the night, Mike and Louise Neilson, are inside feeding a hungry group of German travellers. We’re keen to join them in the cosy dining area so we bid goodnight to Jason and step inside in readiness for an amazing three-course feed: a soup starter with homemade bread, locally sourced sirloin and a crème brulee for dessert. A couple of hot toddies finally get us ready for bed before we do it all again tomorrow.

What we saw over just a few hours around the Twizel area was truly remarkable. From the glowing lakes of Tekapo, the plains of Pukaki, salmon-filled canals, lakeside trails, spectacular mountain ranges and great food, the riding around Twizel is more than just about turning the pedals. It may not have complied with our usual Big Ride brief but sometimes the rulebook needs to be thrown out if you want to experience something special. Twizel is still a humble little town, but if you’re looking to see New Zealand at a slower pace then consider jumping off the road and onto the trail.

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Day two: Lindis Pass

We wake to a perfectly clear morning with barely a hint of the previous night’s downpour. The sun is slowly creeping over the top of Ben Ohau as we sit in the dining area demolishing an assortment of cereals, poached fruits, yoghurt, juice and coffee. We grab our pre-packed lunch bags filled with freshly baked sandwiches, fruit and a sweet-smelling caramel slice (thanks Louise) and hit the road.

Our starting point, the tiny town of Tarras, is a little under 120km from Lake Ohau Lodge and should take about an hour and a half (it’d be a little less if we were staying in Twizel. )

The ride we’re tackling is just under 110km and takes in Lindis Pass from the western side. We’ve driven up and over after passing through Omarama so there’s no surprises on what to expect. The road is harsh, there’s minimal traffic, the air is crisp and the area is good enough for scenic flights to be a tourism must-do. Apparently the best way to arrive in Tarras is by helicopter.

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We set off along some fairly harsh sections of asphalt and while there isn’t anywhere to stop for a sugar or coffee fix, freshwater streams line most of the route and locals insist the water is good to drink.

The steady drag to the base of Lindis starts almost immediately as we roll north-east along State Highway 8. The false flat road passes a few lush green paddocks before getting out onto the open road and the triangle-shaped hills take over nearly as far as the eye can see. This part of the world is really all open but it does take a few kilometres before solid wood farming fences make way for more basic post and wire lines.

There’s little wind at all and if it wasn’t for the trickling of streams and numerous bird calls just metres away, it would be silent. The air is still but fresh and the temperature continues to drop, ever so slightly, as we make our way to Lindis. Cluden Hill Summit is the first warm-up at around 3km in length. It doesn’t gain much over those few kilometres but rather saves it for the final few hundred metres. Looking back you know it’s steep: the road sign image with a car on a 45-degree downward angle tells us so. There’s a short twisting descent that comes straight away and the lack of trees means you can see any oncoming cars.

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The early lumps keep us from getting cold but it’s also worth taking a lightweight wind-breaker jacket or vest in your back pocket. There’s a great descent on the way back and we can feel the lack of warmth whenever the sun goes behind the clouds. In addition it’s not uncommon for snowfall around the
Lindis area, so be prepared rather than sorry.

It’s about 40km to the base of the western side of Lindis and while that doesn’t seem very far, the road surface is best described as chunky with a couple of short climbs along the way to keep things interesting. The white asphalt fights back on the pedals anytime the road rises but as it’s essentially an uphill/downhill ride we don’t worry too much. Photo opportunities are also plentiful in these parts with the tussock grass rollers and ‘Teddy Bear hills’ (as Louise calls them) making for some fantastic backdrops. Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand without near-perfect triangle-shaped mountains towering above.

For what is basically a main road, Lindis Pass is far more scenic than expected and there’s enough room for the odd truck or car to overtake safely. The road cuts through a saddle that links Central Otago to the Mackenzie Basin wherein lies Twizel, Ohau and Omarama. From the base you’ll be steadily climbing for 11km, most of which is at a nice 4-5% grade. Tussock grass clearly favours its own kind with some hills sparse while others are almost suffocated for space. There’s a healthy kick in the final couple of kilometres where the gradient hits double digits but the view from the top is worth it. The road twists down through to the valley basin and is a great option if you’ve got the legs.

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The sweeping descent points us north-east and towards our night’s accommodation in Omarama, and while the idea of riding straight to the town’s freshwater hot tubs is enticing, our vehicle is back in Tarras. Instead we’re again blown away by the neon yellow hills that appear naked but for the tussock that covers them. Each depression, ridge and curve exposes the surrounding hills’ true shape and gives a good indicator of how tough the elements can be out here.

A quick YouTube search of  ‘Lindis’ and ‘snow’ shows you just what can be expected when the weather turns extreme. On this day however, it’s nothing more than threatening clouds that float above us as we make our way back to our starting point. As with most climbs, the descent off Lindis is dusted far too quickly as we hit another small climb. Our complaints of the heavy road surface are soon forgotten once we crest the top and start the steady downward run for the next 20km. From here it’s a push again over Cluden and then a rapid run to Tarras. The helicopter rides have finished for the day but the friendly staff at the Country Cafe happily oblige those who arrive lycra-clad. We sit, we eat and it’s off to the tubs for the afternoon. The tubs aren’t the thermal variety but rather stainless steel and wood-fuelled, located in a quiet area near a small body of water. Each tub has its own private spot with its own changing facilities. 

Our Twizel story didn’t unfold as planned but with just 48 hours since putting rubber to trail we couldn’t have imagined such an experience. The humble towns of Twizel and Tarras with Omarama in between provided a unique offering that would no doubt become lost in the hustle and bustle of bigger towns and cities. We were exposed to a type of riding we would otherwise have ignored around Twizel and took a plunge by throwing out the itinerary for a trip up to Lindis. Maybe next time we’ll make it all the way to the ocean.

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How we got there

Travel

Our Big Ride air travel was taken care of by Air New Zealand and we hired a 4WD from Budget Rentals to fit our luggage. We decided to take the scenic four-hour drive from Christchurch where we met our Alps2Ocean guide Jason Menard. You can fly direct from Sydney to Christchurch or you can also opt to drop into Queenstown depending on what’s on your Big Ride itinerary. We travelled with road bikes but you could easily pack a heavier touring bike or cyclo-cross machine if either of those are in  our stable. Once in Twizel you’ll need a vehicle to travel over to Omarama and Tarras but there are options to get picked up and dropped off for sections of the Alps2Ocean. A big thanks also has to go out to New Zealand Tourism for hosting us.

Hotel

We stayed at Lake Ohau Lodge for our first night and then made our
way to the quiet Big Sky B&B, run by Kay and Hank, for our final night
in the area. We ate at the Kahu Cafe for dinner but we were able to enjoy their company during breakfast for the last morning before making our journey home to Sydney via Queenstown airport. As was the case at Lake Ohau, Kay put on more than enough food to keep us
full for the two-hour drive to Queenstown.

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