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Our Great New Zealand South Island Bike Tour

by Pamela Blalock with (most) photos by John Bayley

After living in New Zealand for 18 months, we finally managed to do a proper bike tour around the South Island. Until this point, life has been complicated by cats, house, and job. But we've eliminated most of these pesky issues. Our cats are off (temporarily) living with a friend in Seattle. The house is finished and up for sale, and we have no jobs. So with nothing tying us down anymore, we loaded up the tandem and headed off for a 5 week holiday, starting in mid-March. The main reason for our timing and destination was that 6 months ago, we booked the Milford Track. This walk is so popular that it must be booked well in advance (often up to a year ahead). At the time, we had no idea of what we might be doing in late March, but just decided that before returning home, we had to do the Milford, the one Great Walk that most folks back in the States had heard of.

We decided to cycle down and do another tramp on the way. So I also booked the Routeburn, and arranged to ship our backpacks and boots and poles, etc., down to Glenorchy where we could leave the tandem while we tramped. I came up with a tentative schedule to get us to Glenorchy the day before our first tramp, and we packed up and headed off. Aside from reservations for the tramps themselves, the various bus and boat rides to get to and from the start/finish of each and accommodation just before and after, I made no other definitive plans or bookings. This would allow us some flexibility in getting down, but also proved on occasion to add some stress in finding a place to stay for the night. We opted not to take a tent, since we've had such good luck in the past with backpacker accommodation, and the added weight of tent, sleeping bags and cooking gear is usually unnecessary.

I hadn't really thought much about the timing with Easter. But Easter is a big deal holiday here, with both Good Friday and Easter Monday as public holidays. It also is the start of a two week school break. Like Labor Day in the States, it seems to signify the end of summer, and weather is still pretty nice, so lots of kiwis take time off and travel. There are also several big events on at Easter as well, including a massive Air Show in Wanaka, so booking accommodation ahead of time around Easter turns out to be a good idea. All that said, we never had to sleep in a ditch, but did spend one night in a skating shed, and another in the worst backpackers I've ever seen. But more on that later.

As mentioned above, we did walk the Routeburn and Milford Tracks. We also took a cruise on the Doubtful Sound and walked on the Franz Josef Glacier.

But before we did all that, we had to leave Nelson. We had a lot going on prior to heading out, including getting all the final touches on the house before putting it on the market. We were in need of a holiday, if not actually ready for one. We had hoped to get out first thing Monday morning, but spent most of the morning packing, so it was well into the afternoon before we finally rolled down Mount Street. And we didn't make it far before we had to stop for lunch and coffee in Richmond!

The road west out of town was amazingly quiet. The climb up Spooners Saddle with 4 loaded panniers was a good one, but not too bad. The climb up the Hope Saddle was accompanied by a soundtrack of native bellbirds, and very little traffic.

We had initially hoped to make it all the way to Murchison, but given our late start, we decided it was about time we checked out the bikepackers in Glenhope. We had passed by it several times (Christchurch to Nelson and Nelson to Christchurch, among others), but just hadn't had to chance to check it out. It worked out quite well, as it was close to 7pm when we arrived. We found another cycle-tourist camping out, and had a great time exchanging stories and tips. We also had a great time browsing through the selection of old cycling magazines, and John really enjoyed checking out the selection of old vinyl records ! It was well worth the incredibly steep climb up the driveway.

The next morning, we headed out relatively early and enjoyed a nice tailwind assisted descent into Murchison, where we stopped at the Rivers Cafe for a coffee and snack. We continued on to Inangahua Junction, with it's General Store and bike carcass fence outside, and empty shelves to greet hungry cyclists inside. Fortunately, our destination for the day was Reefton. We briefly considered a swanky B+B there, but decided to stick with the more budget priced backpackers accommodation There would be many more opportunities to blow the budget along the way.

While looking around town and the visitors centre, I noticed several mentions of the town of Blackball, including an attractive looking and likely quiet sealed road paralleling the main road. So we decided to go check out the little town, and we were so glad we did. Here we found Formerly the Blackball Hilton, where we enjoyed a lunch with locally made Blackball Salami, as well as the company of a very friendly cat, named John. We were encouraged to check out the art gallery upstairs, as well as the accommodation We decided this would be a must-stop place on our return journey.

We dragged ourselves away from the lovely bar on St. Patrick's Day, and pressed on to Lake Moana. There I asked about accommodation up the road. I knew it would be too far to go all the way to Arthur's Pass, but hoped to get a bit farther down the road. Luckily I found someone who knew of cottages about 20 km away in Jacksons. The Mountain View Cottages were great, lovely and quiet with grand views.

This set us up nicely to climb Arthur's Pass first thing the next morning. The road to Arthur's Pass is a destination itself. The viaduct was completed in November 1999. It replaced a zigzag road that was often closed or damaged due to frequent rockfalls. This new road has an advertised gradient of 12%, although our bike computer showed sections that were substantially steeper! We climbed up Death's Corner for a nice view of the road down below. We watched in amazement as trucks using their lowest gear crawled down the road. I cannot believe that trucks regularly use this road. It's one of the few places on the south island served by railroad, and it is amazing to me that anyone would take a truck full of goods over this pass more than once, given the nice alternative of using the train!

Our photos don't really do justice to how steep this road is, so you'll just have to trust me that it is one of the steepest sealed roads we have climbed in New Zealand (with the one notable exception being from Akaroa up to the summit road on the Banks Peninsula). We met another touring cyclist at the viewing spot, who told us about a very naughty kea who destroyed his tent and bike saddle the night before. He had a saddle pad and was hoping to make it to a bike shop that afternoon to replace the saddle. A new tent would be required as well! We talked for at least an hour, and then made our way down into the village of Arthur's Pass. We stopped there for coffee and lunch, and kept a close eye out and chased the keas away from the bike regularly! We watched as one kea landed on a car. The car owner was very tolerant while another tourist took a photo, but quickly took action when the kea went for the rubber seal around the windscreen. In addition to tents and bicycle saddles, they also like pulling this seal out of cars, causing the windscreen to fall in! Keep in mind, these pests are protected endangered species!

After our long stop at Death's Corner and lunch in town, we went to the Info Centre to try and locate accommodation a bit down the road for the night. There were several places listed 40 to 50km down the road (a good distance), but none had any space. We found a place just 12 km down the road, so it would make for a very short day, albeit with plenty of climbing.

The next day proved to be challenging enough, so our short day wasn't so unwelcome. The road between Arthur's Pass and Porter's Pass undulates. By the time we reached our turnoff at Lake Linden, just shy of Porter's Pass, we had climbed up and down and up and down repeatedly and had almost reached the same elevation as where we started. We then began the lovely downhill part of the route. Our friend Simon had recommended the road to Lake Coleridge. Had it been a non-cyclist, we might have thought twice, but given the source, we decided to check it out. He had told us it was gravel, but didn't tell us, and we were pleasantly surprised to find, it was mostly a gentle downhill (in this direction).

We also had a screaming tailwind. What more could you want? At some point we got back on a sealed road, but we then opted for the gravel zigzag road shortcut down to the Rakaia Gorge. The gravel got a bit loose and deep in places, but the road was magnificent. The winds were very strong, and I was barely able to keep the bike upright for one of John's many photo stops.

After hours of quiet roads, it was a shock to the system to get back on a main road, with high speed traffic, especially clawing our way up out of the gorge, but we did have a nice helpful tailwind, most of the time. We headed into Methven to call it a day, and had an absolutely screaming tailwind propel us all the way into town. Here we found a lovely YHA hostel, run by a cat lover, who brought out lots of her cat magazines for us to scan through drooling over pictures of cute felines. She pegged us for cat people when I immediately made friends with one of her three adorable kitties.

Methven is a ski town, the closest to the Mt. Hutt Ski area. If there is any doubt, visit it in the summer, when they have rolled up the sidewalks and the place is like a ghost town! The next day, we headed off to Geraldine, home of the world's largest sweater. Geraldine was a sprawling metropolis in comparison. It actually is quite a nice town, with several cafes and bakeries. We stopped for lunch and had a very nice chat with a local cyclist, who made a few recommendations for route out of town. We noticed lots of uniformed school kids milling about, and it wasn't until our new friend pointed out that it was a Saturday that we thought it odd. But it was later as we noticed vanload after vanload of schoolkids driving by that we realised they weren't all from Geraldine. Every once in a while a van pulling a trailer full of rowing boats would pass as well. At some point we realise some big event for school kids was happening up the road. We stopped at another cafe, and picked up a newspaper to discover that 4000 school kids were descending on Twizel for a week of National Rowing championships. We had been planning to stay in Twizel the next night, and figured it might be a good idea to check on accommodation I phoned and found a place on the first try. If only it had been so easy in Fairlee. We pulled into the Holiday Park hoping to get a cabin, and found the place fully booked out. They also told us everything in town was full with two weddings, a golf tournament, a land rover convention and a mountain bike race. They phoned around trying to find something for us, without luck. They offered us use of a skating shed, with a couple of cots, and duvets. We took it!

We met up with an American couple at the holiday park who were also trying to find a place to stay. They had a car, so it wouldn't be such a big deal to press on to the next town. After a bit of phoning around, the folks at the holiday park found a B+B (much pricier than backpackers) about 15 km away. We ended up having a great chat over coffee and later dinner at the Library Cafe next door.

The next morning we bumped into another touring cyclist in the kitchen of the holiday park. He was from Tasmania and was bike touring the south island and tramping as well. We saw him several times over the next day or so, but I'm ashamed we never made proper introductions, so we always referred to him as Tas-Man.

We had booked a place in Twizel, but as I looked more carefully at the map, and distances, I realised Omarama might make a better choice. We had stayed at a great little farm hostel there last year, so I phoned to see if they had space. No problem, so we booked in there. We left Fairlee with a pretty good headwind. The ride to Lake Tekapo was one of the most memorable of the trip - a gradual climb, with a gale blowing in our faces! We were thrilled to finally coming to the top of the climb (many kms after the Burke Pass sign), and see the lovely green waters of Lake Tekapo in front of us. We were also seeing a few raindrops as well, so we descended quickly at found a coffee shop without delay. We bumped into the American couple again. They had been talking about taking a scenic flight around Aoraki Mt. Cook. The clouds were breaking up a bit, but it didn't look like the best day for the flight.

The rain did disperse, as did most of the clouds. However the ones around Aoraki Mt. Cook stayed firmly in place. We met a couple of kiwi cyclists, at the end of their trip, getting ready to catch a bus back to Christchurch. We asked about local routes, specifically the canal paths, and they highly recommended them. I had not realised they were paved, but they are and have a lower speed limit than on the open road! They are open to cars, so we would have some traffic, but certainly not as much as the main road! We missed finding the first canal road, but did get a second chance when it crossed the main road. The winds were still ferocious, and now coming from the side. There were several times I thought we were going to get blown off the side of the road. Finally we turned south and got the tailwind again!

We caught up with Tas-Man and rode along together for a few kms. We got to a spot, where we should have had a magnificent view of Aoraki Mt. Cook, but only saw clouds. I think Tas-Man stopped to appreciate the clouds. We met up again later in Twizel, where John and I stopped for lunch and coffee and a chat with a couple of touring cyclists from Canada. We continued to enjoy a great tailwind all the way to the town of Omarama, where we stopped to pay homage to the great Merino sheep statue.

Our farm hostel was another 12 km south of town, and somehow the lay of the land gave us a fierce headwind to battle all the way to the backpackers. We eventually made it and had quite the evening. The stars at this place are pretty impressive. We did have the company of a determined mouse though, who in the wee hours of the morning insisted he claw his way through a wall. John tried for a while to intimidate him, but no luck. Earplugs did the trick for me.



Vital Statistics

date destination distance climbing magpies
Monday 15 March Glenhope 89 700 0
Tuesday 16 March Reefton 135 750 39
Wednesday 17 March Jacksons 132 832 15
Thursday 18 March Arthurs Pass +
46 860 2
Friday 19 March Methven 110 2155 45
Saturday 20 March Fairlee 130 760 192
Sunday 21 March Omarama 147 1001 17

Of Possible Interest



HU-HA Bikepackers is located about 90 km west of Nelson in Glenhope
(just west of the Hope Saddle).
03 548 2707

Mountain View Cottages in Jacksons
03 738 0460


Better than a big screen TV!


Enough of this biking stuff. Jump straight to the
Routeburn Track
Milford Track
Doubtful Sound
Franz Josef Glacier