It's a stunning experience to pedal 310 kilometres from the Shaky Isles' highest peak to the ocean, writes Andrew Bain.
In ancient times, New Zealand's Waitaki Valley was a traditional Maori pathway from the Southern Alps to the sea. Flax rafts crossed its wide flows, and rock art lined its cliffs. Today, the South Island valley has returned to its traditions, forming a natural corridor from the mountains to the east coast with the creation of the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway.
Part of a network of 18 new cycle trails being carved across New Zealand, the 310-kilometre Alps 2 Ocean trail promises to become one of the country's flagship bike journeys, taking cyclists from the foot of Mount Cook - New Zealand's highest mountain - to the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru.
By natural design, the ride trends downhill, descending 760 metres along its route, and although the terrain is easy, there are complications. To cycle its entirety from Mount Cook Village, riders must take a helicopter across the Tasman River after just a few minutes of pedalling. Those who don't have the $550 to splash on a chopper ride can take a shuttle bus from Twizel up the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki to start at Tasman Point, by the head of the lake.
It's here that I begin my ride. Alps 2 Ocean is a combination of roads and purpose-built tracks, and from Tasman Point I begin along a dirt road, curling around the shores of Pukaki, a lake that fills postcard stands across New Zealand. With its duck-egg-blue water pooled below Mount Cook, it's easy to see why.
The undulating road along its shore is beautifully clear, and each time Lake Pukaki appears through the pine trees, it's as though someone has run a highlighter pen through the valley. Behind me, the snow-capped mountains are like etchings against the sky, and a halo of lenticular cloud hovers around the summit of Mount Cook.
It's a scene as colourful as New Zealand gets: the impossibly blue lake, the spring-green willows, the pink and purple lupins ... and just the faintest puff of dust from our bikes in the soft gravel.
At the end of the lake, tourists linger over the classic Mount Cook view, but the cycleway continues straight ahead, bumping across the Pukaki Flats. Following only faint wheel tracks, it's like riding through a paddock, except that Mount Cook is still visible behind and there are more flashy blue lakes ahead. It's a stark and barren landscape that formed the setting for battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
At the end of the Pukaki Flats, Twizel bills itself as the Town of Trees, which is no small boast on this otherwise treeless plain. We stop in Twizel for the night, still in view of Mount Cook, and set out the next morning for Omarama. It will be the kind of day that reminds me just how civilised cycling can be.
Forty kilometres into the day, along canal roads and around the southern shores of Lake Ohau, Lake Ohau Lodge is perfectly positioned for a lunch stop. Ohau is a Maori word meaning "place of wind", but as I sit on the lodge deck, grazing through a platter of meat, cheese and fruit, the day is gloriously still and the lake is all but shined to a mirror finish.
Through the morning, I've seen more sheep than people, and the view through the Dobson Valley is like an invitation back into the mountains. Instead, however, I'm about to head in the other direction, towards Omarama, where my day will end in the town's outdoor hot tubs, soaking two days of cycling from my legs.
Against these pleasures, the cycling suddenly seems almost incidental, little more than a chance to build an appetite and a coat of dirt ahead of a feed and a soak.
From Omarama, the Waitaki Valley steps down towards the coast through a series of lakes and dams - the eight dams of the valley's hydro network provide about 25 per cent of New Zealand's electricity supply. The valley is filled with classic New Zealand scenes - grazing sheep, beehives, treeless brown mountains, blue trout-filled waters - as Lake Benmore becomes Lake Aviemore becomes Lake Waitaki.
A building wind grips me head-on as I cycle down the valley, the trail switching between newly built paths, the valley highway and quiet back roads. The wind has arrived a day late (Lake Ohau is now behind me) but it slows my progress as I climb over Benmore Dam - once the highest earth dam in the southern hemisphere - and onto the shores of Lake Aviemore.
At the lake's edge, the shrinking hills are brushed yellow with gorse and broom - no less pretty for the fact that they are weeds - and the road wriggles along the length of the lake, its surface churned into wind-blown swells. In the midst of summer, this shoreline crawls with campers, but this day it's more than an hour before a car passes my bike.
The valley widens further at the town of Kurow, and I'm now just a day from the ocean. Past Kurow, the trail continues on the highway for 20 kilometres, heading flat and bullet-straight towards Duntroon. Ahead of us today are the Elephant Rocks - an exposed karst landscape looking like the bare knuckles of the Earth exposed - and a quiet maze of country roads through foothills and farmland. The land is green and vital, and for long periods it's just us, our bikes and the dairy cows that graze at the road edges.
But approaching Duntroon, it's a line of honeycombed limestone cliffs beside the highway that draws attention. Behind boulders dislodged in the September 2010 earthquake that also rattled Christchurch, more than 200 kilometres away, is one of three surviving Maori rock-art sites in the valley - once there were 20 such galleries.
Sketches depict subjects such as people on horses, water creatures from Maori mythology and European sailing ships. The latter is a reminder that even centuries ago, long before Alps 2 Ocean existed, travellers here were drawn to the sea, just as I am now. And it is only hours away. I return to my bike and ride on.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Cycle Journeys.
Best beds for weary riders
As you pedal along the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway, progressing each night to a new destination, you'll find some atmospheric accommodation right beside the trail. Here are some of the best:
At the edge of Twizel, in sight of Mount Cook, Omahau Downs (+64 3 435 0199, omahau.co.nz) is an idyllic working farm with a bed and breakfast lodge, self-contained cabins, and accommodation inside the original farmhouse. Rooms from $110.
On the shores of Lake Ohau, Lake Ohau Lodge (+64 3 438 9885, ohau.co.nz) is a peaceful escape in a hidden valley, with 72 rooms in an old-style lodge overlooking the water. Basic double rooms begin at $107, rising to $179 for newer rooms with views to Mount Cook.
In Kurow, the 1890s St Alban's Vicarage (+64 3 436 0469), complete with original chapel, has been turned into a basic, character-packed bed and breakfast. Rooms are $50 a person.
Saddle up for adventure
In 2008, the New Zealand government invested $50 million to create 18 new cycleways across the country. Most are still in construction but, along with Alps 2 Ocean, the following trails are likely to most capture the attention of cyclists:
Around the Mountains: This 172-kilometre trail begins with a steamboat ride on the TSS Earnslaw out of Queenstown, and then loops through valleys around the southern fringes of Lake Wakatipu.
Great Taste Trail: A 175-kilometre circuit from Nelson. This ride is like the South Island in snapshot, taking cyclists past peaks such as the impressive Mount Owen and Mount Arthur, along the edge of Abel Tasman National Park and past a selection of cellar doors.
Hauraki Rail Trail: Proximity to Auckland has already made this 77-kilometre trail the most popular of the new cycleways. Its centrepiece is the section of trail through the Karangahake Gorge, following the course of a railway built to service a gold rush in the Coromandel in the 1860s.
From Christchurch, InterCity buses travel to Twizel (5hr) and Mount Cook Village (5hr 30min); intercity.co.nz. Apex Car Rental has car hire at Christchurch Airport, with vehicles starting from about $45 a day; apexrentals.co.nz.
Adventure South offers guided trips on Alps 2 Ocean, and Cycle Journeys has bike hire and shuttle services for independent cycling. A five-day guided trip, departing from Christchurch, costs from $1150; advsouth.co.nz, cyclejourneys.co.nz.
- Sydney Morning Herald