Bike Rafting: The Freedom, The Solitutde, The Adventure

Fresh fish smoked over the fire and a sunset overlooking a huge lake in the Fiordlands turned out to be one of the most amazing evenings we have ever had.

  
After putting our bikes back together and strapping our Alpacka packrafts to the back we cycled away from the ocean along a quiet country road before arriving to the boardland road – a 50km gravel road which goes through the Fiordlands before ending at Lake Manapouri where we planned to put the boats back in the water.

      
 
We saw three cars along the whole road though none of them went to the end, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We fished, set up camp on our own private beach, and spent the evening around the fire watching the eels feeding just in front of us as we got to hang out and enjoy being surrounded by nature in a setting which seems to feel most natural to us.

   
    
    
    
    
    
It was amazing; the solitude, the curious birds all around, the fish, the sunset and then stars, and the simplicity of being totally disconnected from the the busy world full of lights and stimulation that we are use to. This is the sort of life we feel we are suppose to be living.

 
Except for the sandlflis.. We could have done without them!

Sunsets, Steamboats, and Solitude: NZ Honeymoon

  
We strategically camped twenty kilometers away from Queenstown (in Arrowtown) where I was able to spend an evening trail running completely alone on beautiful trails before we rode a mountain bike route into town the next morning. We were able to get a boat ride across the lake – on a steam powered boat – right away, and so after just half an hour in the craziness of Queenstown we were able to escape to the other side where we found two days of solitude, dirt roads, and beautiful scenery.

  
The boat led us to a farm-turned-tourist attraction where people do horse tours, feed sheep, and eat at the extremely fancy (70$/person) restaurant. Right before arriving one of the crew members told us there was a free campsite right on the lake, and though we thought it sounded too good to be true, it turns out he was right!

  

Kevin caught a twenty inch fish which we enjoyed for dinner, and for the first time in weeks, we got to camp alone. 

   
    
 
   
In the morning we started along the “around the mountains” trail which follows a dirt road through two different working farms, before entering into a conservations area. We saw less than a dozen cars all day, and once again, got to camp all alone by a quiet small river where we watched another amazing sunset. 

   
    
    
    
    
   
Once we made it to Te Anau we got some amazing news – we were going to get the opportunity to use some Alpacka packrafts and plan our own 10 day bike rafting expedition through the fiordlands! So, after a few days getting ready, we were off.. This time paddling away with our bikes strapped to our boats.

Aspiring National Park: NZ Honeymoon 

  

 

After a few nights in and around Wanaka we cycled up to Aspiring National Park, a one way 50km road which then led us to a 10km trekking path we were allowed to cycle on. The path lead to Aspiring hut, where forty people were packed inside the hut meant for half the number, and it also lead, two hundred meters away from the hut, to a quiet camp spot where we were able to enjoy a few nights as we hiked and I trail ran the surrounding areas. There were some impressive glaciers on the surrounding mountains, and, as always here in New Zealand, the rivers were simply perfect.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
Once we returned to Wanaka we found a somewhat hidden campsite (right across from one of the most popular, and therefore loud, ones in town) right by the river where we camped with the Te Aroroa (the 3,000km thru-trail which officially opened in 2012) hikers. From there, it was up and over to Queenstown (actually Arrowtown since we wanted to skip the insanity of Queenstown in summer).

   
   

 

Rethinking New Zealand: Cramped and Crowded and Not For Cycle Touring –  At Least Not in Summer

  

I haven’t written in a while because I haven’t been taking pictures. And I haven’t been taking pictures because it didn’t feel as if I would be telling the whole story. A week along the west coast of New Zealand represented an accumulation of frustrations that we have experienced throughout the country – a lack of dirt roads or alternatives to busy highways, crowded camping, and the sheer numbers of tourists absolutely everywhere – and though the region was geologically fascinating, with glacier covered mountains just meters away from the sea, we had a hard time enjoying it. 
New Zealand is busy, busy in a touristic way I couldn’t have even imaged possible. There are camper vans parked on every street corner, hundreds in every campsite, and thousands every single day on the road going every which way. It can be hard to even meet a local in so many towns (at least down here in the South Island) as the number of tourists and people with working visas far exceeds the number of locals during the summer. And we too are tourists, adding to those numbers.

Freedom camping is illegal in most areas of New Zealand as the sheer numbers of campers would quite literally destroy the place, and though this is perfectly understandable, is does take away our favorite part of cycle touring; finding a totally isolated place high on a mountain or down by a river to cook dinner, watch the sunset, and fall asleep as the day turns to night. Instead, we find ourselves camping among dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of others all crammed together, sometimes literally only a foot or two away.

After speaking with multiple other cyclists who cycled throughout the country ten or twenty years ago they all say the same thing – it didn’t use to be like this, and they won’t be coming back again anytime soon. We have also spoken with many who find this place “empty” compared to other countries, notably those who have cycled Western Europe or live in the UK, so, it’s definitely  a matter of perspective. 

We are disappointed by the lack of dirt roads or highway alternatives as we had been lead to believe that we could do much of the country following a route – the Tour Aotearoa – described as “similar to the American Great Divide.” What we hadn’t realized is while this route incorporates a lot of really wonderful single track riding, it also uses highways between them meaning that if you are simply going straight down the country, you end up on a lot of pavement.  The Kenneth brother routes have many more options if you are ready to do loops around different regions, which we wished we had done rather than trying to cross country cycle through the country as we have been use to in the past. We aren’t the only ones who feel mislead either. We have met a dozen or so full suspension mountain bike/fat bike bikepackers expecting mostly dirt roads/single track who are thoroughly unimpressed, as, like us, they tried to just head straight down the country.

We are spoiled. After cycling through the Andes and the Himalayas we have high standards, especially when it comes to free camping in beautiful places and high difficult passes on quiet roads through the mountains. And it certainly hasn’t all been negative, in fact, we have had a really lovely trip yet want to share some of the realities of our tour as well. New Zealand does have some really amazing multi-day mountain bike routes as well as 4X4 roads which lead to huts in beautiful places. New Zealand has worked hard to increase cycle tourism by creating these routes throughout the country and we can see how in the off season, when the in between roads aren’t so busy and the campgrounds aren’t so full, New Zealand would be a really enjoyable place to ride – especially if you go into it ready to do squiggles in the various areas with the most trails. 

We loved the Molesworth station and St. James route in the northern part of the South Island, the Wilderness Trail in the middle, and the Around the Mountains trail down south, as well as many different sections of the North Island (which we now realize is much less busy in general). And the country is visited by over three million people every year for good reason; it really is beautiful, the kiwis really are incredibly friendly, and there really is a lot to do in terms of outdoor adventures. And the rivers. The rivers are stunning. I have never seen so many clear, clean, colorful rivers in my life. 

If someone was to ask, we wouldn’t recommend cycle touring New Zealand, not in the traditional road cycling way anyways, but with a self-contained camper van (self-contained vans can camp for free whereas nobody else can), packrafts, a backpacking backpack, and mountain bikes with a bikepacking set up we think New Zealand would be a great country to visit during the off-season. From April – December (weather wise, we would suggest March-May, and November, December) there are two other trekking routes which open up to mountain bikes, plus, all of the other trekking routes see a huge decrease in users meaning you would  be able to find yourself  solitude pretty easily.  With a self-contained camper van you would be able to pull off and camp in a whole lot more places (for free), plus, you would be able to drive between the mountain biking loops through highway sections where the riding isn’t all that great. And with packrafts you could explore (and fish!) all of the breathtaking rivers throughout the country. Or, if you are keen to simply cycle (and not add to the overwhelming camper van situation) then cycling the country during the off season would be lovely.

Since we are lucky enough to be here, spending time together on an extended vacation doing what we love, we are most certainly going to make the most of it even if it isn’t always what we had expected. Along the west coast we figured out that by waking up at six we were able to enjoy the ride for a few hours before the herds of camper vans began their daily migration, and I have begun trail running before or after our rides which has allowed me to explore trails without a single other person on them, and watch sunrises or sunsets from various scenic locations. We are also planning out our next month to include some of the notorious mountain biking routes, as well as some other adventures that should take us much farther away from the traffic (there will be packrafts involved)!
The only three pictures I took this week: us at sunrise enjoying the mountains and momentarily quiet roads (at the top of the page), a photo (no added color) which shows one of the amazing sunsets we got to witness, and a random mountain who happened to get his photo taken.
*As this post has gotten controversial I would like to remind those reading that these are our personal experiences and in no way negate or alter whatever you may have or will experience here, and we are open to (politely shared) suggestions or routes that you loved on your own tour here.

   

 

Mountain Biking the St James Trail: NZ Honeymoon 

  
The St James Trail is an 100km mountain bike loop that New Zealand opened in 2010 in order to allow cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders a chance to experience the beauty of the old St James Station (farm). “With no roads, no shops, and no cell phone coverage, this trail is all about the basic desire to get away from it all,” the route description said, and that’s exactly what we were able to do.

  
Though we could have completed this route faster, we decided to bring an extra day of food with us in order to spend some time fishing and hanging out away from any towns or people. Since the first day was extremely windy (and, of course, coming straight at us as headwinds) we decided to cycle the first fifteen kilometers and then hide out in one of the many basic backcountry huts New Zealand has spread all around the country.

   
    
    
   
The next day proved to be more difficult as we spent the morning pushing our bikes – sometimes double teaming one bike at a time – up steep rocky single track. We also walked down most of the downhills as we didn’t trust ourselves next to the drop off, or because it was simply too rocky and steep. Needless to say a simple twenty kilometers took us a ridiculous amount of time and we were so grateful to actually ride once the terrain became easier.

   
    
    
    
    
    
   
We finished up the “mountain bike” section of the loop, which by the way we were doing the “wrong” (hard) way, by pushing our bikes up a very steep pass that gained over 500m of elevation in only four or five kilometers. It was tough, but thankfully short.

  
Kevin fashioned himself a pushing pole with his stick so he could push his bike from the back.

  
After a night along the Clarence river – where we caught multiple fish (and I caught a fifteen inch trout for dinner) – in a “historic” hut at the side of the road we headed back into town along the rainbow route, a dirt road very similar to the Molesworth road we were on last week.

  

   
    
 
Though it was physically hard, all the pushing was well worth the reward of being away from cars. Before arriving to New Zealand we had excepted more of our routes to look like this – totally away from civilization with few or no cars a day passing us – and though as a whole we have found New Zealand busier than we had anticipated, these last few routes have been truly wonderful.

Dirt Roads and Happy Hearts: NZ Honeymoon

  

  

We have had an amazing first week in the South Island. After the ferry ride we started out on a 60km detour along the coast which included four steep climbs (half of which were on gravel) along a very quiet road – the sort of road with only a car or two an hour. It also included our first penguin sighting, an afternoon sipping tea with two kiwis in their amazing 1950’s bus, and an evening exploring little bays and beaches.

   
    
    
    
   

  

We stocked up on food and then headed out through Molesworth Station which is a 210km gravel road that runs through the largest farm in New Zealand. The farm, which was started in the 1860’s, is still in use today with over 10,000 cattle, fifty or sixty horses, and up to forty working dogs. They employ five seasonal ranglers who ride throughout the mountains finding the cows and bringing them to their next grazing area, while the overseer of the ranch (along with his family), the cook, and a few other full time employees live on the ranch full time. During the summer months they have opened up the area for recreational use (there is a 60km section you have to get through during daylight as they lock the gates at night) and it proved to be our kind of cycling, complete with clear beautiful rivers, gravel climbs on a quiet road, and jagged peaks all around. The photos really don’t do this place justice; the valleys and peaks were so much more all encompassing than a simple photo can show.

   
    
    
    
  
         
        

Something else we enjoyed along this route (and something we have enjoyed in general here) are the kiwis who, when they pass, roll down their window for a chat. More often than not they are middle aged or retired kiwis on a “gap year,” meaning they have taken a few months or a year off of work, or semi-retired, in order to travel around in their camper for an extended period of time (often with bikes and kayaks attached!). We had always heard that kiwis were friendly but that is a serious understatement.

After stocking up on food in the resort town of Hanmer Springs we spent a rest day by the Clarence river fishing, reading, and swimming, before beginning a true mountain bike trip along the St James Loop (which will be the next blog post). 

        

And, for those who are interested, here is a link to our wedding photos from the blog of our photographer.

Moments after we got married we jumped on this sled and went down the hill!

  

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