Monthlong bikepacking trip provides lifetime memories
I’m rarely the fastest cyclist in a group – I am not really cut out for either the physical or mental games of racing. But if I point my wheels in the direction I’d like to travel, I can ride all day, though it wasn’t until my husband and I did a monthlong self-supported cycle tour of New Zealand that I learned this. The trip challenged both of us, and makes me wish for more time to do such adventures.
Almost a week into the tour (which went from mid-January to mid-February, 2004), Jon and I had made a wrong turn and asked a woman for directions. She asked where we were headed and when we told her, with a sigh she repeated, “The South Island,” the tone of her voice recalling the island as one would fondly remember a first love. It would be a few more days, some car miles, and a ferry trip before we finally arrived on the less-populated island and experienced its charms and challenges.
The second half of our tour began when we disembarked from the ferry in Picton and pedaled Queen Charlotte Drive. We were both elated to be back on our bikes where we could smell the lush foliage and hear the birds and waterfalls, while taking in the views of the many bays below. At a campground in Havelock, we met a couple from Scotland who was also cycle touring the island. They offered freshly caught green-lip mussels and advice on routes to take and places to stay. It was this chance encounter with fellow travelers that helped set the course for our next 11 days on the island.
With their advice, Jon mapped out a route that would loop from Abel Tasman in the north where we planned a day of kayaking, to the west coast, across the island to the east coast and back to Picton, using side roads whenever possible. We made note of places to stay.
Everything we needed was either in our trailers or handlebar bags. We carried some food, but often would stop at a dairy (corner market) for a meat pie or a slice of quiche. We found produce stands with honesty boxes where we could buy fresh vegetables and even sweet manuka honey. Many days began with a small breakfast, packing the gear and then a short ride before a second breakfast. We learned early in the trip to eat small meals often and avoid larger meals, especially before a climb.
On the South Island the towns were farther apart, the sheep more plentiful, and the roads less busy. A few hostels we stayed in were on farms where produce, meat, eggs or fresh milk were available to us.
It was not all easy going, however. Crosswinds sometimes required us to hold tightly to our handlebars, and the headwinds could be so strong that we had to lean over our handlebars while pedaling through it. One evening after pedaling 85 kilometers and approaching a mountain pass, we arrived at a hot springs resort that our guidebook said included a hostel; however they no longer did. The rooms were expensive but they grudgingly allowed us to camp (for a fee) on the grounds out of view of the other visitors. We did enjoy the hot springs and only the next day realized why they were so busy: it was Valentine’s Day!
The next two days were tough pedaling. After a rainy night in the tent we climbed through the mist over 900-meter Lewis Pass and several hills that reminded me of the open alpine area of Resurrection Pass. Intermittent rain kept the day cool and we were happy at the end of the day to find a cozy lodge with private cabins. The following day was the hardest. We left the warmth and hospitality of the lodge where we had enjoyed toast and jam in the kitchen as the owner and another guest spun tales of hunting deer from helicopters and talked about the sheep-herding trials that we had witnessed from our bikes the day before. We donned rain pants and jackets to resume our ride to the coast.
We climbed steep hills of the secondary road in the cold rain. Raindrops stung my face like hail whenever I picked up any speed. Jon’s left hand grew so cold that he could no longer grasp his twist shifter. When a car passed I wished it were large enough to hold us. I would have stuck out my thumb for a lift to get us off that road. Still, whenever the rain let up we could watch the sheep and cows in their pastures and take our minds momentarily off the cold. By the time we’d gone 70 kilometers, I knew I could make it. There was no choice.
When we arrived in Kaikoura and learned that all of the campsites were either taken or flooded, we pedaled to a hostel and took the first room we found. We had only two days of pedaling left to get back to Picton and the ferry to the North Island. The next two days would bring tailwinds for us fortunate northbound cyclists. There was still more adventure ahead.
WHERE: Tour from Anchorage to Seward
WHEN: Late spring to early fall
Pack your gear and pedal from Anchorage to Seward, and then return via Alaska Railroad (or vice-versa). Leave Anchorage during the middle of the week when there is less traffic on the Seward Highway. Parts of the route are on separated trails, such as the Indian to Girdwood Trail and the trail that runs from the Johnson Pass northern trailhead to the Hope Cutoff. Side trips on the Trail of Blue Ice in Portage Valley or to the community of Hope turn this trip into a more leisurely multi-day ride.
INSIDER TIP: Be sure to research campgrounds and make reservations early. You may want to stay a night in a public use cabin. A site that offers links to cabins on state and federal lands https://www.alaskacenters.gov/cabins.cfm is useful. Also remember that there are few services available after you pass Girdwood. Bring plenty of high-energy foods and a water purifier. Bring a bear-proof canister for food storage.
INFO: Your local bike shop will be able to advise you on methods for carrying gear on your bicycle, from ultra-lightweight frame bags to racks and panniers or a gear trailer. Bring your bike to the shop to find the right equipment for your tour.