Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger
Our Kiwi bard, James K. Baxter, got it right for cyclists as well as for blokes on horses.
The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is an upland road, for sure, and a fine place to ride easy.
One of eight trails under construction around this country as part of the NZ Cycle Trail project, it is arguably the finest of all - a 300km sweep through some of the most majestic scenery in the land.
Starting at Tasman Point just below the Hermitage, when completed it will run along the full length of Lake Pukaki, into Twizel, through canal roads to Lake Ohau and Lake Ohau Lodge, on to Omarama, Otematata, Kurow and Duntroon before joining the historic Tokarahi Branch rail line, veering south of Ngapara until it all ends up at Oamaru and the Pacific Ocean.
It runs through the magnificent Mackenzie Country, past soaring mountains, sweeping ranges, high-country stock stations, rural pasture-land, alpine river trails, canals and tussock-land, not to mention numerous lakes and associated hydro dams.
And our group of five women and three men - average age in the mid-60s - can proudly claim to be the first to ride it. After coming across the trail on nzcycletrail.com we decided to give it a go early this year, even though the cycleway was far from finished.
We stayed overnight at the Hermitage Hotel, then rode down to Mt Cook Airport to take the two-minute helicopter ride over the Tasman River to the top of Tasman Point and the start of our six-day adventure.
From there, we biked to Oamaru, using the trail where constructed, or riding along roads and highways as close as we could get to the route the trail will take when finally finished. It meant we shared some kilometres of State Highways 83 and 8 with motorised traffic, but we felt safe enough.
Many of the roads were remarkably free of traffic - that's the South Island for you - but just to be sure we wore bright clothing and rode single file.
Our pioneering first was rewarded. The Otago Daily Times wrote us up. The Dutch proprietors of the Omarama Top 10 Holiday Park snapped us for their notice-board and slipped us a couple of complimentary bottles of tasty pinot gris. And the owners of every coffee house or motel or farm-stay we patronised or stayed in were keen to hear of the trail and were eagerly awaiting its completion.
Clearly, those along the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail route are hoping it will do for them what the Otago Rail Trail has done for the settlements from Clyde to Middlemarch.
It's taking its time, though. In July 2010, when the Government awarded $2.75 million towards the total $3.25 million design and construction cost, November 2011 was the planned completion date.
But it's taken longer than expected to get the necessary access permissions. Now they're aiming for this November.
From our experience, it'll be worth waiting for. What could be a more seductive challenge to a cyclist than riding a trail that begins at the foot of a 3754m high mountain and ends at the sea?
But it's a bit more demanding than that sounds. In theory it runs about 850m downhill from Mt Cook Village to the Pacific Ocean.
However, there are a few hills, including a 4.8km groaner of a saddle between Omarama and Otematata on SH83, and some of the gravel on the quiet rural road running past the Mt Cook and Braemar stock stations at the top end of the cycleway was more like heavy metal - my back wheel rocked and rolled accordingly.
So some bike skills are needed, plus some fitness. Most of our group put in several hours weekly on the bike for a month beforehand. But you don't need to be Lance Armstrong.
This cycleway will be a beauty for family groups, plus the middle-aged and above - anyone, in fact, with a wish to experience something world-class while avoiding the gnarly stuff.
We hired a van and trailer as well as our bikes from Oamaru stalwart Geoff Omnet, of Smash Palace, who provided new cycles and a transporter at a very reasonable price. Even though all eight of us remained puncture-free throughout, the van and its luggage trailer - driven each day by a member of the group - were a reassuring back-up.
In the words of Mr Baxter, we rode easy - and we'll remember for years our sense of achievement when we squeezed the brakes for the last time at Oamaru.
Cycle touring: If you don't want to organise everything yourself, see ICT NZ.
Rentals: Smash Palace in Oamaru offers a good value vehicle rental service.
John Parker rode the Alps 2 Ocean Trail at his own expense.