Seven lakes, six campgrounds, five nights, three kids, 275km ...
LAURILEE McMICHAEL and family spent their Christmas-New Year break tackling the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail from Tekapo to Oamaru

For the last five summers our kids, now aged 16, 13 and 10, have resigned themselves to the bitter fact their parents like off-road cycle touring.

That means long rides up (in their view) unfeasibly large hills in order to see (in their view) boring scenery while being too hot, too cold or too tired on a track that's inevitably too steep, too long or too difficult.

Riding through the Mackenzie Country to Twizel with Mt Cook in the background.
Riding through the Mackenzie Country to Twizel with Mt Cook in the background.

In our quest so far to ride New Zealand's cycleways we've ticked off the Timber Trail (85km), the Waikato River Trail (66km), the Great Lake Trail (71km) and the Motu Trail (91km).

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This summer, looking for something easier, we tackled our first South Island trail, the Alps to Ocean (A2O). The trail is mostly a mixture of off-road track, gravel road and some sealed road sections; and with generally good surfaces and gradual downhill gradient it's rated between grade 2 (easy) and grade 3 (moderate).

You can start at Mt Cook with a helicopter ride across the Tasman River, or at Tekapo where it's around 275km to the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru which we split into six days. We took the unsupported low-budget option, carrying two tents and all our gear but most people bike between accommodation and there's companies that carry your gear.

The first day of 55km was mostly a gentle downhill following the turquoise waters of the Tekapo Canal through the Mackenzie Basin, past a salmon farm and two power stations. The trail winds around Lake Pukaki with spectacular views of the Southern Alps, followed by a downhill run to Twizel.

A quick stop to find the torches before the ride through Raki's Railway Tunnel.
A quick stop to find the torches before the ride through Raki's Railway Tunnel.

Having camped the night at Lake Ruataniwha, 5km south of town, it seemed madness the next day to backtrack onto the A2O proper, which heads northwest, so we took the Ohau Flood Weir route to Lake Ohau. A shortcut it may have been in distance but in time it was considerably slower, with a rough gravel track and frequent hills making difficult going.

By the time we realised our error, it was too late to turn back. On we crawled in blazing sun and the kids making their disapproval known.

It took more than two hours to cover 15km to Lake Ohau, where all five of us squeezed into the meagre shade of the matagouri bushes for a rest. This day and the previous featured amazing scenery in the classic blues and golds of the South Island high country, although such sights are lost on our three, who spent the rest of the afternoon in the campground's lake/swamp enjoying a mud fight.

Our navigation error on day two meant we decided day three's section — a 50km up-and-over trek in full sun and with a steep rough gravel trail) — was best avoided. Instead, we opted for 34km on-road to Omarama which the kids knocked out in just over two hours.

From Omarama the trail heads down the Waitaki Valley with some excellent off-road sections and some not-so-excellent on-road ones (shame on you, boat-towing white SUV who passed me with only a whisker to spare). State Highway 8 doesn't have any shoulder and there was plenty of holiday season traffic during a torturous 10km haul to Otematata.

The good news though: by Christmas this section is expected to be moved off-road. The steep but short climb up to Benmore Dam had us all puffing but the cruise along Lake Aviemore followed by a pleasant day heading down river to Duntroon restored spirits.

Every day offered new vistas, from the Southern Alps to the farms and lakes of the Waitaki Valley; and the final day, a 54km trek to Oamaru via back roads and farms was no exception. It took in Elephant Rocks and the limestone valleys of the area, an old railway line and lunch at a rustic converted church. The final push wound though local farms and down through the Oamaru's historic harbour precinct.

We were all tired and dusty, but the husband and I were buzzing. The kids were buzzing too. Their verdict? "Yeah, it was all right."