The clue was in the tour's title. Kaikōura and Molesworth High Country Cycle. Cycle = biking. High country = hills. What's more, in spite of the inevitable hills, I declined the offer of an electric bicycle because I have my own internal combustion engine.
I do confess, there were moments during this seven-day cycle odyssey when I questioned my choice of an acoustic bike. Times when the headwind was so in my face I appeared to have had cosmetic surgery. During the longest cycle day (111km, thanks for asking), I definitely coveted a battery, especially when other members of the tour group whirred up behind me. As we ascended seemingly endless hills, they'd pass and say something encouraging but, whatever they said, I have to confess, it grated ever so slightly. However, in spite of this battery-free bike ride requiring a bit of effort on my part, it was also one of the most exhilarating and delightful cycling trips ever.
Setting off from Christchurch on a perfectly pleasant March day, our group of 14 gathered near Cathedral Square, all decked out in various shades of activewear, before our capable guides, Chris and Rob, whisked us away to Waipara.
The air was cool but not cold as we saddled up in Glenmark Domain beside a grove of impressive oaks. Acquainting ourselves with our bikes, we pedalled through the North Canterbury countryside. There were no real hills to speak of, yet, and 15km later, barely time to break a sweat, we'd stopped at a vineyard - hardly surprising as Waipara is one of the country's fastest-growing wine regions. After sampling various varieties, a hearty lunch platter was served, fuel for the next leg from rural Domett to Cheviot via Gore Bay, 20km away.
Here there was one modest climb, coupled with the simple joy of riding in the countryside. We had a quick break at Cathedral Cliffs Lookout to ogle astonishing scenery before returning to the road that wound down to Gore Bay. This beachside enclave managed to be both wild and quaint, as the sea pounded the shore and determined houses held resolutely to their foundations. The most telling thing here? There were no "for sale" signs.
Leaving Gore Bay, a quiet country lane led us to the rush and roar of Cheviot for a welcome ice cream and a giggle at the "don't get caught with your pants down" public loos and that was day one done. Back in the van, we drove 70 glorious coastal kilometres to Kaikōura, the open ocean views making this one of the most beautiful drives on earth.
On waking at our seaside motel, the smell of kelp filled the air and, according to my meteorologically-inclined companion, the low mist indicated an absence of wind - welcome news for whale-watching. Aboard the Wawahia, an 18m foil-assisted catamaran, our knowledgeable host provided background on everything from the boat to birds as skipper Marlene piloted the vessel out to sea, whereupon the vast back of a sperm whale was glimpsed.
After just five minutes on the surface replenishing oxygen, he took his leave with a powerful show of his mighty tail. All aboard tried to capture the iconic fluke, before he propelled himself down to incredible depths.
So far so very good, but we were here for biking so it was ka kite charismatic megafauna, and hello hasty hand-held lunch before we grabbed our bikes and rode to the newly developed Kaikōura Cycle Trail. This adorable path skirts the perimeter of the plains, the rich blues and purples of the ranges and Mt Fyffe in sharp relief on the horizon.
Incorporating country roads, lush bush and open farmland, this 49km ride was a little ripper. The single trail sections were fabulous fun, and blissful little pockets of forest shade offered respite from the heat of a mid-March day. Blue skies, great sweeps of ocean, once rushing rivers reduced to summer trickles and the rich aroma of forest in our nostrils. There was so much to marvel over. The final push saw us cycle beside surging east coast surf just as dusk fell. With no shared meal that night, we were free to enjoy takeaways in the comfort of our room, as we gazed out to the somersaulting sea.
Waking in paradise, day three was a 61km jaunt to Mount Lyford. Drawn towards the maunga along the Inland Kaikōura Road, this was rolling, rural riding. Leaving Kaikōura, we entered Hurunui to pedal though clouds of white butterflies that resembled airborne blossoms. Across the Conway River the climbing intensified, which made any marginally flat stretch feel like a rest.
Travelling by bike is such a treat for the senses - rich smells of silage, cows and green pine. It also allows you to notice the little things, patches of delicate lichen and crops of autumn fungi, as well as big things like distant mountains, serrated and jutting.
With barely 6km to go till Mt Lyford Ski Lodge, a modest tail breeze began to blow, the wind's invisible hand providing a welcome boost to the van where bikes were loaded and we returned to town for one last night in captivating Kaikōura.
We shipped out early and headed for the high country. A quick stop en route for fur seals at Ohau Pt creche, we watched the mums rest after a night out hunting as their pups played and nursed. I could've spent a whole day watching the kēkeno go about their business beside the vast churning ocean but with a 60km ride to an elevation of 1300m ahead, we pressed on for Awatere Valley.
Because this is what we were here for. To cycle through quintessential backcountry landscapes. Past paddocks of South Island cabbage trees like squads of slender cheerleaders, their pompom fronds waving in the wind. Cattle stops, and mountain tops, long drops and river beds. I wanted to stay alert to the scenery while simultaneously grinding up to Middlehurst, a stunning 16,550ha station, home to thousands of merino sheep and Angus X cattle.
Once Upcot Saddle had been conquered, we arrived weary-legged at Middlehurst's swanky shearers' quarters. I was jubilant to be greeted by the well-named Joy, who showed us to our room, our names spelled out on the door in Scrabble pieces, as George the fox terrier celebrated our efforts with exuberant canine enthusiasm. Dinner was a divine roast lamb prepared by chef Emma, after which I gladly fell into bed.
Recognising the need for a rest before the next day's long ride, instead of taking a mountain bike tour of the farm, I opted for the 4WD station tour. Sue and Willie, the likeable couple who bought the station in 1998 with three small kids and one on the way, talked of struggles and triumphs. 2016 was a year to remember for all the wrong reasons, the earthquake causing extensive damage, pulling out fences and destroying the historic cob cottage where the Shearers' Quarters now sits. But they are a resilient family and driving deep into the farm's interior to visit the musterers' hut for a picnic was an absolute delight, the perfect restful day to prepare us for Hanmer.
The last full day was a biggie and those of us who opted to cycle the full 111km set off at dawn. The air was pungent with lucerne as the sun slowly illuminated tanned blonde hills. The southerly blew steadily all day, a cool headwind adding another element of challenge. Blue borage flowers brightened the verges - honey is big round here - but there was no time to stop and smell the blooms as onwards and upwards we rode. Up Wards Pass we pedalled, and Emma's freshly baked cookies kept the tank topped up. As did the sight of the van where Chris served coffee at the top of a particularly gruelling hill. As for Rob's de-grit and grease of my chain, it was like being given new legs.
Capable, patient and good-humoured, nothing was too much trouble for our guides and they accommodated all our various needs and speeds, ages and stages, until before we knew it we were riding beside the stunning Acheron River, up the last gasp of Jollies Pass and arriving at Hanmer Springs via a final steep shingle downhill, exhausted but exhilarated. The healing warm waters of the springs were a delight.
All too soon it was time to head home, but first one final ride through gentle forest trails, a peruse of Hanmer's sculpture trail, and a quick trot up Conical Hill. Back in the van, a subdued group told war stories and sore stories, and yes, the clue was in the title because you certainly do feel high when you complete a high country cycle.
KAIKŌURA AND MOLESWORTHDETAILS
Adventure South NZ's Kaikōura and Molesworth High Country Cycle seven-day itinerary includes accommodation, most meals, snacks, guides and private vehicle transport. Prices start from $3145pp with departure dates available on November 13, March 19 and April 3. adventuresouth.co.nz
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