The 356km of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, from Tekapo to Ōamaru, can be tackled no matter the season... just make sure you wear your waterproofs.
People asked if I was crazy when I told them I was headed to the South Island to ride the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. It was June and the weather was packing up all over the place. A fortnight prior to departure, Twizel, one of our waypoints, recorded a nippy -8C and just one week out, Ashburton was hit by some of the worst flooding on record. But cyclists are optimists by nature - you have to be to pedal in Auckland – so, when I finally set off, I resolved to accept the weather, whatever it was. Besides, on a fully supported tour with Adventure South NZ, if worst truly came to worst, I'd still be cosy and cared for.
Here's why you don't need to wait for good weather to tackle the ride yourself.
Day one: 226km drive to Tekapo, 35km cycling
It's a grey-ish Sunday morning in Christchurch when our tour group meets by Cathedral Square, the bells still silent pending renovations. Seven of us boarded the van with guide Heather at the helm, and we made good time, with stops for comfort and coffee, and the obligatory pie at the Fairlie Bakehouse.
Through Burkes Pass we trundled, past the quirky ski fence and the country's oldest union church. The sky did look ominous and clouds deprived us of alpine views but the Mackenzie Country landscape, a medley of browns, tans and duns, was still ridiculously picturesque, even without the snowy frames.
At Tekapo, rather than stop for a photo op by the country's most photographed church, Heather pressed on towards the backroad that leads to Mt John Observatory. Pulling over in the middle of nowhere, we piled out and, with just two more hours of light, we hopped on our bikes, excited to be in the saddle. Off we rode, our peloton of seven, to Lake Alexandrina, home to the rare Australasian crested grebe, before turning towards Cass River along sweetly winding unsealed roads towards Glenmore Station.
Icy drizzle started to fall on my motley collection of warm clothes, and yes it was cold, but I'd packed every woollen and rain-resistant garment I owned. I'd resisted the urge to buy new gear, opting for multiple layers, long woollen socks pulled up to the knees, I even double bagged my digits – woollen gloves beneath ski gloves - but cycling made me warm, and it was only when drinking from my water bottle, that I clocked how cold it truly was.
We rolled into Tekapo just on dusk, past the booming new subdivision of Station Bay where carpets of new houses rolled out across once bare land. In contrast, the Church of the Good Shepherd, star of so many selfies and glorious portraits, sat as it had since 1935 on the shores of the lake, silent witness to so much change.
Day two: Tekapo to Lake Ōhau. 57km cycling
Exiting the snug motel on a frosty morning, I discovered dear Heather wiping the night's rain from our saddles with a towel. She also ensured we were all warm enough, and had water in our bottles and, after one final worship of the pretty chapel, we pedalled towards the actual Alps 2 Ocean trail. Uphill through new subdivisions of sturdy stone houses, I felt genuine elation that the rain had shifted, and the fog was lifting while the sun did its best to burn through the cloud and the canals, with their mesmerising swirling eddies lit up in shades of chalky green.
Downstream from the salmon farms, anglers dotted the banks, hopeful of catching an escapee, while signs along the canals warned us to beware of high winds, but mercifully, we were spared them.
Beyond the canals we came upon Lake Pukaki - at 30km long and 50m deep, it's the largest of the area's three alpine lakes and the shore was littered with recently felled pines, lending the trail a festive air, the resinous aroma of Christmas.
At the day's midway point, Heather the treasure set up a lakeside morning tea. Hot drinks, ginger slice, chocolate chip cookies and thermos flasks of hot water to fill hot water bottles if desired. But we were all quite warm enough and once refreshed, we pedalled for Twizel, as snowy peaks played peekaboo through the cloud. Beyond the lakeside information centre, we rode several kilometres of fabulous single trail along broad plains of scrubby vegetation. Octogenarian Judith set the perfect pace on her electric steed and the rest of us flowed along behind like two-wheeled ducklings as here and there, shy merino sheep startled at the sight of us, their scruffy fleeces at odds with the high price of their wool.
After 57km of forest, lakes, canals and perfect peace, we hit Twizel for lunch at The Musterers Hut – a slice of sublime carrot cake as big as my head. Chuffed but not puffed, the afternoon's itinerary included a drive to Aoraki Mt Cook Village, but due to the weather phenomenon known as the "inversion layer" we only got as far as Peter's Point Lookout where we optimistically waited for the mountains to flash us. When they didn't, we opted to warm ourselves by the open fire at Lake Ōhau Lodge where the lack of Wi-Fi and phone reception was liberating.
As for the hearty dinner of lamb rump and roasted veges, there is no danger of starving around this neck of the woods.
Day three: Twizel to Ōmārama via Lake Ōhau. 83km cycling
Back to Twizel, setting off from where we'd stopped the day before, the renowned inversion layer of moist mist hung low, but it also kept things warmer as we pedalled out of town past rust-coloured willows shrouded in fog, the damp making the silage more stinky.
At Lake Ōhau weir, the rain fell in earnest and I donned my raincoat, but foolishly not my waterproof trou. Before I could register the error and rectify it, my legs were wet. Riding along the edge of the lake, back to the lodge for lunch, I was still able to admire the bonny bracken and lichen-coloured rocks, the birds and burbling brooks, but the wind and rain did diminish my enjoyment and all I could think about was being warm and dry, and not sodden to the skin.
At the lodge, I plodded soggily to the fire, where a trio of toasty warm women was installed on the sofa, making idle chit-chat. I did not feel friendly. I removed my shoes and wrung water out my socks on the hissing hearth, and stuffed my shoes with newspaper. A deer head by the fireplace was hung with our dripping coats. "May we hang our laundry on the moose?" I asked, rhetorically. One of the fireside females tittered, "I don't think it's a moose dear." I did not reply. I was not in the mood, and huffily hung my coat.
My inner voice told me to flag the afternoon's ride as I miserably lugged my luggage into the bathroom and changed from top to toe. Lunch was pumpkin soup and toasted sandwiches and it, along with the change of clothes, rendered me human, even humorous, again. I can't believe I thought about ditching the next leg, but I did make one concession and asked Heather if I could ride the spare electric bike.
The 12.3km climb up Tarnbrae Saddle (900m, the highest point on the A2O) was a hoot on an e-machine. I whizzed up through beech forest, over bridges and past rivers before tacking the darling downhill to the historic woolshed where Heather waited with another afternoon tea tableaux. True bliss and, as I rode the final few miles to Ōmārama as the sun set, I was so glad I didn't let my soggy morning mood get the better of me.
Day four: Ōmārama to Kurow. 71km cycling
It rained all night, but the morning cleared to cloud and, as I rode down Waitaki Valley from the motel towards Lake Benmore, I wondered if somewhere in the world, there is a language with a word for the joy one feels upon waking to better weather than forecast while on a multi-day bike ride.
Once off the road, we encountered smoothly undulating paths the colour of French vanilla icecream, and willows that bowed their bare arms in the reflective waters of Lake Benmore. From Sailors Cutting, we skirted the winter-quiet campground, before hooting along the newest section of the trail.
Opened in 2020, the leg from Sailors Cutting to Benmore Dam took my breath away and we stopped every few metres to admire vast and ancient rocks, the distant forests and fiords. I silently praised nature, the ingenuity of trail designers and the hard yakka of the people who built this. And not forgetting Heather, with her unflagging good nature, she was waiting at the top of the dam with provisions.
The day's final leg took us over the Waitaki Dam and along the river to Kurow where we were greeted by Kate, our new mate from Waitaki Braids Lodge. Cheese scone, blueberry muffins, hot drinks and hotter showers awaited, not to mention a damn fine dinner and the best beds ever. The morning after a cracker sleep, I even pulled up the fitted sheet to check the brand.
Day five: Kurow to Duntroon to Enfield. 69km cycling
It's 20km from Kurow to Duntroon along wide avenues of Ōamaru stone, with a few river crossings to keep us honest, as well as a wetland featuring frogs and foliage.
I popped my head inside imposing St Martin's Anglican Church (consecrated 1901) before enjoying a welcome cuppa in The Flying Pig Cafe, open for the first time in three years the very day we passed. We approached Enfield via serpentine paths and more lush wetlands. Past the old Elderslie Station homestead we rode, and the stables where Phar Lap was sired, and finally to our lodgings at The Old School, an exquisitely appointed former primary. Enfield's locals gave us a warm welcome at the pub and, after a couple of glasses of pinot, I nearly committed to buying four hectares up the road.
Day six: Enfield to Ōamaru. 15km cycling
Short and sweet, we waved goodbye to the countryside and hello to the outskirts of Ōamaru, to the coast through the pretty municipal gardens. Once we'd arrived at the Victorian Precinct and harbourside park where the A2O officially finishes, we explored the shops and steampunk-themed galleries in a desultory fashion, because the last day of a great adventure will always feel a bit sad. As for the people who thought I was crazy to cycle the A2O in winter, I'd reckon you'd be crazy not to.
But spring's looking quite good too.
CHECKLIST: ALPS 2 OCEAN
Cycle the Alps 2 Ocean with Adventure South NZ, with departures available from September onwards. Priced from $2495pp, including accommodation, guides, vehicle support, some meals, return transport from Christchurch, and rider fees paid to the A20 Trail Trust. adventuresouth.co.nz