In 2015, I went on a 5-week bicycle tour around the South Island of New Zealand with my cousin, Hanif. It was a great trip and I have really fond memories of exploring the country on two wheels. Most people do a similar route in a car, but if you have the time and are looking for an adventure, I highly recommend cycling.
We had a real sense of freedom on the road. We stopped when something piqued our interest, had very few possessions and lived simply (mostly staying in hostels). The long rides put me in a meditative state and gave me the time and space to appreciate the beauty around me while improving my fitness.
Our preparation involved three main components:
- Camping v.s. Hostels/Hotels: The main decision you should make before the trip is if you want to camp vs. stay in a hotel or hostel. We opted to stay in private rooms in hostels which was about $40 per night per person. After a long day on the bike, a nice hot shower, a soft bed and laundry were worth the cost to us. You also save on a ton of extra weight as you don’t have to carry all the camping and cooking gear on your bike, which makes it much lighter. If you have the means, I’d highly recommend staying in hostels along the way (confirmation bias).
- Gear: Gear planning was a very important part of the trip. It was important to pack really light because everything we brought had to be carried on our panniers. Our bikes (Surely Disc Trucker) were touring bikes made out of steel (not carbon) because they are easier to repair in case something went wrong. We rented this and the panniers from Natural High in ChristChurch. We used this gear list as a starting point and did not pack any of the camping stuff. We ended up with this list, and bought most of the stuff for the trip. We bought high quality Gore bike gear (see the matching blue jackets in the picture below) and almost no casual clothes. The merino wool base layers were also great. The rides and the conditions can be really tough, and having good quality equipment really helps – so splurge a little.
- Route: The best resource for planning the route was Cycle Tour New Zealand. My friend, Paul, did a similar trip a few years before us and he was the inspiration to me for going on this adventure. His advice was invaluable and we ended up doing a shorter route than him which we documented in great detail here in case it’s useful for others. We usually cycled for about 3 days in a row averaging about 40 miles a day, and then took a rest day where we hiked, white water rafted, canyon swung, heli-hiked on a glacier, played golf, tasted wine and generally relaxed. 40-60 miles may not sound like much but the roads are hilly and our bikes were heavy.
- Fitness: Before the trip, we tried to ride our bikes in SF and NYC, do squats and lunges but it was not sufficient and we were SO sore after the first few days. At the end of the trip we were definitely stronger and fitter and could ride for much longer but we certainly felt like we could have been in better shape before the start of the trip.
The scenery was absolutely stunning and extremely varied throughout our cycle ride (in April/May). There were some days where it was below freezing and other days where it was like a summer day. We were in the mountains, on the coast, in semi arid terrain but most of the time we saw beautiful farmlands with mountains in the background.
The people were also so chill and friendly – one of our fondest memories was being befriended by a group of hunters who shared all their beer and lamb with us (sparing us squashed cheese sandwiches for dinner) and by the end of the night we were their ‘Maori Brothers’.
Queenstown is the most fun place we visited. We loved it here and did all the touristy things like jetboating, canyon swinging (like a bungee jump + swing) which was scary AF, golfing at Arrowtown, and enjoying good food and beer. A highlight was day hiking the Ben Lomond Saddle trail which was challenging and had great views. The ride from Queenstown to Wanaka up the Crown Range mountains was an absolute beast and our hardest ride together.
Abel Tasman is all the way on the North West side of the island and it is amazing! We kayaked in the water and hiked on the trails around the beaches and coves and it was a really nice change from all the long days of cycling. We spent 2 full days exploring here and loved it.
We stayed at a nice b&b here after a long ride in and spent the next day heli hiking on Fox Glacier. It was a little cheesy and touristy but it was really fun and we felt it was worth it (despite being the most expensive thing we did all trip).
Lake Tekapo was one of our first stops and it was such a nice little town with a relaxed vibe and a tasty Japanese restaurant (Kohan) with a great view. We hiked, played tennis and generally really felt at peace on our rest day here.
I’m frightened of birds (mainly crows) and I was constantly freaking out that the magpies that we saw on side of the road would swoop at me and attack me. This apparently only really happens from Aug-Oct when their chicks are hatching but there are attacks all year. Every time I saw them I was nervous, but in the end was never attacked.
On some days, the weather was really harsh but it’s all part of the fun. On the days with really terrible thunderstorms and heavy rain we opted to take a bus instead of survive through 4-6 hours in those conditions and on other days we just powered through. In all we were very lucky with the weather. When Hanif left and I cycled solo for the last 5 days I had my hardest day completing 70 miles from St Arnaud to Renwick against with intense headwinds. I could have used my buddy to keep me motivated on that day.
I thought the Fjords at Milford Sound were over-rated and it was a really long day trip from Queenstown. We felt like cattle being herded on a very scheduled trip, and the scenery was not as impressive as other parts of our trip. It was the only time we felt like we were on a ‘touristy’ trip after spending most of the time on our bike adventuring. I would suggest skipping it.
Overall, this was an amazing trip that felt like it was off the beaten path and was great for my mental and physical health. I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking for a really great adventure and has the time, but definitely do it with a friend or family member.