Cycle Touring in New Zealand

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.

Preparation

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.

Highlights

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’.

A very common scene

Queenstown

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

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.

Abel Tasman

Fox Glacier

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

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.

Lowlights

Magpies

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.

Check out this terrifying video!

Harsh weather

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.

Milford Sound

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.

Milford Sound

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.

Trekking and Ski Gear

When I buy equipment, I research it intensely and I am sharing my picks below in case they are useful for you. I’ve put these gear picks to the test by skiing (12 resorts) and trekking (places like Kilimanjaro, Annapurna Circuit) in harsh conditions over the last 5 years, with some pictures below.

If you buy proper, high quality gear, it is re-useable for both trekking and skiing and will last a really long time. I don’t have any perspective on style (as you can see from my pictures), and this post is primarily about function and some of the products that I like.

Summary

Here are the main takeaways in case you don’t care for the details:

  1. Dress in layers – you’ll typically need a base, mid and outer layer for cold weather.
  2. Your first layer should be merino wool, if possible, as it’s functional in hot and cold weather and you can wear it for a long time without it getting smelly.
  3. Your outer layers should be high quality Gore-Tex shells, particularly for your jacket. Make sure your jacket has a hood.
  4. Get a neck buff. It’s the most versatile thing that I have, and a lifesaver.

Layers

When you buy your gear, it’s best to buy in layers vs integrated (insulated) items. It’s definitely more expensive, but quality gear lasts a long time, is more versatile in seasons, and really makes a difference to your comfort level in harsh (freezing, windy) conditions on the mountains.

  1. Base Layer: Get good quality merino wool base layers for your tops (1 short, 1-2 long sleeve) and bottoms (1-2 underwear, 1-2 tights), and socks (2-3 pairs). This will last a long trekking trip of up to a week, and a week long ski trip, minus the underwear. For value, I like Smartwool, but my preferred merino wool baselayers are from Mons Royale, which are good quality and slightly more thoughtfully designed.
  2. Mid Layer: You really just need one mid layer jacket. I LOVE my Patagonia Nano Air with a hood. I’ve bought one of these for everyone in my family. I also recently read the founder of Patagonia’s book “Let my people go surfing” and it’s hard not to be inspired by his authenticity.
  3. Outer Layer: Get a good Gore-Tex shell jacket (not insulated), and this is more important than trousers. I got mine from Arc’teryx but their stuff is pretty pricey. I got my trousers from Arc’teryx too, as they have some nice synergies (jacket clips to pants) but you can easily get more affordable trousers if you’re budget constrained.

Merino Wool

Merino wool is the best! It’s so much better than synthetics for long trekking trips and ski trips. It keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold, still performs well when it’s wet and you can wear it for 2-3 days without it getting super smelly. It’s more expensive, and a little harder to take care of as you need to wash it in cold water and hang it up to dry. The performance and comfort improvements are well worth the trade off. Here is a good summary of the pros and cons if you want more info.

Outer Layer

I’m not a Gore-Tex expert (good article here) but have owned a few jackets now, and think they are all pretty fantastic. The jacket I have from Arc’teryx is made from the Gore-Tex Pro material which has 3-layers of material to make it even more waterproof and durable. I really like the Patagonia shells too, and they come in at a slightly lower price point than Arc’teryx. Make sure your jacket has a hood (so useful for keeping warm and dry) and make sure that the hood is big enough to fit over your ski helmet.

Neck Buffs

A good neck buff is so useful – it protects your face from wind on the chairlift or if there is ice smacking your face and keeps your neck warm. It’s a must have on trekking and ski trips. Here is the neck buff I have, which is merino wool from Mons Royale (around $30) and it’s great.


A lot of this gear is expensive, and if you buy it all it can add up. You can almost always get everything on sale; I bought almost everything at least 30% off retail. If you look after the equipment, it can last a really long time. My shells are seven years old and still in great working condition. On a cost per wear basis a good quality product always ends up being worth it versus. a lower quality product. Also when you are at the top of a mountain, freezing your tushie off a little less, you’ll thank me.

Guide to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Summit Day

In January 2018, my wife Tej and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid (at least since my mum climbed it when I was 16) and I’m really happy I was finally able to make it up the mountain.  Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain (not surrounded by a range) in the world and the tallest peak in Africa. Uhuru peak, the summit, is very high at 19,000 feet / 5900m.

I’m writing this to document my own experience and make it easy to share with friends. I’ve already shared some of my research with at least 3 people who’ve ended up doing a similar trip and all had a great experience.

Preparation

In preparation for the trip, the most important things to do are to reach a base level of physical fitness and to get good gear. The weather can be severe and the last thing you want on a tough day is to have the wrong equipment and make your day even harder.

A German guy on the mountain said to me on the mountain:

‘There is no such thing as bad conditions, only bad equipment’

In terms of gear for the trip, I put together this spreadsheet inventory with everything you need for the trip. I would go through it line by line and make sure you bring everything that is a must have. I pulled this gear list together from the following sources:

A couple of high level points:

  • Ski gear: I used my ski gear and it worked out great – merino wool base layers, insulation mid layers and waterproof outer layers are exactly what you need.
  • Snacks: Bring some tasty snacks – e.g. dried mango, nuts, chocolate, energy gels (especially good). As you get higher you will lose your appetite and snacks come in really handy as small energy bombs.
  • Wipes: This is how we ‘showered’ every day before changing and getting in our sleeping bags.
  • Leisure: I’d suggest bring a kindle and some cards to pass the time at camp.

In terms of training, the hike is not super physically challenging so I’d work on your general fitness and walk on a stair master or at incline a few times a week if you’re worried about it.

Operator and route selection

Tour Operator

We considered a number of tour operators including Zara Tours, Monkey Adventures, Popote and Kilimanjaro Brothers. We narrowed it down to Kilimanjaro Brothers and Popote and chose Popote in the end because they were better priced and still seemed to have a first class operation. I highly recommend Popote, they were great and we were really happy with the service they provided.

Tipping

Tipping can be a very stressful time for folks at the end of the trip, but it does not have to be. You build a bond with the people you helped you up the mountain and it’s a nice moment to appreciate them. I made this spreadsheet with the amounts we tipped each person (in 2018) on our trip in case it’s helpful for others. Make sure you bring cash and USD is probably the easiest.

We ended up sponsoring guide training for our ‘waiter’ who is now a guide with Popote as we really liked him and wanted to do something small to help.

Route

We ended up picking the 7 day / 6 night Lemosho route which was wonderful. The other option we considered was the 6 day / 5 night Machame route but ultimately decided to go for the longer more picturesque route to help us get better used to the altitude and increase our chances of summiting. We also figured that 1 day extra was not a big sacrifice given the time and long travel invested into the climb. I would not recommend any longer than 7 days though – by the last day we were pretty excited to get off the mountain.

Time of the year

There are two main seasons for climbing Kilimanjaro. January-March are the ‘warm’ (it was still -15C when we summited) but slightly wetter months and August-October are the colder and dryer months. I don’t think it really matters too much which block you choose.

Climb experience

The climb is a great out and back experience and we really enjoyed spending time with our guides and each other and enjoying the changing terrain as we made it up the mountain. Overall it was easy/moderate difficulty except the ‘Summit Day’ which is challenging.

On ‘Summit Day’, we started the ascent at midnight so it’s dark almost the whole way to the summit which we reached around 630am. It’s a demanding day mentally and physically because of how much you walk (50k steps walked, 3k vertical feet up and 6k feet down), the altitude (dizziness, nausea) and the cold (-15C and windy). Both Tej and I had moments where we felt like we would not make it but we helped each other through it – most of the actual difficulty on summit day is mental but you’re rewarded with all the endorphins when you make it to the top.

Here are some photos of our trip:

Day 1: On the way to the start of the climb with our crew
Day 3: Lava Tower (altitude acclimatization)
Day 4: Climbing the Great Barranco,Wall
Day 5: Our tent in Barafu Camp just before the summit day
Cheesy Summit Day Photo – a must!