Coming around the Mountains
Around the Mountains
Our Trail Story
Can there be a better start to a trail than farewelling the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ via a 100 year old steamship to ply across a pristine lake with a backdrop of the most remarkable mountains? Well if there is, I want to find it! Leaving Queenstown, (or should that be ‘Queenopolis’ given the recent population explosion?), you leave the bustle of business for simpler shores. The trip on the TSS Earnslaw is like the briefest of ocean journeys spiriting you away to a whole new land; and once you leave the steamship’s dark coal-smoke clouds behind, a fresh new journey begins.
I have guided many groups on cycle trips on this trail. I have watched how riders hop off this steamship with their anticipation of what lies ‘around the mountains’ fizzing in their excitement much like I imagine the first pioneers who arrived on these shores might have.
I love the way that in less than an hour cyclists go from comfort to corrugations as they ride towards the Von Valley. I can still picture some of their smiles as they pedal lakeside with the hanging glaciers over their shoulder while steady headwinds try to blow them backwards. Their joy persists on the trail between two farm stations before heading inland when stern faces contemplate the Von Hill appearing ahead.
Any cycle-tour leader knows that word choice is critical for describing an assent. It is something that they don’t teach you but you soon learn. What can be an undulation for some is a hill for others, the same hill for some can be a mountain to overcome.
The wrong term from me for the relief could mean no relief from the riders tormenting me about my description for the rest of the tour.
Sometimes it is best to just point to the feature rather than describe it. So I just point. Arriving at the climb sees a few of us walk, some ride, while some do a bit of both; either way it is an achievement to rise 300 metres onto the barren plateau at the top and leave Otago behind. This plateau can be a harsh environment despite being a public road. In the Von Valley there is no thick scrub or buildings to offer shelter, no cellular service, and being up at 700 metres in the south it can be bone chilling at any time of the year.
The Von brings back fond memories of my spring data collection for the Great Rides App I have built. The Von was the place I trialed my equipment before venturing nationwide. The three GPS units attached to my bike became my trusty cycle log.
The first tracking point I gathered in the Von quickly snowballed to five million at the end of my Great Year. That’s a lot of data!
With the devices recording, and dressed for a snowstorm my wife and I rode through this beautiful valley. My gloved frozen digits soon became clumsy appendages hopeless with which to enter waypoints of passing trail features on the GPS. The features we saw and recorded were something else. A tussock terrace hemmed in by craggy mountains was a delightful highlight, it’s no wonder the Tour Aotearoa cyclists who ride the length of the country rank this valley so highly.
After crossing some chilling fords we reach the historic Bullock Creek Hut. It’s a privately-owned musterers’ hut open to the public for day use only. It was built right back in the early pastoral days. I am fascinated at the use of beech tree branch framing inside the hut, the rough sawn cladding and the views down the Von through its rustic six pane window. Shepherds once wintered here to keep sheep below the snowline of the Eyre Mountains. Brrr! It would have been a scenic, remote and frigid existence for those pioneers. We continue to pedal with extremities still numb from the cold while my GPS units collect data which plots our tyre tracks as we ride to more lakes ahead.
If there was a jewel along this majestic trail it would have to be the Mavora Lakes. Just a few metres off the main trail as we pass the lakes, and surrounded by a canopy of virgin rainforest, is another world much like that of Middle Earth – in fact there are several filming locations within a hobbit’s hop of these two lakes. When you reach the first marked viewpoint in this part of the trail a lake view opens up to South Mavora, a the suspension bridge over the lake outlet seems unreal. The lake edges have no buildings, and to cross the lake is to enter a wilderness.
Continuing further along the road to North Mavora brings us to the grassy terraces of a Department of Conservation basic campsite offering some of the most idyllic tenting options in the front country. We pitched our tent after our ride and took a forest walk careful not to disturb hiding hobbits before hitting the sac. As morning breaks, we head outside where the sandflies are truly mean suckers. We’re are out of there lickitty-split!
Back on the main trail the gravel road continues south before arcing eastward through farmland. Under normal weather conditions this is a welcome turn as the prevailing wind will now push us along. Soon we reach the Centre Hill cattleyards where we hop onto purpose-built cycle trail. Here civilisation starts to reappear. The Around the Mountains Trail was one of seven quick start projects of the overall NZ Cycle Trail project.
This trail was proposed in two parts, however the first stage following the Oreti River of the Von got tied up in Environment Court cases and sadly was later abandoned. As a result, the original second stage became the first and the purpose-built cycle trail starts near the cattleyard. With a howling westerly we made good speed on this wide and flat trail – it was one of those days when a sail would have been useful. For a section the trail playfully mimicks the snaking bends of a freshwater spring fed creek. It is lovely riding.
We are not alone in benefiting from the breeze. Massive blades of wind farm turbines flash as they come into view heralding our arrival at the backstreets of Mossburn - the deer capital of NZ. With the demise of a deer processing factory the town is now supported by farming and the increasing tourist traffic flocking to Fiordland. At just over the half way point on the Around The Mountains trail, Mossburn is the first township of several along the way. Some people will choose from a couple of places to eat and will stay here. Not us. We continue east.
Next, we negotiate the Mossburn Slaloms; a series of power poles that weirdly and annoyingly ended up right in the middle of the trail, before we reach the junction to Lumsden. Lumsden was formerly known as ‘The Elbow’ as it is where the river turned 90 degrees and was also known as ‘The Hub’ as it was at a railway crossroads.
Today the rails have become trails, and tourists have replaced trains at the former Lumsden railway station - a hectic gathering place each night where freedom campers come in to roost.
The free overnight parking here is proving extremely popular with the punters, and while dividing the opinion of locals, there is no denying that it keeps the largest town on the trail full of life. We cycle north, passing The Elbow, coming around the Eyre Mountains, to head for the bottom of Lake Wakatipu.
Onwards we travel through blink-and-you’ve-missed-it Five Rivers and then over the Jollies hills before dropping into the Mataura catchment. The trail hops over a couple of creeks with the help of some suspension bridges before reaching the small township of Athol. One of the highlights of Athol is a brand spanking new custom-built art gallery beside the trail. If you are after some local art for a lasting memory of your ride, then park your bike and peruse. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, have a look at the depth of talent on show in here. Wow!
After appreciating the works we point our bikes in the direction of the ‘Golden Gates’, two towering and beautiful cycle trail suspension bridges over the Mataura River. These bridges are a sure-fire photo stop, a visual celebration of structural engineering.
The trail continues to follow the former railway line down a long straight into the settlement of Garston. Garston’s claim to fame: NZ’s most inland village. Recently it has had an upsurge of commercial activity providing a new place eat and stay as well as two stores – one sells locally crafted art, Jewellery and homewares, the other an eclectic mix of imported furniture and NZ honey …. odd, but in a small town one does what works. Garston seems to be on the up!
As I sip a hot chocolate in the sun and look up to the skyline, I feel warmed in body and mind by memories formed in the hills above us. The prominent rock feature I’m looking at on top of the Slate Range is Welcome Rock; a place I spent several seasons both designing and building by hand a cycle trail with landowner and good mate; Tom. I can still remember those cold winter days clearing snow to cut trail on these former gold miner’s water races. My thoughts return to the present as the kiwi flag above us starts to flutter then flap, the afternoon anabatic wind will be our friend helping us home to Kingston.
We ride north, crossing the Mataura River twice and passing the former railway station of Fairlight. Perhaps you’ve seen it featured on a TV One self promotion advert with a ball rolling along it’s dilapidated platform? Just before Lake Wakatipu comes into view we pass Trotters homestead, the remains of stone walls the only remnant of the first European settlers’ home in the area. After saving a waypoint marking this historic ruin we head downhill, with fast and flowy trail through former glacier moraines terminating at the quaint lakeside village of Kingston.
Reaching the wharf that extends out into the clear waters marks the finish of the trail that traverses around the mountains of the southern Wakatipu. It is quite fitting that the end of the trail at the end of the Kingston railway branch is the site of the well known and loved Kingston Flyer steam train. The Flyer brought the TSS Earnslaw (where our adventure began) up to here from down south in sections to be reassembled, launched and used as a ferry before the road ever reached Queenstown. Heritage encircles our cycle journey.
By riding the Around The Mountains trail we have come around the Eyre Mountains - a series of rugged ranges separating the Von Valley from Kingston and lake Wakatipu. The range was named after a NZ Lieutenant-Governor of both the lower North Island (New Ulster/Northern Island) and the South Island (New Munster/Middle Island) in the early settlement days.
I prefer the Maori name for the ranges of ‘Taka Ra Haka’ which refers to the sun dancing along the mountain tops in the evenings.
At our home in Kingston, we measure the advance of summer by the extent the sun skips over the ridgeline above our house – some days the troughs between peaks bathes us in ten minutes more sun beams than the day prior.
At journey’s end I reflected on the trail and the experiences it delivered. It’s a journey of contrasts; fleeing from civilisation to the wild; riding on-road before going off-road; and from barren open expanses to forest filled valleys. I liked how we departed the lake before circling right back to its shores. Yes, this trail is about leaving the bustle and being taken on a journey around the mountains, circling Taka Ra Haka - to a place where the sun frolics along the mountain tops