Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Our Trail Story
Is it is possible for a cartographer to get lost? Well, this was the predicament I found myself in four years ago on a disused part of the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail with a small group of friends. I’d say I was more disorientated than lost but this point was would be vigorously debated by my bruised-bummed friends. You see at Twizel I had decided that we should deviate from the official trail for the more remote access route to the hydro-electric storage lakes. As it turned out, this was a mistake, for as we headed further away from the comfort of the official trail we encountered water-filled potholes that could have been mistaken for the nearby reservoirs and round, fist-sized boulders which played havoc with our tyres.
Our distance from the main trail grew longer and longer in inverse proportion to my wife’s patience which was very, very short.
I was off-track in so many ways. The last climb over a moraine wall and back down to the main trail at Lake Ohau was a relief and I vowed never to repeat that experience again. That evening, over a comforting meal to soothe body and mind, I came up with a solution to our day’s mishap; I could use my trail mapping skills to build a free mobile app to make happier decisions for all those on the NZ Cycle Trail. This was the birthing moment of the Great Rides App.
Less than a year later our group returns, ready to right the wrongs of the past. This is the first ride to capture data for the Great Rides App; at this point, it feels more like a full-time adventure than a business venture. We look at the paper maps and can see why most riders choose the downhill direction from source to sea. It a no brainer!
The official trailhead at the foothills of Aoraki looks inviting with its flowing downhill trail through to the tussock flats of the Tasman Valley and the Mt Cook airport for a short flight with bikes across the river. The trail then weaves along the riverside before picking up a rural roadside to Lake Pukaki. However, we opt to start on the grassy, green banks of the lower reaches of Lake Pukaki.
I assemble the GPS units on my handlebars and take in the view. Northward is sheer beauty with a backdrop of mountains cradling the lake, its reflective surface drawing my eye to the magnificent white peak of Aoraki. Here the glacier meltwaters of the main divide become our trail companion accompanying us downstream over the next few days. Our mapping party consists of two couples of avid riders keen to explore the trail and avoid the mishap of our previous Alps 2 Ocean journey. We have several cameras between us to document our trail time and to build the photographic journey for the Great Rides App.
With the GPS all recording, we head off on some of the most scenic lakeside cycle trails in the country. It is a crisp spring morning, the lake is calm and its waters so turquoise from the suspended glacier rock-flour sediment that it appears unreal. We ride slowly to savour every moment as the trail curves along the foreshore, every sweep offering a different perspective of this majestic landscape. If the rest of the NZ Great Rides are anything like the start of this first ride, then we were in for the ride of a lifetime building this app!
After several kilometres of cycling, the lake terminates at a dam wall. It is a mind-boggling thought that this cycle trail passes canals and rivers that interconnect seven large lakes to generate electricity at eight hydro-electric stations that all make up the Waitaki power scheme. It’s so BIG! The scheme generates sufficient electricity to power a million homes! One day we will succumb to an e-bike and eventually plug into the scheme to recharge our batteries between trail sections.
I bet there is no e-bike riding club large enough to drain this scheme.
We power on too, using solely human input to keep our wheels turning over the expanse of Twizel’s Pukaki Flats.
Soon our energy levels fall to critically low levels and we ride into the village square for a lunch of waffle fries and burgers. After recharging our tummies we head off, and unlike the previous year’s debacle, we stay on the official trail which leads smoothly beside the canals to the control gates of Lake Ohau. Bliss! Here, beside the lake, we ride the loveliest of trail sections. Its tight and intimate path hugs the native scrub and is never far from the water tempting us in for a swim at each shingle bay we pass. It is too cold for me but the others pussy-foot in and shiver out refreshed. This section of the track is a highlight and a rider’s delight.
Soon we are at the base of the Ohau skifield access road. We click down to low gears and start the gentle but long 11km climb to the Tarnbrae summit. Being the first trip in ages, my climbing fitness could be better and I puff my way up a few hundred vertical metres to the 700m contour line. As the last member of our group reaches the top we have a celebration dance, take long gulps from our water bottles and admire the elevated views above Lake Ohau and the Mackenzie Basin. While the views are outstanding, we don’t linger as there is still a spring chill in the air.
Just a few metres on, the thrill of the downhill is just a switchback away so we point our tyres downwards and let gravity do the work for us. The descent is sweet and effortless as our wheels pick up pace until we reach the flatter grassland below, then there are just a couple of rocky fords to negotiate before we reach the historic Quailburn woodshed. It is here we stop for the day to pitch our tents, explore the relics and have a restful night’s sleep.
Next morning sees us head south past the turnoff to the badland formations of the Clay Cliffs, over the Ahuriri River and into the gliding magnet of Omarama. As the rest of my cycling companions are rather big Bruce Springsteen fans there are numerous versions of his song ‘Badlands’ being sung into the wind over this section of the trail. From Omarama, we pedal eastward for the rest of the ride. Cresting the Chain Hills we are reunited with the waters of the Waitaki scheme. The ride here is gorgeous with willows wisping in the wind, rustic iron-clad barns and
a trail so well-tailored it’s as if Mother Nature herself had threaded it through the countryside.
There’s a variety of terrain and associated scenery on the Alps 2 Ocean that other places can’t begin to even dream of in a distance easily achieved on a bicycle. I love this country. Reaching the rest area at Sailors Cutting, we delight in finding an unexpected mobile coffee van. A refreshing beverage and a chat with the vendor soon sees us underway to Otematata – the next settlement.
Here the trail overlooks wetlands of waterfowl as it arcs around the hillside until the massive earth bund of the Benmore Dam rises before us. Biking up one hundred vertical metres beside the dam is a challenge but the views are well worth it. Riding atop the dam wall we take in the lapping waters that are almost out of place in the arid landscape. Below us are the dam’s infrastructure of pylons, spillways and six massive concrete pipes big enough they could easily transport trucks through to its turbines. We continue following the willow-lined lake, past picturesque camping spots that beg us to return and follow the flow of Waitaki River seaward until twilight.
Setup for the day by a good night’s sleep in Kurow, we continue on to Duntroon, a hamlet that truly embraces its heritage with a restored blacksmith’s shop and town gaols. They are cool. There are also limestone statues, a fossil centre, a cave and ancient rock drawings that can be seen from the trail. As the trail climbs through farmland, nature’s massive rock art dominates. Was that the shape of a giant goat watching us sweat up the hill? Another is more like a camel, right down to its caramel coloured coat.
Then, as we reach Elephant Rocks, the outcrops multiply and become more grandiose. Here we park up our bikes and walk between the limestone shapes as each blob morphs into a figure in one’s imagination. For me the outcrops pop out of the pasture like cream townhouses built on a greenfield site quickly erected but yet to be landscaped. There are no small lumps just individual monoliths sprouting from the earth. We ride on and enter the Nania chasm; a realm that eats up the trail like it’s coming to a dead-end, yet on into its bowels we explore before being spat out via a series of switchbacks that release us from this film site.
The environment changes before us yet again as we ride out of the inland aridness and into the coastal murk. We see small glimpses through the clag of limestone outcrops, deep rolling valleys and carpets of lush green pasture. Before we know it we reach a dark tunnel. Its building blocks are the same limestone that we have seen at the elephant rock monoliths. The former Rakis railway tunnel is our first taste of a rail trail and our portal eastward to the ocean. One last climb and we see the blue hue of the Pacific Ocean, here our bikes seem to not need our driving power as we drop into the outskirts of Oamaru.
As the trail passes right through one of the oldest public gardens in the country where we see proof that spring has sprung. Gardens of flowers are in full bloom. We take a moment to stop and admire the ponds, the weeping trees that are laden down with flowers and families enjoying the warmth of the new season. In our last trail moments, we take in the Victorian quarter of town with its magnificent limestone facades, fascinating arty stores, steampunk HQ and the Whitestone City heritage hub. Finally we reach the walk-in picture frame of the Alps 2 Ocean trailhead. Like others before us we mount its stage and pose for a shot. Like the riders who leave from the base of Mt Cook more than 300 kilometres back, we too have wide smiles.
With our mission of mapping the very trail which once had me …uh humm… ‘disoriented’ completed, the ghosts of the past have been put to rest and I stand in the frame focused on my next cycling and mapping adventure.