Pedaling New Zealand

Travelers take in the countryside on two wheels

By: David Swanson

I must confess: After signing up for an eight-night cycling adventure through New Zea-land, the pre-trip literature provided by tour operator Trek Travel was daunting. If every inch of the itinerary was biked from Lake Pearson, west of Christchurch, to Wanaka, near Queenstown it would total 399 miles. I’m no Lance Armstrong wannabe: My thighs trembled at the thought of what they had been committed to.

But as a cycle tour newbie, I didn’t realize how easy it would be to get on and off the bike at almost any point. I could skip the climbs in favor of descents; I could ride the entire route in a van if I wanted to. At a get-acquainted lunch on our first day, the three guides explained how the fully supported tour was organized to accommodate a range of abilities.

“On our last New Zealand ride we had a woman who rode only 80 miles, and a guy who did over 700 miles on the same trip,” said guide Dave Edwards.

The nine clients ranged from riders in their late 50s gearing up to tackle several “centuries” (100-mile rides) during the summer, to another couple in their early 40s who hadn’t been on a bike in five months.

The first ride from Lake Pearson to Wilderness Lodge Arthur’s Pass, where we spent our first two nights, was just 12½ miles our shortest day. But it turned out to be the hardest in one respect: Mounting a bike in chilly rain was not a pleasing way to initiate the journey. It made every morning thereafter comparatively easier. Much of our route on the west coast of the South Island traveled through rainforests, and wet weather was a given.

The layover at Arthur’s Pass was full of non-biking diversions, including a tramp through forests of mountain beech, a canoe paddle on a lake and Merino sheep-shearing at the adjacent Cora Lynn Station.

The third day started under cloudless skies in the coastal town of Hokitika, where we pointed our wheels toward Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest point plainly visible 75 miles down the coast.

The day revealed all the sightseeing advantages of bike touring: streams trickling through moss; white morning glories that necklaced the em- bankments. Most of the time in a car, I zoom past these details, only to miss something serendipitous, like the latte-colored mare that galloped alongside me in her pen. And for all my concern about weather, the day proved the validity of a cycling trip through the wetland: The Tasman Sea scenery was resplendent.

Our guides, Edwards, Katie White and Krissy Johnson, ranged in age from 25 to 41. Each day one would accompany the group on a bike and two would drive support vans loaded with spare bikes, luggage and food. They were quick with the tools the occasional flat or fine-tuning of gears was fixed in a flash and they were easy-going, learned traveling companions. They also proved accomplished when it came to the logistics of operating a tour where nine clients could be nine different places, miles apart, without the benefit of cell-phone reception.

We spent two nights in Franz Josef, the town at the base of one of New Zealand’s largest glaciers. The key attraction: a helicopter flight to the glacier, which was included in the Trek itinerary. The chopper zoomed along the frozen river and dropped us off with a guide on the glacier’s midsection. Fitted with ice axe and crampons, we loved the tunnels of blue ice, crevasses and kettle lakes under skies warm enough for shorts and T-shirts.

Our fifth day brought drizzles and a 70-mile ride that started with the Triple Bypass, a trio of climbs over progressively steeper, higher ridges that separate Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. That afternoon, the group congregated in the town of Fox for flat whites, the local cappuccino.

The Wilderness Lodge Lake Moer- aki, where we spent the night, was wonderfully isolated. The resident nature guide led us through a grove of ferns to feed river eels and to a beach where fur seals lounged in the sun.

The next morning our final long “transfer” day started with winds blustering from every direction and pouring rain.

Edwards was waiting for us at the start of the 1,500-foot climb to Haast Pass. Lightning cracked and we huddled in the van with tea and biscuits. The weather was just a little too much for us, and Edwards gently suggested that we shuttle over Haast in the vans. As we ascended the steep road, lined with burgeoning waterfalls and precipitous cliffs, we were awestruck. The rain started to let up as we drove over the pass, and half the group then set out on the ride to Wanaka, leaving the tropical rainforest behind.

The rest of our journey revealed the island’s eastern side a drier, sub-alpine environment with raw expanses of sharp, loose granite. The road followed Lake Hawea, revealing sweeping panoramas around almost every bend, and the tailwinds were so strong that at times I could practically coast on the level stretch.

Wanaka was a lovely town to end our adventure with broad lake vistas framed by trees cast in autumn colors. Most of the group used the layover day for scenic flights over Milford Sound and other activities, but I was content to cycle for a few more hours, exploring the surrounding area.

Yes, my itinerary said a rental car awaited in Queenstown for the balance of my journey. But after almost 300 miles by bike, I was in no hurry to trade in my two wheels for four.


In addition to popular destinations like France and Italy, Trek Travel’s 2006 catalog features new destinations, including Switzerland and Costa Rica and an increased focus on North America. Most of the trips operate spring through fall, but destinations like New Zealand, Hawaii and Santa Barbara, Calif., provide winter options.

Trek Travel’s nine-day, eight-night New Zealand trip costs $3,095. Many of the trips Trek Travel offers are duplicated to a degree by competing companies Butterfield and Robinson offers the same New Zealand route for $4,995 but Trek officials say the biggest difference between Trek and other companies is the bikes. Trek’s standard bike is the same frame used by America’s pro-cycling team on the Tour de France.
Commission: 10 percent.