Tip to Tail: Trans Te Waipounamu - Mountain Bike Adventuring the Length of the South Island

by Mark Megaughin

Standing with our bikes at the start of the Nydia Bay track at the top of the South Island, the past 4 months of intense planning finally started to feel like they may have been worthwhile. We'd spent too many late nights plotting routes, arranging land access, locating accommodation, working out what food was needed, what equipment would last the distance and tapping up old hands for nuggets of information on what was rideable and what was not. It had started to wear thin.

The idea to find a route along the length of the South Island by joining up bits of classic riding with unknown bits that 'looked good on the map' had been fermenting amongst Neil, Ruth and I for a while and finally four weeks over Christmas 2014 was chosen to give it a go. It quickly became apparent that it was going to be a logistical monster! Dave Mitchell, Guy Wynn-Williams and Joe Arts had pushed through on a similar route almost 20 years previously (Off the Beaten Track) but since then there was little first-hand experience to lean on. Crucially for us, Mitchell et al had had a support crew providing nightly shelter and vast quantities of avocados, whereas we were to be self-sufficient. With the first shop on the route being in Wanaka, almost 1000km from the start, a serious level of planning was required, along with the secretion of food drops along the entire length of the country. Boxes were spaced at roughly three day intervals and contained quantities of dehydrated meals that made us shudder in fear as we packed them into the drop boxes along with spare tubes, gas and other odds and sods.

But now, with our entire month planned, and 1,500km of the best riding and scenery we could tease from the maps stretched out invitingly in front of us, the effort seemed fully justified. The excitement to put the masterplan into action was almost uncontrollable. Cycling the length of the South Island, offroad and as close to the Main Divide as we dared, was about to get real.

However, despite the military grade planning the weather on the first day decided not to play ball and it poured with rain. Regardless, there was nothing but smiles as we disappeared down a track which would usually be avoided like the plague in anything exceeding moist conditions (the Kennetts suggest the Nydia Track is 'mostly unrideable' in the wet). Greasy rocks, wet roots of death and a slick clay surface were our lot for the day, and it made for nervous riding. Like being in a pinball machine; we bounced from root to rock and back to root with only the odd occasion where we had any input into the bikes direction of travel. Most entertaining! Day one, rain. Oh dear.

Day two was the famous Wakamarina Track, an old goldminers route across the Richmond Range. Ask anyone who has ridden the track and they are likely to tell you it's in their top ten; it's the Goldilocks of downhills. 1000m of track: steep, but not too steep, switchbacks which are tight, but not too tight, a surface of beautifully soft beech forest loam which is not to loose and not to firm - its just right. Unfortunately we were doing it in the wrong direction making it a net uphill of significant proportion. Ho, hum. So bikes were thrown onto our backs and it was heads down all the way to the hut positioned high on the ridge above. It was apparent quite quickly that carrying 10kg+ of gear and a bike on your back is no easy task and that slow and steady was the way to go.

The climbing was rewarded the next day with a great descent on single track to the Northbank Road. The road, which follows the Wairau River, was a slog but necessary to access the Rainbow Valley, a weakness in the mountains which allowed progress south. The first tantrum of the trip was thrown when after 10 hours on the bike, and a bit of road riding in the baking heat, the prospect of an unexpected hill climb got the better of me. Sour worms were applied and with the black stuff behind us my mood improved vastly. Conor Creek Hut was a welcome sight; food was demolished and sleep came quickly.

Back on the Rainbow Road the next day heading towards the St. James Conservation Area it was quickly apparent that the day had been set to 'fan bake'. Before long we were out of water and all the streams appeared to have cow as their most abundant fauna. In the end we had to settle for the least cow-y stream to fill up. We climbed over Island Saddle, down into the Clarence Valley and then up over Maling Pass into the St. James. The scenery just got better and better, we also noticed that we were getting into a bit of a rhythm. So long as we didn't attack hills, or race out along straights, we found we could keep going and going. The hills started to get less taxing, so long as we took it easy. It was a promising sign and we arrived at Lake Guyon Hut in high spirits.

We woke feeling good the next day, eager to continue down the Waiau River and through to Tin Jug Hut on Glenhope Station. A reasonably short day which would have us tucking into the pile of Christmas treats we had stashed there several weeks earlier.

We arrived at the bottom of Charlies Saddle just after lunch, leaving only 4km the hut. This was the end of the marked track so the remainder was our own route. In our way, however, was a 30 m high unconsolidated gravel cliff, and the Waiau River. The cliff was despatched when we stumbled across a tiny fisherman's access to the river which was even rideable! The river was won less easily, flowing more swiftly than we had guessed. After some solo brinkmanship with the fast flowing river we settled on a three person crossings per bike which took 12 crossings to get the three bikes over the two braids. We'd also had to cross much further upstream than we'd hoped and were now faced with a big bush bash. Two problems presented themselves (1) the river bank was an impregnable sea of scragglebush [Scragglebush - a botanical collective noun for an assortment of plants which generally impedes forward travel; common components being matagouri, broom, gorse, bush lawyer and other unidentified aggressive flora], and (2) the track we were heading for on the map which led to the hut didn't exist. Four hours later we were scratched, bleeding, tired and only 400m closer to the hut. With light running low we gave in and bashed back to the river and headed straight down through the water, hoping from boulder to boulder and skirting below huge unconsolidated cliffs. The hut was reached just as the sun set and we were relieved that we had avoided one of our shortest days almost forcing a bivi out for the night. The hut was, um, rustic, but welcoming. Wash, Christmas goodies, bed.

Despite the antics of the previous day there was no time to sleep in as another big day lay ahead. Following a station track down the valley we were abused by the ridiculous changes in gradient the track meted out on a whim. The bulldozer has a lot to answer for. We had a lunchtime stop at the Boyle River for some Christmas day swimming in the baking heat and scored a round of beers from some tourists who took pity on our dishevelled appearance; it was the most savoured beer I think I have ever drunk. Post-lunch it was back on the bikes and into the welcoming cool of the forest through to Hope Kiwi Lodge. A great track but very energy intensive riding; yet another hut was reached with the fuel gauges resting on empty.

This massive backcountry hut was empty and we suddenly realised we had barely seen a soul since we started. Pre-Christmas is a quiet time in the hills, even more so the hills we were traveling through, and the next day as we cycled out to Lake Sumner, up over to Lake Mason and on to Esk Head Station we again had only ourselves for company. It would be another three days before seeing any sign of other travellers.

Next up was the Dampier Range, a 1600m high range of untracked mountains which lay in our path between Lake Sumner and the Arthurs Pass area. It was held in high enough esteem to get a 5am start. Although worried about the difficult of this apparent monster by now we had our pace really sorted and taking it slow but steady we pushed and carried all the way to the ridge without a grumble; stumbling across a faint pack track made climbing much easier going. After a spot of lunch in the long tussock of the lee slope which protected us from a raging mountain top gale we took off down the ridge, glad to be back on the bikes after such a long carry. The riding, a mix of scree and tussock was exhilarating. With no track the whole slope was ours and we were quickly 150 m above valley floor. The tussock suddenly doubled in height and tripled in density. Riding was impossible so the bikes went back on our now tender shoulders and we proceeded to walk, trip and slide through yet more scragglebush down the last slope. A quick bite to eat and a repack of the bags and we were off down the Esk River, on the well-built tracks of Mt White Station. The valley was filled with massive gravel deposits which formed huge terraces. Getting around the steep cuts formed by streams meant long detours and huge ups and downs as the track continued on its way. Impressive, but tiring work.

An hour of valley travel had us at the hut and the usual regime got underway. We were all too aware that a minor injury or bike failure could end the trip instantly. So most nights involved washing bodies and clothes, bike fettling, cooking, eating and only then a bit of relaxing. Nights often ended with a quick game of cards before beating the sun to bed. The moment the sun went down at this hut, however the usual regime, which generally slipped quickly into gentle snores and light snuffing, was rudely disrupted. The darkness brought out dozens of mice which scuttled across floors, roofs, benches, fireplaces and beds. They were rampant. Neil broke when one ran over his head, Ruth was struck by irreversible mouse trauma when she spotted one swinging from her top as it dried by the fire, apparently in an attempt to get to her bunk. There was serious talk of packing up and leaving at 2am. A hard night for the team all round. Except for me, who slept through it all! The first I knew about the exploits of the previous night was waking to find the Hudsons perched on a mouse proof island in the middle of the hut ingeniously constructed from two benches precariously supporting a narrow mattress.

So it was a slow start to the next day punctuated with lot of sighing. Eventually leaving the hut we were off down more station road, again at the mercy of the bulldozer. At Cass we recovered one of our hidden boxes and feasted on the extra food we couldn't carry. With packs loaded for Hamilton Hut it was clear we were in for a tough time. No sleep, big packs and a strenuous ride, push and carry up to Cass Saddle lay ahead, and it was 2pm. So it was heads down up the Cass, in and out of the river and up into the beach forest. 3.5 hrs to the saddle and it was time to get back on the bikes. What followed was some of the best riding singletrack of the trip through yet more stunning beach forest. Even Neil, who had really struggled up the last section cheered up. Initially really steep, the track mellowed into an incredibly flowing section which lasted for an age. Despite the bad night and tough climb, smiles were returned to faces by the time we spilled out of the forest. Ten minutes later the deck of the hut was festooned with wet cycle gear and dinner was underway. With food inhaled the bikes were hidden from the marauding keas which we could hear in the forest plotting an assault on our trusty steeds, and it was off to bed. The big rivers started the next day which was playing on our minds, but at least there were no mice.

A non-mousy sleep had us back on form the next day, which is just as well because it was river time. The first was a warm up as we dipped in and out the smaller Harper River. Next came the Avoca which was larger, but flowing calmly. The scenery was a joy to ride through - we had never really spent time at the head of these alpine rivers on our bikes and it was an odd feeling to be riding across their huge gravel beds interrupted occasionally by a braid full of crystal clear, ice cold water. The Wilberforce River came next, which holds an ominous reputation in history for being one of the deadliest rivers in the South Island. Thankfully for us the flows were low and the mighty Wilberforce was easily dealt too. A short jaunt over the fairy-tale Mt Algidus Station with its castle themed homestead and picture perfect fields and outbuildings had us at the last river of the day, the Mathaias. The Mathaias River flows across an enormous gravel fan as it tumbles out of the Alps and meets the larger Rakaia River. For kilometres on either side of the river itself we rode across the greyscale landscape with no features to aim for other than a small hill far in the distance. A big storm on the other side of the island had the Norwest foehn winds out in force and the Mathaias valley was transformed into a giant hair dryer. We were desperate to get to shelter before we were desiccated.

Our destination for the day was Manuka Point on the banks of the Rakaia River; the site of a grand hunting lodge dealing to the needs of those looking for a trophy hunting experience in the big mountains. It sits elevated just above the river with a great view into the Arrowsmith Mountains. Not the place for three bikers who smell mostly of wet dog, we were in the shearer's quarters at the end of the paddock. Not as grand as the lodge, but with the same million dollar views.

The next morning we were poised to tackle the Rakaia River, a monster which drains 2,600 sq km of the Southern Alps when we were greeted by Will, the son of the lodge owner, offering a lift across the river in his 4WD. Keenly aware of how long a crossing of the Rakaia could take and nervous of the high flows at this time of year we had the bikes in the back of the truck in seconds and within half an hour we were on the other side relieved that we didn't have to try and cross on foot. The flow had been over the bonnet of the truck.

After saying our goodbyes to Will, we quickly climbed out of the Rakaia valley, enroute to the next big river, the Rangitata. A quick stop at Glenfalloch Station brought grim news - a big front was approaching, ready to dump hundreds of millimetres of rain over the next 24 hrs. Not the best news when you are sizing up a crossing of one of the country's biggest rivers on foot. With nothing else for it, we put worries of weather to the back of our minds and got on with the day. But as we climbed up to Lake Heron which lies between the two alpine rivers we could see signs that the storm was already winding up and we were blown down the side of the lake at high speed. We spent the night in the Arrowsmith Station's woolshed - not one of these fancy boutique lodges with a quaint name, but actually a woolshed, with wool in it. The Norwest winds roared down the valley, rattling the massive shed door throughout the night; the rain would be falling hard in the mountains which in turn would be feeding the Rangitata River's vast braids; our run of luck with the weather had ended.

The next day the Norwest continued to rage. We quickly abandoned thoughts of heading deeper into the Alps and instead took a short cut to Boundary Creek Hut, more distant from the maelstrom. As were rode out we were chased down the valley by thunder and lightning. After tackling a swollen South Ashburton River we hit the hut. The winds died during the day but the weather in the mountains still looked ominous and it was obviously raining hard.

Given our shortcut, the next day was a brief one too with a short sharp climb up to Mystery Lake followed by a sweeping descent into the Rangitata River valley. We were at our accommodations for the night by lunch time, and from the elevated position of Mt Potts homestead we knew we were in trouble. The Rangitata River, although several kilometres away, was obviously full of the rains meted out by the previous days storm. There was no way we were crossing on foot that day, or for the next couple. We had planned some contingency into the trip, but not much. We could wait it out for a day or two, or ride around the 150km via the nearest bridge but that would have meant more tarmac than we felt like riding on. Thankfully, through a bit of networking with the local station owners we managed to source a helicopter for the following day. It arrived at 9am and we were quickly delivered to Mesopotamia Station on the south side of the river, our bikes swaying precariously below the machine on a rope of unknown strength. A very interesting and unexpected addition to the journey which was most definitely in its epic phase. From the helicopter the river looked wild and none of us felt bad about not giving it a go.

From Mesopotamia thought, the suffering began quickly. First the track climbed 680m, then dropped 300m before launching up a ridiculously steep 800m high pack track to Bullock Bow Saddle (1682m). As Ruth tends to do from time to time she threw her bike on her back, balanced it perfectly over the top of her rucsac, put her head down and launched up the hill. I was in awe of the speed and lightness with which she hit the hill and she quickly disappeared out of sight. Powered only by grumbles about 'why anyone would put such a stupid track up such a stupid hill' I made less good time. The answer to my rhetorical grumbling was answered though when we reached the saddle as stunning views unfolded into Bush Steam, a high mountain basin surrounded by tussock clad slopes and craggy ridges. The climb was quickly forgotten and we flew down into the stream and up to Royal Hut. Another serious bike carry up an untracked ridge loomed the next day and alarms were set for 'early'.

Starting in the cold morning drizzle the valley was totally socked in. As we struggled up through the tussock with bikes on our back the drizzle stopped and the cloud slowly thinned until we burst out into the sunshine, leaving the cloud below. The ridge we were following up to Stag Saddle was one of the most stunning places we have ever been on our bikes. There were frequent unrideable bits but the sections of riding in between were exactly the kind that had driven us to undertake the trip - plotting our own route through the mountains, on our bikes. Sheer perfection! The clouds remained stuck in the valley floor as we climbed higher towards the saddle; grander and grander views unfolded on either side of us as we climbed. As we hit the saddle (1925m) the whole of the Mackenzie Country was laid out infront of us, with Aoraki/Mt Cook standing proud in the distance. Suspecting a bit of a tussock bash down the other side of the saddle to Lake Tekapo we were delighted to hook into a small ridge, just prominent enough to have been stripped by the wind which created a 1000m descent from the saddle all the way down to Stone Hut, just above the lake. Perhaps the best day on the trip, a huge effort, but huge rewards.

The next day we tried to sneak across the Macaulay and Godley Rivers before it got to hot, but with the Godley flowing strongly we had to work hard to get across and we lost the advantage. The Mackenzie Country has many amazing qualities, but shade is not one of them. It quickly became unbearably hot and our trip down Lake Tekapo and over the Breamar Road to Lake Pukaki required several mercy trips to beg for water from local homesteads.

Lake Pukaki is where the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail starts and we cruised down the lake along the well-formed trail out past the end of the lake. Before long it veered south to take riders around the Ben Ohau Range to Ohau Lodge. We were also going to the Lodge, but going around ranges wasn't in our plan and so we took off up Darts Bush Stream and after some serious effort we were atop Flannigans Pass overlooking Lake Ohau and the lodge 700m below. A fair detour but well worth it for the descent down to the lake.

From Ohau Lodge we were well fed and rested and we blasted along a bit more of the Alps 2 Ocean but before long were heading our own way again into the Ahuriri Valley and our hut for the night at the base of the Lindis Range.

Even driving over the Lindis is a big deal, a vast range which separates the high, arid Mackenzie Country from the splendid Otago tussocklands. Biking over this monster was going to be a challenge. A dawn start from the hut was required from which there were approximately six pedal turns over flat ground before the track shot straight up a bulldozer track onto the tops. The bulldozer drivers of the Lindis Pass were serious men. They had no time for following contours or breaking steep climbs into switchbacks with easier grades. They had diesel engines and they weren't afraid to use them. These tracks have to be ridden (or not as was sometimes the case) to be believed. We followed impossible grades, insane traverses across open screes and precipitous ridgeline balancing acts as we headed towards Lake Hawea. We couldn't fathom the reason why they were there, other than some bizarre world bulldozer competition where the winner had to put up the most improbable line. It would have been one hell of a tournament.

Partway through the day we swapped the bulldozer madness for some craziness of our own as we set off across untracked ridges with our bikes again on our backs. These were tougher than expected, requiring the careful balance of both your bike on your back and your feet teetering along exposed rocky bluffs. On some of the harder sections there was the risk of toys being thrown from prams but we held it together and eventually re-joined more sensible biking territory. Over ten hours after our dawn start we crawled up the short hill to Pakatui Hut in serious need of a sit down, food and general snoozing. Unfortunately we were thwarted by a hut over-full of exuberant French tourists who were particularly excited to be in the hills. 12 people into eight beds doesn't go, and we'd usually be the first to make space, but we were absolutely spent, we smelt bad and were probably snoring - there were no requests made to budge up. Fearing a rerun of the previous night's sociability we rose at first light, had a quick breakfast on the hut deck and were flying towards Lake Hawea before the foreign legion had a chance to stir. The rest of the day proceeded thus: ride, eat, ride, eat, eat, snooze, eat, sleep. We were surprised how little we cared for the 'civilisation' available in Wanaka; I think we all preferred being on our bikes in the mountains.

Fossicking with our bikes in the first light of the Wanaka morning we knew we had another huge day ahead of us. We generally tried to make it so a day had either a big climb, or a long distance, but this one unavoidably had both. First up was 20km of the delightful Clutha River Track, slowly falling towards Lake Dunstan in the amber glow of the sunrise. Past Luggate though it was time to get serious. The Pisa Range has an unassuming appearance which masks the fact that it peaks out at almost 2000m. The climb up the range was relentless and mostly just a little too steep to ride given the weight we were carrying. It wasn't often that we felt like we were being inhibited by our kit, but this day was one of them. Neil and I grumbled and grumped whilst Ruth put the head down and sucked it up in typically excellent fashion. Passing around the mp3 player helped leaven the mood and by the time we peaked out at 1964m on the top of Mt Pisa the smiles which had been more or less welded to our faces for the past three weeks were back gleaming in the late afternoon sun. From Mt Pisa the ride to Meg Hut is amongst the most impressive to be found in NZ. It's pretty straight forward riding, but at 2000m crossing wide open ridges with the huge granite tors standing guard over the desolate but beautiful landscape it's a magical experience. Our accommodation for the night, Meg Hut, was 1000m lower than the summit and the day was ended with fast single track with the speeding bikes throwing up rooster tails of dust into the dipping sunlight (where are those magazine photographers when you need them..?). We arrived at the hut absolutely spent. Food and a cursory wash was all that could be managed before sleep.

Waking in the morning it was strange to think that from the warm embrace of a down sleeping bag in a remote hut we'd be in the manic confines of Queenstown in less than eight hours. The day was a repeat of the previous day but in miniature, a big climb to start and then more ridge riding amongst the granite sentinels. This was followed by a ride down the Crown Range and a wizz along the Kawarau River into Queenstown, the party resort full of adrenaline inducing activities and all night parties. We responded in the only appropriate manner. We fell asleep.

Queenstown also represented a bit of a milestone, the big stuff was mostly behind us. It felt like we were into the home straight, albeit a very long home straight. So the next day there was a leisurely steam over Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, a grand steam ship built in 1912; pies and flat whites were devoured in the slightly surreal surroundings of the piano bar of the boat, surrounded by fellow passengers much less smelly than us. We made a prompt escape from the tourist chaos of Walter Peak Station towards Mavora Lakes and, with impeccable comic timing, it started raining just as we crossed the border into Southland. The steady rain should have had us taking a direct line for the hut less than an hour away, but seeing as it was my birthday I got the casting vote on taking an unknown side trail instead.

It would have been silly not to 'go and have a wee look', right? During the next four hours great riding was had, in amongst the extensive tree fall, slips, side creeks and by now driving rain. There were varying opinions as to whether the diversion was of value or not, but the hut was reached and once the fire was cranking all was good.

From Mavora Lakes it was two short days to Borland Lodge over gravel roads and some unavoidable tarseal. It was hard to plot a true back country route through this area without particularly obtuse route choices resulting in carrying down as well as carrying up. We checked our rule book - no carry's down permitted apparently, so the road it was.

From Borland Lodge three passes stood between us and our goal, Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound. The first and last, Borland Pass and Wilmot Pass were big, but well tracked and presented no real difficulty other than the effort. The middle pass however was a different story. After warming up on Borland Pass and scoffing down lunch near South Arm on Lake Manapouri it was time for Percy Pass. The hut we were heading to was actually on the same lake we had lunched by, but such is the Fiordland terrain the only way to get to it was to head away from the lake and over a 1075m pass, before returning to its forest clad shore. Initially following an impossibly steep pylon access track (perhaps the work of the bulldozer drivers of Lindis Pass?) the route stopped abruptly leaving us to make our own way up the remaining 250m to the top of the pass. Despite a month of carrying and pushing, which we now considered ourselves to be rather well versed in the finer points of, this was a big task. Initially the route ('track' would be overstating it) passed through thick storm ravaged beach forest on steep slopes. Just as the energy and patience levels were getting critical the forest cleared into steep open slopes of snow grass and scree - easier travel but little room for error. The slightest moisture and snow grass turns a slick as ice. And as we hit Percy Pass we knew it was almost done, but what a place to finish up. The mountains of Fiordland are vast. Rising directly out of the sea and climbing almost vertically until they disappeared into the cloud - we had very little right to be in such a place on bikes - for once the presence of a solid gravel track was most welcomed.

So a cruise down to Lake Manapouri for the second time, one last night in an always welcoming Department of Conservation hut, and a pedal over Wilmot Pass was all that lay between us and the end of the mammoth journey.

The last day was full of mixed emotions. We were elated that our slightly dubious plan of journeying through the South Island off road had turned out better than we could ever have hoped and impressed we pulled it off, but we were sad that the biking was soon to be over and the wonderful simplicity of waking up and riding a bike every day was at an end. Regardless of our feelings the end was unavoidable and as we ceremoniously rolled into the sea at Deep Cove we were done. Lots of hugs and photos, a chilling swim. Over.

We covered a few wheel revolutions over 1300km, 40% of which was on sublime single track, old 4WD track that rode like a dream and purpose built cycle trail. The balance was either gravel tracks or untouched hillsides and ridgelines through mind blowing scenery. To our delight there was only 160km of the black stuff over the whole trip. For 27 days our bikes were ridden, pushed, carried and dragged up 30,000 vertical meters of this wonderful place - hard yards - but so much up equalled just as much down!

We loved every day of the trip and there's practically nothing we would change (less mice, more tea bags perhaps) and even after four weeks of riding Doubtful Sound came far too quickly. Throughout the trip, usually when we hit somewhere we had been before, we were struck with the thought that previously we had driven there - it made us think about the country in a different way having arrived instead on bikes and not being particularly worse off for it. We met some amazing people, living in and managing the high country and this provided sometime different views on so many things, especially land access and ownership. Some we agreed with, some less so, but it was good to talk and perhaps take away a little of others points of view, moderating our own. We saw some places that we never thought we'd see from the saddle of a bike and the fact that we did it under our own steam made it all the more special. We just didn't want it to end.

If there had been more, we would have ridden more, it was that good. If only Maui had had a longer canoe...