[Editors note: We recognize that it is a strange time to publish a travel blog, but we were in New Zealand traveling for the Lunar New Year when news first broke of COVID-19. This is a very tardy blog post, but as we all know, life got bananas.]
New Zealand remains our most favorite place to explore. This was our third trip to the South Island. There’s also a north island, but we’ve never been. Something that’s been on our NZ bucket list since our first trip was to mountain bike the 300 km Alps to Oceans (A2O) trail. We previously put it off because it’s logistically a challenge to coordinate with a camper van rental and it’s an A to B route (not round trip). We figured it out this time and booked 1 week in a camper van and 1 week cycling.
Camper van around Queenstown & Wanaka
Less driving, more exploring
We narrowed our focus to Wanaka, a small city about an hour north of Queenstown. We fell in love with this area last year, and had fond memories of this lake side city and a killer burrito cart. We flew into Queenstown and picked up our JUCY camper van. We rent from a different van company each visit to experience new van layouts (thinking ahead to our own van someday). We poked fun of the Jucy brand on previous trips because they’re a bit garish. It’s a NZ-based company so you see LOTS of these on island. We figured they must be good and it turned out to be our favorite camper layout to date.
Our only goals for the first week were to be outside, hike, swim, happy hour and find good spots for van camping.
Mount Aspiring National Park
Roy’s Peak, Wanaka
Red Tarns Track, Mt. Cook National Park
That was our last hike in phase 1 of our trip. We would start cycling from this Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park valley the next morning.
Alps to Ocean Cycling
Goal: Slow it down and tear it up a little for the ultimate in sight seeing! This is a phenomenal 300 km route that begins in the New Zealand Alps at the base of Mt. Cook and ends on the eastern coastline in the steampunk capital, Oamaru. It’s worthy of any cyclist’s bucket list! Alps to Ocean website
We did not want to do a group trip, just us, which meant we only needed to rent bikes and hire luggage transfer. We hired Cycle Journeys and have nothing but rave reviews for their support and gear. They’re a small shop with big hearts for cycling and nature.
6 day bike tour begins
The route winds through very small communities, many of which we had not explored on previous trips. We stayed in a combination of small and locally owned hotels, B&Bs and a funky old lodge. In the past we only van camped and intentionally sought out remote places AWAY from people. This time was different. We met several locals and had many meaningful and heartfelt connections. As if we couldn’t love New Zealand more!
Day 1: Mt Cook to Twizel (77 km)
You cannot bike (or trek) across the Tasman River – it’s too deep and too cold being glacier runoff. You have to take a helicopter to complete/connect this first leg. It’s all part of the official Alps to Ocean trail and we almost cut it out because supporting leisure helicoptering in National Parks felt wrong on so many levels. We hemmed and hawed with Cycle Journeys during the planning process and then resigned as it’s one of the longest and prettiest legs of the week-long ride – all true. The heli ride is about 10 minutes and the bikes ride in a basket dangling from the helicopter. We’ll admit that it was pretty fun but feel free to carbon shame us. We deserve it.
The lake’s water is a dazzling unique blue caused from the glacial flour, the extremely finely ground rock particles from the glaciers.
We met James and Jennifer, two doctors (which comes in handy later… foreshadowing alert…) from Dunedin, NZ who were also biking the A2O Trail on their way to an Elton John concert at the end of the week long ride.
Day 2: Twizel to Ohau Lodge (38 km)
Day 3: Lake Ohau Lodge to Omarama (46 km)
This was the most technical mountain biking day with a 4 km climb, sweeping views of the Lake Ohau and Ben Ohau Range and a fast decent from the 900 meter summit around the 12 km marker. There are a couple tight and narrow bends on the trail and refreshing fords to splash through!
We cruised into Omarama, a very small town of about 270 people. We stayed at Big Sky B&B run by Kay and Hank. They have two guest rooms built off to the side of their home, next to a beautiful garden. They pointed us to one of two restaurants in town, the Pink Glider, just across the field. We hopped on our bikes with a mission to carb reload.
After dinner Pickles wanted to support the other joint in town and have a local beer. We pedaled over to the Boots and Jandals. On the way back to the B&B (less than a 5 minute bike ride) we had an unfortunate incident. Sarah locked up her breaks and cartwheeled over the handlebars. No cars involved, embarrassingly self-inflicted. Although a tad bloody from a gash on the chin, she popped straight up and instinctively threw her hand in the air to hail down the first passing car. The driver was a young guy named Jack, who (of course) knew our B&B hosts.
Luckily, Hank is trained and a volunteer for search and rescue, usually helping people riding the A2O trail, so he knew right away who to call. It was a bad night for an emergency because it’s a small town with NO medical center and the only two on-call medics were at the Queen concert this very night.
Hank arranged a medic to meet us back in Twizel (33 km away) and drove us there. Sarah then earned her first stitches – 3 of them – a gnarly New Zealand memento. (Once back in Taiwan she got a facial and hand xray to confirm no fractures, but she did concuss due to the direct jaw impact). Even though Sarah didn’t feel great, we felt fortunate that her injuries were relatively minor, all teeth in tact and legs worked.
National Healthcare Shout Out
Before we left for the medical center, Kay told me to bring my wallet. Coming from the USA, I wasn’t sure how much this visit would cost. Fortunately, New Zealand has national health care and it even covers visitors, so the entire visit (including drugs) cost $105.00 USD. We later found out that it would have been free, except for the fact that we needed after hours medical care. Amazing. New Zealand really takes care of its people and tourists! The love for this country increases with every visit.
Day 4: Omarama to Kurow (68 km)
The next day, Sarah was not ready to get back on the bike. We called Cycle Journeys and arranged for Sarah to ride with our luggage to our next stop in Kurow.
While Scott was pedaling, Sarah was at our next accommodation, resting at the Waitaki Braids in Kurow. It was a serendipitous place to land on such a day. The owner, Kate White, knowing Sarah couldn’t open her jaw very much, made her a fresh apricot smoothie and soup for dinner. She was the sweetest mom-like host we could have asked for.
Day 5: Kurow to Duntroon (43 km)
The next day was the shortest and easiest day of riding, so Sarah decided that she would get back on the bike with an iphone alarm set every 2 hours for pain killers.
That night we stayed at the Duntroon Railway B&B – population 114. The owner, Ted, invited us over to his place for a home cooked dinner that night. He told us to find the house with the big cross in the yard. We hunted for such a place and decided it must be the church? Correct! Many years ago, Ted bought the town church and converted it into his home and rents the whole place out to large groups (we stayed in his smaller place down the road). Since this acquisition he has been known as Father Ted. He isn’t so much a Father in the religious sense, but more like the kind of Father that will keep your wine glass full, feed you some great lasagna, and tell you some crazy ass stories.
Day 6: Duntroon to Oamaru (55 km)
God Old House Coffee Stop
Another gem in a converted church! It’s owned by a friend of Father Ted, of course. Converted churches seems to be a thing on this bike ride.
The finish line in Oamaru
And that’s how we did the A2O, Alps to Ocean, bike route. New Zealand, we will be back!
[Editors note: While we were biking and not paying all that much attention to the news, the coronavirus was spreading in China. The night before we flew back to Taiwan we learned that New Zealand would be closing incoming travel from China on February 3rd due to COVID-19. Oh, how that seems like so very long ago now. We think fondly of this trip, which was our last off-island trip before the pandemic and global lock down.]
We love all of you subscribers (a.k.a. friends/family) and our hearts are heavy for those suffering with grief, anxiety, fear and loss right now. You are not alone. We are 7,000 miles away yet seconds away from a Facetime call. Never hesitate to reach out for any reason and we will do the same.
Pickles & Passionfruit
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