New Zealand: Cyclotouring 2006-07
"To Go or Not To Go" On a Bike
My short answer is "No." Bill's summary was "New Zealand is long on nice scenery, short on spectacular scenery." We concluded early on that the pay-offs were too low for the effort on a bike as one is often contenting with heavy traffic on narrow roads, steep grades, and pounding rain and/or fierce winds,. New Zealand is better seen from a rented car or by bus where you are never far from shelter. If you must, a loop of the south end of the South Island will give you the best combination of favorable traffic conditions and scenery. For a nicer 1-2 week bike trip in an English-speaking venue, try San Francisco to Los Angeles; for a 2-3 week overseas adventure, consider Corsica.
Context: Our "M.O."
We'd cyclo-toured well over 30,000 miles (55,000 km) in 6 years of cyclotouring in Europe when we went to New Zealand and we definitely preferred biking in Europe. Our bikes and gear always weigh over 110 lbs (50 kg) and we are quite capable of doing sustained grades of 7-8%, can hang in there on long stretches of 10% grades, and can keep the pedals going around for short stints on 15-17%. Our ideal riding days are 30-40 miles (50-65 km) and we can do 60 mile (100 km) days when we need to and commonly do over 3,300' (1,000 m) of elevation gain day after day. And we have great head-to-toe rain gear That's our profile and given that background, we found riding in New Zealand too hard for the return on the effort.
The "Pro's" of Cycling in New Zealand
People, Prices & Pollution
If being in an English speaking country is very important to you, then NZ may be worth considering. We enjoy the challenges of being in non-English speaking countries, so the lack of language barrier wasn't a huge "plus" factor.
It's affordable. Food is more expensive than in the US or in Europe, but lodging is a good value.
The people are very, very nice. They are remarkably easy going, accommodating, and helpful--they are definitely an asset to the country and to the traveler. And they are very laid-back and it's infectious.
With a 3 hour + 1 day time difference from the west coast of the US, traveling to New Zealand triggers far less jet lag for us than traveling to Europe.
The clear air and minimal litter are very pleasant and in sharp contrast to areas like the Mediterranean.
Another definite plus to the traveler or bike traveler in New Zealand is the bus service. An assortment of private bus companies cover most of the through roads in New Zealand and many of the services will accept bikes. So, unlike in the US, if you are biking somewhere that you don't want to be because of the weather or terrain, you can get out of it in a half day to a day. In many areas, the buses only come through once or twice a day, whereas in the higher population areas, one company or another comes through practically every hour.
I don't believe you can flag a bus down, so you have to be in one of the little towns when the bus is scheduled to stop. Few of the companies will guarantee a spot on the bus for your bike, so you have to show up and see if the driver will take you. They usually charge about $10NZ per bike.
We took buses twice for short hops in severe weather. On the North Island at Turangi we had to wait 24 hours until the bus came through with its trailer for bikes but we were able to reserve spaces for both us and the bikes. At Levin, also on the North Island, we took a bus into Wellington on a terribly stormy day. The buses were almost hourly so we parked ourselves at the bus stop and presumed that by bedtime we would both have made it to Wellington even if we had to split up. Fortunately, the first driver was willing to take us both with our bikes.
The "Con's" of Cycling in New Zealand
Cycling is made less safe by 2 conventions in New Zealand. First, is that cars, not pedestrians or bikes, always have the right of way except where specifically posted to the contrary, which isn't often. The second issue is that injured parties have no legal recourse against drivers that hit them and it shows in their driving.
Unfortunately for cyclists, New Zealand has essentially no freeways or expressways and few secondary roads. The result is that practically every road in New Zealand is a truck route. That said, if you are choosing between 2 different roads in your future, it is worth asking several locals "Which is the commercial route?" as sometimes more trucks fed onto 1 road for reasons that aren't obvious (like proximity to ferry ports.) In some areas there is absolutely no choice to made--if you want to get to your destination several hundred kilometers away, there may be only 1 road to take. Occasionally Bill would see an appealing long secondary road on his map but would learn that the accommodation stops were more than 100km apart--farther than we prefer to bike on a daily basis.
New Zealand is not a bike friendly country. Truckers, especially on the North Island, often wouldn't give us a safety margin even if they had a passing lane to move into and no oncoming traffic. We changed our route on the North Island because of the traffic felt unsafe (and we've biked in Athens, Paris, and Naples) and spoke with other cyclists who availed themselves to the buses because of the harsh North Island traffic. The South Island with only 1/4 of the population of the North Island was much better, with the south end of the South Island being the safest feeling.
Accommodation in a day's cycling range can be hard to find. If you are willing to regularly ride over 100 km per day, lodging will be less of an issue for you. We prefer shorter days, especially in New Zealand, to allow for the fatigue of unexpectedly steep grades, headwinds, downpours, and mechanical problems.
Narrow lanes and no shoulders are common, making it dicey for bikes on busy roads and amentally tiring riding day.
Some of the rough road surfaces were especially noisy, driving us off the road from time to time just to recover from the stress of the extra noise.
The weather is harsh and wildly unpredictably. It is the second stormiest country in the world and gets some of the highest rainfalls in the world. We were there from November 2006 until March 2007 and it seemed like rained almost every day. November 2006 was unusually wet and December was unusually cold, but it is still a wet, stormy country.
Strong winds of 60 mph (100 km) seem to be an almost daily occurrence somewhere on the 2 islands and sudden downpours of 4-6" (60-100mm) of rain in less than 6 hours can happen almost anywhere in the country. Fierce winds and rain can come out of the north in the morning and be dished out from the south in the afternoon.
The road surfaces in some areas will shave miles off of your average speed. They seem fond of road surfaces where they put down a layer of asphalt, sprinkle it with gravel, roller it once, and leave the cars to finish packing it in. A freshly done road leaves cyclist's with the sound of sticky gravel flinging into your fenders as you get pelted with gravel kicked up from passing cars. More mature surfaces lack the loose gravel but still drag down your speed with the roughness. Occasional smooth stretches of asphalt that are sometimes found on bridges will remind you of just how much of your effort is being diverted because of the rough road surface.
We didn't find the scenery in New Zealand all that dazzling. Yes, it is green but it often isn't all that interesting. Few of the coastal roads are insight of the ocean and clouds often obscured the grander panoramas. We generally found the scenery on the North Island more interesting and pleasing, but the traffic conditions were generally very difficult on a bike. The central area of the southern end of the South Island was the most varied and interesting for our taste, with views of high mountains and lakes more plentiful and the weather generally enough better to appreciate it.
New Zealand makes accessing first-timer outdoor activities like kayaking, hiking, and adrenalin sports, but they all come at hefty prices.
We use an altimeter and record each day's elevation gain. In our 4 month tour of New Zealand that was weighted more heavily towards the South Island, our daily average gain on each island was about 100m /10 km (at the end of 3 months). So, on a 100 km day, we'd generally do at least 1,000m of gain or about 3,300' in 62 miles.
Amazingly, even on a mainly down-hill day from the inland hills of Murchison to the coast at Westport, this ratio held. And of course, on steep climbing days, it was substantially higher.
Here are some comparisons if you haven't looked at those numbers for your own tours (it took us 6 years to ask this question.) We looked at our average for our 7 month long cycling season in Europe in 2006 and it was about the same 100m/10km ratio, with it bumping up to 200m/10 km when we lingered in the Alps and it dropped to 50m/10km on the flat river route from Salzburg to Frankfurt. Our very steepest days, which were cresting a pass in the Dolomites, the ratio would run as high as 600-700m/10 km.
New Zealand Specific Tips
If you are traveling during school holidays or on weekends, look for schools for your noontime picnic. Only 1 had a "No Picnicking" sign and most have sheltered areas seating areas to get you out of the rain and wind. We basked in the comfort of dry areas where we could remove our rain gear for a good 'airing' while we ate. Most even have garbage cans, which can be hard to find on the road.
Many fully self-contained motel rooms and communal kitchens have microwave ovens and we found that microwaving a kumara sweet potato made a wonderful mid-afternoon snack on a long day. They are pleasantly sweet and can be eaten skin and all, making them neat and clean to carry and snack on, even in the rain.
If taking anything other than the main road, inquire as to whether it is paved or not, especially on the South Island. Gravel roads aren't marked as such on many maps and look like any other road and some are terrible.
Biking on the North Island
I don't recommend the North Island for recreational-level cyclotourists like ourselves. Our idea of a great riding day is a day spent on a back road with little enough traffic that we can often ride side-by-side or nearly so and easily talk. And the ideal day will be over interesting enough terrain that we have things to talk about. But on the North Island the traffic was generally so heavy that we spent most of the most most every day doing survival riding--just trying to make it to our destination alive.
Freeway speeds with a high percentage of the vehicles being truck and truck and trailer rigs in narrow lanes, often with little or no shoulder, made for hours of white knuckle riding on the roads. Frequent strong winds and an unusual amount of rain made our experience even more trying. The driving culture is not bike friendly either. Trucks and other slow moving vehicles are in the habit of driving in the shoulder if there is one or on the white line if there isn't, and they aren't prone to moving over much for a bike. Some days we'd pull off the road every few miles just to relax our bodies from the stress of the noise and the closeness of the traffic. And only for part of 1 day in a month of riding on the North Island was Bill able to direct us onto a non-commercial route back road where we could enjoy our leisurely riding style.
The elevation gain also adds to the challenges for the less athletic rider. I was stunned that on a 45 mile day (longer than we usually did in New Zealand) that looked on the profile to be a mostly down hill day, that we did 1800' in elevation gain. Yes, there was more down than up, but still it took 1800' of up to yield the 2800' of down.
So, for the more athletic riders that love to put their heads down and go for hours on end until they feel the familiar burn, New Zealand's North Island may be a delight. Following the route for a day is a snap, with a entire day often being on only 1 or 2 roads with junction turns that can be made without consulting the map. The up and down terrain does enhance the workout and prevents the boredom from hours on the flats.
The 2 bike tour operators we spoke with either didn't take their clients to the North Island at all or shuttled them past the difficult traffic areas to do small loops in very specific areas of the North Island.
Biking on the South Island
As promised, traffic was much lower on the South Island and we felt much safer overall. The riding conditions were highly variable, with narrow lanes and no shoulders in some areas and more comfortable conditions in others. We did however have a face-off on a one lane bridge with a driver on the South Island near Wanaka--a belligerent driver that choose to proceed when we had the right-of-way and then to block our path on the bridge with his truck. It was incredible!
We did Haast Pass the "wrong way" from west to east. It was a tough day as we expected though couldn't find anyone who knew what the grades would be. We rode 50 km from Haast before the climb up to the pass began and accumulated around 500m of gain just going up and down in those 50 km. Just past "Gates of Haast" where the bridge is, the steep stuff begins. It was about 1.5 km of unrelenting 10-15% grade. We spent about 2 hours getting from the base of the climb at the DOC campground up to the top of the pass which is about 560 m.
After cresting the pass, we rode the additional 20 km so as to spend the night at Makarora, for about an 80 km day. Don't expect to buy substantial groceries at Makarora--bring what you need with you. The next day we rode the 65 km to Wanaka, which was unexpectedly difficult. Our legs felt fine as we left Makarora, but when we hit the first 5% grades, we knew we hadn't recovered from doing the pass. There were 7 or 8 short climbs of 10% each on the way to Wanaka, which were made more difficult by the incomplete recovery, so don't plan a longer day than getting to Wanaka.
We next rode from Wanaka to Queenstown over Crown Range. It was over 10% grade for a number of long pitches, but as we descended we were extremely relieved we hadn't ridden the other way which was even steeper.
Dunedin from the south. There is a new, barely marked bike route from Mosgiel into Dunedin. By chance, a groundskeeper at the Mosgiel park where we stopped for our picnic lunch described it. He didn't say it was a signed route, but indeed it is. Head for the expressway out of Mosgiel and watch for the bike route sign with "Dunedin" under it. It's just before you can see the signs prohibiting bikes on the motorway entrance. Take the road just to the right of the motorway entrance, which will take you up a hill. There are few turns in the route and each one is clearly marked, but there are no extra signs to reassure you along the way. It's a great route that roughly parallels the motorway and nicely shields bikes from traffic and it deposits you on a main road into the city center.
South Island's Otago Central RailTrail
We weren't going to do the RailTrail but changed our minds at the last minute. Being out of traffic was appealing, but we'd been reluctant because of concerns about the trail surface. Once we were closer to it, we were assured that though it was gravel, it wasn't wash board. Indeed, the surface wasn't corrugated, but we were often negotiating furrows in the gravel created by cars, not bikes. It was slow going however, and the scenery wasn't stunning.
The Otago Central Hotel at Hyde was a bad match for us. At $140NZ for 1 (mid-week) it was the most expensive place we stayed in New Zealand. We signed and anticipated that at least we'd either have a sumptuous room or that the required, included breakfast would be a delightful buffet with fresh fruits. We stayed there because it was the only option at Hyde but had we understood how little we were getting for the price, we would have planned a longer riding day to avoid it. The room wasn't to-die-for and the breakfast of shredded wheat and toast wasn't what we'd choose. The night before our $95NZ room at the head of the trail at Blind Billy's was a new 2 bedroom unit with a full kitchen (including our first dishwasher), private bath, multi-stationed TV, and a private deck. Use of the washing machine was free.
In contrast, at the Otago Central Hotel we had a cramped though smartly renovated room with a bathroom across the hall. It was the first room we'd had without a heater--a feature we used most mornings and many evenings during the summer in New Zealand. The tiny sink was hardly big enough for washing socks and the shower water wasn't contained by a basin. The TV in the community lounge received 2 stations. The sparest-featured room we had to date in New Zealand at least had tea/coffee making facilities and all but a handful in 3 months had also had a refrigerator. This hotel didn't come close to providing us with the features that allowed us to nest in our own little home at the end of the day--features that had become the norm and we had gotten for half the price at places like Rotorua.
The RailTrail would be an opportunity to do a little biking in New Zealand without the hassles of bringing your own equipment. One shop on the route was renting bikes with helmet for $40NZ/day and charged a $10NZ fee for 1-way route rentals. Operators will organize your trip, including booking accommodations and transferring your luggage. Almost all of the folks we saw on the route were using rental bikes and few were carrying their own overnight gear.
The surface is rough and fat tires and suspension are a plus. It's a gravel road for bikes as opposed to a graveled bike path. The occasional stretches of tangerine-sized rocks signals that the ordering engineers weren't sensitive to the needs of bikes but instead were thinking about what was efficient for a road. There was 1 stint of 10% grade where the new road had obviously commandeered a segment of the old rail bed but other than that, the grades were very gentle. Occasional junctions with roads and viaducts made us feel like we were riding broncos because of the roughness.
We did not bring our camping gear to New Zealand as we would have incurred excess baggage charges by the airlines in doing so. As it was, we just made the weight limits with the bikes. Though camping gear would have solved a few of the tight lodging problems we faced (but not the associated food shopping needs), we had no regrets about not camping. The frequent rain (almost daily) that often was accompanied by downpours and fierce winds made camping exceedingly uninviting. The pesky sand flies on much of the west coast of the South Island didn't help matters either.
Should you decide to camp and get caught packing a wet tent morning after morning, take a tip from a resourceful Swiss cyclotourist we visited with. He waited for a dry spell during his riding day and stopped to spread out his wet tent and laundry. I wondered how he expected it to dry on the humid, overcast day but he cleverly spread his textiles out on the metal barricade on the curve of the road. He was using the wind created by the passing cars to dry his fabrics and it worked. In an hour or 2 his gear was enough drier that he packed it up and continued with the day's ride.
Biking Guide Books
The 2 booklets called Pedaler's Paradise, 1 for each island, were a great supplement to our general guide book by Lonely Planet. (Lonely Planet also has a fabled but out of print cycling book for New Zealand, which we didn't use.) The information in Pedaler's isn't entirely accurate, but it is much better than no bike-specific information at all. They include brief indications as to the availability of lodging and food along the way, which is helpful. They don't however do a good job with mentioning museum-type attractions and instead focus more on the notable beaches.
We've never ridden with one, but a well-traveled Canadian cyclist who loves his BOB said he'd never bring his to NZ again. Bouncing on the rough road edges on the tight curves was his reason. That didn't sound all that compelling to me, but he still uses his BOB in the US and Canada but not in NZ.
Stray dogs are not an issue in NZ. I wondered if it was a cultural thing or if the sheep and cattle farmers took matters into their own hands. But my final thought was that the extensive baiting for possums and ferrets probably eliminated the problem. Daily we would see warning signs about cyanide and other poisons in use in the forests and bush but never any stray dogs.