Bike Touring in New Zealand
me start this article by stating that we are in no way experts
on bike touring in New Zealand. We lived in Nelson, New Zealand
for two years, from October 2002, and did several short (3-4 day)
and one long (5 week) bike tours, so these are our observations
based on this limited experience in New Zealand (as well as lots
of bike tours other places). Lots of folks asked us about bike
touring there, so we compiled our answers to them to create this
article. We did not tour on the North Island, so this is based
purely on our travels around the South Island. If you've read
the Ireland Bike Touring article, you'll notice similarities -
some as a result of bike touring being pretty standard in civilized
countries, and some as a result of actual similarities between
the two countries! Finally I'll preface my comments with a confession
that our faraway fields have not proved as green as wed
hoped. We do love the country, but found a few things that werent
perfect. This article was written while we lived there, and I
have not rephrased it to reflect the fact that we are no
llonger living there.
not perfect? The first thing to note is that there are very few
paved roads. They have fabulous views and are great for cycling in
that they are hilly and twisty, and relatively pothole free, but the
open road speed limit is 100 kph. And despite the fact that
most of the time that speed is totally inappropriate, many drivers
feel compelled to try anyway. Fortunately there arent that
many cars, but it is still a bit frustrating for us coming from a
place with a massive network of small quiet roads. It's been said
that many kiwis seem in a big hurry to get to the afterlife, and demonstrate
this by driving fast. Unfortunately this is not an exaggeration! They
not only drive fast; they are maniacal about overtaking.
They take every single opportunity to pass slower moving vehicles
on blind corners and hills without much regard for safety. Sad to
say that the laid back no-worries mate personality that kiwis are
famous for seems to get packed away in the trunk during car journeys!
We recently read of an English tourist (in a car) who was ticketed
for going too slowly as he waited to safely pass three cyclists! So
it seems it is official police policy to always try to maintain that
100 kph speed limit.
with that as a caveat, let me get back to talking about cycling
on these lovely twisty hilly roads. And when I say hilly,
I mean hilly. Our first tour on the Banks
Peninsula made the Terrible
Two look tame! Many of the climbs are long and steep. Our
bike computer has gradient and often we saw figures in excess
of 20% on the Banks Peninsula tour. We haven't found such steep
grades on sealed roads in other parts of the south island, but
we regularly find gravel roads this steep or worse. If you aren't
in shape when you come here, the first week or so may prove
painful, but after that you will either have ridden yourself
into shape, or hopped on a bus! There are long flat sections
along both the east and west coast of the south island, with
a few notable exceptions, like between the glaciers and between
Greymouth and Westport on the west coast and between Blenheim
and Kaikoura on the east coast. Every route across the
island involves lots of climbing ! Arthur's Pass is one of the
toughest, not just for the very steep climb up to the pass from
the west side, but also the series of big rollers between Arthur's
Pass and Porter's Pass. The Lewis Pass is similar. If travelling
west to east on either, don't expect an easy down hill run after
reaching the pass. There is lots of climbing yet to come. And
if coming from the east, expect lots and lots of climbs before
you finally reach the actual pass!
wind here can be a bigger challenge than the hills. The reason we bailed
on Christchurch, our original choice of places to live, was the wind.
There are practically no trees for hundreds of kms around Christchurch
and the wind just roars down the mountains and across this plain with
great ferocity! Even in places where there are trees, like the west
coast, the wind can bring you to an absolute standstill. It is pretty
important to figure out the wind direction, and plan ones tour
accordingly. The Nelson area, where we have settled, is actually quite
sheltered, surrounded on three sides by mountains. The winds here can
still be strong, but are apparently milder than most of the rest of
the country. We've been told that spring is the windiest season, with
autumn being the most calm.
Zealand's alpine parrot, deserve a special mention as a cycling hazard.
For some reason, they love to attack bicycle saddles and tents. We've
heard a few horror stories from fellow cycle-tourists who became victims
of a kea's curiosity. If you can't keep your bike inside at night,
ask if keas are around, and/or at least take your seatpost (with saddle)
off the bike and inside for safekeeping. Arthur's Pass and the town
of Fox Glacier are two places we saw first hand the evidence of the
destructive power of a kea beak. Camping might be best avoided in
these places as well ! Click here
to read even more from DOC.
And speaking of critters to be wary of.... Magpies have been known
to dive-bomb innocent cyclists - although we've not experienced such
a thing. Sandflies, on the other hand, are likely why New Zealand's
population is so low. There has to be something natural to keep this
place from being a total paradise, and according to Maori legend,
sandflies serve this purpose. Fortunately sandflies don't attack moving
or covered targets. But if you have a puncture or lunch or just stop
for a photo, either cover yourself in clothing or DEET (especially
on the west coast).
other warning would be about services. In many places it can be a
long way between towns/services. It is not uncommon to go 100 km between
any type of service. Carrying food and extra water can be very important.
It is also a good idea to look very carefully at the map and guidebooks
when planning a day's ride. Make sure the town you aim for has services.
Many place names shown on the map may just be a few houses, and with
no shops or any type of services. And make sure your guide is current,
or ask locals. Pedallers Paradise mentions a store and backpackers
in Ngatimoti - many a cyclist has been disappointed to find nothing
there (except possibly evidence of a long closed store).
Public loos (or toilets), on the other hand, can be found in every
As stated above, so far our experience so far is only on the south
island. The north island has more people and congestion. Traffic around
Auckland is as one might expect for a big city, and we hear that Wellington
isnt much better. The ferry between the two islands is actually
quite costly although those American dollars and Euros go farther!
The south island has the reputation for more dramatic scenery, and
it certainly is impressive, but I wouldn't dismiss the north island
for a visit - especially if you have lots of time. At this stage weve
travelled almost all the major routes on the south island (with the
exception of the area right around Invercargil). The west coast is
truly lovely, and has more varied terrain and more trees that the
east coast at least that giant plane surrounding Christchurch.
I'd definitely recommend cycling the west coast and interior, rather
than the flatter east coast, both for scenery and varied terrain.
Hopefully I haven't been too discouraging above, so read on...
When to go
forget when planning a trip to New Zealand that seasons are reversed
from the northern hemisphere. Summer here is from December to February.
The main school holidays start just before Christmas and run through
January. It can be hard to find accommodation at this time of the
year in many of the popular places (especially the week between Christmas
and New Year's). The great walks are often booked out well in advance
during the summer break. But once the kiddies go back to school in
February, things settle down quite a bit. The school kids get another
break around Easter, when there are also two public holidays (Good
Friday and Easter Monday). Anzac Day, another holiday falls soon after
as well. Since the weather is still pretty good, this is also a very
busy time for travelling. (Like Labor Day in the States, Easter signifies
the end of summer.)
The climate is temperate, but it can get quite chilly when the sun
goes down or when a southerly blows in. And it can snow at any time
of the year on the higher passes. We had snow in February (the height
of summer) on Lewis Pass. The sun is also very intense and when its
70F in the shade it can feel quite hot in the sun. Sunscreen is
essential. At all times of the year, temperatures vary quite a
bit from day to night. The evenings are quite pleasant in the summer,
cooling down nicely for sleeping. Being prepared for varied temperatures
is a good idea. Wool works quite well for this, and if you don't bring
it with you, don't worry, Merino Wool is abundant and relatively inexpensive
here (at least with American dollars or Euros).
Airlines, Customs and Left Luggage
New Zealand and Quantas
are the biggest international carriers in New Zealand. Origin
Pacific is a regional airline and has good fares for travelling
internally within the country. United
(partnered with AirNZ) and American
(partnered with Quantas) can get you started from the US. British
Airways is also partnered with Quantas to serve New Zealand. We
came from Boston on United and AirNZ. We brought 7 pieces of luggage
with us, paying US$ 80 excess for each of the 3 extra pieces. Bikes
are allowed as one of the checked bags, and we had two single bike
boxes with bikes. We also brought a tandem in S&S cases. When
we booked the flights, we should have allowed more time to get through
customs in Auckland, so we missed our original connection to Christchurch.
There are plenty of flights daily, and we simply caught the next one
an hour later.
A word about customs. They are very particular about bringing in
organic matter. Clean your bikes thoroughly. If possible put new tyres
on to avoid any hassle at all. It's a good idea before a big tour
anyway, and will make things much easier.
took a shuttle from from the airport in Christchurch because we had
so much stuff. But it is no trouble at all riding a bike directly
from the airport. We rode to and by it many times. The same goes for
the airports in Queenstown and Nelson. I can't comment on other airports,
since I have only been to these three!
We found both motels and hostels willing to store stuff. There is
a left luggage facility in the airport in Christchurch, and it was
still operating after September 11. The prices did not seem outrageous,
but it would definitely be cheaper to make arrangements with a hostel
limit liability on luggage to some tiny sum. If you are really paranoid,
you can check into additional coverage. Our credit card includes travel
insurance if we pay for the airfare with it. There are also policies
to cover trip delay/cancellation and of course illness. Check with
the airline and travel agents for more details.
Accidents are covered by ACC, a taxpayer funded insurance of sorts.
This covers both residents and visitors. So if you are in any sort
of accident, whether it's with a motor car, or you trip while hiking,
you medical bills are covered (with a small co-pay).
High rents good quality touring bikes, Ortlieb panniers, and BOB
trailers. They are actually based here in Nelson, but will ship bikes
and gear to other cities, so you can start here or arrange for a bike
to be delivered to Auckland or Christchurch for instance. Their prices
are not inexpensive by kiwi standards, but they aren't catering to
kiwis, and the bikes are good quality, so not an unreasonable price
for the overseas tourist. Of course bringing ones own bike is
a good idea if it is properly equipped. Triple cranks are a requirement
for loaded tours normally, but even more so here. The roads are mostly
pothole free, but the surface is a rough aggregate chipseal
of sorts. 28 or 32 mm tyres will be appreciated. Many of the tourists
we see are on mountain bikes. You can do a fabulous tour on just paved
roads, but there are so many interesting dirt and gravel roads, so
a 26 inch wheeled bike with wide tyres may offer more versatility.
(Most kiwis who tour do so on mountain bikes.) We have had
great fun with 26X1.9 inch semislicks on our touring tandem
but we've always sought out unsealed roads.
Where to stay
can tour here quite easily and cheaply without a tent - although it
may sometimes require advanced planning at busy times. There are inexpensive
backpacker's accommodations - hostels with dorm rooms or private rooms,
toilets and showers, common areas, fully equipped kitchens and laundry
facilities, as well as campgrounds that often have cabins ranging
from basic (with mattresses) to deluxe units with private kitchens.
The campgrounds also have public kitchens with gas stoves, as well
as laundry facilities, showers and toilets. (The kitchens in backpackers
and motels have pots, pans, plates, etc - Campgrounds do not - they
will typically have cookers and a shared refrigerator). Hostels are
typically NZ$15-25 per person per night, depending on how many people
you share sleeping quarters with. (i.e. Dorm rooms are cheaper than
doubles.) Campgrounds are a bit cheaper, but also charge per person.
There are Hosteling International YHA
hostels in most big towns, but there are also BBH
a kiwi hostel network, with something like 10 times as many
hostels as YHA. We joined BBH and have found prices and standards
pretty good. Motels tend to be self contained units and can be found
at good prices. For example, we paid NZ$70 a day for a motel room
in Christchurch our first week. It had a well equipped kitchen. Of
course one can spend as much as one likes on really fancy hotels in
the big cities and tourist centres. There are also lots of B&Bs
which range from basic to boutique to plush, as do the prices. There
is a place near Nelson that charges $2000 per night!
Hostels vary as to whether linens are included. We carry a couple
of silk sleep sacks and quick dry towels. These can be purchased in
New Zealand at one of the many outdoor shops. We picked up a couple
of very nice travel towels at
Kathmandu, an outdoor shop that can be found in most big towns
that said, some of the best bike touring we have done involved gravel
roads, no services and a tent. Back country huts (operated by the
Department of Conservation) are also an option when off the beaten
track. Bike touring with tent, sleeping bag and cooking gear gives
one the freedom to stop in places without services. Of course
the added weight will likely make you want shorter rides. It's a bit
of a trade-off. With less gear, you can travel farther - and sometimes
may need to, since services may be some distance apart. It may also
mean doing a bit more advanced planning and having to adhere to a
schedule. Our last tour was mid March to late April and included the
Easter holiday. We did not have to plan out every day months
in advance - we were able to book places to stay with one or two days
notice, although we did need to get far away from a famous international
air show over Easter weekend!
spent hours in Mapworld
in Christchurch and bought a full set of laminated 1:250,000 Topo
maps and several 1:50,000 maps for the immediate Nelson area because
we like to explore smaller gravel roads and such. We also bought some
mapping software there that lets us view and print out 1:50,000 maps
of specific areas. John loved this shop and I had to drag him away
before he spent all our money!
There are heaps of guidebooks, some even cycling specific. Lonely
Planet has a Cycling New Zealand Book. Pedallers
Paradise, by Nigel Rushton, is produced in New Zealand,
and likely can only be found here. I like the route profiles in this
book (they seem more accurate than Lonely Planet). It's also pretty
compact, so if space and weight are an issue, it may be a good choice.
For many years, the definitive book was Bruce Ringer's Cycle Touring
in New Zealand. This one is out of print, but it may still be
available at this mail
order site. We use our BBH and YHA guides more than any guidebook,
and supplement with AA directories (found everywhere) and other local
accommodation guides. It can be important to read between the lines
for some of the guides to be truly useful. For example the proper
translation of backpacker bus, is pack of young, loud, hungover
or drunk travellers. After a long hard cycle ride, you might not be
in the mood to see a Kiwi Experience bus unload at your hostel.
If you are an AAA member in the US, you can get AA here to honour
the membership and get free maps. The AA maps actually do a great
job of covering most roads of interest. They can be more up to date
than the topo maps with regard to what is paved. Some of the gravel
roads do get paved after a while. There are AA centres in every town.
AA tourist maps and accommodation guides can also be found at most
Speaking of AA, I'll get side-tracked a bit on cars. It is certainly
possible to combine a biking and hiking holiday with a car. Rental
cars are quite reasonable. If you are going to be here for more than
a month, you might even consider buying a vehicle. Used cars
are quite cheap here. In the larger cities, you can find places with
buyback schemes that will buy the car back when you are ready to go.
This can simplify the process at the end of the trip, or one can sell
the car directly. Backpacker cars can be a real bargain. Hostels will
have noticeboards with various cars for sale. They typically will
have high mileage and have seen hard use, often burning oil at a high
rate, but can be substantially cheaper than renting. For NZ$ 90, AA
will check out a car and tell you what is wrong with it. This is a
pretty valuable service.
Things to bring
went three months with practically no rain in Nelson our first
summer, but that is not the case all over the country. And sad
to say we had very few days without rain our second summer in
Nelson! The West Coast is often called the Wet Coast, and
Fiordlands gets all that water from somewhere. The road code has
a whole section talking about sheep and other animals in the road
and how to deal with them. It is not uncommon to come upon a herd
of sheep in the middle of a major road. And let me tell you that
these sheep don't hold it while being herded. That bwon
stuff on the road isn't just mud. Mudguards and a crap flap will
keep you and your bike that much cleaner and dryer!
roads are surfaced with a chip seal, and those rare ones with
asphalt (hot-mix) are still quite rough. A plump tyre will go
a long way toward making the trip more comfortable. We really
like the Avocet smooth thread tyres in 32 and 35 mm widths. Schwalbe
Marathons are quite beefy and will handle the gravel roads you
may want to explore. Fit the fattest tyre your frame has clearance
for with fenders. Due to the rough surface, tyres tend to wear
faster than on the smoother roads of the USA. We've also found
our tyres tend to wear on one side faster than the other due to
the camber of the road. We have started turning our tyres around
to get a few more kms out of them.
highly recommend waterproof panniers, like Ortlieb.
Ortlieb makes a nice BOB bag (if you are using a trailer).
Basic Reliable Parts or Your Own Spares
all the big cities have a bike shop or three, don't expect to
find much speciality or high end stuff in them. And despite New
Zealand's reputation as a great place for bike touring, it is
not common among locals. Most tourists bring their own
stuff with them, so touring gear just isn't in big demand. Therefore
finding it here can be difficult. I have seen panniers in a few
shops, but it's pretty rare. If you say touring bike, locals most
likely think mountain bike! Road (700C) bikes tend to be used
for racing, not touring so skinny tyres are common. Wide
700C tyres can be remarkably hard to find, especially good quality,
high pressure ones.
If you are riding anything unusual, like a tandem or recumbent,
be aware that it will not be very easy to find special parts,
even in Christchurch or Auckland. Bring spare long cables, or
better yet, use DaVinci
cable splitters, so you can use standard length cables. If
you use Campagnolo shifters, spare cables are always a good idea,
since the head on Campag derailleur cables is smaller than Shimano,
meaning you can't always use any old cable. Basic standard stuff
is not too hard to come by, but it is very pricey. In fact, if
you are coming over, get in touch with us. We may have an order
or two to get you to transport. It is often cheaper for us to
order from the US and pay shipping and GST (tax), than to buy
Of course it isn't a third world country and parts can be ordered
from local distributors through a bike shop, usually arriving
the next day. Orders from the US may take a week.
have a penchant for wool clothing, and I've jokingly given this
as one of the reasons we came to New Zealand. Merino Wool is quite
abundant, although sad to say, not in cycle shops. Don't come
here looking for wool cycle specific jerseys, leg, arm or knee
warmers. But stop in any outdoor shop and you'll find a variety
of clothing from Icebreaker,
and Earth, Sea and Sky, as well as a few other local producers
of merino wool clothing.
Wool is great in that it doesn't retain odour even after days
of hard use, and it is lovely and warm even when wet.
I typically carry two wool cycling jerseys, wool arm, leg and
knee warmers, two or three pairs of cycling shorts, two or three
pairs of wool socks, a wind vest and good rain jacket. Overshoes,
headband, hat, windstopper gloves and a neck warmer are important
for that occasional harsh weather or high pass. For off the bike,
I usually take a pair of sandals, a long sleeve wool top, a short
sleeve wool top, some light tights and a travel skirt. This gives
me warm and cold options and the skirt gets me in to nicer restaurants!
Laundry facilities are quite common. Washing Machines can be
found in most hostels, campgrounds and motels. Dryers are also
usually available, but most folks simply hang their stuff out
to dry. Many hostels even provide clothes pegs. In the summer,
things can dry practically before you've finished hanging them.
we had a penny for every mile we've toured in the rain in our
lifetime, we could be somewhere warm and dry right now, but we
can all dream ...
The West Coast of the South Island is also known as the Wet Coast.
The Southern Alps do create a rain shadow for much of the east coast,
especially in the summer, but when it does rain, it does so properly!
It is wetter in the winter and spring typically than in the summer
and autumn. That said, the summer of 2004 was the wettest in recorded
history. Parts of the north island were flooded for weeks. The south
island got off with less damage, but still had almost daily deluges
The best raingear for touring in non-windy conditions is a cycling
cape. They are cheap, pack up small, allow air to circulate and
keep you drier than anything else out there when combined with mudguards,
providing protection for your body, hands and upper legs. They are
very comforting in a teeming downpour, but perhaps most advantageous
of all in showery weather, they are easy to get on and off.
They are not without their drawbacks too, of course. We don't like
using them in very windy weather, and it can get quite windy here.
So a rain jacket with good ventilation is probably a better option.
We found a very nice one with many of the features we like at Mountain
Designs right here in New Zealand. The Cyclite
is made of waterproof Gore Tex material, has lots of vents, covers
the backside, fits snugly with a waist cinch, removable hood, and
lots of reflective material. The price was pretty similar to GoreTex
jackets in the states, but does have all the features we have designed
into cycling jackets as we have endured downpours on tours. One
of the nicest being mesh pockets on the back. The stoker on the
tandem loves still having pockets available in the rain.
We were also very impressed that the Ridge
Tent had lots of features we've wished for over the years when
camping, so it is now in our camping arsenal! It can be pitched
fly first in rainy conditions (or fly only in the abscence of bugs),
and has a double sided entry.
Trains and Buses
Scenic runs the passenger rail service with trains crossing some
of the most scenic parts of the country. The train is really more
for tourists than purely transportation. There are numerous buses
for getting anywhere and everywhere. Google
for bus New Zealand. We have used buses and shuttles for getting
to and from tramps and haven't tried to use one with our bike. I have
seen plenty of buses with bike racks, but none with tandem racks so
far! That said, many buses and shuttles do have trailers for hauling
extra gear, and could likely handle a coupled tandem easily.
Backpacker buses tend to cater to the younger party crowd. The Kiwi
Experience is one of the more popular ones, and the one that always
seems to pass us just as we approach a town hoping for a quiet restaurant
experience. Fortunately they only take a short break for meals, so
the hoards usually disperse quickly.
$ The currency is the New Zealand dollar. The
exchange rate varies of course, and in the first part of 2004 traded
for betwen 60 and 70 cents US. As with any foreign currencies, withdrawals
through ATMs net the best rates. There are currency exchange places
at the airports and all banks will exchange money - unlike the US.
EFTPOS is widely accepted here, and almost everyone takes these debit
(EFTPOS) cards - even when they don't take credit cards. We rarely
use cash, and don't carry much. There are 1 and 2 dollar coins, which
are gold coloured, and sized appropriately. There are also 5, 10,
20 and 50 cent pieces, which are silver colour and increasing in size.
There is no penny. If you pay cash, Swedish rounding is used. If paying
electronically the pennies add up. Paper money has different colour
for different denominations, so it is pretty easy to quickly figure
out what you have.
Even though the exchange rate has become less favourable for visiting
Americans while we have been here, the US dollar and (and Euros) still
go a long way here. Its mainly those earning low kiwi
salaries that would find things very expensive!
is cheap and available everywhere and it is typically
very good! (The latte index is quite skewed in NZ) Restaurants vary
a lot, but we have had some incredibly good meals. Our cheapest was
Korean in Dunedin and was great (NZ$12). Our most expensive was French
in Dunedin and was fabulous (NZ$100). (We have topped that recently
as visitors have treated us to fancy meals in Nelson). Wineries seem
to have the good cafés. Most bakeries have been a disappointment
though as are sandwiches. Some pannini and foccacia and good,
but most sandwiches are simply two pieces of toast with a bit of meat.
I keep hoping for French style bakeries or patisseries, and we have
recently found a couple of great local bakeries, including a fabulous
patisserie in Mapua - called the Naked Bun (look for it if you are
in the area), and a great bakery right here in Nelson, called Tozzetti's,
but these are the exception. Then there is the famous meat pies! I
must say I was initially not attracted to the idea, but I've actually
found quite a few good meat pies recently. They aren't all mince.
Many are made with chunks of chicken and other meats and veggies and
other spices. Muesli is great, as is yoghurt. Real Fruit Ice Cream
is a special treat, although possibly only available in the Nelson
Grocery stores are typically well stocked, and those close to hiking
areas have lots of good hiking/camping food like premixed dehydrated
is possible to rent a mobile phone, or even buy an inexpensive one
and a pay as you go plan. Incoming calls do not incur
a charge. There are two major mobile providers - Telecom
with CDMA phones and Vodafone
with GSM phones. I believe you can get a chip for your US GSM phone
and use it here, but that won't be cheap. Phone cards are available
for public phones. Telecom is the national service, but there are
loads of inexpensive cards for overseas calls. The BBH card includes
$20 worth of calls.
Don't forget to drive and bike on the left
side of the road.