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Bike Touring in New Zealand

by Pamela Blalock with John Bayley

Let 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 we’d hoped. We do love the country, but found a few things that weren’t 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.

 

Cars

What's 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 aren’t 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.

 

 

Hills

So 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

The 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 km’s 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 one’s 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.

 

 

Keas

Keas, New 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).


 

Services

My 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 town.

 

 

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 isn’t 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 we’ve 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

Don't 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 it’s 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

Air 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.

We 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 or motel.

Travel Insurance

Airlines 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).


Renting bikes

Natural 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 one’s 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

One 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 here.

All 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!

 

Maps

We 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 info centres.

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

  • Mudguards

    We 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!

 

  • Tyres

    Most 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.

 

  • Panniers

    I 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

    While 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 things here.

    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.

     

  • Clothing

    We 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, Survival, 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.

     

  • Raingear

    If 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 throughout February!

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

Tranz 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.

Money

$ 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. It’s mainly those earning low kiwi salaries that would find things very expensive!

Food

Espresso 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 region.

Grocery stores are typically well stocked, and those close to hiking areas have lots of good hiking/camping food like premixed dehydrated meals.

 

Phones

It 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.