NZ’s highest highway

Wanaka was beautiful. It is set in the perfect location, right on the lake with high mountains towering all around. The town is small but has a very laid back feel and the people were friendly. It was the perfect place to spend a few days off the bikes.

Snowy Path, Wanaka

Snowy Path, Wanaka

There’s lots to do around Wanaka. Mainly people spend their money on sky diving, jet boating and other adventure activities. Ice climbing and helicopter tours are also on the list. We arrived there in the middle of the ski season so everybody was going crazy with that. We looked into doing some snowboarding but at $100 for a day pass plus rentals, we decided to do some walks instead.

We took a hike up the 548m Mt Iron. It was a nice walk to the top where we got great views of the lakes and the surrounding mountains. Although there was only about 300m of actual hiking on this mountain, it definitely required different muscles to cycling and the next day I could really feel my legs.

View from Mt Iron

View from Mt Iron

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka

_MG_5949After the third night, we got up and prepared the bikes to cycle over the Crown Range Saddle. The top of this mountain pass is the highest point of all the highways in New Zealand at 1076m. Setting up the bikes aroused the usual curiosity from the people around us. Normally they ask, – Where are you going?,  How far have you come? and (the most popular question) How many kilometers do you do a day? The conversation normally ends with them saying – Good luck or -You’re crazy or something else encouraging. This time however the lady from the hostel said, ‘I don’t think you can cycle that road. There will be snow at the top and its too steep to cycle’. She had genuine concern on her face as we told her we would take our chances and cycle it anyway. Still, her words put us on edge as we set off and we were left thinking, should we really cycle this road?

_MG_5989Luckily we didn’t have too much to worry about but it was still a tough cycle. It was 40kms from Wanaka to the saddle. Most of the way was gradual uphill that got steep in places. As we got higher up it started to get colder. After we got above about 500m the small streams we passed became frozen. Fortunately the road was dry and quite safe to ride on. If it had rained in the days before, there would have been ice all over the road and it would have been impossible to cycle.


A good example of the landscape we cycled through


We stopped here for coffee and wedges


Although not to steep, this kind of gradient will wear you out after 40kms

The last 6 or 7kms or so got very steep and as we neared the top the wind started to pick up. We cycled through these few kilometers very slowly. We passed a number of bays where cars could pull in and put snow chains on. At this stage there was a lot of snow on all the hills around us yet the road remained clear.

When we got to the top of the saddle we could breathe a sigh of relief, no more uphill today, our legs were burning. The view was stunning, one of best so far, made all the more sweeter by the effort we put in to get there. We stayed a while and watched planes passing by at eye level as they flew between the mountains on their way to land in Queenstown. We took our time before getting back on the bikes, and why not? The rest of the day was downhill.

A kind man congratulated us and offered to take our picture.

A kind man congratulated us and offered to take our picture.

Looking towards Queenstown, hidden somwhere behind the hills

Looking towards Queenstown, hidden somewhere behind the hills


Filming planes

Filming planes

When we left the saddle we quickly build up speed as we barreled downhill towards Queenstown. The next 25kms were exhilarating. It was very steep and we were easily reaching 45km/h but we had to keep the speed down to negotiate the tight corners that are ever present on New Zealand’s mountain passes. Once we got past the steepest section at the top, the road started to straighten out a bit and we could really let the bikes go. At one stage I was cruising along at 57.5km/h. Our ears were constantly popping as we descended from over 1000m down to about 300.

_MG_6001 _MG_6002_1 _MG_6003_13kms before the pass road met the main highway we came to the infamous Crown Range switchbacks. These were short stretches of downhill linked together with 180° hairpin turns. I stayed on the road above the switchbacks and let Jasmin go on ahead of me for a bit so that I could get a photo of her cycling down. From where I stood the switchbacks looked like a lot of fun to cycle but in reality they were a bit hectic. When we joined up again we cycled together and had to take the turns very slowly. There was a lot of loose gravel all over the road (probably from being gritted in frosty weather) and there was a big build up of traffic because even the cars needed to take it very slow. We reached the bottom where a T-junction pointed left for Wanaka and right for Queenstown. Our hands were stiff from jamming on the brakes.

Can you spot Jasmin?

Can you spot Jasmin?

We cycled in the direction of Queenstown but turned off the main road after a few kilometers and took the road to Arrowtown where we planned to stay the night. The last 10kms were relatively flat as we rolled into Arrowtown. We checked into a room in the holiday park, had showers, had a bite to eat and nearly fell asleep. We still managed to stay awake long enough to go to the pub for a pint.

Next morning we checked out of the room at 10am. We cycled into town and locked the bikes up so that we could have a stroll around. Arrowtown is a pretty special place. It feels like you are stepping back in time as you make your way through the streets. There are a lot of good cafés and restaurants and some traditional looking shops. It was also nice to be in a town that didn’t have Mc Donalds or Starbucks or any franchises for that matter. On our way out of town we took a stroll through the historic Chinese Settlement where the 100+ year old huts, built during the gold rush, have been preserved.


Arriving in Arrowtown on a misty evening

Arriving in Arrowtown on a misty evening


Massive bowl of coffee for breakfast

Preparing to leave Arrowtown

Preparing to leave Arrowtown


One of the huts in the historic Chinese Settlement

That day we only had 20kms to cycle to get to Queenstown. The short distance lead us to think that we had a nice leisurely cycle ahead of us. We were deceived slightly and the road undulated quite a bit with some hard climbs. On the plus side the weather was good, the landscape was stunning, the road was quiet and there was lots of nice downhill sections.

We had two nights booked into a private room in a hostel in Queenstown. We were lucky to even get a room, the place was packed with people who were there for the ski season. After camping all down the West Coast and coming through the peaceful towns of Wanaka and Arrowtown we found Queenstown way too hectic. We might have appreciated the place more at a different time of the year but just then it felt like we were surrounded by a sea of too many people. The bad weather that had just set in probably didn’t help with our impression of the place either.

Bad weather coming in.

Queenstown harbour and mountains. Bad weather coming in

The town was hectic but quiet spots were still possible to find.

The town was hectic but quiet spots were still possible to find.

With all that being said, we looked back at the route we had taken from Picton, where we started cycling on the South Island, down to Queenstown. Over 1000kms travelled along the highway, following rivers, navigating coastal bluffs and climbing over mountain passes using only the power of our legs. We never gave ourselves a finishing point for this tour but we said if we made it to Queenstown we would be happy.
Well we made it to Queenstown and the best thing is, we still had time for more cycling.



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