New Zealand on two wheels

By Caroline Faucher 10 May 2010
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Racers brave New Zealand’s ever-changing weather as they pedal through its historic and beautiful moonshine country.

EVER SINCE THE SCOTS settled in the south of New Zealand in the early 1800s, whisky making has been a regional tradition. For decades, moonshiners distilled illicit whisky, hidden throughout the deep valleys of Southland.

Today, the region is still home to the infamous Hokonui Whiskey, thanks to the recipe of Mary McRae and her children, a moonshining family who provided whiskey on the sly to those in the know for more than 90 years. Each year, thousands reunite to celebrate the unique history surrounding the “devil drink” during the Hokonui Moonshiners festival in Gore. While fine cuisine and whisky lovers can satisfy their tastebuds at the expo, one event attracts a different type of participant – the Moonshine Trail mountain bike and running race.

The Moonshine Trail winds through the Hokonui Hills on the outskirts of Gore, where the notorious McRae clan produced whisky. Race organisers say riding the Moonshine Trail is the true way to get a taste of the years of hard labour endured by the spirit craftsmen. Located at the centre of Southland, Hokonui Hills was the obvious choice for the illegal production of spirits. The deep valleys and the high hills were ideal for hiding the smoke that came out of the distilleries, making it more difficult for authorities to uncover prohibited operations. The many creeks, which the trail crosses on numerous occasions, were also perfect for hiding the wash barrels used in the production of whisky.

On the morning of the race, I arrived at the site not knowing exactly what I had gotten myself into. Being at the beginning of a 10-day adventure trip, the 35 km option seemed to be a good compromise between the mellower 30 km circuit and the gruelling 40 km race, which ends with the Ships Cone climb, a heartbreaking hill that intimidates the most seasoned riders.

ALL GEARED UP AND fuelled by the excitement of exploration, I joined the 300-odd other riders who were eagerly awaiting the gun shot that would send us on our way through the hills. Upon my arrival, my hosts told me that the Southland weather was unpredictable. As locals say, it is often possible to see four seasons in one day. Ranging from hot and sunny to cold and rainy, the race has a history of extreme conditions that have contributed, along with the climbs, to its tough reputation. While last year’s race fell on a sunny and almost unbearably hot day, Mother Nature had something completely different in mind for this year’s event.

Almost right from the gun, droplets of rain accompanied by a thick layer of cloud set the tone for the first few kilometres. But as soon as we began our first ascent, the ever-changing weather lifted and at that precise moment I realised Southland shared much more with Scotland than just its history. For a short time, the thick fog parted, revealing a picturesque landscape. Blessed with endless bright green hills, the region is on par with the famous Scottish Highlands – it’s easy to see why so many Scots settled here.

For a couple of hours, I enjoyed the warm company of some locals until we split at the crossroad that took them back along the shorter loop to the finish. Once by myself I began to understand why my new riding buddies had chosen the easier option. It may have been just 5 km more, but it felt more like 15 km. Instead of cruising on the tar for the last leg, I was again confronted with interminable hills and creek crossings. Moreover, the weather was only becoming worse with a wintry wind and the temperature falling as I continued climbing.

The detour, however, was worth the pain. As the trail wound deeper into the valley, the scenery became more pure, showing another, wild side of Southland. While the breathtaking surrounds would have been enough excitement for most travellers, what struck me most was my unexpected encounter with a herd of cows standing like spectators in the middle of the trail, curious at seeing so many people traversing their backyard.

I finally reached the finish line after several gruelling hours on the bike. With a sense of satisfaction I was pleased, however, at not having chosen the longer loop. Thrilled with my experience, I was desperately in need of a warm shower, but was instead greeted with a shot of
Hokonui Whiskey to warm the heart, as is the custom at the end of the Moonshine Trail.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Invercargill (via Christchurch). The race takes place near Gore, a city 50 minutes north-east of Invercargill or two hours from Queenstown. Several bus companies operate daily services to and from Gore.

Equipment/weather: While temperatures in the south of New Zealand in summer range from 10°C to 22°C, the temperature can change at any time. Layered clothing is best suited for the race, as the weather can be different at the start point and on the hills. Warm clothes for after the race are a must to keep you comfortable for the ride back to your accommodation. It is also best to bring your own bike to avoid any last-minute adjustments as there are no bike shops near the race site.

Race accommodation: The Scenic Circle Croydon Lodge Hotel, in Gore, is the closest hotel to the race site. The Dolamore Park, the start and finish area, is also a campsite so feel free to bring your tent and camp overnight.

For more accommodation:
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Source: Australian Geographic Adventure Nov/Dec 2009