Cycling from New Zealand’s Alps to the ocean

By Andrew Bain | February 26, 2015

This 78km section of New Zealand’s South Island Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail is simply exceptional

Where is Twizel?

Twizel isn’t Queenstown. It’s not Wanaka, and it’s not Nelson. This South Island town is the workaday filling between cutesy Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook Village, but it’s also now the starting point for what might well be one of New Zealand’s finest single-day bike rides.

Billing itself as the Town of Trees (which is quite a boast on this barren, grassy plain), Twizel was constructed in the 1960s to house workers on the nearby hydroelectricity scheme. In 2013 it also became a stop on the new Alps 2 Ocean cycleway, one of 23 cycling trails being carved across New Zealand.

Running 310km from Mt Cook Village to the coast at Oamaru, Alps 2 Ocean is a trail that has its flaws – to cross the Tasman River out of Mt Cook Village requires a helicopter ride, and long stretches of the trail through the Waitaki Valley are on State Highway 83 – but this 78km chunk of it, from Twizel to Omarama, is exceptional.

It makes for the kind of day on which you might discover just how civilised cycling can be, with lunch at remote Lake Ohau Lodge in sight of Mt Cook, and hot springs in the evening. Cycling is simply the ticket by which both treats feel earned.

Canal roads are a feature of the area, and Alps 2 Ocean utilises them out of Twizel, connecting the dots that are the region’s lakes. Running beside the canals that link the hydro scheme, the roads climb so gently it seems almost as though I’m riding downhill, against the flow of the canal. The combination of yellow grasses, mountains and glacially blue canals is so spectacular it’s been the setting for car commercials, though there’s a barely a car in sight as I pedal the canal roads’ ruler-straight lines.

The roads end by the shores of Lake Ohau, where cloud sits low over the land and lakes. The tips of snowy mountains peep through gaps, and though the name ‘Ohau’ means place of wind, the valley is gloriously still this day and the lake is buffed to a mirror finish.

On the Alps 2 Ocean

Across the lake, Ben Ohau rises dramatically from the water, its slopes as dark as the snowy peaks beyond it are bright. Furrowed with scree slopes, it looks only marginally looser than some sections of the trail around the southern shores of the lake, where pebbly beaches are covered in lupins and driftwood washed down from the valleys. At times I’m riding through shoreline pebbles so deep and soft, I need to push the bike.

Lake Ohau is a hidden treasure among the valleys of the Southern Alps. Though less than 20km from Lake Pukaki, with its famed views of Mt Cook, it sits near the end of a no-through road. It’s a pocket of peace, for passing traffic is non-existent, placing the lake far from the rutted tourist paths that lead to Queenstown and Mt Cook Village.

The lake’s tourist infrastructure is limited to a ski field high above and Lake Ohau Lodge on its shores. As lunchtime approaches – I’ve cycled almost 40km from Twizel – I ride up the lodge’s long driveway lined with ponderosa pines.

Taking in the New Zealand mountain view

On the lodge’s deck I lunch with a view over the lake and through the Dobson Valley, which is framed with snowy peaks, including the tip of Mt Cook. Before me is a platter of meats, cheeses, salmon and a selection of breads and fruit. The breads are made on the premises, and the meats, spreads and conserves are cooked by the lodge’s chef.

It’s tempting to stay and sleep off the lunch – the lodge has a range of accommodation, while the opportunity to watch alone the pink sunset glow of Mt Cook is another inducement – but I ride on, swinging now into the Waitaki Valley.

Lunch burns off quickly over the next hour as the trail rolls across the slopes of the Ohau Range, climbing to the highest point of the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway – 900m above sea level, almost 400m above Lake Ohau – before descending to Quailburn Gorge. Here, the ride switches into the valley on a dirt road before a final section of cycle path into Omarama.

As I enter Omarama, gliders drift across the sky, looking like imitations of the birds that circle on the currents below them. It’s an appropriate welcome for a town that likes to claim itself as the world’s prime gliding venue – in 1954 Englishman Phillip Wills set an altitude record when he flew to 10,000m over Mt Cook from the Omarama airfield. But after a day of riding I’m less interested in air than water.

A hot tub finish on the Alps 2 Ocean

The finest way to finish this day is with a soak in Omarama’s hot tubs, a series of spas and saunas dotted among tussock grass, looking out over a lake to often snow-rimmed mountains. The water in the tubs is as clean as a glacier – literally – coming from a bore drilled downstream of Huxley Glacier, and sliding into the wood-heated tub is a warm embrace at the end of a cycling day.

From the tub, all seems good with the world. I have a bottle of wine from Omarama’s Ladybird Hill winery – New Zealand’s highest vineyard – and shortly after the sun rolls away, stars begin to appear. Omarama is at the edge of one of only two dark-sky reserves – areas named for their lack of light pollution and proximity to an observatory – in the southern hemisphere. There are few night skies like this one, and few cycling days to equal it.

The Essentials

Getting there: InterCity buses (www.intercity.co.nz) travel to and from Christchurch and Twizel (five hours).

Access: October to April.

Bike hire and tours: Based in Twizel, Cycle Journeys (www.cyclejourneys.co.nz) offers bike hire and shuttle transfers. Daily hire, with helmet, begins from NZ$45. Sister company Adventure South (www.advsouth.co.nz) runs a five-day trip on Alps 2 Ocean.
More info: Alps 2 Ocean’s official website is at
www.alps2ocean.com.