Monday, 5 May 2014

Tekapo and Lake Ohau

On our way to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail, we drove through the spectacular Mackenzie Country. We stayed a night each in Tekapo and at Lake Ohau and we biked in both places.

Tekapo – Sunday 30 March 2014

One of the reasons we stopped in Tekapo was that we wanted to take an evening tour of the Mount John Observatory, and the other was that it is just such a beautiful area. And of course we wanted to ride our bikes along the shore of the lake.

We stayed at the Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park. The park is extensive and caters for all levels of accommodation, from backpacker bunk rooms to cabins and motels, and from tent sites to campervan sites. Our cabin overlooked the lake and though there were a lot of people in the camp, it was incredibly quiet.

The view from our cabin

Wow! What a way to “camp”!

After lunch we set off for a bike ride. First we rode from the motor camp towards the village – not very far, and on a very nice smooth path. Then on a fairly rough track below the village, towards the bridge over the Lake Tekapo outlet control gates.

The lakeside track near the village

Water rushes out through the control gates

On towards the Church of the Good Shepherd. This famous little church has to be the church with THE MOST fabulous view in New Zealand. Behind the altar is a large picture window looking out over the lake towards the Southern Alps. This view is particularly magnificent in winter of course, when the mountains are covered in snow, and the sky is a crisp blue. But for us, this time, it was too early in the season for snow.

The window behind the altar at the Church of the Good Shepherd

Of course there were quite a few tourists at the church, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been earlier in the day, when we drove past as we were arriving at Tekapo. We were able to have a fairly unencumbered look inside, and take photos of the outside that had few other people in them.

The Church of the Good Shepherd (photo by John)

The view from the Church of the Good Shepherd (photo by John)

While John was keeping an eye on the bikes, a gentleman offered to take a picture of me by the church. He asked me if I was South African. Argh! another one, and he was South African himself! I get asked that all the time! It really riles me, because I have never been anywhere near South Africa, and I don’t think I sound like a South African at all. Dutch maybe, but South African, no. I just put it down to people not having a good “ear” for accents. Anyway, he and his wife had been travelling in NZ for three weeks, and were loving it.

The photo taken by the South African gentleman

After visiting the church, we rode past the statue of MacKenzie’s dog, which is a tribute to the working dog, without which the vast open expanses of the MacKenzie could not have been farmed. The area is named after James MacKenzie, a sheep drover, who was imprisoned for having rustled a thousand sheep with the help of his dog Friday. He has become a legendary figure, the subject of stories, poems and songs.

However, as a busload of tourists had just arrived, we decided to give the statue a miss. So we biked along the road, then deviated onto a rather rough gravel track along the lake shore. I think the track was designed more for walkers than cyclists, as it was quite uncomfortable to ride on. But the views were so pretty, it was worth persevering.

Willows at the lake shore (photo by John)

More willows (photo by John)

A little while later, we discovered a track that was much more suitable for cycling. It moved away from the lake through a pine forest, where the sides of the path were strewn with pinecones. It looked as if someone had gone through and swept them all off the path!

A pinecone-strewn path (photo by John)

Eventually we ended up on the road to Lilybank (which is a station at the top of the lake). We rode up it for a short while, then turned around and rode on the road back to Tekapo.

Back in the holiday camp, we kept going along the lakeshore for some distance. Some of the track was OK-ish, some of it was quite rough. In one place we had to decide whether to go through a large puddle or to go round it and risk getting hooked up by thorny briar roses growing right at the edge of the puddle. As we had no idea how deep the puddle was, we risked the roses!

There were lots of briar roses everywhere, all covered in hips

We sat on a stony beach for quite a while, enjoying the view and the silence – and the company of a lone hopeful duck. She waddled out of the water to investigate us more fully, came quite close to us, and had a nice “conversation” with John, but as we didn’t have any offerings, she soon waddled off again.

We sat on a stony beach for a while

This duck came right up close to check us out

The track didn’t go much further

After we came back from our ride – we did 14 kms – we sat on the little deck of our cabin and downloaded our photos, tried to get into the internet and failed. The view from our cabin was stunningly beautiful. The mountains all around are tall, bare and rugged, as yet devoid of snow. Lake Tekapo is the result of long-ago glaciers, and the distinctive shape of the valley sides was produced by the scouring action of these ancient glaciers.

The view over the lake is stunning (photo by John)

In the evening we went on a tour of the Mount John Observatory. This is NZ’s premier scientific astronomy observatory. The site was chosen for the clarity and darkness of the night sky. The MacKenzie Basin is a dark-sky reserve, because of its almost light-pollution-free skies.

The people on the tour were picked up by a bus which took us to the observatory. Along the way the driver explained the importance of minimising light pollution, and that the residents of Tekapo were discouraged from using white or fluorescent lights. The few street lights in the area were sodium lights (orange) and had special covers so they would not shine up.

As we approached the observatory, the driver had to turn his lights right down. All we could see was the reflectors on the posts along the edge of the road (with a drop on the other side!).

We had all been issued with a small red-light torch so that, even though the darkness was complete, we could still see where we were going (sort of).

Unfortunately the sky was partly cloudy, and we couldn’t do much star gazing. So we went into the darkened café and were given a video presentation about galaxies, the Milky Way and our (the earth’s) place in it, and about the southern skies and what we can see here (when there are no clouds!).

I’ve never been much of a star gazer, or had the patience to learn to identify various stars, but I did learn from this presentation how to identify Alpha Centauri A and B, which are quite bright, and from there to find the Southern Cross.

The Southern Cross (in the centre) and Alpha Centauri A and B (at the bottom).
John took this photo when the sky cleared the next evening at Lake Ohau

After a while some of the clouds cleared and people trooped out to look through several telescopes that had been set up. John got talking to Dave, one of the young scientists showing people around, and they found they had several areas of interest in common. John has an interest in astronomy, and he once had the opportunity to be a guest on NASA’s flying Kuiper observatory to view Halley’s Comet and other stellar objects. He wrote up the experience on his website.

Dave was fascinated to hear about this and they got so absorbed in their conversation, that we didn’t get to see some of the large telescopes (inside the domes) that were open to view. So he invited us to come along the next morning, as he really wanted to show John the big MOA telescope.

MOA stands for Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics, and it is a collaborative project between researchers in NZ and Japan.

It is a gi-normous telescope, the largest in NZ, with a 1.8 metre diameter mirror. John found it all very interesting, but much of the scientific information that Dave told us went way over my head. This link will explain much better than I can, some of what the MOA telescope does.

The enormous, 1.8 m diameter mirror of the MOA telescope (photo by John)

Many of the observations are done by graduate students and guest scientists, and we were shown the area where they work. They don’t do anything as ‘romantic’ as peering into the telescope. The images seen through the telescope are captured by a powerful camera and transmitted to computer screens. Of course, they do their work at night, so it was unoccupied in the daytime. John was amused to recognise the untidy and cluttered workspace that is typical of graduate students everywhere. He’s been there, done that …

Part of the area where the observations are done (photo by John)

Dave showed us around the Observatory site, and explained details about the various telescopes. Afterwards we took photos of the fabulous views.

Lake Tekapo
Three of the five domes housing large telescopes

I suppose the people who work here mainly at night will be oblivious to the grandeur of the view

The tour took a good couple of hours, and after that we went on our way to Lake Ohau, our next overnight stop and bike ride. Along the way we went for a short walk and had a picnic lunch on the shore of Lake Pukaki.

Aoraki/Mount Cook from the shore of Lake Pukaki

Perfect reflections of the Southern Alps with Aoraki/Mount Cook

Picnic by Lake Pukaki and the A2O (Alps to Ocean) cycle trail

Lake Ohau – Sunday 30 and Monday 31 March

Lake Ohau is the smallest of the three glacial lakes dominating the MacKenzie Basin. Again, it is an absolutely beautiful area. Very still, and hardly a soul around when we were there.

The reason we wanted to go there was that it is part of the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, also known as the A2O.  This 300 km trail goes from the Southern Alps, near Mount Cook, to Oamaru on the coast, and it can be cycled in about eight days. Quite a lot of it involves riding on the road, and also includes some hefty hill climbs – a no, no in my book. But we were interested in riding some of the trail along Lake Ohau, as that is supposed to be 'easy' and one of the most stunning off-road sections of the A2O (part of Section 3).

Our first view of Lake Ohau, with the imposing peak of Ben Ohau on the right

We arrived at Lake Ohau Lodge in the mid-afternoon, and after parking our stuff, we set off for a bike ride. We cycled the 10 km road section from the Lodge to the beginning of the off-road track, and back. It was very quiet, we met only a couple of cars along the whole stretch.

We diverted off the road to check out the Ohau Alpine Village. We went up a steep road (John biked, I walked and cursed …) into an area of lovely houses which seemed to be utterly empty. I guess the village only comes alive in the ski season, when the Ohau Snow Fields (only 20 minutes away) are in action.

A view of Ben Ohau from near the Alpine Village (photo by John)

Just along from the village, we found Lake Middleton, a small lake just across the road from the big lake. We rode down the gravel road into what turned out to be a basic camping ground. There was just one caravan camped there, and no people that we could see. It was a completely still and magical environment, with the lake as flat as a mirror.

Perfect reflections on Lake Middleton (photo by John)

Lake Middleton, with the Ohau ski area in the background. You can just make out
the vertiginous access road (photo by John)

Back on the road, and cycling to the start of the A2O off-road track. We wanted to check how ridable the track looked. The 200 metres of gravel road to the gate were pretty horrible to bike on – the gravel was large and round, so it was quite skiddy and bumpy. But beyond the gate it looked fine. So it was decided – we would ride that track in the morning.

These glowing poplars stood out in the landscape

On our way back to the Lodge we stopped at a stony beach, but we didn’t stick around for too long, as the sandflies were doing their voracious best to make a meal of us. I was surprised to find them here. I thought they were on the wrong side of the divide – the West Coast is where they are famously the size of small helicopters.

A stony beach and the Ben Ohau Range on the opposite shore (photo by John)

Before dinner at the Lodge I took a walk around the area, and admired the views. It was late in the day, and the cloud cover made it all look a little brooding, but yet so spectacularly beautiful.

You can clearly see the horizontal lines where the glacier scraped along the mountain sides
all those eons ago

Lake Ohau viewed from the grounds around Lake Ohau Lodge

You can see Aoraki/Mount Cook from the deck of the Lodge

We woke the next day to a crisp, cool morning, with a bit of high cloud. After an excellent breakfast, we drove to the A2O cycle trail, where it joins the road. We found two campervans (one actually a bus) parked by the gate. We spent a while talking to the owners of the bus – they came from Whangarei, and had been on the road for the last 11 weeks. They loved living like that. TV on board, their own bathroom and toilet, all mod cons. Even the dog comes along.

A bit later, when we had started cycling the trail, we met the owners of the other campervan, who’d been picking apples from a lone apple tree by the edge of the trail. They reckoned they would make good applesauce. They were from Hawke's Bay, also on the road for many weeks. They were on their way to the mobile home rally in Mosgiel at Easter. Apparently THE place to meet other grey nomads – quite a chummy affair, from the sound of it.

This is John’s favourite photo of Lake Ohau. He now uses it as ‘wallpaper’ on his computer screen (photo by John)

The track skirts closely around the edge of the lake. It was quite a good track, though you had to be careful not to skid. Although the Māori name ‘Ohau’ means ‘windy place’, it was actually flat calm, and the reflections were gorgeous.

The track skirts the lake edge, and offers gorgeous views at every turn

A perfect reflection of Ben Ohau. When we returned a couple of hours later,
the lake was ruffled by a slight breeze

We met several walkers on the trail, and close to the Ohau River Weir, we met two French girls who told us they were walking the Te Araroa hiking trail, which goes the length of NZ, and they had walked from Havelock at the top of the South Island (with a bit of “cheating” by hitch hiking some of the boring road bits). Amazing. They thought the NZ landscapes were fantastic. I fully agree.

The outlet of the lake into the Ohau River is controlled by a weir (photo by John)

We rode down a very steep and heavily gravelled road to the weir. Once across the weir, the choice was between a steep road going up the hill, or a track that ran level, around the hill. John biked to the top of the hill to see what he could see from there, while I waited below.

The Ohau River Weir (photo by John)

The view from the top of the road (photo by John)

The weir from the other side

I waited while John investigated the road to the top of the hill

I wasn’t prepared to climb the hill, so we followed the track around the hill. It was quite horrible actually, very rough gravel, large rolling, skiddy stones. Not very enjoyable at all. We arrived at another bridge/dam ('control structure', John says), this time across the Ohau Canal, which joins the Pukaki Canal further down the valley.

The exit of the lake into the Ohau Canal

The Ohau Canal (photo by John)

Here we decided to turn back. John suggested we take the road over the hill to avoid the horrible bit of track. It looked like smooth tarseal, but it soon became more horrible gravel. And coming down a very steep, skiddy gravel road (the one I had refused to go up in the first place) down to the weir, was quite hard and unpleasant.

The way back (photo by John)

On the way back, I suddenly saw John come off his bike. He was lying on his back, and I was worried he had hurt himself, but luckily he was OK. His skivvy had got caught up by the vicious thorns of a tall bush of matagouri on the side of the track, and he skidded as he tried to get free.

Soon after that, John decided to try to make the gravelly ride a little less skiddy by letting down the pressure of the front tyre a bit. It worked well enough.

John lets some air out of the front tyre to see if it would improve the ride

A clump of matagouri – check out those vicious thorns!

A small stream creates a little oasis of green in an otherwise dry landscape (photo by John)

The exit of the stream into the lake is blocked by gravel (photo by John)

By the time we got back to the car, we had biked just over 20 km. We had a picnic lunch on the stony beach before getting on the road to Clyde where we would spend the night before setting out on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

A picnic on the lake shore. Note the container of insect repellent in front of me. I had to use lots of it
 to deter the sandflies! (photo by John)

On our way south we drove over the Lindis Pass, which is spectacularly beautiful.
Don't those hills look like velvet? (photo by John)

In Clyde, we stayed in a lovely cottage that the Trail Journey people had booked for us. As we were heading off on the Otago Central Rail Trail the next day, John spent quite some time giving the bikes a thorough once over – cleaning, checking, oiling, and generally making sure they would be trouble free for the next few days.

Plum Tree Cottage in Clyde (photo by John)

John gave the bikes a thorough check up before the start of our next biking adventure


  1. Great to read this and see familiar sights in photos. Looking forward to your blogs on the latest Mackenzie ride that we enjoyed with you

    1. Hi Jenni, Thanks for your comment. Part 1 of the Mackenzie ride is up, as of yesterday. Keep a look out for part 2 soon. It was great to meet you all.