Monday, 2 February 2015

Touring the Mackenzie Country – Part 1

From Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 January 2015, John and I, and my sister Aimée and brother-in-law Neil, went on a fully supported bicycle tour of the beautiful Mackenzie Country. We went with a company called Pure Trails, which operates out of Christchurch. An excellent choice: the itinerary, guides, transport, bikes, rides, accommodation, food, and attention to detail, were all fantastic. Add to that the fact that we had perfect weather, and great travelling companions – it all went to make an unforgettable trip.

Getting to Christchurch – Monday 19 January

We travelled to Christchurch by Interisland ferry and Coastal Pacific train. The Cook Strait crossing was smooth and without incident. Which is more than can be said about the train trip to Christchurch. We left Picton bang on time, at 1 pm, but 20 minutes into the journey, we stopped in Blenheim, and were stuck there for the NEXT SEVEN HOURS! There was a scrub fire down the line, near Seddon, which had jumped the road, and later also jumped the railway track.

We were told not to go too far away from the station, because we could get the go-ahead “any minute”. That go-ahead never happened. We wandered around the platform, ate icecreams from the station café and Pringles from the restaurant car, boredom set in.

Boredom and Pringles! (photo by Aimée)

A confab of KiwiRail staff (photo by John)

In the late afternoon, after lots of “yes, we’ll go soon” and “no, sorry, we can’t go yet” and “we’ll get some buses to take you” and “no, sorry, there are no buses available”, the KiwiRail staff started asking who had connections to make in Christchurch. Those that didn’t would be put up in Blenheim motels overnight. We were among those that had to get to Christchurch that night, as we had to meet our tour early the next morning. More humming and ha’ing. Finally, finally, at 8:30 pm, they decided to get Blenheim taxi vans to take us. At last! We got to our motel at 1:15 am.

With still some daylight left, we could see the burnt-out hillside as we drove past (photo by John)


Day 1 of the tour – Tuesday 20 January

Bright and early next morning we were picked up by our tour driver and guide, Peter, and taken to the Pure Trails depot to be issued with our bikes, bags, hi-vis vests and helmets.

When we booked this tour, back in October, we considered taking our folding bikes, but later changed our minds and decided to hire the company’s bikes.

After a safety briefing and a talk about the gears, each person was handed their bike, suited to their height (info provided beforehand), along with a handlebar bag, helmet and water bottle, all duly labelled with their name. Very efficient. Then we were sent to try out the bikes in the little cul-the sac in front of the depot.

We had 2014 Merida Crossway 300d hybrid bikes like this one, though the women’s bikes
had a lower step-through (photo by John)

They were nice bikes, but Aimée and I found the step-through rather high, which caused a few anxious moments, until we figured out how to overcome this (lean the bike towards you). We also had to learn about the 3x9, 27-gear system.

Once everyone was happy with their bikes, they were loaded onto the trailer, and we were off. Our fellow travellers were a group of four couples from Auckland who had been holidaying together for many years, and did a trip like this every year. Some of them expressed relief about the fact that we were similar in age to them, and not a bunch of “lycra-clad young things”. In fact, according to their website, Pure Trails tours are “designed primarily for the senior active traveller”, which pretty much describes us.

A couple of hours’ driving, and we stopped at a nice café in Geraldine for morning tea, then a little further along the road to Fairlie, we turned off on a little-used road, from where we started our first ride.

The start of our first ride – 20 km to Pleasant Point (photo by John)

Our foursome in our natty hi-vis vests (photo by a fellow traveller, with John’s camera)

It was an easy 20 km ride through lovely countryside. It was mostly flat or downhill, with the exception of a couple of steepish climbs, the first of which caused the oldest of the group a bit of trouble. But Peter, our guide, kept a good eye on us all, and offered him a ride up the next hill.

“Taking the lane” on a one-way bridge (photo by John)

The hills were very dry, and many paddocks were dotted with large round hay bales. The Opihi Vineyard, however, was an oasis of green in a dusty golden landscape. We were supposed to have had lunch at the Vineyard Café, except they were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and today was Tuesday.

Round hay bales (photo by John)

Opihi Vineyard

Our destination was Pleasant Point, a small township which boasts the Pleasant Point Museum and Railway. We stopped for lunch at Legends Café, which was right opposite the historic railway station. The food was good and nicely presented, but I think the café staff were overwhelmed by the number of clients – there was another group there as well as ours – because service was incredibly slow and inefficient. However, that gave us time to explore the pretty station and watch the railcar, which made a couple of trips while we were there.

The original station building dates from 1875. Legends Café is on the far left (photo by John)

The Ford Model T Railcar is a replica of one of only two such railcars ever built (photo by John)

Back on the road towards Tekapo, via the Mackenzie Pass. The landscape is huge, wide and open, the dominating colours are brown and gold. The Mackenzie Basin was named after the legendary James Mackenzie, a Scot, who famously rustled a thousand sheep and hid them in this vast – as yet undiscovered at the time – empty area in 1855.

The vast landscape of the Mackenzie Basin

It would have been interesting to stop at the head of the pass, as the two valleys on either side were so spectacularly beautiful, but it was rather windy at the top. We did stop a little further along to see the Mackenzie Monument, which commemorates the spot where Mackenzie was caught, and where he escaped again from his captors. The triangular stone has inscriptions in three languages – English, Māori, and Gaelic, Mackenzie’s native tongue.

The Mackenzie Monument

The Mackenzie River feeds into the Grays River, which in turn feeds into the Tekapo River

As we descended from the pass, we had our first views of the Southern Alps. The photo below was taken through the slightly tinted window of the van, hence the somewhat brooding effect.

The Southern Alps do not have a lot of snow on them in mid-summer

It was nearly 5 pm when we arrived at Tekapo, where we were staying at the Lake Tekapo Scenic Resort, overlooking the lake. We had a couple of hours at leisure before dinner, so we went for a walk by the lakeside.

The incredible colour of the lake is caused by “rock flour”, fine particles of rock ground down by glaciers (photo by John)

We did not go across the bridge to the Church of the Good Shepherd, as we had done that when we were here last April. Besides, there were so many buses and campervans parked there that we (tourists ourselves of course!) grumbled “They should ban all those pesky tourists …”.

“Visual pollution” near the Church of the Good Shepherd (photo by John)

There are plans to build a footbridge between the Tekapo township and the church, as the current road bridge is not particularly safe for pedestrians. The idea is to restrict parking near the church, and to encourage tourists to walk to the church instead. Excellent! The piers for the bridge are already in place. Construction of the bridge is expected to resume in April – after the height of the tourist season, presumably.

The piers for the new footbridge (photo by John)

Drama and textures (photo by John)

Contrasting colours and textures (photo by John)

Church of the Good Shepherd, times two – a small replica on the mini-golf course,
and the real one in the distance ( click to enlarge) (photo by John)


Day 2 – Wednesday 21 January

An early breakfast, and we were on the road by 8:15. A very short drive to the turn-off to Lake Alexandrina, where we were dropped off for our first ride of the day. What a lovely ride. Ten kilometres of sealed, mostly downhill road (with just one climb), all to ourselves!

The way to Lake Alexandrina (photo by John)

There was a bit of confusion when we came to a fork in the road, by a little lake – Lake McGregor – but Peter, who was following us in the van, soon set us on the right track. From here the road became gravel for the short distance to Lake Alexandrina.

Lake McGregor (photo by John)

There is a small collection of holiday baches – or “cribs” as they are called in the South Island – along the shore of this pretty lake. We had time to take a short walk, which yielded many lovely photographs. Not many from John, though, as he was deep in conversation with a fellow scientist from the Auckland group.

Lake Alexandrina (photo by John)

Aimée loves taking photos of old sheds

Gorgeous golden tussocks

Chris, Peter’s wife and co-guide, who had joined us at Tekapo, waits for us to board the van again

Next stop: the Mt John Observatory. This is NZ’s premier astronomical 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.

Today however, we were not concerned with night skies. We were here for the fantastic daytime views, and the coffee!

Trooping up to the Astro Café (photo by John)

View over Lake Tekapo and Motuariki Island

From left: Lakes Alexandrina, McGregor and Tekapo, and in the foreground the Mt John access road,
and the road we cycled earlier in the day (photo by John)

Sunlight and cloud shadows on the hills

Lake Tekapo township

The top of the MOA telescope dome (photo by Aimée)

The views were so fabulous up there, that Peter had trouble getting everyone back into the van for the next stage. We were off to Lake Pukaki, another stunningly beautiful lake with turquoise waters and fantastic views towards Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. Peter offloaded us at the Tekapo B Power Station, where the Tekapo Canal flows into Lake Pukaki.

Tekapo B Power Station (photo by John) 

From here to the end of today's ride, we were riding on a section of the Alps to Ocean Trail – also referred to as the A2O. This 300 km trail from Mt Cook to Oamaru is one of New Zealand’s great rides, which can be done in six to eight days. During this tour we covered several of the easier (i.e. with the least number of hills to climb!) sections of this trail.

John and one of the A2O sign posts

The track ran alongside the lake, and it was only four kilometres to the place where Peter and Chris had set up our lunch stop. Out of the lockers on the trailer came camping chairs for everyone, chilly bins, thermos flasks, cups, tea, coffee and milk, a water container to top up our water bottles from, bags of nectarines and mandarins, and our packed lunches. What a feast! Each lunch pack contained a huge sandwich and a muffin. Such was their attention to detail that they’d even taken note of the fact that John doesn’t like tomatoes – his sandwich came without the offending item!

Peter and Chris setting up for lunch

What a view to enjoy during lunch! (photo by John)

Closing in on Mt Cook from our lunch stop

After lunch we rode another 10 km along Lake Pukaki Foreshore, where we marvelled at the views to the Alps, the colours of the lake, and the plants beside the track.

The dazzling colours of Lake Pukaki (photo by John)

The track is lined with woolly mullein … (Verbascum Thapsus)

… and lots of thistles

More woolly mullein

The track joined the highway across the Pukaki High Dam. We had a short (comfort) stop at the Lake Pukaki Visitor Centre, and a briefing from Peter about where to go next. We would be “on our own” for the next 11 km, as he would not be able to accompany us across the Pukaki Flats.

Peter briefs us about the next leg of the journey with a map drawn in the dirt

We crossed the state highway and the track headed first towards the Pukaki River. There was a large area of wilding pines on the river flats. These invasive pines are self-sown, and are considered to be a threat to the environment and the landscape. Various eradication schemes are run by local authorities.

Wilding pines on the Pukaki River Flats (photo by John)

The track then entered the Pukaki Flats Conservation Area which is administered by DOC (Dept of Conservation). The area is described as “an expansive area of dry grasslands that are characteristic of the Mackenzie landscape”.

The Pukaki Flats are very flat – and vast, and dry, and featureless, apart from the hills in the distance. Though it seems boring, with nothing much to look at, I actually rather enjoyed the ride. The bumpiness of the track required my attention, but I was able to get into a good rhythm, and I just put my head down and kept on pedalling. John said he had trouble keeping up with me.

The track across the Pukaki Flats (photo by John)

The end of the track

Chris was waiting for us at the end of the track, to point the way to our accommodation, which was only a few hundred metres away, across the other side of the Pukaki to Twizel highway (SH80).

And what wonderful accommodation it was! We stayed at Omahau Downs for two nights. The Auckland group stayed at “The Lodge”, while Peter and Chris, and we four Wellingonians stayed at the "Lyons Den”. This was the luxuriously appointed private residence of the station owners (Lyon is their surname) who make the house available for part of the year. Pure Trails are privileged to be able to make use of this wonderful house for their tours.

The entrance to Omahau Downs

The "Lyons Den"

The view from the house, with Mt Cook in the distance (photo by John)

It was very hot, and we’d worked pretty hard, having biked 35 km that day, so after a wander around the buildings and a chat to Sean, the farmer, we settled down on the terrace with a cup of coffee and a book until it was time for dinner. Does life get any better than this?

Ewes and lambs crowd in the shade of the trees near “The Lodge” (photo by John)

The yellow flowers grow by a small stream along the fence line in front of the “Lyons Den”
 (photo by John)

Ah, what bliss! (photo by John)

The day ended very satisfactorily with a delicious dinner at “The Musterers Hut” in Twizel. Freshly caught salmon was served with salads, and followed by chocolate mousse for dessert. Accompanied by a glass of very nice local wine, it all went down very well indeed.


  1. Great descriptions and photos, well done ! I and Vivianne enjoyed meeting you both. Peter

  2. Thanks Peter. Yes the company on the tour was great. John and I enjoyed meeting you all. Keep a look out for part 2, coming up soon.