Friday, 6 February 2015

Touring the Mackenzie Country – Part 2

From Tuesday 20 to Saturday 25 January, John and I, and my sister Aimée and brother-in-law Neil, went on a fully supported bicycle tour of the beautiful Mackenzie Country. This is the second blog post about that trip. Part 1 is in the previous blog post, further down.

Day 3 of the tour – Thursday 22 January 


Another early start, we were on the road by 8:15. Peter drove us to the top of the Quailburn Road, where there is an historic woolshed. Quailburn Station was once part of Benmore Run, which was one of the largest properties in Otago in the 1870s. An information board in the woolshed tells us that it was built in the early 1920s, and constructed from beech poles taken from the Quailburn Bush. Wood was scarce in the Mackenzie, the only local source of timber being pockets of forests in gullies around Quailburn and Lake Ohau.

The historic woolshed at Quailburn was built in the early 1920s

It was constructed from beech poles

After a look around the woolshed, we set off on our first 19 km ride of the day. This is also part of the Alps to Ocean Trail. The road was mostly smooth gravel, and downhill all the way. Towards the end it became a sealed road. It was quite chilly to begin with, especially as you picked up speed on the downhill. John put on his parka to keep the wind out, and was caught on camera by Aimée.

John was feeling the cold (photo by Aimée)

The early part of the trail was lined with wonderful wild flowers. Here were the remnants of the famous Mackenzie Country Russell lupins – one of the main reasons I wanted to bike in this part of the country. Unfortunately it was too late in the season to see them in their full multi-coloured glory. I think that they were still flowering here because it was quite high in the hills, and cooler than lower down. I took photos of what was still on offer, but had to use my imagination for what it might have looked like if all those seed pods had been flowers.

This would have looked wonderful a few weeks earlier!

Russell lupins

Other flowers that lined the road were the yellow-topped spikes of woolly mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and the proliferation of tall blue viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare). They make a stunning combination. 

Masses of woolly mullein and viper’s bugloss

After a relatively green part of the ride, the landscape opened up to wide brown and gold expanses, with the hills in the distance.

A nice curve in the road …

… followed by a long straight (photo by John)

Signs of habitation … (photo by John)

… or not

After about an hour’s cycling we were met again by Peter and the van, and we headed to Omarama for morning tea at the “Wrinkly Rams”. As well as serving excellent coffee and scones, they also appeared to have a sheep show, though we didn’t get to see any of that. John liked the display at the entrance, which looked suitably rustic.

The entrance of “The Wrinkly Rams” (photo by John)

Our guides Peter and Chris decided to stay in the shade of the verandah

Soon it was time to get going again. It was a 45-minute drive to the top of the Ahuriri Valley. What amazing scenery! Rugged mountains on either side, and at the top of the valley a view towards snowy peaks. Peter told us that the dominating peak was Mt Strauchon (2391 m).

Mt Strauchon and other peaks (photo by John)

We pulled to a stop for lunch near some wetlands. While Peter and Chris got out all the paraphernalia for lunch, we all wandered off and went crazy with our cameras.

The massive scree slopes are typical of the glaciated valley

Mt Strauchon reflections (photo by John)

One side of the valley ...

... and the other side (photo by John)

This whole area is part of the Ahuriri Conservation Park, which is administered by DOC (Dept of Conservation). The aim is to protect vulnerable wetlands and tussock lands, but also to provide easy access for people to walk, cycle or ride (horses) in the mountains.

Several information boards near our lunch spot explained the significance of the wetlands. They are important because they remain largely unchanged, when most of the natural wetlands in New Zealand have been lost. They are a habitat of several native fish species and of the critically endangered black stilt (kakī) which are now only found here. Neil took a rather nice photo of the more common pied stilt, making good use of a zoom lens.

Pied stilt (poaka) (photo by Neil)

Time for lunch! Again all the camping chairs were put out, and we had a leisurely lunch while enjoying the dramatic surroundings.

Setting the scene for lunch

Enjoying the sun after lunch (photo by Aimée)

I have no idea what this tiny flower is – the whole cluster was less than 1 cm across –
but its colour caught my attention among the grass

Ready to ride 25 km down this spectacular valley (photo by a fellow traveller with John’s camera)

As we biked down the valley, we made numerous stops for photos. Some small lakes provided brilliant reflections of the hills and mountains around us.

Perfect reflections (photo by John)

More reflections

The dark colour of the water is caused by algae (photo by John)

So peaceful ...

The road was mostly downhill, but there were a few vicious climbs, which necessitated getting off and walking – for the less fit amongst us. There were a few stretches on the road where corrugations in the surface made for quite unpleasant riding as the parallel ridges were hard to avoid. The shuddering hurt your hands and shoulders, and made your brain rattle about.

Going downhill was lovely …

… but climbing up the other side was hard work (photo by John)

Irrigation produces surprisingly green patches in the valley (photo by John)

Further down the valley, we crossed the Ahuriri River, and stayed more or less alongside it for the rest of the ride.

The Ahuriri River

The Ahuriri River from a disused bridge (photo by Aimée)

When we all got back to the van, one of the Auckland group had been waiting for quite a while. He had set himself a challenge and did the ride in less than an hour and a quarter. The rest of us took nearly two hours to do the 25 km.

On the way back to our accommodation, we stopped off in Twizel for Peter to pick up the dishes provided by the Musterers Hut (where we had dinner the previous night) which would contribute to our barbecue dinner at the “Lyons Den”. Some of us also took the opportunity to stop at the local supermarket to get supplies of drinks and nibbles.

Back at Omahau Downs, we freshened up – very necessary after biking 44 km under a hot sun – then carried the sun loungers into the shade of some trees by the Lyons Den, and settled ourselves down with lemonade and chippies for a spot of reading, or in Neil’s case, a bit of a doze.

Bliss under the trees (photo by John)

We were then invited to enjoy some socialising with wine and cheese at “The Lodge”, while Peter and Chris busied themselves getting things ready for the barbecue at the "Lyons Den".

The barbecue was most enjoyable: Peter did an excellent job as chief barbecue cook, and the salads and dessert provided by the Musterers Hut were delicious.

Peter shows off the Pure Trails logo on his apron

Mt Cook came to the party too, showing itself in all its glory in the distance. All the cameras were put to good use to capture this stunning sight. As dusk fell, the last rays of sunshine lit up the mountain in a delicate pink.

Mt Cook as seen from the terrace (with a bit of help from a zoom lens)

The last rays make Mt Cook glow pink (photo by John)

Day 4 – Friday 23 January

After packing our luggage in the van, we left Omahau Downs on our bikes, with instructions from Peter to turn right outside the gate, and to follow the A2O sign posts along the Glen Lyon Road out of Twizel. The morning’s ride would be 20 km on the sealed road alongside the hydro-electric canals towards Lake Ohau. On the way to the canal we saw some interesting clay cliffs, and a small lake, Loch Cameron.

Clay cliffs

Perfect reflections in Loch Cameron (photo by John)

Today’s rides correspond with Section 3 of the Alps to Ocean Trail. Here is a useful map.

At the bridge across the Ohau-Pukaki Canal, Peter and Chris were waiting to make sure that we ended up riding on the correct side of the canal and in the right direction – we could have gone any one of four ways …

Our guides made sure we took the right road (photo by John)

The stretch along the canal was mostly straight, apart from one kink where the canal from Pukaki met the canal from Ohau, to be joined together to flow into Lake Ruataniwha at the Ohau A Power Station. One or two people found it quite a boring stretch, but I enjoyed getting into my own rhythm and keeping going.

The Pukaki Canal

We stopped to take photos of a salmon farm, where a worker was feeding his charges. When he flung scoopfuls of food into the pens, there was a frenzy of salmon activity on the surface of the water. A large group of seagulls, sitting on a boom tethering the farm to the shore, were lining up hoping for a tasty treat too. It seemed to me they were rather a long way from home.

A salmon farm (photo by John)

Seagulls hoping for a snack

After about an hour and a half we reached the control structure at the outlet from Lake Ohau. And who should we see waiting for us there, with morning tea, but our lovely guides of course!

Water flows from Lake Ohau into the Ohau hydro canal (photo by John)

The next leg of the journey was a track along the edge of Lake Ohau. We rode this part of the track when we were here last April, and we were pleased to be doing it again, as it is so beautiful.

Ben Ohau dominates the lake from almost every angle (photo by John)

The Ohau River, on the downriver side of the weir

The other side of the weir – the outflow of the Ohau river from the lake

As it is a gravel track with the potential for flat tyres, it was decided that someone should take the spare tube and puncture repair kit. The track was not accessible to the van, so we would have to sort ourselves out if anyone had a puncture.

John has good mechanical skills, and experience with fixing punctures, so he volunteered to carry the repair kit, and therefore had to be the last one to leave. BUT ...! the repair kit must have been jinxed! The only person to get a puncture was … John! And not just one puncture, but two!

John had told me to go ahead with the others while he closed up the rear, and I expected him to catch us up before long. I amused myself taking photos while waiting.

Ben Ohau and a lone boatie

The road up to the Ohau Skifield. It starts from the Lake Ohau Lodge, which was
where we were headed today

But he didn’t appear. I waited, and waited, and called out – to no avail. Some parts of the track were narrow and with steep drops to the lake. I started to worry that he might have come to grief so I backtracked for a couple of kilometres. When I found him he said he’d had a puncture almost at the start of the rough track.

Apart from the track between the Ohau Canal and the Ohau Weir, which is especially rough (that was the bit I didn’t like last time) the surface of the track was quite improved from last April. They must have done some maintenance before the start of the main tourist season.

John in photographer mode

Wonderful views over the lake

Then, would you believe it, with a couple of kilometres still to go before we would meet the van, John had another puncture! He’d used the new tube, so this time he had to try to patch the fairly large hole in the tube. Both punctures were probably caused by vicious matagouri thorns.

Puncture number two!

So I rode ahead to alert Peter, who had already heard from some of the others about his first puncture. He asked how far back John was, and so he jumped on the spare bike – carried along on the trip for just such an occasion – and went to John’s rescue with a whole new wheel.

While waiting, I explored the lake edge, and took yet more photos!

Driftwood by the lake

A lonely lupin 

A lot of driftwood testifies to the fierce storms that can whip up on this lake

Doing a wheel swap

After that, it was another 10 km on the road to the Lake Ohau Lodge where we would be staying overnight. Peter had warned us of the driveway up to the Lodge. It looked very benign, but at the end of a 42 km ride, the apparently slight slope was more than the legs could manage. I had to get off and walk!

The Lake Ohau Lodge is a wonderful place to stay. Our rooms were in the new part, overlooking the lake – what a gorgeous view! As soon as we had parked our belongings in our rooms we were summoned to lunch. Couples were told to sit opposite each other, as they would be sharing platters.

A platter for two – Lake Ohau Lodge is justly renowned for its excellent food (photo by John)

Lunch! (photo by an Ohau staff member with John’s camera)

Before our afternoon excursion, we had time to settle into our rooms, or explore our surroundings. The view from our rooms was stunning. The lake was like glass, and the mountainsides clearly show the striations caused by glacier action many thousands of years ago.

The view from in front of our room (photo by John)

Looking towards the top of the lake. The high snowy peak in the middle of the photo,
behind everything else, is Mt Cook (photo by John)

The rustic seat outside our room

For the afternoon Peter took us up the road into the valley at the top of the lake, where the catchments of the Hopkins and Dobson Rivers meet. Another stunningly beautiful valley.

From here, we had the option of biking back down the 16 or so kilometres back to the lodge, but only two were game to tackle it in its entirety – John and Neil. Good on them! The road up had been fairly rough and included a couple of steep descents (which would be climbs on the way back!), and the rest of us decided to opt out of that.

Peter, and we in the van, would be keeping track of the two heroes, and if they wanted to call it quits or take a ride up the steep climbs, that would be OK. Meanwhile, we lingered in the shade of some trees to give them a headstart. And of course the camera got another work-out!

Looking towards Mt Cook National Park

I liked the shape of this fallen tree

John took this on photo during his ride (photo by John)

I think this is the Temple Stream (photo by John)

John on the bridge over the Maitland Stream

View from the bridge

There were a number of cattle stops along the road (photo by John)

At about half-way, Neil decided enough was enough, and got back into the van. John continued on the bike. We overtook him in the van, and then with about five kilometres to go, after the worst of the climbs, Peter asked if anyone wanted to bike the last bit back to the Lodge. Quite a few of us did.

When we came to a ford – the only one that still had water in it – most of us got our feet wet because we barrelled through the middle of it. Then John caught up with us and I waited to see how he would negotiate it. He stayed very close to the downhill edge where the water was shallow, and didn’t get a drop on him!

John picks his way across a ford

Looking back up the lake

Some of the road was quite corrugated and the only way to avoid the shuddering was to stay in the middle where the gravel had collected, which was also hard on the hands. I was glad to see the entrance to the Lodge. But then we had to climb back up the driveway!

Back at the Lodge, and sitting outside our room, we saw one of the Auckland group returning from a swim in the lake, which she assured us had been wonderfully refreshing. That tempted Aimée, so we walked down the path to the lake, where she went for a swim, but John and I just paddled. I’m not much of a swimmer. My swimming skills are limited to not drowning!

Aimée goes for a swim (you can just see her head). Look how clear the water is!

“How do you like my boat?”

Interesting cloud formations (photo by John)

After a wonderful dinner we took the last photos of the day – of the sun setting over the mountains. The end of another brilliant day.

Mt Cook still gets sunshine at 9:15 pm, while the closer mountains are already in shade

Sunset over the mountains opposite us


 Day 5 – Saturday 24 January

Back on the road by 8:30 after an excellent cooked breakfast. Lake Ohau Lodge really excels itself. Not only that, but Louise, the owner who prides herself on her personal touch with her guests, came to farewell us as we were about to depart.

Louise, owner of the Lake Ohau Lodge, comes aboard to farewell us (photo by John)

Today was the last day of the tour, and our final ride was part of Section 6 of the A2O Trail. An hour’s drive to the Benmore Dam, from where we started our ride along the northern shore of Lake Aviemore as far as the Aviemore Dam.

Benmore Dam, constructed in the 1950s, is the largest dam in the Waitaki Power Scheme. It is a massive earth dam, and is nearly a kilometre across. Lake Benmore behind it holds 12.5 million cubic meters, about 1.5 times as much as Wellington Harbour.

Off we go! Aimée and Neil were always the first to get going

Benmore Dam is a huge earth structure (photo by John)

The top of the dam (photo by John)

Benmore Power Station is capable of generating 540 megawatts of electricity (photo by John)

From the dam, we headed along the shore of Lake Aviemore, which is also enormous. The beginning of the ride was an exhilarating downhill, whizzing around sweeping curves in the road – smooth sealed road, no traffic. I think I hit 39 km/h, a record for me, but I’m sure some of the others went much faster than that! After that, it was mostly flat – at least, that's what it said in the booklet that we were all given at the start of the tour. In fact, there were a few serious uphills, which I struggled with, until I clicked that I should use the lower of the three gear options on the left of my handlebar (“the three-gear front derailleur” is the technical term, apparently).

Peter had said that he would meet us at the camping ground for a morning tea stop. The lake shore is obviously a very popular place for camping holidays, because we rode past lots of lovely camping spots under the trees. Many of the sites had wind breaks built around them, which made them look quite “territorial”, as in “this is my spot and don’t you try to set up here …”.

Riding past all these camping spots, we were on the look-out for the van, but didn’t see it. We wondered how we could have missed it. Eventually, there it was, and Peter pointed out that this was the camping ground (with power and an ablution block), not just a camping spot – technical difference! Not being campers, how would we know!

A quick cup of coffee and a comfort stop, and we were on the road again. All on the flat now, no more climbs. At one stage, we rode below some high cliffs, where a bunch of people had stopped to take photos of a group of shags (cormorants) sitting on the cliff top.

Shags on a cliff top (click to enlarge) (photo by John)

Keeping a look-out (photo by Aimée)

Aimée and Neil

John had been very patient, keeping pace with me, but with about 10 km to go, he decided he would like to race to the end, and pick up a bit of serious speed for the last bit, which was fine by me.

Not too long before the Aviemore Dam, the road crossed a bridge over Deep Stream

Having raced ahead, John was waiting when I finally arrived at the Aviemore Dam. This was the end point of today’s ride, and the last time the bikes would be loaded onto the trailer.

Crossing the Aviemore Dam (photo by John)

The end of the ride, at Aviemore Dam (photo by Aimée)

Before the long drive back to Christchurch, we stopped at the Pasquale Winery in Kurow for a fabulous farewell lunch - beautiful platters with all sorts of delicious cheeses, cold meats, relishes, olives, breads and crackers. What a feast!

Farewell lunch at Pasquale Winery (photo by John)

We were delivered at our accommodation at 5pm, and bade a fond farewell to Peter, with lots of thanks for his wonderful guidance and good company (Chris had left us earlier in the day, in her own car).

* * * * * * * * * * 

After parking our luggage in our motel unit, we went for a walk into town. It was the last day of the International Buskers Festival, and we thought there would be activity in Hagley Park, but it seemed to be all finished by the time we got there. We ended up having dinner in The Villas, a nice restaurant in Montreal Street. A surprise treat was a busker who installed himself in the entrance to the terrace, and entertained us with his great blues music.

Li’l Chuck’s music was great – though a tad too loud (photo by John)

We ambled back to our accommodation, taking more photos along the way. Christchurch is recovering from the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and there is a lot of construction going on, though there are still quite a few empty sites.

The Arches, a “gap-filler” project

We were impressed with a sinuously shaped building, simply named “151 Cambridge Terrace”. It was designed by Jasmax Architecs, constructed of steel and glass, and uses a base isolation system, to protect it from any further quakes.

151 Cambridge Terrace

Reflections (photo by John)

John discovered a new way of getting to the moon: simply get a crane to lift you there …
(photo by John)


Going home – Sunday 25 January

The train journey back to Picton, and the ferry crossing back to Wellington were mercifuly uneventful.

Aimée and Neil on the Coastal Pacific train (photo by John)

The Kaikoura coast (photo by John)

The evaporation ponds at the Grassmere saltworks. The pink colouring is caused by microscopic algae (photo by John)

The salt works (photo by John)

The burnt hillside – result of the fire that impeded our journey south a week earlier (photo by John)

Picton (photo by John)

Leaving the South Island

About to berth at the Wellington ferry terminal. Home! (photo by John)

Post script

The tour by Pure Trails New Zealand was an excellent choice. I came across their website when I was searching for information about cycling in the Mackenzie Country, because I was keen to see the swathes of wild lupins in flower. There was no tour available at the time that these were at their best, but the description of the tour appealed, especially the fact that it covered some of the easier sections of the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail.

The fact that the tour was fully supported appealed too – accommodation and meals taken care of, no need to worry about luggage, a comfortable vehicle to take us to the tracks, the option to hitch a ride up a hill if necessary, and a knowledgeable guide to take us to all the best cycling experiences – at a level we could cope with.

The bikes we hired from Pure Trails were very nice to ride – once Aimée and I had sussed how to get over the fairly high step-through without falling over or otherwise injuring ourselves.

We were particularly glad that Aimée and Neil were able to come along with us, and I hope they have no regrets – despite sore bottoms, legs and hands …

It’s nearly two weeks since we came back, and it’s taken me much of that time to write up this blog. The difficulty was choosing from all the hundreds of photos we took along the way. New Zealand is such a beautiful country, there’s no need to go overseas for a fantastic holiday.

I look forward to doing another tour with Pure Trails some time – later this year perhaps, or next year. The West Coast Wilderness Trail appeals ...

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