My Alps 2 Ocean adventure
As part of the Gratia set up, I was invited to experience the trail with a group set up by Jason Menard, the Development Officer for A2O. This was an interesting challenge for me as I hadn’t really been on a bike since I was a teenager over 40 years ago. But I know the old saying about never forgetting how to ride one and I’d spent about an hour on a bike a year ago, so I knew I could at least get on and off.
Of course, the others really knew what they were doing. Rachel from Adventurers Travel, Sara from Tourism Waitaki, Fabienne (the VIP on the trip and Belgian expert on holidays in NZ), her partner Andy (the real deal for biking) and our photographer Kenny and videographer Dougal, were all experienced bikers. Even my less fit friend Robert had bike skills. Jason managed the whole tour on a basic road bike with no suspension, his premise being that if he can ride the trail, it is suitable for almost anyone.
So, how was it?
The first day was fortunate for me – basically flat on the canal roads and the easy tracks between Tekapo and Twizel. I quickly found that I could do 40 kms or so per day with no real risk of fatigue.
On the second day, I faced my first tight “90 degree” turn, hence a skinned knee and (mildly) bruised ego. But I was well compensated by the camaraderie of the group, the fantastic ride around Lake Ohau and the lodge that evening.
The third day was more of a challenge – a lengthy 400 m climb on a (sometimes rough) track to the Tarnbragh High Point on the side of the Ohau Range. I had to push the bike for a few hundred metres on the toughest spots as my technique was not up to the cognitive overload of tight turns, rough narrow path and drops offs. After that, an easy fast ride to Omarama, with a free cup of coffee part way there at Quailburn. I think the guy at Lakes Coffee took pity on me!
The fourth day, down the Waitaki Valley, was longer at 66 km, but my confidence was rising and there was the bonus of cheese rolls (the “Sushi of the South”) in Otematata. Good thing, as there was a decent hill climb and some brief follow-the-leader sections on the main highway. Jason was damn scary with his warnings about staying in the group while riding on the road but I kept up and am still alive!
The section itself is mostly fantastic – biking along Lake Benmore, over the dam and then down the north side of Lake Aviemore. The area off Loch Laird Rd below the Benmore dam is a highlight for campers.
Up to this point the weather had been fine, but for once the multi-day forecast was accurate. On day 5, we had 77 km to go to Oamaru and it rained throughout the day. Also, a washed-out stream, several hills to climb and patches of mud to negotiate. So off we went…
At the time, it was a mixture of horror and exhilaration; now I can only remember the friends made, the challenge achieved and the dramatic improvement in my stamina and bike skills. The joy of successfully doing a 90 degree turn on a narrow muddy track! Racing down hills without riding the brakes! Being able to ride beside someone on a narrow path without worrying about knocking them over! Keeping on while my thighs burned up! Proving I am not just a soft, office-bound Jafa! Yes, even born in Invercargill and still a southern man at heart!
We finished behind the Brydone Hotel in Oamaru and hosed the mud off our bikes and ourselves. Then it was off for showers, beer and pizza!
My advice …
If I can do it, you can do it. But take a bit more time in this special part of the country if you can, especially on the sections in the Waitake Valley through to Oamaru.
For gear, my biking friends advised bike gloves and padded pants. Best advice ever! Make sure you can also cover variable conditions and a wide range of temperatures, especially if you tend to feel the cold. If you really are a newbie like me, wear something to protect your shins and calves. I found out the meaning of “pedal strike” the hard way.
Finally, have fun! Get a group together and make it social, but enjoy the moments when you can ride by yourself and contemplate how beautiful the MacKenzie and Waitaki are.