When longtime friends started tossing around the idea of a bicycle trip through New Zealand, no one took it seriously at first. Someone knew someone who had done it, and it sounded fantastic - all “Lord of the Rings,” sauvignon blanc and lamb chops. But really? It was hugely expensive and required hours of travel to the other side of the world.
Also, it sounded like a trip for Real Bicycle People, and I didn’t like Real Bicycle People all that much, with their ropy calves, clicky shoes, proud sweat, fancy spandex and Fitbit tyranny. In my 20s, I rode everywhere. I thought nothing about strapping a tent and sleeping bag onto my back and riding off for a week. But now, at 58, I hadn’t been on a bike for 30 years.
But then suddenly the trip came together. Still, we all browsed away some luscious hours on websites full of sparkling scenery, none of us thinking it would really come together. And then, suddenly, it did. Aside from the sheer adventure, it was a rare chance for old friends to spend time together when we were all in between fledging children and scheduling hip replacements and finally had — sort of — both the time and the money for a big trip.
There are many bicycle-tour companies working in New Zealand. We chose Great Bike Tours, a Vermont-based company, because it tailored the ride to all levels of experience, provided support vans and offered a variety of activities in addition to cycling, including kayaking, beachcombing, city tours, a visit to a sheep ranch and nature walks. (Our curiosity was piqued by the promise of “eel feeding” at one destination.)
The tour would cover nearly 600 miles of the South Island in 12 days, starting in Dunedin and ending in Christchurch, traveling mostly near the West Coast.
After nearly 30 hours of travel time from the District, I met up with two friends in the Dunedin airport, picked up a rental car and drove to the city of Dunedin on the nearby Otago Peninsula, where we had rented a house. We felt smart to have added three days before the start of the tour to rest up, but even smarter when we discovered that Dunedin is a fun, artsy city with ubiquitous murals and lively town center. A 40-minute drive took us to the Royal Albatross Center at the tip of the peninsula, where the enormous birds soared overhead along the cliffs.
The first day of actual cycling, a bright summer afternoon in February, found us in Central Otago after a scenic train ride through Taieri Gorge. There we faced a shiny row of bicycles, our guides fitting one to each of us with the attention of a Parisian couturier.
The Otago rail trail, a two-day ride on a smooth, mostly flat trail converted from old railroad tracks, was the perfect opening leg. We pedaled past low hills dotty with sheep, then through the fantastic Raggedy Range. Here were granite pillars, gorges and fields of tumbled boulders, draped in blue lace by shifting cloud shadows.
New Zealand offers pretty much every landscape imaginable in this world — or any other. Our 12-day journey took us through rain forest and farmland, past sheer cliffs striped with waterfalls, along rushing green glacier-fed rivers and around neon-blue alpine lakes.
Including our group of nine, we were a total of 24, but I never felt crowded or rushed. Everyone rode at their own pace. Each evening at happy hour our guides, Simon and Jessica, gave us maps and handouts noting local attractions and the history and geology of the area we would pass through the next day.
We had two support vans, one that leapfrogged ahead and parked in designated spots with water, snacks and our day bags, and one that drove back and forth along our route, sounding a gentle Harpo Marx-style honk: Are you good? Thumbs up meant “I’ll keep going” and thumbs down meant “Scoop me up now!” (How lovely this would be in real life - a van that magically appears when you’re weary and drops you off for quilts and tea.)
Each day offered rides of up to 80 miles, but if somebody (mostly me and my best friend, Sue) wanted an easy 30 miles, our guides would map out the best — and flattest — scenic bits and deliver us in the van to the starting point or pick us up early while our more stalwart companions raced happily over Hercules Pass. (This five-mile, 1,138-foot climb in the mountainous West is so named with good reason.)
The days soon fell into a comfortable rhythm. On a bicycle, the earth and sky become part of you, and your body becomes motion. It was time out of time; our only job each day to ride and savor.
The accommodations were swankier than our group was accustomed to. In Wanaka, we stayed three nights in the Edgewater Hotel, with its fluffy white beds, saunas and manicured gardens. The layover allowed for optional adventures such as a flight to scenic Milford Sound or a van ride to nearby Queenstown for jet boating, bungee jumping or sheepshearing.
But the standout favorite was the Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki. Established in 1989 by eco-tourism pioneers Gerry McSweeney and Anne Saunders, it was a true Shangri-La set in the lush rain forest. Its delicious meals were prepared with local meat and produce.
And, at last, eel feeding! After a dawn walk to the misty Moeraki River, McSweeney tossed in some chunks of fish and we watched the gorgeous black longfin eels - three feet long and fat as pool noodles - ripple toward us from all directions. (While feeding wildlife is generally discouraged, these eels are being overfished in many of the country’s rivers and McSweeney tries to keep a population thriving in this protected area.)
With two nights here, even our most hardcore cyclists abandoned the road to paddle kayaks, go on a night walk to see blue glowworms or venture on what the lodge’s brochure called a “challenging” trek to visit a colony of fur seals. (A typical New Zealand understatement, as it involved climbing up a 400-foot cliff with only toe notches and fixed ropes.)
It was hard to pedal away from Lake Moeraki, but the road ahead beckoned. The seaside village of Okarito offered a lagoon full of birds, miles of driftwood-strewn beach and a fascinating talk on Maori history. In Hokitika, a major center for carving New Zealand greenstone, many of our group showed up for dinner with new jewelry.
In a world of squeezed-in lunches, social-media shares and clumsy catch-up phone calls, this trip gave us time for the natural flow of friendship. An hour eating apples in an overlook, stargazing on a beach or savoring the mud-spattered satisfaction of a long ride accomplished were precious gifts.
Besides renewing old ties, we made new ones. It turns out the Real Bicycle People that go on trips like this are perfectly nice, spandex notwithstanding. Although I never did discover my own “inner cyclist,” I would not have traded a minute of the experience. After we all hugged goodbye in the Christchurch airport I was sad to see our vans, roofs loaded with mud-spattered bicycles, drive off for the next adventurers.
If you go
Great Bike Tours, 155 Fletcher Lane, Shelburne, Vermont, 802-777-2009, greatbiketours.com.
The company offers bicycle trips throughout the Eastern United States and New Zealand that accommodate all levels of fitness and experience. Its next New Zealand trip is scheduled for February 2018. Other dates can be arranged for groups of 10 or more. The cost, which includes lodging, ground transportation, van support, bicycles, guides and most meals, is $4,995.
Additional activities such as skydiving, speedboat rides and helicopter flights to the Milford Sound and the Franz Josef glacier are offered at additional cost and are dependent on weather.