Bicycling South Island New Zealand: Part One – Planning A Three-Week Route

Why New Zealand?

New Zealand road and sky

New Zealand road and sky-  fantastic cycling the Highcliff Road on the Otago Peninsula

(All images enlarge and all blue text leads to a related web page with a click.)

After my bicycle tour of eastern Cuba in January of 2012, I just knew I had to do another wintertime road adventure to escape the Toronto cold.  But where?  The time of the year eliminated most anything north of the equator; that left Africa, parts of Asia, and South America as possibilities. Two destinations caught my eye – Sri Lanka and Colombia.

I started off by checking the organized itineraries of companies like Exodus UK and Explore.  (Click on the blue text to see the itineraries.)  Further reading on the situation in  Sri Lanka convinced me that I could organize and do the bike trip on my own.  It would also allow me to create exactly the trip I wanted; this would include  a couple of days to visit the remains of the ancient Buddhist city of Anuradhapura.  I even downloaded a digital copy of the most recent guidebook to Sri Lanka from the Lonely Planet website.  Here is the route I figured I would follow over a seventeen-day period. To get to Colombo would involve a flight from Toronto to Abu Dhabi and then a transfer to the Sri Lankan capital.

All images enlarge with a click; all blue text opens up on a new page with a click.

Sri Lanka Bike Tour - 1000 km

The original plan- a Three-Week Ride in Sri Lanka…with some time off to visit ancient Buddhist sites.  Click here for the interactive Google map that you can zoom in on.

And then a chat with a friend just returned from Sri Lanka cooled my enthusiasm somewhat.  I looked around for another possibility and Colombia popped up,  thanks to a package organized by a UK bike touring company, Saddle Skedaddle,  that would take me from Bogotá in the Andes down to Cartagena on the shores of the Caribbean, a great 1000 kilometer ride.  (The trip description is here.)  An advantage of Bogotá as the destination is that it is a direct flight from Toronto – only two chances for baggage handlers  to do something bad to my bike and gear. The only problem was the cost – $3000. for 15 days, of which twelve were actual cycling days.  I’m sure it would have been quite plush but I actually like planning and doing the trips on my own.

Also, the thought of spending two weeks with a peloton of riders from the U.K. – being in an Anglo bubble, if you will,  in a Spanish-speaking country – is not really a “plus” to me. I will admit that the security situation in Colombia is such that I don’t feel quite confident enough to do Colombia on my own.  Hopefully it will improve in the next couple of years if the government talks with FARC bear fruit. The ride from Bogotá to Cartagena looks fantastic; so too does the ride along the Andean spine from Bogotá to Quito in Ecuador, but that’s another trip!

One day I googled  “January bicycling tours” or some such yet again and I finally noticed New Zealand. It had been there all the while but I just hadn’t considered it. The reason: the distance, the cost, and not two but four sets of baggage handlers!  Over the next two months  the Air New Zealand Toronto-Christchurch return fare dropped down from $3000. to about $2100. and I thought about it again.

In the end, it was a toss-up between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Travel time and cost of the ticket  were about the same.  Sri Lanka had the advantage of one less transfer; New Zealand promised a greater variety of stunning scenery and had an extensive cycling infrastructure to make the trip easy to plan.  Sri Lanka offers  a society infused with the Buddhist iconography that I find fascinating; New Zealand offers a comforting infusion of   British colonialism that I, as a Canadian,  can relate to!

When I downloaded a copy of Lonely Planet’s Cycling New Zealand with its detailed description of a whole bunch of North and South Island routes, I had a still better idea of what New Zealand offered. (Update June 2015: the six-year-old book no longer appears on the Lonely Planet site.)

Wop Wops is Kiwi slang for the boonies!

Wop Wops is Kiwi slang for the boonies – the hinterland!

So there you have it;  I’m going to New Zealand. The infrastructure for bicycle tourists is much more developed. The weather and temperature also seem a bit more conducive to spending six hours a day on my Brooks B-17  bike saddle. While I wanted to go in January,  I’ve actually waited until the new school year begins (Feb. 7) in hopes that road traffic will be that much less of an issue.   Sri Lanka’s turn may come – and Colombia is still on the back burner too.  Perhaps in a couple of years  I can really make a comparison based on my experience!

Why South Island?

As I added to my embarrassingly shallow knowledge of New Zealand geography, I learned that is made up of two main islands, as seen on the map below. North island is the one closest to the equator so it has the more tropical climate.  Near the northern end is its major commercial city, Auckland. Down at the bottom of North Island is the political capital, Wellington. Located here is also the headquarters of the J.R. Tolkien empire – i.e. the Fran Walsh/Peter Jackson film company Wingnut Films .

A three-hour ferry ride across Cook Strait and you’re on South Island.  Only a quarter of the four and half million Kiwis live on this more temperate (in terms of climate!) part of N.Z and of those a bit more than a third live in the Christchurch area.   Running up the length of the west side of the island are the Southern Alps; a few mountain passes cross the range at various points.  The low population, the relative isolation, and the stunning mountain and beach scenery of South Island are what bicycle tourists rave about – and they are what convinced me to focus on this part of New Zealand.

My South Island Route:

Looking through my copy  of that Lonely Planet Cycling New Zealand (2009)  got me great information in a hurry. (The most current edition was written by a fellow Canadian who now lives in Queenstown!)  There are a couple of other books recommended by N.Z. bike travellers – Classic New Zealand Road Rides (2010) by Kieran Turner & Jonathan Kennett  and  the Pedallers’ Paradise books (2012 is the most recent update), one  on North Island and one on  South Island routes. I wasn’t able to get access to them here in Toronto; I did  get a copy of the Pedallers’ Paradise South Island volume in Christchurch at the start of the trip.  It is the most current edition and has supposedly been updated.

The 1400-kilometer tour of South Island that you see below was essentially the route I ended up taking – See the last post for more on my decision on where to go next when I reached Queenstown.

2013 New Zealand South Island Bicycle Tour Route

2013 New Zealand South Island Bicycle Tour Route

Click here for the “live” Google map of my route- you can zoom in to get more detail.

(Pre-trip note – the route is set until I get to Queenstown on Day 10 of the trip but after that I am still not 100% sure about where I am going.  I’ve left it completely open.   See here  for the options I am still  considering.)

The #1 Question: Do I Take My Own Bike?

Given that my journey to Christchurch and the start of the bike tour involved four airports (Toronto, Vancouver, Auckland, and Christchurch) and way too many baggage handlers having their turn dealing with my bike box and its contents, my biggest concern was the shape the bike would be in – if it even got to Christchurch at the same time as me.

After getting a bike box from our local bike shop – and then a second one when I figured that double-boxing it might protect the bike better! – I put the boxes on a scale.  Weight of the two boxes was fifteen pounds  (6.8 kg)!  The bike itself weighs about 14 kg.  I would have to take a van/taxi to the airport at a cost of $65. and because the bike box would be a second piece of checked luggage, I wold have to pay an extra $65. for that.  To take my bike would end up costing $260. CDN and I would still have the worry of it getting there – and not being damaged.

Then I came across Natural High, a New Zealand adventure tourism company wich seems to do everything, including tour bike rental and tour organizing. It has storefronts in Auckland and Christchurch and a network of affiliated companies on both islands.  Here is their deal –  $515 NZ  (about $450. CDN)  gets me three weeks rental of a Cannondale Touring II, along with pump and spare tube and a whole list of other things I don’t have to bring from home.  So subtracting the $260. in baggage and taxi costs left me with a real cost of $190. to rent the bike once I got there.  I went for the rental.  I may add on some insurance coverage ($75.). Also possible is a transfer service that will courier baggage ahead for a reasonable price.  All in all, Natural High offers a service that is difficult to beat. Now all I have to worry about is if the bike will be there when I arrive – a pretty safe bet.

Post-Trip Update: Natural High is one terrific company to deal with.  All went as hoped for; the bike was ready and performed flawlessly for three weeks. Things went so smoothly that I did not  get so much as a flat during my 1400-kilometer ride. When I reached Dunedin, I had arranged to drop the bike off at R & R Sports on Stuart Street. This too was hassle-free. I’d highly recommend this company to anyone considering the rental option; it has two depots- one in Auckland and one in Christchurch, as well as a network of bike shops across New Zealand that work with them to provide excellent service.

fully-loaded bike waiting for the TSS Earnslaw to start  boarding

fully-loaded bike waiting for the TSS Earnslaw to start boarding

The #2 Question: Where Will I Sleep?

The biggest challenge in organizing my bike trip in eastern Cuba in January of 2011 was finding and booking accommodation.  Tenting is not at all an option there so you are left with various grades of hotel accommodation or their version of b&b’s.  New Zealand presents no problem whatsoever when it comes to a place to stay – pull out enough dollars and there is something for you. The tourism infrastructure is developed in a way that Cuba’s won’t be for a long time, focussed as theirs is on  all-inclusive beach resorts.

The first leg of my trip involves crossing the Southern Alps to Greymouth and then a 340 k. ride down the west coast. Since the weather along this stretch is unpredictable and often involves massive amounts of rain, I decided to build in some comfort and security by pre-booking rooms for the first ten nights. No matter how bad the weather is, at least I know that at the end of the day I have a room waiting.  I’ll be able to dry out my clothes and gear and relax instead of putting up a micro-tent in a muddy field,  all the while dodging the gazillion sand flies which everyone mentions in their trip accounts!

My solution – I ended up renewing my Hostelling International membership for $38. I had used the HI hostel network for a bike trip from Vancouver through the Rockies to Calgary in 2002 and it had worked out great. It’s cheap, it’s clean, and there is a nice social vibe.  The hostel staff is always up on the kind of information and tips that travellers are looking for.  South Island has about twenty-six Youth Hostel Association (YHA)  hostels (click here for the list), many of them in towns I will be cycling through.

One thing I did this time – a sure sign I am getting old(er)! – is that I specifically booked a private room in each of the hostels. While sleeping with seven strangers in the same room isn’t the end of the world, it is kind of nice to be able to shut the door and have a room all to yourself!  Plush, eh?   I’ve got YHA rooms in Springfield, Arthur’s Pass Village, Greymouth, Wanaka, and two nights in Queenstown booked. I also found non-YHA  places to stay  (thanks to good reviews in the  Frommer’s or Lonely Planet guides I looked at)  in Christchurch itself, as well as Harihari, Fox Glacier Village, Haast Junction, and Makarora. The priciest room is the one at the Amore Motor Lodge in Christchurch at NZ$120. a night. However, The location is great and the room will be appreciated after my 26-hour flight from Toronto. I had tried the Dorset Street Backpackers’ but all their single rooms were taken.

Post-Trip Update: I ended up  in private single rooms at YHA hostels or in motels for the entire stay, except for one night in my tent at the Mavora Lake campsite. I did a quick tabulation of the accommodation expenses and it came out to about $NZ1500., with the three nights at the Amore Motor Lodge on Riccarton Road in Christchurch being the most expensive at $NZ130. a night and the Mavora Lake campsite the cheapest at $NZ6. YHA rooms went for about $NZ60. and most motel accommodation (all with a kitchenette and complimentary coffee and milk) for about $100.  Obviously, a solo traveller pays a premium. Do this with a partner and you will almost halve your rooming costs.  Tent more often and you will bring the costs down even more.  I ended up hauling 3 kilograms of camping gear  for the entire trip only to use the stuff once.  Not the best idea! I guess one could rationalize it by thinking of the camping gear as an insurance policy in case something went very wrong and there was no choice but to tent for the night.

The #3 Question: What Will I Bring Along?

The winning answer – As little as possible!  It’s just that once you start preparing your list of must-take things you’re floored by the sheer number of items.  Here is my list – as I approach departure day one or two of them may fall off the list!

I am still bringing my camping gear along. That would be my tent, a sleeping bag, a Thermarest pad, a cook stove, and a compact pot and bowl set. All of this weighs 2.5 kg or about 6 pounds.  I will also bring a couple dozen energy bars and some drink mix, as well as some emergency breakfast and supper food.  All of this stuff I will have transferred from Christchurch to Queenstown so that I don’t have to lug it all the way down the West Coast.  I’ll be able to use it on the second half of the trip when (I’m hoping) the weather will be more predictably dry and sunny and I will have the added flexibility of  being able to do some camping.

Post-Trip Update: total weight carried, including panniers, was 23 kilograms (a bit more than 50 pounds).  My next trip will not include the camping stuff and may have only a compact camera (my Fuji X10) instead of the Sony A57 that took most of the shots this trip.

Essential Information and Papers:


Air New Zealand check-in  info

credit card

debit card

HI card

Jpg images of all of the above in email folder

Wallet with credit, debit, and HI cards;  some NZ $

guidebook material- photocopied in zip bag


inflatable pillow for flight + ear plugs + anti-histamine


Bags:                                                                                          5 kg or  11 lbs!

 One  travel bag to hold it all- the large red duffel-                     1000 grams

Rear panniers – two X 1000 grams                                             2000 grams

Front panniers – two x  500 grams                                             1000- grams

Handle bar bag with attachment mechanism                             950 grams

Riding Clothes:                        3.3 kg  or  7.3 lbs.

cycling shoes                              950 grams

2 pairs socks                              100 grams

cycling shorts- 2 pairs                270 grams

2 short-sleeved jerseys –            360 grams           1 would be fine

long sleeved jersey                     160 grams

bike shoe rain covers                 230 grams

red Goretex jacket                      535 grams

rain pants                                    350 grams

MEC wind jacket                        165 grams

Gloves…padded                          90 grams

Bell bike helmet                          320 grams         compulsory in New Zealand

fleece hat & gloves                     125 grams

Off-Bike clothes:                     2.6 kg or  5.75 lbs

Tilley hat                                     180 grams                never wore it

one short-sleeved shirt              225 grams

Long nylon pants                       390 grams

Shorts                                        280 grams

Undies- 2 pair                           200 grams

Trekking socks                         100 grams

lite day hikers-                        1000 grams

Bike-Related Stuff:   first five supplied by Natural high in seat post bag      1 kg

pump  Topeak                       also had the Natural High-supplied pump so I carried two!

patch kit

spare tube

chain lube

allen key set for head set and pedals

Swiss Army Knife

cleaning rag

handlebar mirror            forgot to bring this and was too cheap to buy one in Christchurch

Brooks saddle                my saddle …Max, the mechanic at Natural High, installed it

Camping Stuff                                                                        3.2 kg  or 7 pounds

tent, poles, pegs, footprint                                                        1160 grams

sleeping bag with compression sack                                         670 grams

underpad       + repair kit                                                           420 grams

cook set with bowl and Primus butane stove                             600 grams

small butane canister – buy in N.Z.                                             340 grams

pretty much dead weight but- who knew!

Food                                                                                         3.6 kg or 7.5 lbs

Backpackers’Pantry – four meals in a pouch bags                 910 grams

Clifbars –  18 assorted in two bags of 9 each                          1300 grams

energy gel  2 bags with 6 in each     300 grams X 2                  600 grams

oatmeal – 6 x 50 gm bags = 300 + seeds + dried fruit              550 grams

Camera Gear:                                                                        2.9 kg or 6.5 pounds

tripod – the gorilla pod                                                             240 grams  never used it!

Canon p & s  + battery charger                                               210 grams

Sony with 16-80mm  lens & 55-200 Sony lens  and               used the telephoto zoom once

assorted filters  plus carrying bag                                          2320 grams

spare battery with charger  for the A57                                    160 grams

USB cable to connect camera to USB port                               25 grams


adapter for NZ current

SPOT Connect + six-pack of  lithium batteries

iPod Touch

cable to charge iPod Touch + USB electrical plug

Petzl light + 3 spare AAA  batteries

misc. gear


spare regular glasses/case      125 grams

eyeglass cleaner and cloth

Personal Care

ziplock bag with toiletries

toothbrush + paste                     140 grams

hair shampoo                             130 grams

soap + plastic container              90 grams

shaver with batteries                  165 grams

razor                                             20 grams

ibuprofen  +

allergy tabs                                  60 grams

small road rash kit – bandaids    20 grams

sun screen

lip balm                                        10 grams

blue towel                                     90 grams

mosquito repellent- Deet!

Spare plastic bags

Kleenex – 3 packs

Lake Wakatipu with Cecil and Walter Peaks on the distant shore

Lake Wakatipu with Cecil and Walter Peaks on the distant shore

So much for the nitty-gritty of organizing the trip; check out the following posts if you want the details on the actual trip, along with some images to give you an idea of the roads you’d be riding over and the scenery that will often insist that you stop and take in the beauty which is New Zealand’s South Island.

Part Two: Cycling In And  Around Christchurch

Part Three: Crossing the Southern Alps – From Christchurch to Greymouth

Part Four: Cycling The West Coast From Greymouth to Haast  (318 km)

Part Five: Over the Southern Alps Again – From Haast to Queenstown  (217 km)

Part Six: Southland and the Otago Peninsula


2 thoughts on “Bicycling South Island New Zealand: Part One – Planning A Three-Week Route

  1. Really a very beautiful log embracing both the physical challange and the personal desire (soul?) to touch the Earth intimately. Logistical information was spot – on and was of great assistance in planning my voyage/pilgrimage but even greater was the keening heart for the open road. I hope this abundance will always infuse you,even if it means the day-to-day trivial becomes somewhat baffling.

    I am so glad I took a read to this post and will refer to it often as I prepare for my trip/pilgrimage to the Peloponnese. You responded in a very thougthful fashion which renewed my belief in the internet as a community builder and charged my bravado. I think Greece is similiar to your ride . . . if you can get to a hamlet/village/town with some euros in your saddle bag you will have a place to stay. I also am keen on your suggestion of trying some touring/camping from my front door – Texas may not be beautiful but it is striking with an abundance of open space for (clandestine) camping.

    Well, again, thank you for the post; this trip to Greece means so very much to me and your response to my Lonely Planet question was exceedingly more than I expected.

    for the wild,

    Austin, Texas

  2. Michael, enjoy the Greek bike ride/pilgrimage on two wheels when it comes – and in the meanwhile see things differently by pretending you’re a tourist in your home town of Austin, a city that gets rave reviews from friends of mine here in Toronto! As for Ελλάδα – it’s only my list too.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s