Cycle touring in New Zealand

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We visited New Zealand and had a great time there, just a few weeks after the quake in 2010. Canterbury quake: How you can help.

Cycle touring in New Zealand:

We spent five and a bit weeks cycling around the south island of New Zealand in Oct/Nov 2010.

If you can, do get your wheels to New Zealand as it is the place to go cycle touring for sure, what a stunning and wonderful place. Though stay away in the high season as it will be flooded by the sound of it.

Cycle touring in New Zeland

We had wild camping, empty roads, earthquake, helicopter ride, swimming with dolphins, rain, snow, blue skies at 27c, glaciers rumbling in the night, broken wheel, sand flies, water falls, horse riding, clear night skies and absolutely stunning gorgeous views.

Our route:
Started in Christchurch and headed west right across the Canterbury plains up and over Porters Pass. Down Arthur’s Pass to Hokitika and down the west coast to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, with the help of a bus. Then over Haast Pass, past Makarora, Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea. From Wanaka up and over Crown Saddle down to Arrowtown and Queenstown. From Queenstown we took the ferry over to Walter Peak and the gravel road with beautiful views to Te Anau. A quick bus trip to Milford Sound, not a road I would like to cycle in high season. Then a bus over to Clyde to take the Otago Rail Trail all the way to Dunedin where we did a loop of the Otago peninsular. We then headed up to Omarama on a bus, where we then cycled into Mt Cook village and back to Lake Tekapo. Then we spend five days on the stunningly beautiful Bank’s Peninsular before we had to fly home from Christchurch.

Click here to see the route : gmaps-pedometer a rather long route, so it will be slow to load on some computers.

cycle touring in new zealand banks Peninsular, christchurchSince we only had five odd weeks we used the great bus service to get to see the bits we really wanted to see, so we jumped the “boring” bits. And when we had heard that it would rain for the next five days, on a bit that would take three days of cycling to do, we took the bus. Which meant that we got to see bits that we haven’t planned on like the Moeraki Boulders and the Bank’s Peninsular.

In total on the south island we travelled around 1650 miles, where 725 miles was cycled the rest was on the bus.

When to visit:
When the sandflies have become extinct! If that doesn’t happen, then I would say in the low season.

We don’t like crowds and the normal tourist traps, we like the remoteness of it all. So when we enter a city we only go there to shop or to get somewhere else by bus, train or plane. We picked October and November to visit mainly because it fitted with our work and it would be spring time. Plus, we didn’t fancy touring in 35c + heat.

Everywhere we went we just rocked up to the campsite and got a spot. Even on the Otago Rail Trail where we had one nasty, wet and very cold day we managed to book into a B&B right then and there. We later were told that on the Rail Trail in the summer/high season there would be a queue out of the cafe by cyclist and the B&B you had to book months ahead.

At the start of our trip some of the campsites we visited were pretty much empty, the odd local or tourist but never a problem to pitch up in a place by yourself. At the end we could see the season starting and the campsites were getting rather crowded by locals and tourist.

cycling in new zealand give cyclist room share the roadCycling:
Because we toured New Zealand in the low season we pretty much had the roads to ourselves. Again the Otago Rail Trail that would have been packed in high season, we only spotted a few others on the four days we cycled there. All in all we only spotted around ten other cycle tourers on our trip, sadly sometimes it was while we were on the bus.

The roads were in brilliant conditions, plenty of space an best of all empty. Yes near towns we had traffic but nothing near what we are used to in London. The best part of cycling there was the views and that you had time to see them :)

We visited on bicycle shop in Alexandra to get my back wheel sorted after I found a crack in it and had only brilliant service.

New Zealand is a mountain biking Mecca, every were we went we saw flyers for MTB, cars with MTBs on the back. And pretty much all the bicycle shops had a big section for MTB. Though we did see quite a few road cyclist zooming around and a new racing team called PureBlack Racing out for a photo shoot. There are plenty of single track trails and what I heard and read many more to come.

If you are going to cycle tour in New Zealand you gotta get hold of the Pedallers’ Paradise by Nigel Rushton, simply put the Bible of cycle touring. We wouldn’t have been able to have such a great tour as we had without this guide book. Don’t bother with other guide books, get this one, start cycling and the locals will fill you in with the rest.

Tourist information:
Every where you go there is a information board with local information, every campsite would have a small stand with flyers on, even the local shop or pub would have some. Though everyone we meet was just helpful would tell you where to go, how to get there etc. I found the Kiwis extremely helpful and interested in that you had a great stay. Everyone we talked to would help you with a smile and give us useful information.

The main tourist information in New Zealand you get at the i-Site, tourist information. Every office we used were staffed with very helpful staff. Stocked to the brim with plenty of information of where to go and what do do. They would even pick up the phone and check the local accommodation to see if there is space for you. And they will also pick up the phone and call to check bus times and book your journey. Most cities will have and i-Site or you can get them on

cycle touring in New Zealand, public transport and busses Public Transport aka Buses:
There is not much public transport like trains or one big bus company that run throughout the south island. But there is plenty of small, nearly local, bus and shuttle companies that covers the South island and does it brilliantly. Though it does make it pretty hard to work out which one to choose, and how to work out who links up with whom. They also try to confuse you with using one company name on the bus, an other on the bus drivers uniform which is of course to the name on the time table you have seen.

That aside, the service we got from the myriad of bus/shuttle companies was purely brilliant, and their helpfulness was utterly stunning. Two heavily-loaded touring bicycles were taken on even the small buses – they even took pride of place standing in the aisle of one small bus – with a “no worries” and a smile. The drivers were always willing to help, give you information about the places you were driving through, and providing stops where necessary (scenic or loo break, etc). It definitely does pay to travel around New Zealand South Island in the low season, however, when there are fewer tourists around. We even got picked up at your campsite so that we didn’t have to cycle the half a mile to the official stop, since we were the only ones getting picked up in that town.

One driver from a company called Connexions really blew our minds with his standard of service. He first of all helped us on and off with our bicycles and told us where the local campsite was. About twenty minutes later, having said goodbye to us with a cheery wave, we were astonished to see him drive into our campsite, right up to where we were pitching our tent, to drop off the cap I had left behind. Now that is service beyond the call of duty, thank you, sir!

caravan rental in new zealandDrivers and driving in New Zealand:
I have read many places that drivers in New Zealand are bad and we had been warned by many. We didn’t drive ourselves in New Zealand but took the bus a few times. But what they warned us about we didn’t see at all.

Though the drivers in New Zealand did seem to driver a wee bit faster than the speed limit said, when out of town. Generally the divers gave us plenty of space when passing, even on hills where we were plodding slowly up. They would stay behind and wait until they could see clearly ahead.

One of the reasons for why we were so happy that we had picked the low season. Was that the tourist who would rent a caravan to drive around New Zealand, one: aren’t used to driving the caravan and two: many times not used to drive on the right side of the road.

One scary moment was when we were overtaken on the downhill of Arthur’s Pass by a caravan. It was rather close to us on a steep bend and sadly had two MTB’s hanging on the back. The other close passes wasn’t that bad, I think that it was somewhat down to that we got used to the empty roads.

Hire a caravan or camper van in New Zealand:
I wish you the very best of luck doing so, we didn’t so therefore I can not recommend one company for you. I think we saw at least 40 different companies that you can hire a caravan from. It was the low season but we did see hundreds of these vehicles around on the roads. Ranging for a people carrier that had been converted into a mobile bed to a full house on wheels. The ones we saw quite often were Wicked, with their fancy tag lines sprayed on the back of the car. And the rather nicely named Jucy and Britz who we used in Australia.

cycle touring in new zealand Lake wanaka

Border Control:
New Zealand along with Australia has a rather strict control over what you can and can’t bring in. Such as fruits and other foods, animals and even dirt. It is not for your amusement it is rather serious and there is quite a few examples of something having been taken in which has done some serious damage to not just the agriculture but to the plants and wildlife, some of which only exist in New Zealand. On our bus journeys and meeting people around NZ we were told again and again how strict and somewhat scared they were about getting something foreign into New Zealand.

So when you are planning to visit New Zealand do give your bicycle a good scrub behind the ears, mudguards, tyres etc. It’s a very good chance to do that full service you have been putting back and back. Even your tent needs a good scrub along with the poles and pegs: another good time to do that reproofing you have been planning.

We arrived at 3am, due to a delayed flight from Australia, and our bicycles and tent got checked. Our bicycle boxes were opened and checked inside, not just to see if there was a bicycle there, but to see if there where any dirt on it. Our tent got taken to a back room and I could see that when it arrived back that it had been unpacked and checked inside, even the pegs bag.

I have read/heard that people who haven’t cleaned their tent had been charged for the cleaning when BIO-Security found that it was dirty. Not an extra cost that you want to pay on your visit to New Zealand.

So do clean your gear good and proper. You don’t want to be known as the person who killed off the cute Kea, now do you?

It is and island so weather will do what weather does best, aka being unpredictable. Though generally you can say that the wet west coast will be wet, hey it is after all covered mostly by rain forest. Milford Sound gets around 5-7 meters of rain a year, so prepare for rain. Other parts of New Zealand south island will be different, the Otago Plains can be rather dry and hot in the summers. The southern Alps can be like any mountainous areas of the world, can be snowy even in the hottest summers. So when visiting New Zealand be prepared for anything. I think all of the guide books and tourist flyer’s I read said to bring: camera, water, sturdy boots and a waterproof.

cycle touring in New Zealand, camping and wild camping on DoC sitesCamping and camp grounds:
You are spoiled for choice when it comes to camping in New Zealand, they area really keen on it. There is the big caravan/mobile home camping ground with everything you need. The Domain campsite which is run by the local council, might have to ask around for them since they are not advertised as the other campsites. And then there is the Department of Conservation (DoC) campsites, which range from a simple clearing the forest to a clearing in the forest with a long drop toilet and a storm shelter.

Like Australia all the campsites we visited where just spotless clean, run by very helpful and sometimes very funny staff.

Getting there :
Since it is an island you are not really spoilt for choice on how to get here, so you pretty much have to sail or fly. Finding the right flight for you will be bit of a headache if you are bringing your own bicycle. And is trying to join your trip to New Zealand with a tour elsewhere. As you have to think about your luggage allowance, where to store a bicycle box or get one at all and is your allowance transferable to other airlines etc. All major airlines fly there so a good chance to get a good offer if you plan long enough ahead. Though be prepared for a loooong flight.

Internet access:
They are online and know what the www is, though it is not as fast as you might be used to if you are from the top side of the world. I’m sure that most major cities will have the odd “free” wifi hotspot, I found one on Queenstown. Even though it was rather slow I did enjoy the ice cream while checking my email.

Most small towns have internet cafes. Remember them? And all the campsites we stayed at had a small area set a side for what they called an internet kiosk, two computers with a money slot. For around NZ$2 you got around 20-30 minutes and many of these had wifi which were cheaper for some reason.

Memorable things :
Getting attacked by the magpies.
Really berry Boysenberry ice cream.
Stunning views from a helicopter.
Swimming with dolphins.
The umpalumpa Kea
Friendly helpful people.