Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

Experience: Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

When it comes to spectacular cycle trails, New Zealand certainly boasts more than its fair share. Keen cyclist and adventurer Paul Owen reckons there isn’t anything to rival the dramatically scenic setting of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, spanning 315km from the base of Aoraki Mount Cook to Ōamaru on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and it’s an even better ride if you’ve got a campervan as a support vehicle.

If you’ve got a bucket list or are soon to start one, make sure you put the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail on it, for this ride through the Mackenzie basin from Hooker Valley to Ōmarama, then down the Waitaki River valley to Ōamaru, ticks all the boxes.

Jaw-dropping scenery: tick; rewarding riding: tick; sense of achievement: tick; challenge to fitness: tick; fantastic flora and fauna: tick; impressive history: tick, etcetera. The bicycle also gets to trace the flow of water after it falls as rain in the mountains and surges down to the coast, but don’t expect gravity to be doing most of the mahi as you glide towards the Pacific Ocean – there are some decent climbs to conquer along the way.

You’ll need to bring several things to the starting point of the A2O, including a modicum of affection for riding a bicycle (it’ll probably grow into a passion during the ride), some relatively accessible riding skills, a clothing wardrobe that covers all weather, a puncture repair kit, energy snacks, water, and the most important tool of all – a bicycle, preferably one in serviceable condition.

If riding alone, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is recommended, as cell phone coverage is pretty patchy along the route, and there are some serious hazards to contend with: steep drop-offs, avalanches between July and November, rock falls at any time, sketchy traction on rocky surfaces, and the odd sore posterior or leg cramp.

It also helps to have a plan of attack for a route that generally takes between four and eight days to complete, either one organised by a tour operator or a personal itinerary of accommodation locations that you’ve booked yourself.

Then again, you could just wing it. You can escape the regimented schedule that often forces A2O riders to accept inclement weather conditions if you opt to use a motorhome, caravan, or campervan as your support vehicle and overnight accommodation. Madame Pillion and I chose the latter and relished the way it allowed us to cherry-pick the best sections of the trail and do them in both directions.

All up, we rode 514km on the trail in a series of ‘there-and-back-agains’ that generally eschewed on-road riding in favour of off-road sections that showed the trail at its most ruggedly scenic, which was ironic given that our steeds were two road-oriented lightweight e-bikes, the one concession towards improving their off-road performance being the gravel tyres they were shod with.

Our five days on the trail were also completed at a similar pace to those doing it in the usual 315km linear form. Some A2O riders we met on the opening days of our ride reached the finish line in the historic port of Ōamaru within minutes of our crossing it despite our different approaches.

Choose your start line

Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
A $500 helicopter shuttle whisks trail cyclists across the Tasman River

There are two places to start the trail – either from near the start of the spectacular Hooker Valley track where mighty Aoraki pierces the sky or from the milder shores of Lake Tekapo. The latter is for those wishing to avoid the $500 helicopter ride across the Tasman River that’s a prerequisite cost of the former starting point. However, being both frugal and curious, we decided to sample both starting points and use the campervan to circumvent the expense of the hop across the river by chopper.

For $800, you can enjoy a 30-minute helicopter flight around Aoraki and the Tasman glacier, and then get your bike lifted over the braided river barrier instead of returning to Tasman Airport. If you have the disposable cash flow, it’s probably the best option of all. How often do you get to see the Alps and their attendant glaciers up close? When will you pass that way again?

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Recommended camping (sections 1 & 2)

There are plenty of spectacular freedom camping sites to be found all along the shores of Lake Pukaki. For those in need of more facilities, the DOC camp near the start of the Hooker Valley track and the Twizel Holiday Park are the best options.

Be sure to book early for the latter. In peak times of A2O use, there’s a high demand for power sites to recharge e-bikes.

We first sampled the A2O trail from Lake Tekapo and found it mostly navigated the windswept banks of canals dug for the Waitaki Hydro Power Scheme. The trail was quite exposed on those raised canal banks with little to shelter us from the 70kmh gusts that were threatening to blow us over their sides into the freezing water. We gave up, returned to the camper, and drove to the other, far more dramatic, starting point at the head of the Hooker Valley.

Waking the next day, the wind had abated and the initial 12km from the Hooker Valley to the Tasman River was well worth the pedal. Was this Tibet, Nepal, or Kashmir we were cycling through?

As for the rest of the ride of our first section of A2O to Twizel, it was mostly over the washboard gravel surface of Braemar Road, a route that seems to be never bothered by the smoothing blade of the Waitaki District Council’s grader. It was a huge relief when the trail abandoned the road to follow the southern shore of Lake Pukaki.

The big climb

Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
The climb from Lake Ohau to Tambrae Summit is the most arduous part of the trail

Before beginning the biggest climb of the trail up the Tarnbrae Track from Lake Ōhau, we encountered Scottish A2O trail rider, Danny, reflecting on the winged, pāua-engraved carved post erected on the lakeshore. The pou remembers the forced eviction of Waitaha iwi from Te Ao Mārama (Ōmarama) in the winter of 1879 and the urging of their leader, Te Maihāroa, to “never shed blood” in return. For Danny, the carving showed that the highland Scots and Māori have something of a shared history.


“It reminds me of the monument at Glencoe (erected to remember the government-sponsored massacre of members of clan McDonald by the Campbell clan in 1692).”

I told Danny that New Zealand has its own memorial dedicated to the Glencoe massacre near Mataura, Southland, which brought forth an appreciative smile and he contemplated the distant climb ahead instead.

It’s a rocky ride to the top of the Tarnbrae, but any burning in the leg muscles is quickly soothed by taking in the spectacular views. To the north, there’s Lake Ōhauiti and the mountain sacred to Waitaha, Mauka Atua, with the backdrop of snow-capped Mount Ward and Mount Huxley. The Tarnbrae tops out at 900 metres above sea level, and when we reach the marker of the highest point of A2O trail, there’s quite an international community of cyclists gathered there, gazing across the full width and length of the Mackenzie Basin.

To the distinctive call of nearby kea are added voices speaking Russian, German, French, and Midlands-spiced English. It’s a collective babbling sound that suggests our tourist sector is back in fine health. As for the kea, their present touch-and-go fight against extinction continues.

Recommended camping (Section 3)

Lake Middleton is a stone’s throw from Lake Ōhau and has a basic DOC camp located on its northern shore. The lake is full of waterbirds, such as black swans, paradise ducks, and even had a nesting pair of rare crested grebes during our visit. It’s a wonderful place to wake up.

Sailor’s Cutting

Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
From Sailors Cutting, the trail winds its way around the shores of Lake Benmore

Madame Pillion and I had ridden the Sailors Cutting to Ōtematata section of the trail three years before and couldn’t wait to get stuck into its Grade 3 serpentine climbs and descents around the shore of Lake Benmore again. So, we skipped the early roadside sections of the trail and drove straight to the cobalt blue waters of the lake at Sailors Cutting, parked the van, and pedalled off, relishing riding in the crisp, still air.

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On the previous visit, this section had presented us with challenging wind gusts, which were a little disconcerting when they’re shoving your bike towards steep drops into the lake waters below. This time, however, Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ could have been our riding soundtrack if we had one. The still waters of the lake reflected high-res inverted mirror images of the surrounding scenery and the bikes were handling like they were on rails with zero influence from any wind. It was the A2O at its best and felt just as enjoyable when we rode the section in the reverse direction back to the parked van.

Recommended camping (Sections 4–6)

Kurow Holiday Park is a strategically located motor camp for e-bike riders on the trail, especially those who have ridden the 79km from Ōmarama to Kurow on one charge.

Magical Duntroon

Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Stone ‘pachyderms’ graze the hills near Duntroon

The little historic town of Duntroon is Cycling Central on the trail due to the wealth of attractions encountered before you reach it and those you get to explore after you leave it. Prior to arrival, there’s the Māori rock art at Takiroa, showing taniwha and other natural features of the Waitaki valley, followed by riding through the flax-fringed path through the Duntroon wetlands. The town itself is also worth investigating. There’s a restored blacksmith’s workshop from the days of horse-drawn transport, the 19th Century jail that mostly incarcerated horse thieves, and a tempting café and a pub.

Beyond the town, the trail climbs and descends through rolling North Otago hills, often revealing spectacular landforms, such as the amusing Elephant Rocks and the sinew-like limestone formations of Anatini – once the location of Aslan’s Camp for the Chronicles of Narnia movies. Further along, there’s an encounter with the historic Rakis Railway Tunnel as the A2O tracks along a defunct rail route towards Ōamaru. Make sure you have some lighting available when riding through the tunnel, otherwise the mid-tunnel curve will have to be negotiated in total darkness.

Recommended camping (Sections 7–8)

Duntroon Domain is a huge flat area on the eastern side of the town where toilets, showers, and a few power hook-ups are available.

Fitting finale

Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Team OAP celebrate the victory of their road bicycles over the rougher sections of the trail

As you descend into Ōamaru, the town welcomes A2O riders with safe cycle lanes that route them first through the park-like surroundings of the public gardens before ushering them through the Victorian Historic Precinct towards the large finish stage and photography frame at the port. For a pair of plucky Irish women who rode the trail on heavily loaded touring bikes without electrical assistance and camped in a tent every night, the finish line came as tearful relief. For Madame Pillion and me, the journey might have been more convenient and less challenging but it
will still be remembered as a great personal adventure.

The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is the longest of the 23 Ngā Haerenga Great Rides of New Zealand serving up epic vistas from Aoraki Mount Cook all the way to arty Ōamaru beside the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of New Zealand’s truly Great Rides – the crème de la crème of multi-day cycling experiences in New Zealand for the iconic southern landscapes traversed and easily navigated by a wide demographic.

The Trail is broken into nine sections. Ride the full length over five to seven days for the depth of experience and huge sense of accomplishment or pick one or two sections and ride them as day trips from local towns. The variety of terrain means there’s a mix of easy to intermediate trail riding.

As with all cycle trails, before departing, find out the current weather conditions for the trail sections and whether any trail closures or detours are in place. You can check for the latest updates at alps2ocean.com.

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