We all have different ways of achieving life balance. For me, exercise with friends plays an important part. About eight years ago I was lucky enough to tap into a group of very positive and motivated women who regularly exercised together. Every now and again the group (and some partners) do bigger events – including hiking and cycle trips. I’ve done a few hikes with the gang but until this month I’d never been free to take part in their in multi-day cycle trips.
This year the planets aligned and I was able to join my friends over Easter on one of New Zealand’s top cycling tours. In five days we covered 256 km (about 160 miles) on the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail through some of the most beautiful and rugged scenery in the South Island of New Zealand, riding from Mount Cook to Oamaru. Think Lord of the Rings (minus orcs, elves, dwarves and hobbits) and you’ve got a good picture of the scenery.
I was the oldest in the group and hadn’t been on a bike for about 50 years, with the exception of one casual two-hour jaunt around a lake last year in France.
So, first step – buy a bike. Second step – toughen up the derrière. Third step – find some hills as well as easy flat roads to train on.
I joined my friends’ training programme in November with a few rides, some of the group carried on through the summer holidays, and I picked up again in February. If you’re considering doing the same trail, don’t even think of doing it without some serious training: two thirds of the route is grade 3 mountain bike surface. And just because you go from Mount Cook to the coast don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s all downhill! We came up with a new word on the trip – ‘undulations’ became ‘upulations’ and ‘false summits’ became part of our regular language. And yes, there were a few spills, lots of thrills and much laughter.
The first day was a short sharp acclimatisation of 15 km into a head wind, starting west of Tekapo along the canals, past salmon farms and with a finish at the bottom of Lake Pukaki, near the junction to mighty Mt Cook, where our trusty driver Ian from Natural High waited to transport us to Mount Cook Lodge.
We were really lucky – so often you go to the mountains but see nothing but fog or mist. This time the majestic mountain showed us her beauty, both during the day and in the evening under the glorious full moon.
The four days following were jam-packed with a wide range of terrain, riding surfaces and inspiring scenery. The most challenging day was the shortest – Day Three. Although we only rode for 40 km, 10 of them were uphill, climbing from the shores of Lake Ohau on mountain bike trails over a steep pass. The last 4½ km rose 300 m. With a bit of good advice from Rachel, one of the most experienced members of the group, I was able to pedal up the hill, to my surprise and delight. But oh, the joy of the downhill rush – all 18.3 km of it! The tussocks flashed past in a blur. No photos to show – I was much too busy revelling in the speed.
The generosity of farmers in allowing cycle trails to go through their land means that over the few years since the trail began, more and more of the route has become off-road. Of course there is a financial benefit to the small communities that the trail passes through, but it really is appreciated that so many people generously open their properties to a steady stream of visitors.
Otago is glorious at this time of year. The leaves were just beginning to change, a little bit of snow dotted the high peaks, and the golden brown of the tussock land contrasted with the emerald-green irrigated paddocks of lush dairy country as we got closer to the Waitaki Valley hydro lakes of Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki. And – the Weather God smiled. (I’m glad it’s not this week, with rain, high winds and temperatures down to -4 a couple of days ago!)
It’s not only the beauty of the countryside that interests but also the history, visible in many places. Just a few highlights:
- Quailburn Woolshed, once part of the vast property known as Benmore Run, was one of the largest properties in Otago during the 1870s.
- The Information Centre at Lake Benmore tells the story of the hydro lake schemes of the region.
- The tiny village of Duntroon is full of historic artefacts.
- Fascinating Campbell Park Estate near Kurow has a castle, unused boarding school, historic thatched stone cottage, collapsing stables, wonderful grounds and very comfortable guest housing.
- Oamaru, quiet regional town at journey’s end, boasts a Victorian precinct down near the port crammed with interesting boutique businesses, architecture and quirky displays. Even walking down the main street is a study in stone architecture with all the beautiful creamy-white Oamaru limestone buildings.
If you’d like a challenge, I thoroughly recommend getting some wheels and starting to train for a cycle trail somewhere next summer. (And if you’re thinking about New Zealand trails, the country is developing a nation-long network, with routes for all ages and abilities.)
Time management isn’t just about work – let’s live life to the full.