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Gritty, gravelly and gorgeous

Sharon Fowler near Lake Wakatipu on the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. Photo: Kel Fowler

Having lived outside New Zealand for almost 20 years, I’d forgotten just how beautiful this country is.

Cycling 500 km through sometimes remote areas of Central Otago, Fiordland and Southland for eight days in late January rekindled my passion for our landscape.

We rode through isolated river valleys where sheep and cattle made the only sounds; past the deep greens of Lake Manapouri’s native bush, edged by snow-laced peaks; and watched as sun dusted early-morning mountain ranges.

Whenever we looked left there were mountains, while the loveliness of deep blue and turquoise lakes, grassy plateau and pastoral farms took my breath away. Steep gravel hills also took it away!

Under splendid skies…Sharon Fowler stops to cross a ford on the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. Photo: Kel Fowler

Grit, gravel and undulating tar-seal formed part of our experience as we crunched along high-country gravel roads or chased Southland’s dotted centre line, focusing steadfastly as trucks rumbled past.

Truck drivers and most motorists were courteous. A man mowing lawns let us fill our water bottles, while a farming couple welcomed us to pitch our tent in their pretty lavender, rose and maple tree filled garden.

Such a heartbeat of rural New Zealand encouraged us, as we rediscovered the beauty of our land and some of those who live from, and care for, it.

My husband Kel and I have lived overseas for almost 20 years and tour cycled in Europe and across North America. This southern summer trip was only our second biking holiday in our homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Kel had planned a route incorporating most of the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail, however considerably widened this circular trip by adding Te Anau, Manapouri, Tuatapere, Otautau, Nightcaps and Mossburn, then rejoining the trail at Five Rivers.

We started our journey in Queenstown, cruising across Lake Wakatipu in the century-old coal fired steamship, the TSS Earnslaw. Many nationalities joined us and 45 minutes later, we docked at Walter Peak High Country Farm.

This station rears thousands of sheep and hundreds of beef cows, some of whom we almost got to know intimately as they grazed alongside gravel roads and were sometimes reluctant to move!

Kel Fowler encounters grazing sheep, as the cycle trail winds through farmland not far from Garston. Photo: Sharon Fowler

The landscape was outstanding, with mountains looming up all around us, the intensely blue Lake Wakatipu to our right, then wilderness beckoning as we cycled further.

An occasional farm vehicle drove by. However, much of the time, it was us and the stock. As we neared the steepest climb of our trip, Von Hill, the surrounding mountains seemed to close in around us.

It took ages on a hot Central Otago afternoon to conquer this hill. A gravelly road and steep gradient combined so that I regularly slid off my bike in lowest gear, necessitating push-starts – from Kel!

The warning sign before the steep, gravelly Von Hill ascent. Photo: Kel Fowler

This sometimes psychologically-dispiriting ascent was rewarded with the splendour of kilometres of high plateau, where we dismounted our bikes to cross small clear, clean rivers. The water was cool and refreshed our tired feet.

One point near the summit, we were almost level with a distant snow-topped peak.

This remote road through Walter Peak, then Mt Nicholas Station, was indeed a trip highlight.

For those riding this route, there are modern, effective shelters and long drop toilets as well as water which should be filtered. Taking a tent and adequate food is vital.

Following a tranquil night camping at Mavora Lakes, disturbed only by the hum of pesky sandflies, we cycled on more gravel, before relishing a switch to smoother tar-seal, meaning our speed doubled. A nice night in a field near The Key was enhanced by fresh raspberry jam, bought from a local who’d made it just that day.

After daybreak, we rolled up our tent and rode to a Department of Conservation wilderness reserve to use the toilet, and cook porridge and coffee on our gas stove. Amid this wilderness, a luxury coach of French tourists stopped! They politely disturbed our peace, with one exhorting us to add Bordeaux wine to our breakfast.

Other highlights of our trip were rural Southland and a visually-stunning independent cycle track between Five Rivers and Kingston.

So much of our 500 kilometres involved sunny days, spectacular scenery and pleasant conversations. It refreshed my soul to see how many Kiwis are living everyday lives in ways which honour the land and others around them.

Other vehicles shared the road in Otautau, Southland. Photo: Kel Fowler

This included the many DT King & Co trucks which overtook us in Southland, their drivers invariably slowing or going wide to pass, helping to ensure our safety. These drivers were some of the best we’ve witnessed in years of cycling, mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.

Then there were the Nightcaps locals, who’d stopped their utes at an intersection to chat, and apologised for taking up the road.

Considering the land, most farms appeared productive and well cared for as we pedalled by, or stopped to cook lunch at their edge.

Kel (left) and Sharon Fowler on the Old Lower Shotover Bridge near the end of their 500 km ride. Photo: kind passer-by!

As we rode back into Queenstown, first along a busy highway from Kingston and then on scenic local tracks, we were grateful to have experienced some of the best our country has to offer.

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