cycle touring in new zealand: 9 tips from a newly minted two wheel traveller

When Neil and I got back from our short trip to New Zealand, it occurred to me that I have never returned from a holiday feeling less tired than when I left.

My mum helpfully pointed out that I don’t go on holidays; I go on adventures. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but she’s right. Travelling is expensive and I don’t see the point of flying overseas to an exotic location to sip cocktails and read my book when I can do both at home!

As it happens, my most recent jaunt was on two wheels. Neil and I cycled down the west coast of the South Island and then started the Alps to Ocean trail at Lake Tekapo with the aim of finishing at Oamaru on the east coast. Unfortunately my knee gave out some 60km into the Alps to Ocean and we finished off our trip in a campervan instead.

If you haven’t cycle toured before, then I won’t lie to you: it can be physically and emotionally demanding. Neil and I found ourselves cycling in heavy rain for much of the west coast and it was snowing and windy in the mountains.

Further, if you find yourself cycling in the South Island of New Zealand, watch out for the traffic! The lanes are narrow, there is often no shoulder to cycle on and large trucks, tour coaches and tourists who are used to driving on the right side of the road come bearing down on you at 100km per hour.

That being said, your reward for intrepidness is some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Cycling in the open air means that all your senses are piqued by your surroundings. You see, hear and smell everything.

Birds in New Zealand make some of the most incredible calls I have heard. Layer onto that the sound of glacial streams running down a mountain, sheep, cattle and deer letting the world know they are alive, a farmer ambling down a country lane on their tractor, a gush of wind sweeping through the nearby forest.

Smell the musty, rotting forest floor, the turned earth of a paddock just ploughed, the crisp mountain air.  Notice the wind sweep through the long grass and follow it with your eyes up to a hawk circling and the snow capped mountains in the background. Feel the sweat bead on your forehead as you climb up the impossibly steep mountain and then fly down the other side to see an azure blue glacial lake come into view.

Truly, I have not experienced a better way to travel through a place and feel connected to your surroundings.

So if you want to give this cycle touring thing a go, here are a few tips that either saved me when I was there, or I would have loved someone to share with me before I left:

1. Invest in good panniers and make sure they’re waterproof. Neil and I used ortlieb and cannot fault them. We noticed that most other cycle tourers we came across also used ortlieb panniers.

2. Buy a comfortable bike seat. I do not understand the current trend of hard-as-rock minimalist bike seats. I have a friend who has ongoing issues with his lower spine due to mountain biking on one of these seats. Save yourself the pain in the bum (literally!) and buy something with decent padding.

3. If you’re feeling cashed up and/or going for a longer tour, I highly recommend also purchasing a long travel thudbuster (by Cane Creek). It’s an excellent suspension seat post. It will set you back about $250 (at the time of writing) but my goodness you will thank yourself for the investment.

4. Cycle on a hard tail mountain bike with short travel forks and hybrid tyres. Touring bikes are usually set up similarly to a road bike with a longer frame. You get rigid forks, a larger wheel diameter and road bike tyres. A touring bike is fine if you want to stick to bitumen, but a mountain bike allows you to get off the highway and explore, particularly because most of New Zealand’s purpose built cycle trails are gravel and dirt, unsuitable for road and touring bicycles.

5. If you’re taking your own bike, make sure you have a decent drivetrain. We replaced my rear gear cluster and chain before we left for New Zealand, however we didn’t think to replace my sub-standard derailleur and as a consequence I had gear changing woes. When you’re cycling up steep mountains, you really want your gears to work!

6. If you’re going on a short trip, consider hiring a bicycle in the country rather than taking your own. There was a lot of hassle and expense involved in carting our bikes to New Zealand including taking the bikes apart to varying degrees for planes and buses. In future, we would take our own bike seats, thudbusters and panniers and hire the bikes over there unless we were planning a month or more of solid cycling.

There are a lot of companies in New Zealand who will rent you a good bike and other gear that you may need. Plus, if you’re looking for a simpler option, several of these companies also offer fully supported bicycle tours and they will take your gear to your daily endpoint for you. Luxury!

7. If you do want to do an unguided tour, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Classic New Zealand Cycle Tours by the Kennett Brothers. It gives you a good run down of all the purpose built tracks as well as lots of other unofficial route options. We had a copy lent to us by our Airbnb hosts in Christchuch that had half the pages missing. Apparently the couple that owned it before our hosts ripped out the pages as they completed each trail and then gave the pages to other travellers!

8. Sign up to warm showers. It’s couch surfing for cycle tourers. If you’re passing through Hokitika, look up Kevin. He is a warm and generous host who has lots of tramping (hiking) stories to share!

9. Have back up funds. Neil and I planned a budget trip, with minimal expenditure on transport and accommodation. However New Zealand’s weather is unpredictable, especially in the South Island in April and we ended up paying for accommodation most nights due to the constant rain and snow plus we had to purchase extra warm gear in preparation for the weather conditions in the mountains. Then there was the unexpected campervan rental cost.

C’est la vie. We had fun but back up funds were necessary!

I really hope you consider trying a cycle tour if you haven’t already and New Zealand is a stunning place to do it.

Finally, here are a few photos from our trip to inspire you. X

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