NZ South Island #3: Tekapo – Oamaru via Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail (253 km, 4 days)

For this second part of my bike trip in the South Island, I followed a signposted cycle trail called “Alps 2 Ocean“. As the name tells it, this trail start at the foot of the Southern Alps and goes all the way South East back to the coast to end in a town called Oamaru. Most of the trail is on car-free tracks or low-traffic roads, some parts are even purpose-built for bicycles and really enjoyable. Unfortunately, I had bad weather conditions most of the time, which forced me to cancel the side-trip to Mueller Hut since I would not have been able to see Mt Cook anyway. 
Day 1: Tekapo – Omarama (91km)

In the morning, the weather was not as bad as forecasted. I had to bike about 25 km along the artificial canal connecting Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki. This canal is part of the Waitaki hydro scheme, composed of eight power stations from Lake Tekapo to Lake Waitaki, generating energy from water owing from the Southern Alps to the sea (more info about it here). During the next days, I will have the chance the next day to see most of the dams and power stations, which made the Alps 2 Ocean even more interesting for the cycling engineer I am.

The trail along the Tekapo – Pulaski canal

This first part along the canal was a flat and a bit boring. I discovered that this path is also used by the hikers on the Te Araroa (The long pathway in māori), NZ’s long distance hiking route (3000 km) that traverses both islands from Cape Reinga on the North to Bluff, on the South. At places, this hike is really challenging because you have to pack food for 10-12 days and hike in an alpine, isolated environment. But there are also many sections on the road or on tracks like the one along the canal, that must be really boring to hike on! Later on this day, I overtook a girl doing the Te Araroa, who was reading a book while hiking! This gives you an idea of how easy and boring this part of the hike must be…

At the end of the canal, I could enjoy an impressive view on Lake Pukaki and the penstocks of the Tekapo B power station. Even if I could not see Mount Cook and the other mountains surrounding the lake, I found lake Pukaki a really beautiful. 

Lake Pukaki and the penstocks of Tekapo B power station viewed from the end of the canal

A wrap with a view! (Even if Mt Cook hides himself in the clouds)

After a nice lunch on the shore of the lake, I continued my way on a nice singletrack along the lake, then going down to the town of Twizel with some funny bends quite challenging to negotiate with a 35kg tank! The mountainbiker in me loved it!

Nice flowy gravel track along Lake Pukaki

At Twizel it finally started to rain quite heavily and because the weather was meant to stay bad for the 2 coming days, I decided to take a shortcut by the road in order to reach a free campsite near Omarama. The last 30 km were biked under pouring rain. I pitched the tent in emergency mode, soaked and cold. Then for the first time, I did what every all-weather camper eventually ends up doing even if every tent maker strongly discouraged it: abside cooking. Well, cooking is a big word, since I just boiled some water to eat one of the freeze-dried meals I always keep for this kind of situation. It felt so good to be warm and dry in the tent!
Day 2: boredom is good (5 km – rest in Omarama)

After a very rainy night, I woke up, opened the tent and saw only rain and fifty shades of grey in the sky. It was enough for me to call it a day off. After all, I had biked nearly 400km in the last four days, so taking advantage of the bad weather to have some rest seemed a good idea. Spending a whole day confined in a small tent while the weather is going wild outside is always an interesting experience. Moreover, It is good for you dear readers, because such a rest day means a boost in the blog writing effort 😉. 

My only sportive feat of the day was cycling the 5 k return trip to Omarama to go to the supermarket, and eat a gorgeous burger at the local pub. Oh, and I also had a language lesson at the public toilet! 😜

Language lesson in the toilets!

Day 3: Omarama – Duntroon (100 km) – after rest you should give a little bit

This morning the weather was “better”: the rain had ceased, but the sky was still heavily clouded. After leaving Omarama I cycled along Lake Benmore, NZ’s largest man-made lake. 

Lake Benmore

Nice fall colours near Otematata

I then climbed a hill to reach Otematata, a little town on the shore of Lake Aviemore. A few minutes later, I discovered the impressive engineering works of Benmore dam and power station. Benmore dam is NZ’s largest earth dam, and the hydropower station is the country’s second largest (540 MW installed capacity). In the high voltage electric substation I could easily recognise the familiar silhouette of the AC/DC switching station, which confirmed my guess of HVDC line. 

The DC switchyard at Benmore power station

The huge penstocks of Benmore power station

Panoramic view on Benmore dam and power station

What I had not guessed is that the other end of this HVDC line is located 610 km further, on the North Island! This so called “HVDC Inter-Island” is a 1200 MW bipolar high-voltage direct current link connecting the electricity networks of both island. The South Island has lots of hydro generation capacity and a lower electricity consumption (less than 40% of NZ’s total consumption). This HVDC link is thus interesting as well for market reasons as for security of supply reasons. (If you are interested on the subject, this wikipedia page is full of nice information!).

Lake Aviemore

After cycling along lake Aviemore for quite a while on a very quiet asphalt road, I reached yet another lake, dam and power station: Waitaki. Built between 1928 and 1934, it is the oldest of the eight hydroelectric stations of the scheme and the last station to be built in NZ without modern mechanical equipment. Imagine that: some 560 000 cubic metres of material were excavated almost entirely by pick and shovel! This seems inimaginable only 80 years later!

My tank next to the old Francis turbine of Waitaki power station

After passing the little city of Kurow, the track continued along Waitaki river, with some nice views on the surrounding hills. The contrast between the grey of the sky and the gold of the tussock-covered hills creates impressive sights. 

Typical Mackenzie landscape: golden hills, wild river and the omnipresent sheeps!

While it finally began to rain, I biked through a vineyard (sadly, the shop was closed, so no tasting to get warmer), then continued along the river on a nice track, completed my first ford crossing (since then I have had many of them and became quite an expert in the matter 😉). 

Approaching Duntroon, my stop for the night, I had a look to the surprising sandstone cliffs and their māori paintings. Unfortunately most of the paintings weren’t that visible anymore. 

Sandstone cliffs near Duntroon

After this 100km long biking day, I finally arrived at Duntroon campground, a bit wet and cold but not as much as two days ago. At first sight the campground looked a bit creepy, but in the end I had by far my best evening in NZ so far! In the nice and warm little building, I met Yves and Charlotte, a very nice young Belgo-French couple of archeologist temporarily working in the nearby vineyard, and also Carmen and Lena, two young German girls also travelling with their bicycles. They had met one month ago on the road and since then biked together all their way from Murchinson to here. I felt immediately welcomed and the five of us had an amazing evening, sharing food, traveling stories and life experiences. Inside this little kitchen, it felt as warm and sunny as it was cold and rainy outside! After being offered apricots and home-made apple cake, I decided to share the excellent chocolate tablet from Tasmania that I had been carrying for two weeks awaiting a special occasion. The chocolate was just excellent, and even better because shared. 
Day 4: Duntroon – Oamaru (57 km)- finally the sun, and ride with top-notch company!

This last day on the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail was just perfect. The weather was finally sunny and clear again, letting us enjoy the spectacular landscapes. The track was mostly funny, with some nice technical sections up and down. And, last but not least, I cycled together with Lena and Carmen. Besides being very cheerful and friendly, they prove to be excellent cyclists! After not having seen that much of the landscape these last 3 days, it was really enjoyable to have broad and clear views on the mountains and hills.

Lena & Carmen cycling next to Elephant Rocks

Elephant Rocks and the Southern Alps in the background

This last part of the trail was probably the hardest. We could enjoy very diverse landscapes, from sandstone cliffs to bright green or hills, and grey mountains in the distance. Each of us had his / her little issue on the way: Lena showed us how much she was connected to the earth (a little fall without bad consequence), Carmen showed us how much she liked everything to be clean (she had to wash hergear train completely stuck by mud / cow shit) and I showed the girls how good I was at fixing a bike (I had to replace the destroyed metal spring between the brake pads).

Lena doing great in a tricky switchback climb

Lena cycling along Island cliffs

A few kilometres before Oamaru, we picked half a ton of apples from an apple tree on the side on the road. Once in Oamaru, we pitched our tents in the garden of the local YHA. After spending months sleeping in tents, the three of us sleep much better in a tent than in a dorm. Plus, it is cheaper! We had another nice shared meal and spent the evening talking together while preparing a delicious applesauce with extra rhubarb from the hostel’s garden. 


4 thoughts on “NZ South Island #3: Tekapo – Oamaru via Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail (253 km, 4 days)

  1. I think Lena is the girl we met several times when cycling on the north island and once on the south island. Did she have a rucksack wrapped around the handle bars? When we met her she had been cycling with two Americans. Is that her??? It’s a small world….


  2. Très contrasté comme parcours : isolé, ennuyeux et froid pour terminer par la chaleur humaine et le soleil !
    Des photos de barrage, de station électrique et de câbles à haute tension, attention à ne pas te faire pincer comme espion 😉 !!
    Je me trompe ou il y a moins de faune (sauf les moutons !!) en N-Z ?


    1. Contrasté, c’est exactement ça!

      Pour la faune, j’y reviendrai plus tard mais en gros, à part des chauves-souris, il n’y avait à la base aucun mammifère natif en NZ. Par contre, il y a une énorme diversité dans les espèces d’oiseaux exotiques.


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