NZ South Island # 6: The most EPIC ride so far! Bannockburn – Queenstown via the Nevis Road (2 days, 140 km)

In my quest for the toughest, wildest and remotest cycle touring experience, I might have found the Graal: the Nevis road had all the ingredients of an unforgettable adventure: a long and deadly-steep climb, super-fast slippery scaring descents, ford crossings, and amazingly wild and isolated landscapes. This road is just New Zealand’s highest public road. It leads to the Nevis Valley, once the theatre of a gold rush, a country of settlers that never eventuated. In the days where the goldfields were at their peak, this road was used by the supply wagons pulled by horses. The road is often blocked by snow and can only be tackled by four-wheel-drive. Riding it with my one-wheel-drive tank was definitely an epic adventure that will stay engraved in my body and in my memories.

My “little” detour on the Nevis Road

Day 1: Bannockburn – Lower Nevis (32 km)

I started my cycling day from Bannockburn at a late 11:30, because I had too prepare another batch of applesauce with the Rail Trail apples. 

Transpire at Bannockburn: a premonitory sign! (“transpirer” means “to sweat” in French)
Typical traffic jam on New Zealand’s roads 😜
 

After a few kilometres on asphalt as a warm-up and a chat with two shepherds (they wished me good luck when I told them I intended to bike the Nevis Road), I started today’s main course: a 9 km-long climb on a gravel road to reach Duffers Saddle, the entrance gate to the Nevis Valley. More than the length of the climb, what was a bit scary is the total elevation gain: about 1100 metres, which means an average slope of 12%! This is much more than most of the passes climbed in the Tour de France! After 4 km of moderately difficult climb, I reached the steepest part of the climb, called “Dead Horse Pinch” because many horses pulling supply wagons up to the Nevis Valley just didn’t make it through here. Indeed, I cannot remember having had that much pain in a climb before, despite these last two months of intensive training, and I felt a real compassion for these poor horses! I was forced to make a few breaks to catch my breath, bring the cardio down and get rid of the burns in my thighs. It was also the occasion to take a few pictures of the beautiful surrounding landscape, Cromwell and Lake Dunstan, the Pisa Range, the Old Women Range, the Dunstan Range, etc. 

Cromwell & lake Dunstan in the distance

Finally, after nearly 2,5 hours of intense effort (for 9 km!), I reached Duffers Saddle, having completed the whole climb on the bike. From there, the views are stunning: you can see the “back” of the Remarkables, a mountain range which is a familiar landscape of Queenstown.

At the top, I met a group of motorcyclists. They told me: “Let’s us take a picture of you, mate, otherwise nobody will believe that you made it to here with your bicycle”
Stunning panorama from Duffers Saddle!
 

After a very long lunch break, I started the downhill towards the Nevis valley itself. The valley is actually divided in two +/- flat parts separated by a gorge: the Lower Nevis (700m above the sea level) and the Upper Nevis (900m). The downhill was nearly as steep as the uphill, with many slippery gravel corners. Going down this pass was exhilarating but required a lot of attention, steel nerves, bike handling skills and big balls! 

Once in the bottom of the valley, I had to deal with a much rougher gravel road and rather strong headwinds. After 15 kilometres fighting against a stronger and stronger wind, I decided to stop a bit before the Nevis gorge. Indeed, because of the Venturi effect (= the fact that air speed augments when the cross section of the flow is reduced in order to keep a constant flow), the wind would have been even stronger in the gorge, which is moreover a rather steep uphill. I had found a nice sheltered place, and my guess was that in the Upper Nevis trees and soft ground would be much more scarce, making the pitching of the tent very difficult. Consequently, I stopped at 16:30 after a short but intense 32 kilometres-day. It gave me all the time to enjoy this amazing valley and my first freedom camping in New Zealand!

Nice camping spot sheltered by willow trees

Day 2: Lower Nevis – Queenstown (108 km)

After an excellent sleep, I woke up early in the morning to watch the sunrise in the valley. 

Lovely morning in the Lower Nevis

The wind had stopped during the night and the weather was sunnier than yesterday. After the climb through the Nevis Gorge, I reached the Upper Nevis. Here, the marks of dredging in search for alluvial gold are much more visible. 

Biking my way up the Nevis Gorge
Some people are actually still looking for alluvial gold in the Nevis! See the two diesel-powered suckers / dredges!
Scars from the Gold Rush: dredge tailings in the Upper Nevis
The track was going gently uphill towards the Hector Range. On my way, I had to deal with 25 ford crossings. Crossing fords with a 35 kg bike is definitely a funny adventure. Today, I got the chance to refine my technique. Here are a few tips on “how to cross fords like a pro”: firstly, you have to assess the depth of the water. Then, in function of the nature of the terrain, chose the best line to cross: it is generally the place with lower depth and no big loose rocks. Put a low gear but try to keep a relatively high speed so that the inertia of the bike will help complete the crossing. Sometimes you will have to use your secret weapon to complete safely the crossing: the two-feet-drive 😜.

Ford crossing!
Today’s true gold of the valley is not to be found in the river: merino sheep produce the finest wool in the world, and there are thousands of them grazing in the valley!
 

The climb to the Saddle on Hector Range was much easier and shorter than yesterday’s climb. Once at the top, I had impressive views on the valley near Kingston, some 900m below. 

Nice view from the top of pass through the Hector Mountains. Less than one hour later, I was biking in the bottom of this valley!
The Garvie Mountains viewed from The Hector Range

The downhill towards Garston was as funny and challenging as yesterday’s one. At Garston, I finally reached an asphalt road after about four hours to complete 44 km. After such an epic ride, biking on asphalt seemed so easy and a bit tasteless. The 19km between Garston and Kingston were biked in no time. At Kingston there was a campground, but I could feel that stopping there would have given me a taste of too little. Why not bike 47 more easy kilometres along the sunny banks of lake Wakatipu, to reach Queenstown tonight and enjoy a beautiful sunset on the lake? After an important moment of introspection, I decided that my body could handle this extra effort that I was about to throw in his face. The ride was indeed rather easy and it took me only two small hours to reach Queenstown, while I had needed the double for the same distance in the morning! The ride along the lake was really pleasant, with this perfect cycling weather. 

Lake Wakatipu (Kingston is at the end of the lake)
Nice asphalt ride along Lake Wakatipu
 

I made a short stop at a viewpoint on the lake and got the chance to watch a weird spectacle: a car of Chinese tourists coming back from Milford Sound stopped at the same place, and all the women wanted to be photographed one after another with a colourful scarf, taking a Hollywood star pose for a moment then back to a rather grumpy face. Since then I have seen the same spectacle a few times, I guess that it is a “must-do” for them. Weird…

Arriving in Queenstown after these two days of wild isolation was quite a shock. When nearly the first thing you see when arriving to a town is a Louis Vuitton shop, it is generally a bad omen… I met a group of young cycle tourists but talked rather briefly with them because I was a bit tired and cold after such an epic day.

Sunset on Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. On the left, the Remarkables. In the middle Cecil Peak and Walter Peak
I decided to stay in the biggest hostel in town because they offered free dinner and breakfast and I hoped to have a good night in a bed. I was too late for the free dinner and so wrong for the good night…

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4 thoughts on “NZ South Island # 6: The most EPIC ride so far! Bannockburn – Queenstown via the Nevis Road (2 days, 140 km)

  1. Crazy ride!!! Impressive!
    I can picture the Asian ladies in my mind… they are everywhere and “yes” they must do it …. or jump or show a V-sign.
    We seem to be following yozr footsteps. We are in Mt Field NP right now.

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  2. Le Farwest continue ! J’aime bien l’affiche concernant le « wandering stock » !!!
    Comment fais-tu quand tu tombes sur un troupeau de mouton ? Ils restent imperturbables et tu dois attendre ou bien ils s’enfuient en courant ?
    En tout cas, c’est un vrai paysage de désert en effet !
    Tu as demandé aux chercheurs d’or s’ils en trouvaient encore, ou bien c’est comme pour les pêcheurs, ils le font plus pour sortir de chez eux 😉 !?
    Il semble que tu as trouvé ton défi dans cette partie-là en tout cas…

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  3. Tu cherchais l’aventure : tu as été servi ! bonne idée des motards que tu as croisé de t’avoir pris en photo ! c’est plutôt rassurant , tu as bonne mine pour quelqu’un qui vient de faire l’étape la plus dure de l’année !

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