As the plane made its final descent towards the rain-soaked runway at Wellington International Airport, I peered out my small plastic window to catch glimpses of New Zealand’s capital city between the thick, white clouds that seemed to be as much a part of the cityscape as the surrounding green hillsides and sprawling bays. This would be the final stop in what amounted to twenty-four hours of travel from Salt Lake City, Utah to Wellington, New Zealand, the city I had somewhat arbitrarily chosen to call home for the next six-to-twelve months. With my working-holiday visa downloaded on my phone and luggage packed with bikepacking gear and other essentials, I was ready to find my place in this country on the other side of the world.
With relatively little experience in bikepacking, but with a solid background in backcountry travel and camping, my objectives were initially modest. I wanted to explore the trails surrounding Wellington by bike, bringing my tent, sleeping bag, and some new friends along for some overnight trips. But over the next few months, the stories I heard from locals and others who had chosen to make this country their home convinced me to set my sights a bit higher.
I decided I would ride the South Island section of the Tour Aotearoa, a route created by the Kennett brothers, the local legends who have become New Zealand’s leading publisher of cycling history and guide books. Their guidebook promised quiet gravel roads and well-maintained cycle trails surrounded by diverse landscapes including glaciers, rainforests, and coastlines. As if that weren’t exciting enough, I decided to add on a few spicier trails that piqued my interest, including the Old Ghost Road, a long-forgotten gold miners' road recently revived as a mountain biking and tramping trail, and the Paparoa Track, another mixed-use trail that traverses alpine ridgelines, limestone karst landscapes and thriving podocarp forests. This bespoke itinerary would eventually lead me to Bluff, the southernmost town on the South Island, where I would end up deciding to continue my journey and bike back North to Christchurch.
To accompany me on this trip, I had my trusty Surly Ogre, well-tested on the trails surrounding Wellington in the months leading up to my trip. I chose this bike above all for its versatility. A fully rigid bike with geometry that toed the line between touring and downhill would offer me the efficiency I needed for those long days riding paved roads, while the generous 29” x 2.5” tires would give me the ability to tackle the chunkiest gravel trails, and (fingers crossed) would allow me to feel confident on the full-on mountain biking trails I hoped to explore. Buzzing with excitement, I booked my ferry ticket, strapped on my bags, and set off on what would be my first multi-night bikepacking trip.
I spent the next 43 days traveling the South Island, quickly settling into a routine of waking up and caffeinating (via bittersweet camp coffee or delicious flat whites from local cafes), riding my bike anywhere from 40-100km, enjoying the familiar rhythm of my lungs pumping power to my legs which would in turn power the machine I was riding. I would stop to admire the surprisingly diverse landscapes of the South Island. I’d refuel in dairies along the trail, sampling whatever pie was available. Most of the time I felt conspicuously foreign, but I was always warmly welcomed.
I’d stop for a pint at an interesting looking pub and end up chatting with the locals for hours - even being offered to stay in the home of a new friend in Franz Josef. I came across other travelers on the road as well, one of whom - after 5 minutes of biking together - invited me to celebrate New Years on the beach with a group of fellow travelers. We roasted corn on the fire, danced around the fire, and toasted to the spontaneity of being brought together from our different corners of the world. Most nights, I would set up my tent in remote areas tucked away from the road, in friendly farmer’s backyards, or at holiday parks where I would gratefully make use of the shower and laundry facilities. Besides the nightly endeavor to fend off voracious sand flies, a bout of food poisoning (not fun to deal with in a tent) and one unfortunate incident of strong winds blowing my tent into the open flame of camp stove, I slept in blissful comfort, knowing there were few if any dangerous animals to protect myself from, and that the most I had to worry about was how far I’d be riding the following day.
After many days of this type of travel, I woke up one morning, packed up my tent, and pedaled to a cafe to grab a scone and plan my route for the day. Could it be? Was I really already one day from my final destination? Bluff was only 70km away. I could be there by this afternoon. I weighed my options. Fourteen days until I needed to be back in Wellington. I remembered another route that I had seen from the Kennett brothers, the Sound to Sound route. I could intercept this route after biking down to Bluff and then continue on to Christchurch. This would add 900km of biking to my trip, but at this point I was so accustomed to the routine that I felt ready for it, and honestly, I wasn’t ready to give up the freedom and simplicity of sleeping outdoors every night and taking each day as it came. I continued on. This additional route added a surprising amount of climbing, but it was well-worth it to experience the stunning Alps to Ocean trail, the Otago Central Rail trail, and plenty of biking along glacially-fed lakes.
By the time I arrived in Christchurch and was waiting to take the scenic coastal train to Picton, where I’d started this journey, I was feeling properly worked. My legs ached, and I felt proud of my effort. I reflected on the trip, on my constantly changing plan, which started as just a few local overnighters around Welly and ended up with over 2300km of biking over 43 days. The journey wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of moments where I questioned why I was out here doing this. Plenty of moments where I felt lonely, tired, frustrated, and small. But as I looked back on it, I had no regrets. There’s something about moving your body every single day that helps process your thoughts and feelings. As my legs spun the cranks of my bike, I felt my mind digesting thoughts as they came, fully experiencing and processing the constant chatter of my hyperactive brain. I can’t speak highly enough of the benefits of this type of travel, not to mention the impeccable scenery I witnessed and spontaneous connections I made along the way.