by Joe Shute, The Telegraph, February 12, 2018
Organised fun has long been to me one of those shiver-inducing phrases I have crossed continents to avoid. I blame it on the French Club Med youth club I was sent to at the age of six, where I found myself trapped in a room with 20 strange, screaming children, and was forced to have my face painted as a giraffe. My parents still have the photograph: beneath the cheery orange spots is a portrait of abject misery.
As I grew older, the perfect holiday for me became about striking off into the wild in one way or another. And better yet, on a bicycle, the ideal vehicle for the chronically antisocial.
At university each summer, I would load my trusty steel-frame 1983 Claud Butler Dalesman with panniers and cycle off with a revolving cast of friends – or later my partner, Liz. We would head towards the likes of Harwich, Portsmouth or Birkenhead, giddy with the possibilities that lay beyond these dreary ports – be it an expedition from Brittany to Bilbao, or one ill-fated attempt to circum- navigate Ireland in a fortnight, subsisting on Guinness and campfire-cooked kedgeree.
On these trips, we had an unwritten rule that we never paid for accommodation unless we had to. And so, after finishing up each evening in a small village entirely off the tourist trail, we would knock on doors to see if anybody would let us pitch our tents in their garden. Using this method, we slept on a mink farm in Denmark, in front drives, pub car parks, and too many fields and forests to count.
Often we would be invited in for dinner and we met many wonderful, generous strangers. But this was fun at its most disorganised. Were we ever to pass a coachload of daytrippers, we would vow, snobbishly, ‘Not us.’ And yet how quickly the sneers of youth fade when a cycling holiday to New Zealand is up for grabs – one that is part of a group tour. Organised fun on bikes the same shade of yellow as my giraffe face paint. My boyhood self would have disapproved, but what did he know anyway, the sour-faced brat?
And so Liz and I find ourselves one morning in late November seated at the back of an Adventure South NZ minibus, cruising between Christchurch hotels, picking up the 11 other strangers who will be joining us on our week-long tour of the South Island’s Alps-to-Ocean cycle trail. As the bus fills, we exchange bashful smiles and names that we all instantly forget. It feels like a gentler version of an opening episode of Big Brother.
Our consignment complete, we are taken to the Adventure South depot and introduced to our guides, Josh and Mel, and our rides: sturdy mountain bikes with good suspension and gears supposedly sufficient for the climbs that lie ahead. And then we are off, driving down the highway with Josh on the radio mic highlighting points of interest while a sheet is passed around collating meal requests for dinner. The years flashing by alongside the South Island’s stunning scenery.
The Alps to Ocean is New Zealand’s longest continuous cycling trail. Beginning in the southern Alps – either at Mount Cook (the country’s highest peak, where Sir Edmund Hillary honed his climbing skills) or Lake Tekapo – it finishes some 185 miles later in the coastal town of Oamaru. En route, it passes great lakes, rivers, forests and mountain passes. Ours was one of Adventure South’s so-called ‘introductory’ rides, suitable for beginners upwards. Still, it is not a route for the faint-hearted.
A country as beautiful as New Zealand is best seen from a bike. Pedalling through the South Island, the landscape shifts and changes like lava flow. This is the land of the Lord of the Rings films, so rugged and unspoilt that the government has recently been moved to pass a law preventing super-rich foreigners from buying up large swathes of it with the intention of one day hiding away while the rest of the world burns.
Our first day’s cycling is only a short pedal to Lake Tekapo, whose turquoise waters are caused by the fine dust of the retreating glaciers that tower above it, making it a favourite spot for newlyweds to have their wedding photos taken. Sure enough, as we arrive couples pursued by small armies of photographers line the seashore.
We are assigned rooms in a lodge overlooking the water and gather that evening for our first group meal. Over plates of locally smoked salmon and bottles of dry white wine from nearby vineyards, we all begin to delve into each other’s strange lives.
It soon transpires that Liz and I are the only couple on the trip. Our fellow riders are either solo travellers, siblings – including a pair of brothers, one from Minneapolis and one from Colorado who see each other only once every few years – and one raucous crowd of five female friends from Australia who have ditched their husbands for the week. The oldest of our group is 72: Wendy, a soon-to-be retired nurse doing three back-to-back cycle trips, of which this is the first. The youngest is, well, us, by about 25 years. Still, our jetlag means we are the first to bed. As we eventually wave goodnight, it is to the protests of the five Australian friends imploring us to join them for another bottle of wine.
Even on the other side of the world, we wake to familiar birdsong. From the time Captain Cook’s Resolution arrived at Dusky Sound in the south-west corner of the South Island in 1773, colonists introduced a total of 144 bird species to New Zealand. The likes of goldfinch, yellowhammer and chaffinch – whose chorus on the balcony outside roused us from our sleep – were bought here purely for sentimental reasons so the English could feel more at home. Opening our balcony window to take in the breathtaking view of the lake, a chirruping sparrow hops in from outside.
The climate in New Zealand in November is also similar to that of a late- spring day in Britain. The mornings are cold, but soon a bright sun breaks through the cloud. It accompanies us as we cycle along the edge of Lake Pukaki and over the tussock-strewn grasslands of the Pukaki Flats, which reminds me of sweeping African savannah.
The sun here is equally fierce. New Zealand lies almost directly beneath the ozone hole that forms over the South Pole around this time of year, and we are constantly warned to apply sunscreen to our pasty English skin. On the second day, I am burnt a beetroot red, much to the amusement of my fellow cyclists.
One of the immediate joys of being in the South Island is witnessing how quickly the topography changes. One minute you feel as though you are in the Lake District spotting Herdwick sheep, and one bend along the road you suddenly pitch up on an Andean mountain slope studded with lupins. The lupins, by the way, while beautiful, infuriate New Zealanders as an invasive species. This is a country so protective of its natural assets that even to arrive at the airport with the remnants of a satsuma in your bag will see you being encircled by border-force dogs – as we discovered.
We cycle with one guide in front waiting at opportune moments with the van to load us up with snacks and prevent us from going off course, and one behind to usher along any stragglers. The cycle routes are largely traffic-free (although not suitable for road bikes) and we whir along to the peaceful chatter of each other’s conversations.
That evening, there is no group meal planned, and by the next morning we find we are surprisingly eager to meet up again and hear the day’s itinerary. Organised fun has us firmly in its grip.
Back on our bikes, we pass braided rivers and water meadows and yet more lakes reflecting snowy peaks in their crystal-clear waters. While generally it is gentle stuff, our third day brings the highest climb of the week – the 3,000ft Tambrae Saddle. In the afternoon heat, we slowly ascend in a long line, weaving up switchback turns as the Mackenzie Basin sprawls beneath us. Eventually, after an hour and a half of solid climbing, we reach the top and cheer and whoop and clap each other on the back.
After nearly 50 miles cycling that day, we arrive road-weary and saddle-sore at our evening destination, Omarama. This is a hamlet of a few motels, cafés and a petrol station strung out alongside a highway – which, it transpires, is at the confluence of numerous coach tours. We stay in a motel of 1970s decor, with patterned carpets, plastic surfaces and an inbuilt radio in the bedside cabinet, which croons love songs. Dinner is a buffet in a cavernous hall filled with competing busloads of tourists, piling up their plates. This would have been my vision of a holiday hell a few days previously, but I am too busy swapping cycling stories of the day with my fellow riders to mind a jot.
Certainly, it is New Zealand’s natural features rather than those of human design that should persuade you to fly two days across the world to come here. The architecture is, by and large, dreary prefabricated stuff, and many of the villages and towns we pass through are too small to offer much in the way of food and culture. Even Christchurch, still recovering from the 2011 earthquake that decimated it, feels oddly quiet compared to other cities of similar size.
The following evening, we stay in a tiny village called Kurow with a population of 312 at the last count – living between a petrol station, shop, local museum, a couple of guest houses and a bar serving up tankards of fizzy lager and huge plates of mixed grills to shepherds relaxing after a day in the fields. Liz and I share a beer between us. We haven’t been able to find a cashpoint for two days.
Even on tours like ours, where there is no need to consult the map, the rhythm of any cycling holiday remains the same. You eat far too much at breakfast – porridge laced with caramelised nuts in this case – pack up your bags and hit the road without looking back. The first few miles of a morning are always my favourite: the residual ache of the previous day slowly being overtaken by the possibility of what lies ahead.
Day five of our trip marks the last long cycle: a 44-mile route along the banks of the Waitaki river, Kurow vineyards and a Maori rock-art site. We eat a packed lunch in a valley dotted with towering limestone boulders moulded by the elements into otherworldly formations known locally as the Elephant Rocks, before heading off again for the afternoon ride with our guides warning there are some hilly sections ahead.
Soon we are embroiled in the toughest cycling of the week: a steep gravel track whipped by a fierce headwind. At a sharp turn halfway up, two of our party fall off and into a gorse bush. We drop our bikes and run over to haul them out. When we finally reach the top, a dusty road planted with an avenue of eucalyptus trees, a large truck careers past, coating us all in dust.
Our collective sense of humour remains intact – even in those nursing wounds inflicted by the gorse bush. After a similarly gruelling descent, past fields whose irrigation sprinklers drench us as we pass, we arrive at our final night’s accommodation – a far cry from the places we have previously stayed.
The Burnside Homestead is a late-Victorian mansion built by the Scottish colonialist John Forrester Reid. Only two other families have ever lived in it since, and the current occupants, Alison and Bruce Albiston, have been here since 1974. As we arrive, exhausted, they are standing on its flower-entwined wooden veranda, waving enthusiastically.
They have kept its octagonal great hall and surrounding 20 rooms in their original state, and before we are even out of our Lycra they take us on a tour, lovingly pointing out the original features such as the rose-glass clerestory windows and wood panelling in the hall. We have dinner around a mammoth oak table overlooked by glowering portraits of previous occupants of the house.
The old house is filled with our happy chatter and it strikes me, looking around the table, that only a few days previously we were all shy strangers to one another. Later, we stand with Bruce on the veranda gazing up at the night sky and listening to the flute-like song of magpies in the conifers that surround the house.
After breakfast the following morning, there are only 12 miles to our final destination, the coastal town of Oamaru, the end of the Alps-to- Ocean trail. We arrive as a group and take photographs of each other at the finish line. Never has my camera been filled with so many holiday pictures of other people.
There are a few hours to kill before the drive back to Christchurch and our group disperses. Liz and I stroll about the old stone harbourside buildings, then sit together in a café overlooking the street feeling curiously bereft.
It is less the cycling we are sad to wave goodbye to than our fellow riders, each one of whom feels like they have become a friend over the past six days. We wonder if we might ever cross paths again.
And then, as we stare gloomily out of the window, we spot the five Australians marching down the middle of the pavement, souvenir bags in hand. One of them, Carol, catches sight of us through the window and waves and points her camera towards us.
The photograph, when she later sends it to me, is of Liz and me beaming at our new friends. I might one day get it framed and hang it next to the boy with the giraffe spots. A reminder of how far he has come.
Adventure South NZ offers a six-day fully inclusive guided Alps-to-Ocean tour from £1,195 per person, including five nights’ accommodation and most meals. Electric bikes are available (adventuresouth.co.nz). Emirates flies from Gatwick to Christchurch, from £689 return until 22 February (emirates.com).