Biking Birthday

As another birthday approached it seemed like a good idea to mark it in style and do something memorable. The question, of course, was what?

Having now taken to mountain biking that became an immediate option, and finding the memorable or even spectacular was not that hard.

So, a few nights ago Sandi and I and Laura booked into the Hermitage at Mount Cook/Aoraki, but only after an adventurous day on which the car broke down. As usual Sandi fixed all that. Kirsten could not be with us because she had a PhD conference in the UK, but was on the phone.

On the birthday morning it was cold, below freezing – well, it is that time of the year here in the southern hemisphere and especially so in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At breakfast we got a good look out to Cook, the training ground for Sir Edmund Hilary before he went off to summit Everest. There is now a Hilary Heritage Centre attached to the hotel.

I was soon outside, in the gear and on the bike because I was setting off for the first two sections of the Alps2Ocean bike trail.  New Zealand is fast becoming a world centre for bike touring and much of that is centred in Otago and South Canterbury. The government has just announced another tranche of funding to build and link even more trails in the area. At the heart of it is the famous Rail Trail that runs from Clyde to Middlemarch and, indeed, follows the line set out in the now abandoned rail system that opened up the region.

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As I free wheeled down from the Hermitage and joined the start of the A2O, it seemed that the warm weather gear was not designed for the NZ high country. The thick gloves seemed only to intensify the freeze. But the trail itself was inspiring. The first several kilometres run from near the village down the valley to the grandly named Mt Cook Airport from where sight seers set off all over the area including to the West Coast and into Milford Sound as well as onto and around glaciers and snow slopes. The Mt Cook heli skiing season starts soon – that is for the intrepid.

So why, exactly, am I riding to an airport? Because in order to continue along section 1 of the trail, I have to be choppered (helicoptered) across the Tasman River that runs out of the huge Tasman Glacier and down into Lake Pukaki.  So Sandi and I pitch up at Heliworks, get checked in and meet the marvellous Mark Hayes, today’s pilot.  These people are phenomenal, because as you see from their bios they are deeply involved in rescue work and all sorts of other activities. Mark’s brother Richard has been knighted for his efforts, but all the rest are right up there as well.


Mark gets the bike in the back seat and Sandi and I in the front, and sweeps us off in a turn out across the braided strands of the Tasman River. Mts Cook and Tasman are off to one side, as is Sefton and all the other peaks now just getting the early sun on what is looking like being a stunning day. There are 29 peaks over 3,000 metres in here, so it is spectacular with Cook at 3, 700 metres. And Mark spots a stag that runs off into the tree line. This is the NZ high country at its best, and a reminder of why it is just such an attraction for visitors from all over the world. The hotel was packed, largely with Japanese and Chinese tourists who all seem to have bought Kathmandu or Macpac gear especially for the trip!


We see, too, that the river is now high in water after some heavy rainfall. So heavy, in fact, that as we fly in over the bike trail we note that some areas at the start are under water. Mark puts me down in the nearest available dry spot, we get the bike out, and I crouch low as Mark heads the chopper back to return Sandi to the airport. I am on my own, beside a roaring Tasman River and in the shadow of Cook, with a bike, and I can see already that there are deep pools in some of the closer parts of the trail. The air is magnificent, the sky clear, the sun now up, but I am in the shadow of the mountains still and freezing.

For the first 5 ks there are huge pools of water across and near the trail, some of them up to the hubs on the wheels. By way of compensation there are views to the mountains and the company of hundreds of paradise ducks and Canada geese as well as the usual startled sheep, this is merino country. I have the track and the place to myself. All day I see one other person, two hay trucks, and right near the end of the ride a four wheel drive taking some riders into where I had just been.


The fragility of the landscape and the pioneering nature of the trail kicks in at about 6 ks. The track spears off into the torrent that is the Tasman River. About 300 metres of the track is now, well, river. The bypass is to climb over a fence, skirt along the edge, then rejoin the track which swings off towards the Jollie River car park on the edge of Mt. Cook Station that has just changed hands after being held by the Burnett family for over 150 years. Andrew Burnett, a Highlands Scot, took the land in 1864. His son, Thomas, inherited it but also became a politician between the wars. Thomas Burnett was also responsible for the statue to James McKenzie, of the “McKenzie Country” that stands near Burke’s Pass.

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These stations all have great stories, as now recorded in May Hobbs new book.   The Hayman family, for example, has run Tasman Downs Station since 1914, and the place has become famous most recently as the site for “Lake Town” in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

From the Jollie car park the trail goes out onto the Braemar-Mt Cook Station road and begins the long wind along Lake Pukaki which is New Zealand’s seventh largest and among the most spectacular with the water fed from the glacier. Today that water is a greenish blue, making a mockery of the muddy stuff coming down the tributary streams.

Some parts of the gravel road are hugely corrugated so the dual suspension on the bike and the advanced shocks (there is a lot of technology in MTBs!) is welcome but even that is not enough some times. Luckily the scenery is hugely distracting. On the other side of the lake the Ben Ohau range provides snow capped images being reflected in water pools and in secluded bays. Here and there some natural stopping points provide rare opportunities to just sit and admire the view, and to reflect on just what a magic place we have in this part of the world.

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I hit the end of the first stage of the A2O, at the intersection of the Hayman and Braemar roads. The latter is named after the huge Braemar Station, 63,000 acres of it and the road runs across to Lake Tekapo. It is isolated, but dangerous.  New Zealand media these days are full of stories about tourist driving problems and vigilante responses that amount to road rage.

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From that point there is another 18 ks to reach the Lake Pukaki power-generating station, another in the massive chain of hydro electric power plants that transformed this area from the 1950s onwards. The day is now even more magical, especially so for this time of the year on the eve of the ski season. Along the way there is beauty, history, and irony. On a large pond there are hundreds of ducks and geese. Besides the pond there is a sign: No Shooting. The duck shooting season here started on 7 May and is taken so seriously that many Central Otago rugby competitions suspend games for a week or two when the shooting starts. These ducks are smart.

As I ride into the power station and meet the tarseal road, Sandi and Laura arrive to pick me up. Brilliant timing, as always.

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It has been a truly memorable and fantastic day.

I can’t believe I have done it.

Now that was a birthday.

5 thoughts on “Biking Birthday

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