High Road to Nevis Valley
By Rick Woodward
Ross Mackay and I intended leaving Wanaka on Friday for three days and nights of self-supported bikepacking — mainly offroad over the Crown Range to Queenstown, then across Lake Wakatipu, around the Mavora Lakes, then up and across the Nevis Pass — travelling some 400km over three alpine passes. Our previous bikepacking adventure was pretty tame compared to this one.
Leaving home we had 30km to ride up the Cardrona Valley, then a two-hour hill climb to our first 1,000 metre summit, before dropping down to Meg Hut for the night. All up I was pedalling 44 pounds of bike and gear.
The wind blasted our faces and then our butts as we gradually zigzagged up the hill. Meg Hut is to the east of the Cardrona Valley which is one of two roads joining Wanaka to Queenstown. It gets dark at about 10pm, so there was plenty of time to settle in, collect some firewood and get tea sorted. A warm fire, a belly full of food and Scotch Ale had me snoring like a train and Ross wondering what he had got himself into.
On departure day we changed from bivvy bags and tarps to a full alpine tent due to the weather forecast, which was looking less than promising for our next night out in the open at Mavora Lakes, Queenstown.
Waking to heavy rain wasn’t a problem, just an inconvenience and a delay in leaving. Faffing around to kill some time until the weather cleared up, we had a coffee. Then we filled the CamelBaks, rode 100 metres, and pushed our way back up the hill.
The next leg is notorious for punctures, with spiky plants called spaniards. I think the wet track made them softer and we had no unexpected stops. Traction was surprisingly good with our semi-slick tires and loaded bikes.
Stunning scenery, steep drops, wet rocks and unfriendly bike shoes kept it real.
Rossco is like a mountain goat; I’m more like a lamb, but the wet track was a thin slither that we both were both at home on. Several times I did wonder what we were doing, but we had a ferry to catch across Lake Wakatipu, the clock was ticking and we were 2–3 hours behind schedule.
Busting out of the walking track into the Kawarau Gorge, it felt like we were making progress towards Queenstown. With no time for snapshots, some of this trip felt like time travel.
The tailwind felt good, but in turning the corner it was a headwind and a much slower pace. I rang ahead to move our booking on the boat forward, but no dice: 4pm or nothing.
With 12km to go and only 30 minutes to shop and get on board it wasn’t going to happen. Food, coffee and a rethink were in order. Things were not going to plan. The idea of a cruisy ride hadn’t materialized at all. We’d been lapping it out like road racers. Ross rang his partner, Miek, to update her. Blow me down, she was in Queenstown with an empty car. Things were looking up.
Struggling with the psychological trauma of shortening our journey by a day or so, we begrudgingly loaded our bikes into the car. That’s how I should have felt, but actually I was over the moon.
It was raining heavily in Garston. Ross said, ‘Drive us up the hill to the old ski hut on the old Nevis Road.’ I couldn’t believe my luck! At 800 metres elevation the storm was actually inside the hut, coming straight through the open back door.
We farewelled Miek and lit the fire. Smoke poured back down a blocked chimney.
I climbed on the roof in my bare feet to inspect the problem. The chimney remained blocked. My feet were frozen.
The sun stayed up as long as it possibly could. The wind found its way into every little crack, of which there was many, meaning it was only marginally better inside than outside. In summary, I didn’t sleep much at all and the only clothing I didn’t wear in my sleeping bag were my shoes and helmet.
Note to self: take a puffer jacket when staying at snow level.
The next day couldn’t have arrived soon enough. We were out the door by 8am: fed, packed and gone. The nearby hills were freshly dusted in snow, as happens around here at completely random times of the year.
A small climb, a big descent into the valley then something like 30 stream crossings. My butt was killing me. The inner shorts and baggie combo weren’t my friend. I put on another pair of inner shorts. Only 90km to go.
Old mining settlements are dotted here and there — it is truly stunning scenery. Climbing Duffers Saddle took over an hour topping out at 1,300 metres. We hit Cromwell for lunch even though it was 3pm.
The photos had run out by this stage, just like my sense of humour. Actually if my shorts hadn’t been rubbing me up the wrong way it wouldn’t have been a problem. Luggate was 40km north by road then 15km offroad to return home.
Our families were expecting us the next day, so were quite surprised when we rolled up early; normally when things don’t go to plan I’d be a day late.