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New Zealand: South Island

A Bicycle Tour of the Lakes & West Coast

1993 / Summer

by Grace Newhaven

PO Box 3331 Rundle Mall SA 5000 Australia

Population |Topography | Weather |Bikes | Roads | Maps | Camping | Eating | Security References


This article describes a summer journey through the centre and west of the South Island. We cycled 1600 Km in four weeks, about half camping, half in YH and sometimes at back packer hostels. In-door accomodation was common enough that it might be possible to tour without a tent, but not advisable given the weather. NB : All prices quoted here are in NZ $, as at 1993. 

Population: there are about a milllion people in S Island, 300,000 of those in Christchurch [ usually abbreviated to "CHCH"]. The S Island is over 900 Km from end to end, so that density is low, and traffic sparse away from cities. As a city CHCH was very pleasant. Towns in the interior were less memorable, though Greymouth was an interesting industrial town.

 Topography: While the mountains shown on the maps might look like hard work on a bike, in practice, roads follow river valleys, gently undulating most of the time. Most days, you will need to cross a pass once or twice, but the effort is well worthwhile. "A lot of mountains to see, not many hills to climb". There are spectacular mountains, snow on the peaks every day. Stunningly beautiful lakes and rivers. The effects of so much rain are quite varied, from creeks blasted by land slips and boulders, to unbelievable masses of driftwood on the beaches. The glaciers, thousands of years old, almost alive, are an awesome sight, at least for this Australian.  

It's good to remember that almost all this scenery is completely free of charge, and especially delightful from the seat of a bike!

Weather: In November, it rained most days. Freak maximum temperature about 30, minimum about 3 or 4. We needed thermal clothes, leggings, Gore-Tex jackets most days. Cool evenings, cold nights. Three season sleeping bag essential. 

Bikes: there were a great number of touring cyclists about, especially on the West coast road, where we saw up to 20 a day. These were mostly foreigners, Bavarians and Swiss usually. We neither met nor heard of Australians on bikes. Local bike shops were better stocked than they would have been in SA, and there seemed to be both more and better bikes in general circulation than here - it was common to see LX equipped bikes casually parked in small towns. Cycle racing was sufficiently popular to be sponsored by ... ROTHMAN'S cigarettes, of all people!  

On the other hand, dedicated and thoughtful facilities for cyclists, local or foreign, were very few, and very few of the people we came into contact with had much interest or sympathy with us as cyclists, however friendly they were to us as visitors. The best receptions we had were patronising.  

Road conditions: were generally good, with reliable surfaces and usually with an adequate shoulder. Mountain roads were not guard railed in the way we would expect, so there were occasionally sheer drops away down hundreds of meters. The main routes were almost all sealed, though in some places this is only recent. Drivers were much better behaved than we are used to, apparently more considerate. 

Roads were often badly littered with bottles. We salvaged some very handy reusable fruit juice bottles, 300-ml, square, with a screw top - great for the cyclist's kitchen. Look for them near CHCH ! 

Maps: free to members from the Automobile Association ("AA"). These were adequate 90 % of the time, but we preferred NZ Government road maps, showing services available at each town - we were caught out a few times with no shops to buy food at the end of a day, misled by the AA map. Good maps widely available, at about $20.00 for the S Island, 1 cm = 2.5 Km. 

Camping: plenty of opportunities. Agricultural country south of CHCH, then the "hydro" lakes, and National Parks. Most towns had a "motor camp" - a caravan park to us - always with an electric kitchen, at usually $15.00 for a two person tent, shower free, coin operated laundry and clothes dryers. There were also "cabins" for about $30.00 dbl. However, we found motor camps dreary, sometimes with less than friendly managers. Youth Hostel was around $15.00 single, "backpackers" the same. We didn't see any reasonably cheap hotels. Best value were the Dept of Conservation (DoC) maintained campsites - nothing more than running water, "long drop" toilets and wonderful settings, at about $2 - 3 pp. Plenty of places for adventurous, discreet "free" camping. No snakes or dangerous insects, but tiny sandflies are very troublesome in parts. "Dimp" brand repellent recommended. 

We were told that some people have a bad impression of cyclists as free loaders, coming in for "free" showers at YH and campgrounds. This phenomenon might explain the less than enthusiastic receptions we sometimes received. Asking once for water at a farmhouse, the tetchy inhabitant asked why I didn't drink from the creek along with her sheep!  

Eating: food prices were reasonable at CHCH supermarkets, but high elsewhere. In lake towns, outrageous tourist trap prices. Milk powder was surprisingly expensive everywhere, at $9.00/Kg minimum. Apples and potatoes at $5.00/Kg, for poor quality; fruit juice at $3.00 lt. Most food of interest to cyclists was more expensive than in Adelaide. But also more common, as there are hikers and campers continually passing through. Many supermarkets had serve-yourself bulk foods - muesli, dried fruit etc so it was possible to buy in small quantities. Bread was very ordinary, meat often difficult and expensive. Bargain food was ice cream.  

Interesting regional beers, (as well as dull "national" brand lagers), were widely available at $3.00/ 750 Mil returnable bottle, or cheaper in bulk (minimum 2 lt). Liquor stores sell all sorts of bulk alcohol, very cheaply - most will fill a small bottle. We never saw cheap pub food, so counter meals are out. Wines were outrageously expensive compared to South Australia. And no take away liquor on Sundays !  

We travelled 800 Km without a large supermarket. But we managed to stock up on a few dehydrated foods in CHCH. With hindsight I would recommend a food drop by the daily courier to Haast, as a cheaper and much better alternative to the poor range of the local shops.  

There are no banks between Wanaka and Hokitikka, about 700 Kms. 


Security: plenty of bike thieves in CHCH. Be careful in larger towns.

Revised 2000 / November

References :

*          NZ tour late 2004 - John and Marie Elsner


Cycling Advocates Network NZ -

<secretary [AT]>


Auckland Cycle Touring Association -

"Cycle touring in the South Island.." Canterbury Cyclists' Assoc. PO Box 2547 Christchurch NZ

Nigel Rushton's "Pedallers' Paradise" guide book

Bob Adair's trip 99       

New Zealand   1            

New Zealand   2            

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