My wife and I host cycle tourists through Warmshowers.com. Very commonly, our guests are on their way south and will stay with us for a night or two before catching a ferry to the South Island. People sometimes head straight for Christchurch down State Highway 1 (which is kind of boring) but most are keen to head for Nelson and then down the West Coast.
There is excellent riding to be had in the Top o’ the South, but most people will just stick to State Highway 6. While this route is still pretty, it typically has a lot of traffic, especially between Picton and Nelson, and there are better routes available which are much more scenic and have very little traffic. Here’s what it looks like:
I’ve described a route which takes in some of the Top o’ the South’s most famous touring routes – the Queen Charlotte Track, the Great TasteTrail, Porika Track, the Braeburn and the Maruia Saddle. These are must-do routes! Some sealed road, some gravel. Don’t worry too much about getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. If the worst happens and you need to be rescued, there is still enough traffic going by to enable you to get help. Even the smallest unpaved backroads (eg the Maruia Saddle) still have milk tankers on them twice a day.
I’ll describe each section in turn.
Getting to Picton
From Wellington, you can get a ferry to Picton, or you can fly via Sounds air. There are two ferry operators, the Interisland Line and the Bluebridge, both doing the same route and both charging about the same price. I have a slight preference for the Bluebridge, as their terminal is closer to the Wellington city.
Picton to Nelson
Once in Picton, you can ride towards Nelson on the road (Queen Charlotte Drive) or you can mountain bike it on the Queen Charlotte Track. If you have a mountain bike, I’d recommend the track. You catch a water taxi to the start at Ship Cove. The water taxi can take all your gear and drop it off where you want to stay, eg at Camp Bay, Furneaux Lodge, or Portage. The track is 75 Km long and is mostly singletrack. It’s one of the best long mountain bike rides in the country.
Ship Cove is a lovely spot, but from there the first thing you have to do is climb a 400m high hill, then go straight back down again to Camp Bay. It’s hard work, and I’m kinda over it. Unless you’re very fit, I’d suggest getting the water taxi to drop you off at Camp Bay instead. You won’t be missing much.
You can camp at Camp Bay, or if you want some luxury, try Furneaux Lodge. It’s a day’s excellent riding to Portage, where you can stay at the hotel or the backpackers, or camp at Cowshed Bay, which is nice. From there, continue on the track to Anakiwa, which is close to Queen Charlotte Drive.
From there, ride to Pelorus Bridge and camp there. You can ride from Picton to Nelson on the road in one day, but it’s hard work (especially in hot weather) and there is a lot of traffic, and three ranges of hills to cross. I recommend stopping at Pelorus Bridge for the night, then riding over the Maungatapu Saddle into Nelson. This is also hard work, and it’s a gravel road, but there is practically no traffic and it’s just one big climb to the top and one long descent into the Maitai Valley, one of Nelson’s most beautiful riverside spots. There are many swimming holes along the river. It’s a perfect way to end a hard day’s riding.
Nelson has lots of attractions, plenty of bike shops, good cafes, pubs and breweries. It’s really busy in summer, and justifiably so. There are lots of urban bike trails in the area. And if you're a mountain biker you could spend weeks exploring the truly excellent tracks in the area. If you like hardcore overnight hell missions, with plenty of history and gnarly downhills, you'll love Nelson.
Nelson and Tasman
From Nelson, you could just head west, but I’d recommend you ride north up to Motueka on the Great Taste Trail. It follows the water and will take you to Rabbit Island, then across to Mapua via a little ferry which takes bikes. From there, head for the award winning Jester House Café. Say hello to the owners Steve & Judy and say Barry and Fiona told you to come:)
From Jester House it’s a short ride into the town of Motueka, gateway to Golden Bay. Golden Bay is gorgeous (and chock-a-block full of hippies;), but it’s a little off the beaten track and unless you’re equipped to do a 3 day self-supported alpine mountain bike ride over the Heaphy Track to the west coast, you’ll have to retrace your route and come back the way you went in. If you have time, Golden Bay is great, but there is more awesome riding ahead of you!
From Motueka, it’s an easy half day to ride up to Marahau (gateway to the famous Abel Tasman National Park) via Kaiteriteri on a very scenic, albeit busy, paved road. On the map I’ve marked the return route coming over the hill road, for variety.Rather than going south on the busy coastal roads, you can follow the Motueka Rivery Valley on the route marked to Tapawera. From there, you can head up Tadmor Valley along what was once a railway line to Kawatiri Junction.
Kawatiri to Springs Junction via Nelson Lakes National Park
You can ride on the road from Kawatiri to Springs Junction, and that’s cool, but you’d be missing out on some of the best touring riding the South Island has to offer. Take the Porika, the Braeburn and Mangles Valley to Murchison, where you can stay the night. From Murch, head south along either side of the Matakitaki River, then turn west onto beautiful Maruia Saddle Road. You’ll pop out at Burnbrae and from there it’s an easy ride to Springs Junction.
Reefton and beyond
From Springs, you’ll take a deserted highway through the forest to Reefton, an old coal mining town. From there, head for Blackball, another essential must-do in the region. Blackball is full of history and is has a very West Coast feel to it. A stay at “(Formerly) the Blackball Hilton” is a must! (I cannot emphasise this enough. It's awesomely cool.)
It’s an easy ride into Greymouth from Blackball. Greymouth itself is nothing special, but it has bike shops and supermarkets and a railway station, where you can get a train to Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass.
I haven’t been south of Greymouth on a bike, but there are many new routes being opened up to bikes, so a little judicious googling will help you find the coolest parts. The West Coast has a population of only 82,000 and there’s really only one road connecting Greymouth to Hokitika and Haast. You’ll ride with the Tasman Sea on your right and the Southern Alps on your left, past Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The spectacular Haast Pass will take you into Central Otago via Wanaka and Queenstown.
I will write more about that another day.