Makarora, NZ to Wanaka, NZ

39.6 mi / 10.6 mph / 2362 ft. climbing
Home: Wanaka Holiday Park

On the West Coast it was tough to find two good-weather days back-to-back for riding in. But now that we’ve crossed at least a bit of the of rain-producing mountain range, we have four clear days to make some miles in. In the now-clear skies around Makarora, it was a bit of a surprise to see that we were still wholly-surrounded by mountains, even though Haast Pass was 10 miles behind us. Well, tomorrow we will be going over the highest paved road in New Zealand, so I guess it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, but at least it was a quite-pleasant one. Heading down the north-south valley, the morning sun was lighting up the big mountains to our right, while those close to our left kept us in the shade (and quite cool at 46F!) for hours after official sunrise.

Morning mountains of Makarora.
The flat-bottomed valley was about a mile wide, with sheep and cattle in the flat spots. The closer left-side mountains rising up from the flat were fascinating with their ripples and trees and waterfalls.
Many miles in, the sun was still not reaching us.
Suddenly there is a break in the western wall of mountains, where the Wilkin River cuts through them. And is that a cloud, or..?
No, it’s the snow-capped top of Mount Aeolus!

There were barely any cars passing us from behind early in the morning, but at least 10 times their number were coming at us. Still not enough to be any sort of problem, but curious. Very few were the campervans/RVs that made up at least 50% of the traffic on the West Coast, suggesting they were more local “commuters”, but most also had at least two people in them. Maybe just day-tripping tourist traffic coming from the towns we were approaching with populations as large as the entire West Coast? Maybe a hint of the return to “civilization” that was waiting for us?

Six miles in, the Makarora River widened to fill the entire space between the mountains, forming bright blue Lake Wanaka, the fourth largest lake in New Zealand. We traced its northeast edge for another nine miles, amazed (but not surprised) that New Zealand could outdo the first six miles of our ride.

The first rays of sun to find a way to Rett’s skin light her up as she rides along Lake Wanaka.
Above Lake Wanaka, the mountains get even more serious.

The road didn’t like the idea of just one big beautiful lake getting all of our attention, so it then turned eastward to cross us to Lake Hawea, another large north-south lake in the next valley over. With the high mountains fencing in Wanaka, everything I know about geography implied a major pass to cut over to Hawea. But somehow, we were riding along a new blue shore in no time with almost no effort. I guess the road along Wanaka had taken us up 300 feet before it even turned away, so then we just had another 100 feet to climb between the lakes, but it was still wild that “The Neck” (the name for the “pass” that separates them) is less than a mile wide. And Hawea’s surface is 230 feet higher than Wanaka’s, so they’re definitely separate bodies of water, with no river connecting them.

Rett crossing “The Neck”, a narrow passage between the mountains that separates Lake Wanaka from Lake Hawea.
We’re glad that we didn’t have to ride way up there to switch lakes.
And there she is, Lake Hawea!
The northern shore of this east-west arm of Lake Hawea was an enthralling verdant wonderland. Something about those low-slope remote pastures backed by near-vertical walls is magical to me.
On (our) south side, some sheep (goats?) high on the mountainside.
Rett surveying the distant mountains on the eastern shore of Lake Hawea.
Foreground: Rett; mid-ground (right): a mountain bordering Lake Hawea; background (left): a mountain on the opposite shore of Lake Wanaka!
Now along the main body of Lake Hawea, the road never got too close, always leaving space for grazing sheep to enjoy the views (again, more views of those gently-sloped inaccessible shores).
Stopping for a snack break along Lake Hawea.
It’s because I took the photo that I know this is Rett riding steeply uphill to the sky, and not steeply downhill to the lake.

Thirty miles into our day (after 15 miles along Lake Hawea) we came to our first bit of civilization since the Makarora area. The town of Lake Hawea sits in off the highway, but we just stopped at a food truck/gas station on SH6. While I ordered a couple of sandwiches for us, Rett went into the gas station to get drinks. She came out with a surprise “treat” of Cheetos to split, while I came away with a surprise “treat” of a hot buttered cheese scone to split. Whoops! Except…too many treats on a full riding day like this isn’t a problem, so good for us!

A colorful bay at the south end of Lake Hawea.

Traffic had increased slightly from the morning (and all the cars parked at trailheads/viewpoints implied much of it was Wanaka/Queenstown day-trippers), but the road was likely to get quite a bit busier once we had to traverse the segment connecting the towns of Hawea and Wanaka. There was a trail connecting them that the Tour Aoteroa route uses, but it sounds like the quality is really rough at the south end, so we just stuck with the highway and it was busier, but not too bad. Getting into a town with roundabouts, road construction, and enough people to support a major chain supermarket (the first of all of those since Greymouth, weeks ago) was the bigger stress.

Then the campsite assigned to us at the holiday park was a much worse end to a good day. An open rectangle of dry grass and not a hint of shade meant that we would need to find somewhere else to wait out the hot afternoon sun. While Rett was taking a shower, I walked around and noticed a tent-only area, with a few backpacker tents placed in shaded spots in the free-for-all zone, as well as the tent and bikes of the French bike touring couple we had met in both Haast and Makarora! After verifying that a tall hedge would eventually provide shade (I literally had to download a sun-tracking app, partly because the Wanaka street grid is laid out at an angle to the cardinal directions, and partly because I was too tired to do the geometry in my head), I got approval to move over to that much-more-comfortable spot.

Despite her initial disgust with the campground, Rett had found a couple good breweries in town, heard about a good hike, and just found the town to be really cute, so she wanted to stick around for another day or two. But we had already booked in Queenstown. We hemmed-and-hawed about a post-dinner ride to the breweries, but decided that tomorrow’s big ride would make that a poor choice, so we “settled” for a walk to the lakefront instead. The final stretch of our ride had crossed us back over to Lake Wanaka, now at the south end, and all the people sitting along the beach and getting in the water made Rett wish that we had gone for a swim earlier as I’d suggested for a cooling-down idea. We walked along the shore to find perhaps New Zealand’s most-Instagrammed tree, growing out of the lake. And while I found it to be a genuinely-photogenic and beautiful tree, there was no shortage of monumental trees growing in the parkland along the shore. So no beer, but not too bad!

#ThatWanakaTree, in my opinion a valid competitor for “The Lone Cypress” in Monterey, California.
I read an article where locals kind of laugh at the mobs of dumb tourists who come to take a picture of this tree just because they’re supposed to take pictures of this tree. But, I think they’re the dumb ones for not recognizing that the tree is genuinely worthy of being photographed!
One of a giant sequoia(?) pair we nestled inside of.
Lakefront life in Wanaka.
A co-ed game of rugby in the big park that separated the holiday park from the lakefront.

When we got back, a guy from another bike touring couple came over to warn us that someone had camped in our spot last night, and the sprinkler on the other side of the fence had come on early in the morning and gotten his stuff wet. Thank you! We moved Rett’s bike over, but I really didn’t feel like moving the tent. A couple hours later, as I considered it again, looking through a crack in the fence to see if I could learn anything about this sprinkler, it turned on! Perfect! It showed that, yes, it would be a good idea to move the tent a few feet over.

Sun setting on the snow-capped mountains at the north end of Lake Wanaka.
The various tents strategically placed for shade in the tent-only area of the the Wanaka Holiday Park.


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