47.2 mi / 9.0 mph / 3376 ft. climbing
Home: Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park
New Zealand’s Southern Alps are a bit counterintuitive. We left sea-level Haast on the West Coast two rides ago and completed a major climb over the ~1950 ft. Haast Pass, after which we flowed downward to Makarora. The next ride to Wanaka was relatively flat, implying that we essentially made it “on top of” the mountains on our first day, and that our approach to Queenstown, still amongst mountains but clearly closer to their eastern edge, might be somewhat downhill.
Not even! While Makarora, Wanaka, and Queenstown all sit at approximately the same 1000 ft. elevation, today we would need to climb way higher then before, to 3530 ft. before descending to Queenstown! The road over the Crown Range is in fact the highest paved road in all of New Zealand. That’s nothing compared to the many 10,000+ ft. passes we rode over in the US Rocky Mountains six months ago, but the many steps to those heights were much more gradual than the paltry two steep steps the South Island provides for us.
The ride to Queenstown would largely follow a similar profile as the one from Haast: a gentle 1-2% rise along a river for 20-30 miles, and then a near-impossible 700-800 ft. upward push to the top. The big difference I was concerned about was that the shoulderless Cardrona Road connecting Wanaka and Queenstown would have much more traffic.
I also knew from previous riders that getting on the road early to beat traffic doesn’t really work on this road, but we were up early anyway (which, like our early dinner last night, at least gave us a relatively-empty kitchen in the holiday park in which to peacefully have breakfast). And it would hopefully give us some cooler riding time too.
Traffic was definitely present from the start, both helped and hurt by several one-way construction zones that bunched the cars into groups, but the low grade meant the stress-level was still small. Fifteen miles in we stopped at the Cardrona Hotel for 2nd-breakfast. It’s promoted online with the entirely-nonsensical claim that it’s “the most-photographed building in New Zealand” (the sign on-site goes with the much more modest yet equally-unverifiable “it is said to be the most-photographed pub in New Zealand”). The fact that I did take a whole load of photos did little to support the claim, since although the gold-mining-era facade drew one click out of my camera, most of the captures came from inside or on the gorgeous grounds. We’re definitely glad we stopped, and not just for the three pastries we ordered from the dark bar.
Before we left we stopped in the former-schoolhouse-turned-gift-shop, and had a nice chat there with the clerk about our travels. She had recently left her teaching career, and it seemed that hearing all the options on lifestyle-organization from visitors like us was both a tempting and treacherous side-effect of the job. Rett expressed disappointment that we weren’t spending the night here (it’s something we had considered before booking in Queenstown), and the clerk gave a reasonably-genuine offer to pick us up and take us back over the giant hill if we all happened to been in Queenstown together at some point.
Unlike the Haast hill, which angled up suddenly like a hinge, the Crown Range hill curved up gradually, but incessantly getting steeper. Also instead of rain, we had warm sun, so we were again pausing to catch our breath. After one such pause, on a pull-off on the “wrong” side of the road, an ill-timed restart brought the biggest mob of traffic we had seen so far, uncaringly squeezing by as we attempted to settle back into our position alongside the white line while going up the 12% hill. Rett despairingly brought her bike to a stop again as the car mirrors passed within inches of our handlebars. Kiwis are so friendly until they get behind the wheel of a car, and the most-absurdly-perfect microcosm of this was the woman giving us an excited and encouraging thumbs-up, as her husband navigated their car so close that, had her window been rolled down, we could have given her a high-five (but more-likely a punch in the face).
With the grade continuing at 11% for a long stretch, and poor visibility ahead and behind us, I eventually convinced Rett that simply pushing the bikes up until the hill slackened was the safer option than attempting to restart. Walking up we took up the same amount of space on the edge of the road (the only “shoulder” was loose fine gravel that was treacherously slippery on that slope), but we had much more stability, and weren’t moving much more slowly anyway. If not for the traffic, Rett definitely would have been able to ride the whole thing, and I had a hard time convincing her that walking a section wasn’t any sort of “failure”. Luckily reaching the summit (where we did reboard and ride the final stretch) brought tremendous views that erased any feelings of failure.
The ride down featured the intuitively-odd yet mathematically-expected near-disappearance of cars (like, I think three passed us the whole way down). We were moving at least five times faster than we were on the way up, and at or above the speed limit in several of the curvy sections, so any cars out there with us simply had a much more difficult time catching up. Halfway down, the Tour Aotearoa route cuts down a steep (14%) gravel track into Arrowtown, but that didn’t sound rideable for us, so we stayed on the road through the hairpins and it was surely much faster and easier.
Once we hit the bottom, I did take us on the Arrowtown River Trail, a much-flatter trail into Arrowtown. But despite paralleling the river, it had a lot of steep up-and-down sections, and Rett wasn’t in the mood to enjoy the environment (once we had passed the alpaca farm), so we probably should have just stayed on the road the whole way.
We locked our bikes at the riverside park on the edge of Arrowtown, and walked up the steps to find a super-cute, historic small town where we were quickly drawn into a stone-walled pub for a burger-and-beer lunch. Afterward we toured the town with ice cream, and for now the third time on our way into Queenstown, Rett lamented the fact that we couldn’t stop and stay here either.
We returned down to the river, checked on the bikes, but then continued upstream on foot. Many times when looking down on a gravel-banked South Island river over the last month, Rett has said “look, there is Arwen carrying Frodo across the river!” And I usually could nearly see the two of them, and the Nazgul on their black horses chasing closely behind. But here, just outside Arrowtown, was the actual filming location of that ‘Lord of the Rings’ scene! “If you want him, come and claim him!”
From Arrowtown we still had a headwindy stretch on ex-urban road to get us to Queenstown. Luckily Rett remembered the trick of wetting down her shirt to keep her cool in the increased afternoon heat back at this low elevation.
At Arthur’s Point (where we’d originally expected to camp, had the holiday park not been fully-booked), we dove down a steep gorge to a one-way bridge that luckily had rush-hour traffic flowing our way, though we still had to bail out on the steep climb on the other side. And then had to wait for the dozens of cars of the next cycle to flush out before we could start again. Soon after, we hit a one-way construction zone, with a similar problem. Usually we would wait for all the cars to go ahead of us when the light turns green, but the line of traffic was neverending, so we had to wait for a second cycle of the light. Ugh! This final push into Queenstown was becoming brutally difficult!
Even though we at least made it into the construction zone on our second try (taking the lane), it was also a steep uphill, so we soon pulled off the roadway again to let cars by. At that point we noticed that there was a (temporary?) sidewalk/path for bicycles pedestrians on the other side that a worker halfheartedly directed us toward, but even finding a break in the traffic to get over there was a challenge. Once over the hill the paved path turned to rough gravel, but after we saw another cyclist on the road, we crossed back over and raced down the hill which brought us close enough into town that a shoulder reappeared (of course with a “Works End” sign planted right in the middle as usual, where we had to come to another stop to wait for traffic to pass so we could go around it). And then more in-town construction, before the super-steep hill up to our holiday park. Queenstown sucks!
We went straight to the campground so that Rett could get a cooling shower. We had somewhat intentionally stayed “out” later so that we wouldn’t need to endure another shadeless campsite through the afternoon (and then the construction/traffic kept us out even longer than that), so it was ironic that not only did the nearby mountain block the sun on our site by 6pm (which I knew would be likely), we also were assigned to a site with one of the only trees in the whole campground, that would have provided good shade had we gotten there earlier. A late ride back out to the two not-great in-town grocery stores led to a post-8pm dinner, the latest we’ve ever eaten. We chose to just go with no-cook salads, which made it a lot more bearable since the kitchen space was completely packed (as was the campground, as was the whole of Queenstown!)