Queenstown, NZ to Mavora, NZ

39.2 mi / 8.0 mph / 2307 ft. climbing
Home: Mavora Lakes DOC Campsite

While Glenorchy is definitely an end-of-the-road town, Queenstown is a bit of a dead-end too. Due to long Lake Wakatipu (and all the mountain ranges everywhere), the only road access is from the east (where we came in from) or the south. But there is another way out! The Tour Aotearoa country-long bike route (and the smaller “Around the Mountains” Great Ride) both direct you to the nearly-inaccessible west side of the lake, via a boat ride!

When we called to book the trip a few days ago (they don’t let one-way cyclists book online, because they want to make sure you know what the hell you’re getting yourself into), we had the option of taking a utilitarian boat early in the morning that delivers workers to the farm/restaurant on the other side (US$49), or the historic TSS Earnslaw at 9am (US$71). When Rett found out that the Earnslaw was built in the same year as the Titanic (uh, sank), there was no question. We were steaming across on the Earnslaw.

Due to the lack of even a kettle at our “budget” accommodation, it was back to McDonald’s for breakfast (hey, we wouldn’t be in another McDonald’s town for some time!), and then retracing our steps along the bike trail to the center-of-town waterfront. While waiting to board, we chatted with a fellow ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan who had just been to Edoras (and brought a flag of Rohan with her!) Well, we were making each other equally-jealous, because while they would take the boat across with us, they would simply turn around and go back, while we would ride down 30 miles of gravel to no less than 4 LotR filming locations!

Approaching our boat docked at Queentown.
The TSS Earnslaw, laid down in Dunedin in 1912, and then shipped in pieces to this inland lake.

When reading about the TSS Earnslaw, I saw the words “historic”, “restored” and “steamship”, but somehow I never quite put together what that meant. While not nearly the scale of Titanic, it echoed the same grand era, with its grand piano, brass light fixtures, and most of all, coal-fired steam engines!

Rose DeWitt Bukater (Bike Tourer’s Version) aboard the TSS Earnslaw steaming out of Queenstown.
An aquatic-themed brass lamp in the salon.

My conscious mind hadn’t really considered at all what this boat would be, but my subconscious wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pile of coal in a corner, roped off with a sign explaining how that’s what once powered this ship. Thus both my subconscious and conscious mind were amazed and thrilled to duck into the engine room and see a worker literally shoveling coal into the two red-hot furnaces. And not as some sort of historic re-enactment, but because if he didn’t keep shoveling that coal, the boat wouldn’t go anywhere! Meanwhile, another worker was methodically shooting oil on all the moving parts of the spinning engines (that looked just like the Titanic’s), again, without any indication that he was “performing” for us, but instead was simply doing a job just as important as a bus driver driving a bus.

Every couple of minutes this worker would shovel more coal into the two furnaces, and otherwise swept up the coal dust from the floor.
Rett looking down onto the engines from the viewing platform. The workers are standing directly below us doing their jobs.
The workers’ coveralls hung drying in the hot engine room.

We had initially found seats inside on the main deck by the piano, but once I discovered the engine room, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. The heated air, the smell of coal mixed with slightly-burnt oil, and the sound of the churning engines made me hope that our low-vision WarmShowers hosts in Blenheim have enjoyed this multi-sensory experience. And juxtaposed with the finely-appointed passenger cabins just steps away, it absolutely reflected the upstairs/downstairs environments personified by Rose and Jack in the movie version of ‘Titanic’.

I think she bought that hat knowing she would eventually be on this boat.
I’ve seen a million pieces of “historic” (old) equipment and machinery, in museums, military parks, at monuments, etc., and the normal thing is for any once-moving parts to be encased in a sarcophagus of paint, eternally frozen in place. Here, the sheen of fresh oil coated the moving parts of this mast/winch thing, showing that (just like the engines), it’s actually used for a practical purpose! Not something that should be mind-blowing, but it was!
View out the bathroom window on the TSS Earnslaw.
#FindOurBikes amongst the 10 loaded into the ship’s “museum”. It’s nice that on this specialized tourist boat, bikes aren’t treated as 2nd-class-citizens; no sighs or eye-rolls at being “forced” to deal with them.

95% of the passengers got in line for a tour of some sort at Walter Peak farm before heading back to Queenstown, but there were about ten of us who strapped on our helmets and started riding up the gravel road to nowhere. Most were lighter-weight “bikepackers”, and one guy asked “Mossburn?” as we rode by, causing me to literally LOL; while it was the “standard” TA destination, that was about twice as far as we were going to make it today. With an older French couple that we leapfrogged with, we were soon bringing up the rear, and didn’t care. The first stage ran along the western shore of Lake Wakatipu, and for a final (and unexpected) time brought into view the mountains backing our beloved Glenorchy, but even more-epic from a new and distant angle.

Riding on the southwest shore of Lake Wakatipu, looking north to Glenorchy. On the dark green foreground mountain to the right, you can see the road to Glenorchy climbing one of its many hills through the trees.
Yeah, those mountains are still fucking amazing.
Just a random hunk of land on this side of the lake to remind us that even the lower-elevation landscape is stunning.
Oh hey, a white horse living in one of the most beautiful places on earth!
Rett found a very friendly horse with a ridiculous backdrop to say hello to.
We only saw a couple of horses out here, but they came close to outnumbering the humans!
The cows definitely outnumbered the humans (though there weren’t too many of those either)!

After the road left the water and turned south up a deep valley, the wind picked up into our faces as expected, but the near-complete lack of traffic made it a fair trade. In 30 miles, we encountered two farm trucks right at the beginning, two giant big rigs (twice, as they returned from Walter Peak), one small truck delivering food to Walter Peak, and three tourists in cars. It’s possibly the least-traveled road we’ve ever been on, even more-isolated than the Molesworth Trail, to which this valley had a lot of scenic similarity.

The road finds a twisting gap through the mountains to take us up the valley.

17 miles in, after miles of gradual upslope, we hit Von Hill, 700 feet with sections up to 13%. That necessitated a bit of walking, and a load of hard work, but it was an investment that would pay off tomorrow (and as usual, climbing steep hills tends to make headwinds irrelevant).

Climbing Von Hill.
Rett working hard up an 11% grade, with the river below showing how far up we’ve come.
Still more work to do to get to the top of Von Hill.
If only it was easier to look at the mountains as we grinded up the hill (don’t worry, there were plenty of flatter places where we could get our visual fill).
Once at the top, the road took a winding path through the huge desolate valley that opened up.
A view of Rett the badass, plus the decent-quality gravel surface that we were riding on. We never even needed to lower the pressure in our tires.

We had to cross two major fords (one that the giant trucks rumbled and tsunami-ed through just after we had crossed), much deeper and higher-flow than anything we had done north of Glenorchy a few days ago. We definitely had to soak our feet walking the bikes through them, and the water was high enough that on the first one I had to hold the front wheels up as I pushed the bikes, to keep our front panniers from getting dunked, and on the second, we had to remove them completely and carry them separately across. Despite those rugged challenges, the fact that this is a segment of a New Zealand “Great Ride” helped by including three water barrels along the way, that each collect rainwater from a purpose-built roof. We might have survived without them, but were glad we didn’t have to try, with the wind both slowing us down and drying us out.

The second (and deeper) stream we needed to ford. Rett is difficult to see on the far side, since the stream spread up the road a long way.
#FindRett (and little else) in the tussock valley.
The Mavora roadside stop was the only one with the trifecta: shelter, water supply (filled from the roof of the shelter), and vault (“long drop”) toilet.

We took the turn-off north to Mavora Lakes, a lake-chain lined with DOC campsites. The first one held a couple of our cycling brethren, but the second (still on the shore of the south lake, with a toilet and picnic table) was empty, so we decided to just set up there rather than continuing further. The Lord of the Rings sites were further on, but Rett was so worn about by the wind and hill that we decided to save that for tomorrow morning, and instead just cooked up our dried Carbonara dinner. The campsite reviews make it clear that sandflies are an issue here, and while there were plenty around, they didn’t seem to be particularly aggressive, and since it was cool enough for us to be covered, we ended up enjoying our evening in more peace than I expected. And how could we not, in such a wild, remote, and wondrous place?

Our tree-covered, lake-side, all-alone place to sleep for the night.


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