Dunedin, NZ to Hillgrove, NZ

44.0 mi / 9.3 mph / 3733 ft. climbing
Home: Trotter’s Gorge DOC Campsite

It’s a little over 70 miles from Dunedin to Oamaru, the next city up the coast. That would break nicely into two 35-mile days, if only there were a place to stay at exactly 35 miles. But with the chance to take advantage of yet another tailwind (ever since we left Te Anau, the winds have basically been pushing us the whole way in our big loop around the southern coast), and with somewhat-rested bodies, we decided to do a plus-day today, and then a shorter one tomorrow.

Dunedin had some pretty nice bike lanes taking us out of town, though in one stretch the protected lane was strewn with a lot of large glass shards from broken bottles. It wasn’t due to poor cleaning/maintenance, it was clear that they were freshly smashed from people’s curbside rubbish bins awaiting pickup; whether it was human or animal caused, I don’t know, but luckily we made it through without losing inflation.

Our route out of Dunedin took us past Baldwin Street again. Luckily the hill we had to go up was only about 1/4th as steep, but just the sight of it can strike terror in passing cyclists!

On the day we rode into Dunedin from the south we had a 1000-foot hill to go up and down, and on the way out the north we would have an even bigger one! This one was more than 1200 feet, but had a very similar symmetrical profile, grinding to the top only to immediately drop all the way back down to sea level. The other day Ron had told us about a still-operational 19th-century disappearing gun installed at the mouth of Otago Harbor, and it seems to me that with that one gun, and about 1000 men, Dunedin could defend itself from any invading ground attack, as the encircling hills that make it so difficult to get a bicycle in and out would equally keep invaders out of the natural fortress.

Looking back down to Dunedin from most of the way up the North Road hill.

Luckily this hill turned out to be more-easily-managed than the one between Waihola and the coast. It reached a 10% grade at the beginning, but then rarely got above 8%, so the only place we needed to walk was right at that beginning where it was really the road construction that got us off our bikes anyway. Like the Waihola hill, we were helped by the minimal traffic (SH1, a bit to the west, takes the load off our North Road, which perhaps is the “old highway”?), but the downhill wasn’t nearly as good, requiring a lot more braking despite the Waihola hill being steeper overall.

North Road took us up the ridge on the west side of Otago Harbor, and we could look over to the east side to Larnach Castle that Ron had driven us to a couple days ago (the whitish building in the dark trees near the top of the hill is the castle’s stable accommodation, and if you zoom in you can see a greenhouse and an obscured bit of the castle itself, though we couldn’t identify any of that stuff on-scene).
Looking north to the incredibly-narrow (quarter-mile wide) mouth of super-long (13 mile) Otago Harbor.
Rett’s bike visits a hippo in Waitati, a small settlement at the base of the hill opposite Dunedin. It also featured a Dr. Who-themed public toilet (“Dr. Poo”, with a Little Library inside in addition to a load of Dr. Who art!)

At the base of the hill, the artistic aesthetic of Waitati clashed with its location at the junction with Highway 1, which we would be forced to ride today in two sections totaling 13 miles. Overall it turned out to be OK, with a 4-foot shoulder most of the way, sometimes even widening to 8 feet, though it narrowed down to an uncomfortable 2 to 3 feet near the end of the second section near Palmerston. As usual there were a few asshole truckers who moved over no more than the absolute minimum required to avoid splattering us, but even the non-assholes brought a tremendous buffeting wind with them. Despite those scary moments, the traffic on this main road connecting the two biggest cities of the South Island (Christchurch and Dunedin) was surprisingly-light, never a constant stream, so rare were the moments when two vehicles plus us were required to share the road width.

In between those two SH1 segments we were able to shoot off along a coast-hugging road, though when Rett saw the sign indicating the town of “Seacliff” ahead, her thought was that it sounded like a charming place to see, while mine was that “cliff” means not just “hill”, but “really steep hill”. Were the many short-but-gut-busting climbs a reasonable tradeoff for a quiet road with great views? Probably!

#FindRett climbing an 11% grade to Seacliff, where the road crossed the “parallel” railroad tracks half-a-dozen times, unfortunately never matching the slow-and-steady grade of the railway.
A view of the sea from a cliff near Seacliff. Yeah, worth it!
Yellow, blue, and a boat.
Nice views at the viewpoint.
A 500-foot drop back to sea-level and the town of Karitane.

Palmerston is the reason that the Palmerston on the North Island is named “Palmerston North”, though it seems like once the “new” city grows to 10x the population of the old city (and Palmerston North now has 100 times the population of Palmerston), the awkward appendage should be transferred to the far-smaller city. Several of the 890 citizens of Palmerston were at least running a cafe/bakery/ice cream shop, and we sat on a comfortable couch eating our two-scoop cones that we needed to fuel us over the final hill.

We left SH1 for nearly-empty Horse Range Road, and a mile or so in, a car coming the other way waves us down. The driver tells me, almost sorry to have stopped us, that the road was closed ahead over the pass and that’s why they’ve turned around. Um, no dude, thank you so much for stopping, that was incredibly thoughtful and helpful! There was no sign at the turnoff, and his wife thinks we might be able to make it through on our bikes, and even more valuably, says that there are some guys ahead working in their yard who might have some intel.

It’s a huge risk, since it would suck complete ass to have to turn around and find another route this far into our day, especially after adding the day’s steepest hill to our already-challenging ride. But we press on, with me sprinting ahead to minimize the doubling-back Rett would have to do if that is in fact our fate.

And that’s how I came to be shouting over the backs of 100 sheep to a couple of guys on the other side of their paddock. They also didn’t really describe the nature of the closure, but were 100% confident that we could make it through, so we continued onward and upward. Their 100% translated into only 90% confidence for me, so when Rett needed to take a break on the 11% grade, I continued on, trying to get to the actual closure as fast as I could so that I could stop Rett from continuing this way as early as possible. But speeding up the 11% hill even forced me to take a break, and the section that I walked up increased to an incredible 17%! (that’s half of Baldwin Street!)

Normally on a hill that steep (well, there is no “normally”, because I don’t think I’ve ever been on a 17% hill outside of a city), I would stop at the nearest less-steep spot and go back on foot to give Rett whatever help she needed. But in this case I just kept pressing on, scouting ahead until I made it to the top without encountering any blockages.

At that point I parked my bike, grabbed a 6mm hex wrench (so that I could raise Rett’s seat for the significant amount of riding I would likely do to let Rett walk up the rest of the hill unencumbered once I found her), and started jogging down the mile or so that I figured had opened between us.

So when I saw her after only running 150 yards or so, not stopped, not walking, but riding her bike this close to the top of the still-10% hill, the feeling of surprise-joy-pride-love that struck me was 80% of the feeling that had me happy-crying when I saw her for the first time on our wedding day. What an awesome badass my wife is! Not only was it too short of a distance remaining for me to bother raising her seat, it was too short for me to even get her off her bike, and I just ran back alongside as she rode herself to the top. And she was like “ugh, I had to stop and push halfway up that super-steep section”. Girl, I didn’t ride any of that super-steep section!

My beautiful strong wife completing the climb up the massive hill all on her own power, as I ran down to meet her.
Rolling straight over the top of the hill…
…and back down (partly) to the other side.
Suddenly some cliffs that look more “North Island” than anything we’ve seen in the South, as we approach Trotter’s Gorge.

It turns out that the closure wasn’t really anything at all. Just before the turnoff to the campground, there was a line of (moveable) pylons across the road, with the “Road Closed” sign facing oncoming traffic. There was logging and maybe some sort of construction activity happening in the hills alongside our part of the road (we saw several vehicles coming down as we went up, but none were like “where the hell do you think you’re going?”), so I guess they just are trying to keep drivers from using it as a “short cut” while big vehicles are active?

Looking back at the weird road closure, where there is no signage/barrier on the side of the closure where we started from; this is the first/only barrier.

In the end the 3733 feet of climbing was the 4th-highest total of our nomadacy (and definitely the one of the four that you would least-expect to be a huge climbing day), so Rett’s idea to buy dehydrated backpacker meals in Dunedin for easy-dinner tonight was definitely a good one, especially since the three picnic tables at the DOC site had already been “claimed” by the time we arrived. The stream behind the site was running low (the two stream fords to get to the campsite had been dry), but it was good enough for sponge bath showers, and was also the only water source (but hey, the vault toilets had hand sanitizer!)

Our spot at Trotter’s Gorge DOC campsite. Like most DOCs, there are no assigned “sites”, it’s just “set up wherever looks good” There were two other parties on the other side of the road.


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