Omarama, NZ to Lake Ohau, NZ

27.3 mi / 7.1 mph / 1737 ft. climbing
Home: Lake Ohau Lodge

There was a group of three Japanese college students camped near us, who were “bike touring”, with barely proper equipment, yet doing huge distances nonetheless. They had come from Wanaka yesterday (68 miles over a giant hill), and it was surprising to realize that we were again close enough to Wanaka to be a day’s bike ride away (we had been through Wanaka a month ago!) I had overheard all this last night at dinner when one of their party was having a cheerful chat (in English) with a Chinese family. This morning, he was just as excited to talk with me, while his two sullen companions didn’t utter a single word to anyone (really the more understandable attitude given the cycling they’re doing).

The most interesting thing he asked was if we had any difficulty understanding New Zealand English accents. Of course no (except for the occasional word here and there from a real “country” person), but for him it was far more difficult than American or UK accents. Which of course makes perfect sense (the cultural dominance of the US and UK means that most English he’s heard comes with one of those accents), but it’s a challenge I hadn’t considered before. And also a reminder of how much “easier” New Zealand is for us vs. other countries due to the common language. Before he departed, he gave us a packet of Japanese matcha tea (like he did to the Chinese family last night). I’m not sure what was more impressive, that he has the energy and interest to engage with fellow travelers, or that he has space in his limited luggage to carry gifts for the people he meets! I felt like I should have given something in return, but also felt that helping a bike tourer reduce what he’s carrying is a gift in itself.

Today’s ride on the Alps2Ocean Great Ride was a return to the style of our first day: the route truly leaves the highway to take you to places you can’t see in a vehicle, rather than just putting you on a path parallel to the road, but inferior to it. In fact, it was so out of the way that with Rett’s aching hip, I had proposed skipping Lake Ohau (we would still see two of the three big blue-saturated lakes that the A2O takes you by) and just going directly to the town Twizel. But the clerk at the Hungry Hyrdo yesterday had convinced Rett that Lake Ohau was worth seeing, more than the bit of trail she helped convince us to skip yesterday.

We did start the day with three miles on the highway (including this decent hill); we could have been on the paralleling trail, but the road was again fine, even though we were now on the busier direct-route between Christchurch and Queenstown.
Next was a four-mile stretch of paved country road, where we caught the morning clouds still sleeping in the mountain valleys.

When the road turned to gravel, it was…not good. For the most part it wasn’t too rocky or washboarded, but it was filled with deep, loose, tire-sucking stone. I didn’t have too much trouble “floating” over it (especially since the gradual uphill kept our speed low), but Rett’s confidence was at an ebb, so she had to do a lot of stopping and penguin-walking across the road to find a more-solid line. Given that both the A2O trail guide, and the Sounds2Sounds guide (a brevet that incorporates the A2O) both warn that riders have crashed along this section, Rett’s conservative approach was definitely the right one.

#FindRett riding away from the almost-quicksand-like gravel.
But it sure was a beautiful place to ride!

There were long stretches where the safest line was on the right (wrong) side of the road, which makes sense because most cyclists come the other direction, and their tires gradually compact a narrow track. With almost no traffic, it’s usually no problem for us to ride on that “wrong” side. But here, we were assaulted by columns of gray-haired e-mountain-bike-riders on van-supported tours, and despite their fat tires, suspensions, and no loads (which would make it far easier for them to move off into the soft stuff than us), they smilingly refused, forcing us to stop, move over, and wait for them to pass. Worst was that every time we’d think a group was done, oh shit, here come two more stragglers, time to pull over again and let these babies through! Ok, no, really the worst was when one of their van drivers following them also completely refused to move over!

After six miles of that “good” gravel (for vehicles!) we crossed a cattle guard and the surface changed dramatically, to something much rockier. While this made it more bumpy, it actually felt safer to lose the soft treachery of the previous section. We hit the end of the barely-a-road at the Quailburn woolshed, and did a 180-degree turn onto a bike/walk-only trail that led us truly into the golden grasslands of the Mackenzie Basin.

#FindRett riding through the Dothraki Sea.
#FindRett, even smaller against the sweeping landscape.
#FindRett heading to the mountains.
A popular recommendation these days for too-online people is to “touch grass”. While we metaphorically “touch grass” nearly every day, our panniers were literally touching grass as we pedaled up this old 4WD track.
#FindRett riding to the end of eternity.

Cutting across the rolling grassland would have been the easy way to get to Lake Ohau, but for unknown reasons the Alps2Ocean route does not take the easy way. Instead it rises high up the shoulder of the mountain range to the south, before descending more than 1000 feet back down to the lake. Is it just to provide more-epic views of turquoise Lake Ohau? If that was the goal, they could have achieved that without making the trail’s rideability inversely proportional with its altitude. For about five miles on either side of the summit, the surface stopped being “gravel”, or “dirt”, and became a path strewn with fist-sized rocks.

A general idea of the surface surrounding the top of the Lake Ohau-Omarama section of the Alps2Ocean trail.
Rett walking through one of the many unrideable sections of the trail as it switches back. At least Lake Ohau provides a stunning backdrop.
Looking back down into the Mackenzie Basin and the trail that got us to this point.

As much of a slow-going struggle as it was to push through this section (all up a 6-7% grade!), it was amazing to see that Rett actually has developed the technical skill required to pedal her super-unwieldy bike forward up this incredibly-rough track, simultaneously defeating gravity trying to pull her backwards, and the rocks trying to knock her sideways. The only problem is that the strength, control, and concentration drawn upon to demonstrate that technical skill requires an incredibly-high energy output, so it’s not (yet!) sustainable for the time required to get us to the top. But with a mix of breaks, walking, and slamming through on her pedals, she made it to the top!

The “Tarnbrae High Point”, 900 meters! New Zealand altitude markers are so unimpressive, mostly because they’re in meters (“c’mon, it’s not even 4 digits?!”), but also because there simply isn’t room in the small country for the land to rise very high (“3000 feet” certainly sounds more impressive, but still nothing compared to the 10,000 foot passes we were crossing regularly six months ago in the US). Finally, note that trail surface again, compared with our tires!
Yes, this is really what the “bike trail” at the highest point of the Alps2Ocean trail looks like.
Our bikes at the summit, looking down to Lake Ohau.
I guess this fence could be a hint to why the trail runs all the way up the mountainside?
Starting on the way back down, it wasn’t looking much better.
Well, at least it’s clear that they cut a path for us, they just forgot to do anything to smooth it out!

When it became clear that the surface wasn’t going to allow us to fly down the downhill the rest of the way, we gave up and ate a late unshaded lunch on the side of the rocky trail (though a cloud stepped up to help out for a period). Of course another mile further on we hit a sudden section of dark forest with an enchanting stream running through it, a stopping place a million times better than the one we chose, but the sheer unexpectedness of it (we haven’t been through anything like it in four days on the A2O) means it was probably an illusion created by an evil witch.

The surface begins to improve as we descend further, so now it’s no longer just “a crazy place to ride a bike”, it’s “a crazy awesome place to ride a bike”!
It’s still definitely not the “smooth shingle” that the trail guide describes.

For the final five miles, the surface quality improved significantly, and we covered it probably a quarter of the time that it took to ride the previous five miles. The descent was suddenly filled with tight curves as it eased us down the slope, but Rett rode through all of them, impressive given her issues with tight turns and the mental and physical drains of the day. It probably helped that the compacted line showed a path that she could follow, and maybe simultaneously worked to passively teach a good line to follow through curves. It was also critically helpful that we were late enough in the day that we didn’t have to deal with any more of those e-bike tour groups coming up head-on into us!

Ok, even in this “good” section the trail is only rideable in the narrow center strip, but that’s much better than it was before!

Even though the ride was “only” 27 miles, it was a delight when we returned to the pavement near the Lake Ohau Lodge. We pulled in and immediately ordered beers at the bar. We went out to the deck overlooking the lake to drink them, and there met Cathy and Bruce, a couple of Canadians incorporating the A2O ride into their three-week car vacation around New Zealand. They were doing it the “correct” direction, which meant we were able to exchange tips on the ride ahead for each of us, and then much more.

The Lake Ohau Lodge is a middle-of-nowhere outpost, so eating at their restaurant is a big part of managing the logistics of the route. They allow camping, but since there was rain in the forecast we had booked a room (for which a phone call had been required!), and then we got the dinner-and-breakfast package along with that. It’s a set-menu, set-time, communal-seating affair, which was actually really nice, especially since our walk back to the main lodge from our satellite rooms with Cathy and Bruce put us at a table with these interesting and engaging people again.

The 7:30pm dinner was some two hours past our normal dinner time, but at least that gave time for the heavy rain (including thunder and lightning, a NZ first for us!) to come and go. And made our roof totally worth it!


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