Around the Mountain Introduction
The ‘Around the Mountains Trail’ is one of the Great Trails of New Zealand. Winding officially 180 km from Kingston to Mount Nicholas Station or reverse. The trail starts at the Mount Nicholas Station, accessible by the Southern Discoveries catamaran the Spirit of Queenstown. It ends generally at Kingston where you can shuttle back to Queenstsown. However to finish the loop and for some road riding, ride the Devils Staircase (highway 6) back to Queenstown for an extra 40 km.
Riding the Trail
Taking a boat to start an adventure is a novel experience, it really intensifies the feeling of being remote and away from the everyday hustle. The Spirit of Queenstown is a pretty plush catamaran and I had to smile as I loaded my increasingly shabby looking bike onto the back. I spent the ride in the cabin chatting to the ‘skipper’ (look at me with my technical boating terms). The ride over was smooth and the views epic. We watched the Eyre Mountain Range on our left and the Southern Alps on our right, closing together in the distance with snow-capped tops. Glaciers were just visible far down in Glenorchy where the road ends.
I left the boat and the gaggle of tourists at the dock. They had a farm tour to enjoy and I had a pretty long ride ahead. The dirt road snaked up and out of sight of Lake Wakatipu. That was the last I saw of the lake for the next two days, I was headed 48 km to Mavora Lakes for my lunch break. Almost all of the climbing on the trail is in these first 48 km (600+ m Elevation Gain).
The trail wound along by the Von rRver, high cliffs encroached either side and created a wall of silence and isolation. There was sheep and cows scattered all through the valley. Some raised a suspicious eye and scarpered off further into the coarse bush.
Up ahead the dusty grey of the road rose out of the valley zigzagging up the sides of the walls and onto the high alpine plateau. Von Hill is the border between Otago and Southland and at 800 m high, the highest point of the trail. I ground my way up, sweating hard even as the air grew cold around me and the sun was encompassed by clouds. Reaching the top and escaping the valley was a major change in perspective. The walls of the valley no longer confining the vastness of the mountains. This was big sky country, land of the long white cloud. The dirt road visible for miles into the distance and wide open tussock everywhere. This was a seriously lonesome frontier.
Without the protection of the valley I felt small and the wind picked up and so did the rain. I cycled on, feeling insignificant on this great natural vastness (Mount Nicholas Station is 100,000 acres, bigger than Singapore!) Even battling into the wind, head down and legs pumping a smile crept across my face. Joy at being out in the elements and facing nature one on one.
Lunch at Mavora Lakes was a brief affair. I cowered in a birch forest overlooking the lakes. A thick mist obscured most of the view and the sand flies were out in force. Grey skies above threatened more rain and once stopped the wind cut through my sweat soaked clothes. The grey clouds blended in with the mist and perception of distance over the lake was hazy.( They filmed some of Lord of the Rings here but nothing I could make out.)
I wanted to camp just outside of Mossburn, around 40 km away. As I left the forest the rain started in earnest. Thick heavy raindrops hammered from the sky. Drumming on my helmet and my waterproof stuff sacs. I made little promises to myself to keep going. ‘ Just ride for a 3 hours then we will camp’, ‘just until 4 pm’, ‘just until we find a nice spot to camp’. These little goals eased and cajoled me along the road. I tucked down onto my handle bars and pedalled as fast as I could, a slight downhill with long straight farming roads. I was pushing 30+ km/h and passing fields full of sheep huddling under trees from the rain.
At 3pm the rain died down and I ground to a stop in the entrance to a farmers field. That was my longest distance in the saddle fully loaded (just shy of 90km). Camp was set up quickly and stiffly. I looked back over the fields to the mountains in the distance. A huge feeling of accomplishment to have made my way through them alone and in bad weather. Hitting big days in bad weather is good for the soul!
Mossburn was a great respite and I stocked up on some snacks and water. Looking at the map there is a dog leg to Lumsden or a straight through on a slightly busier road through to Five Rivers. Having driven through Lumsden I voted for the direct route and hit the road. It was early morning, around 9 am but traffic was practically non-existent. Any vehicles that did pass gave plenty of room and a few kids waved out of the window. What they saw was a bedraggled bearded man drying out in the breeze.
I made Five Rivers in good time and rejoined the ‘Around the Mountains’ trail. It is a neat gravel track slicing it’s way through farmland, parallel to the road but just out of sight. A real shortcut into the farming communities in the area as I traversed their land. Tractors were out bailing hay and I could see farmers rounding up sheep in the distance, a real slice of kiwiana.
Stopping in Athol for a big lunch broke up the day. 55 km to Athol and then 35 km to Kingston. I saw maybe three cyclists on the trail all day. The landscape seemed huge after riding through the valley the day before. Wide open vistas all split up with fences and windbreaks, then abruptly, wild land as the mountains reared up from the ground. This area used to be a glacier and huge rocks scatter the farmers fields debris from the ice ages.
I spot Lake Wakatipu in the glinting in the distance and I feel I am home, the final stretch. I have finished the official ‘Around the Mountains’ trail. Just a little road ride for the last day to take me back to my door.
I camp by the lake, watching the light play over the mountains and hearing the lap of the waves on the lake. The golden hour when the light seems more ambient and the contours of the hills are crisp against the changing colours of the sunset. Another 90 km day and I crash out early.
The final day, I break camp and hit the road early just 35 km but the legs feel slow and heavy. Traffic is again sparse, thankfully, as the road is very windy with epic cliff drops to one side. Queenstown bobs and weaves into view as I meander around the lake. Following a trail once cut for horses but now the vital road in to Queenstown. I make it back to my house in 2 hours. Tired, dirty and a little sad that my little adventure is over.
Mount Nicholas Station- toilets, food,water, pick up/drop off for boat.
Mavora Lakes-toilet, water (recommend treating), no phone signal.
Athol-toilet (customers only), food, water
Kingston-toilet,food,water,pick up/drop off for shuttle.
3 Days (2 nights).
1524 m Elevation Gain.
50% Gravel Road, 30% 4×4 Track, 20% tarmac.