Words: Liam Friary
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is a 300km, mostly-off-road, cycling route which travels from the slopes of our highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, right down to the Pacific Ocean at Ōamaru. It passes through myriad dramatic landscapes, traverses a few of the most iconic southern locations and calls into some of the finest gems our country has to offer – where the people are also a real highlight. As the seasons switched from winter to spring, we headed south for this journey, but the grip of winter hadn’t left yet.

It must be addressed that while Aoraki/Mt Cook is the most iconic starting point for the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, there are officially two starting points for this trail – we’ll discuss the other one later on. The mountain’s awe-inspiring height makes it soar majestically. At every angle – from the shores of Lake Pukaki and Lake Ōhau, to the village at its base – Aoraki lets you know he’s there, with a staunch stance. The sense of an intrepid journey comes to mind whenever I see this mountain and, for me, this was a significant and inspiring part of our own journey. We’d follow the glacial flow – from the mountains down to sea.

Trail Notes/Highlights

Takapō/Lake Tekapo – The Alternative Route from Takapō/Lake Takapo was our chosen point for this journey. We decided to tackle it from this end but planned to drive up to Aoraki/Mt Cook, after our first day, to get that start too. For us, this made sense as we’d travelled in from Christchurch and wanted to get out of our seats – be it car or plane – sooner rather than later. An afternoon arrival meant we’d have glowing sunshine for our flattish gravel ride towards Twizel, dancing back and forth between the canals. But the sun’s rays meant it was crisp and clear, and not much over five degrees. It didn’t bother us, however, and by us I mean myself and the other rider, Bob Tuxford. Just being out here in this immense and incredible landscape was enough, especially after the second lockdown had halted our initial plans. The deep, turquoise waters of the canals guided us like runway lights towards our destination for the day. We reached the shores of Lake Pukaki when the light was fading, and Aoraki/Mt Cook stood tall in the background, glimmering in the twilight. Ah, this is what it’s all about! After half a day, I could feel myself easing away from my daily stresses and into the slower pace of this journey.

Mt Cook – another start location for the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. As mentioned earlier, it’s pretty hard to find a more beautiful start location than this. The Aoraki/Mt Cook Village is nestled in the foothills of the sheer rugged landscapes that surround it and, even when we pitched up in the night, the glow of the mountains appeared to reach almost all the way to the stars. There’s a good reason for this: the area is part of the 4300-square kilometre Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – one of only eight dark sky reserves in the world. While it sounds like something out of science fiction, the purpose of the reserve is to strictly control light pollution in the area, thus making the night sky, stars and surrounding landscapes look much clearer than they do from home.

This place is one of true stature and pedigree, and is somewhere I want to visit again and spend more time in. This wouldn’t be the case for us this time around, though – a short turnaround had us staying just for the evening, then flying out by helicopter early the next day.

The first building you come to at Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, is the second Hermitage hotel. The original Hermitage was built in 1913 and opened in 1914, however, it burned to the ground in 1957 and was replaced in 1958 by what is now the current hotel. We stayed at the Hermitage for the evening – it’s a place that pays homage to the spirit and legacy of the early pioneering climbers and is totally engulfed by the national park.

The following morning, Mt Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters provided us with a helicopter transfer across the Tasman River, to a spot called Rotten Tommy. The low snow lines nestled around a stunning basin, and braided rivers running down into Takapō/Lake Tekapo, made this a pretty epic spot to see from the air – plus, it’s a very rad way to start a ride!

On the other side of the Tasman River, the trail hugged the shore, offering a technical section with river crossings and some big chunks of loose rock. It’s here you can – and should! – look back at Aoraki/Mt Cook lingering behind you. I wouldn’t be averse to riding this part – and perhaps the entire trail – backwards, to take in this and other spectacular landscapes. The trail takes you away from the mountains and towards Twizel via a track section, then a gravel road, all whilst hugging the shores of Lake Pukaki. The clean air had a brisk chill, but the mountains and stunning surrounds overshadowed any cold feeling. We finished up this section of trail with salmon tasting at The Salmon Shop, on the southern edges of Lake Pukaki. The salmon is actually farmed in the cold alpine-fed waters of the Takapō/Lake Tekapo Canal, which we’d ridden beside the following day – no wonder it tasted so delicious!