I hadn’t done any research about cycle touring in New Zealand before I arrived here. I didn’t really know much about this beautiful and remote country at all.
First let me tell you the problems I’ve faced, then I’ll tell you what’s good so you’ll be able to make your own conclusion.
New Zealand’s Road Infrastructure
New Zealand, almost uniquely for a developed country, is a hard place to assess from the saddle of a bicycle because there are so few roads.
Much of New Zealand is inaccessible by bicycle. Take the mighty Whanganui river I canoed down last year for example. The Whanganui river had no road access for three days worth of canoeing and the surrounding bush was so dense you’d probably be swallowed by vines if you tried to navigate through it. The Whanganui river is definitely one place cycle touring can’t take you and it’s not alone, many of New Zealand’s natural features are without definitive access.
Cycle touring in New Zealand Means Competing With Freight
One of the biggest problems I have cycle touring in New Zealand is competing with freight. New Zealand doesn’t have much of a rail network partly because the rugged terrain makes it too expensive and partly because there are not enough people in the country to pay for a rail network.
The unfortunate consequence of this is that most freight in New Zealand is transported by road on massive lorries. The logging trucks and oil and gas tankers are the scariest of New Zealand’s freight traffic to have pass you on a tight bend. I would have to say, with regret, that it’s truly risky cycling on any of the main freight routes.
You might be thinking that you’ll just stick to back-roads and that’s very smart idea but I’m afraid you won’t find many. New Zealand has one primary road system for everything. For example:
I’m currently living in New Plymouth, Taranaki. There is a town 15 km away from me called Inglewood, but that 15 km is on a narrow and busy freight route. To get there safely I need to cycle 39 km and tackle over 2,350 ft of elevation change. There are other small towns local to New Plymouth where no alternative route exists at all.
New Plymouth is a well developed area by New Zealand standards. In other places and on other roads you will struggle to find alternative routes. There a roads all over the country where the only available detours will take you 100’s of km in a different direction and not necessarily on better roads that the one you’re already on.
Be Preprepared For Huge Distances When Cycle Touring In New Zealand
This may be a pro or a con depending on your perspective; be prepared for huge distances between places, at least when compared to the likes of Europe. Taking my current location as an example, the nearest town of note is 160 km away. The next closest is 290 km in the opposite direction!
The Pleasures Of Cycle Touring In New Zealand
Now I’ve warned you about the the downsides of cycle touring in New Zealand I’ll try and balance this by telling you what’s great about it.
One of the things that struck me was the geography and climate. In both cases it’s dramatic. When the sun shines here it will probably be the sunniest day you’ve ever witnessed, when the wind blows the news will be showing you pictures of cyclones and when it rains, especially in the north, you’ll wish you were a fish.
Luckily most of the time it’s pretty sunny and warm. The weather in the North Island is particularly mild and hardly every sees frost or snow even in mid winter. However, the west coast of both islands can be very wet. Expect contrast.
The Quieter and Mountainous South Island
For the very best of New Zealand’s epic topography you’ll want to visit the South Island. New Zealand’s biggest mountain range runs down the length of the west coast from just west of Nelson to the fjords around Lake Manapouri.
New Zealand’s South Island is 33% larger than the North Island but contains only 23% of the 4.5 million population. To make sense of those numbers consider that the UK has a population of 63.2 million and London alone has a population of 8.3 million!
Once again you’ll only have a few roads to choose from and the distances between settlements are staggering, but you’re guaranteed a quieter ride and world class mountain scenery.
My Overall Impression Of Cycle Touring In New Zealand
After everything has been considered New Zealand is a friendly, safe, beautiful and interesting place that has never had cycling at it’s heart. I don’t think that’s too harsh, it’s just a fact that New Zealand has very little cycling culture and no cycle lanes between towns. mountain biking is much more popular here and if you’ve come for the hills you’ll be very pleased with some of the trails.
Ultimately if I had to chose between cycling through New Zealand from tip to tip or walking it I’d walk.
Most of what makes New Zealand so distinctive, memorable and beautiful is all away from the roads nestled between mountains and on lively rivers. The cities, whilst good and full of interesting and friendly people, don’t have the history found elsewhere in the world. The man-made attractions pale in comparison to the geothermal fields, fjords and natural wonders spread out plentifully under the feet of 4.2 million people.
For a detailed topographical map of New Zealand see www.topomap.co.nz.
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