Cycling in New Zealand

To the land of long white cloud. To the end of the earth. Two flights, leave Saturday, arrive Monday. Light years from anywhere. Body unprepared for the upside down world, must not skip the astronaut training program next time.

Welcome to New Zealand. Everything is vast. The journey. The empty deep blue sea. Mountains as far as the eye can see. Landscapes that steal your soul. And sadly, a vast number of tourists.

Cycling paradise?

Lake Taupo in the distance. Just look at those curvy roads!

Lumpy. This would be an understatement. There are few flat roads in New Zealand. Yet your effort will be rewarded. A feast for the senses. Tropical coastlines with aqua green waters kissing bleached white sand. Snow capped mountains and smouldering volcanoes. Heart stealing scenes.

Yet not all is well in cycling heaven. The devil lurks. The road surfaces are rough, oh and wind, there’s plenty of that too. Prepare for four seasons in one day. I found it impossible to dress for the New Zealand weather, one minute too hot, the next too cold.

Now, this post is cheating a little because I didn’t ride (much) in New Zealand. Yet not once did I envy a fellow cyclist slung low on the bike, battling vicious headwinds or rubbing shoulders with the campervans.

That said, I spent many hours on the roads. Plan your route carefully. Avoid the major routes where possible, where traffic travels at 100kph and there’s very little of what you can call a hard shoulder to ride in.

Fortunately most of New Zealand’s drivers are very obedient and cautious. They actually obey speed limits, especially when passing through towns and roadworks. Oh roadworks, New Zealand seems to employ half of the population to keep the roads in good repair. 

Best roads to ride?

These are based my travels, from the North Island to the South Island, chosen for their beauty more than anything else. As you can see, the South Island is where it is at. But even there expect to travel great distances to see the many different landscapes.

North Island

  • Waiheke Island – a short boat ride from Auckland. Very steep hills criss-cross this small island with beautiful beaches and comparatively little traffic compared to the mainland.

South Island

  • Northern tip of West Coast – the west coast drive was branded as one of the best in the world but this is far from the truth. The northern tip however is magical. Just skip the rest south of Greymouth.
  • Cardrona Pass – one of the few roads in New Zealand to go over rather than around the mountain. Hairpins galore. One of the few times I wish I was on my bike.
  • Wanaka – comparatively quiet and a great base to find great climbs and roads circling lakes framed by mountains.
  • The road to Milford Sound – a beautiful drive although I’m not sure I’d fancy it as much by bike. Lots of coaches and tourists in rentals. 
  • Lindis Pass – vast valleys, big skies and dramatic weather. 
  • The road to Mount Cook – a beautiful ride down a valley surrounded by imposing snow capped mountains and glaciers. 
  • Arthur’s Pass – the only road recommended here I didn’t drive but no list of riding in New Zealand would be complete without it. The highest Pass, be prepared for the weather. One rider I spoke to spent 8 gruelling hours in the rain.

Tourist hell

Volcanic sights near Rotorua. The smell of sulphur was overwhelming, not a place to linger!

New Zealand is a bucket list destination for many, which is evident by the hordes of tourists visiting this beautiful wilderness.

Yet while images of stunning mountain and coastal landscapes evoke a wanderlust. Sunrises, empty tracks, escape, paradise. The photographs conveniently ignore the ant lines of tourists ruining everything – the peace, the view, the experience.

New Zealand is suffering from over tourism. I visited in November, the beginning of their summer, so mid-season and yet it was difficult to escape the madding crowd, the gurning Instagrammers. Hell is other people, hell is a holiday in New Zealand if you like escape. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful pictures!

In other countries it’s easier to mix the top sights with escape and I had no such problems on similar holidays in Japan and the US. Damn I even managed to escape the madness in Venice. Not in New Zealand though.

There is a very narrow and well defined tourist route in New Zealand, one that’s hard to avoid if you want to see some of the beautiful landscapes. Sadly this is emphasised even more if you travel in a campervan as I did.

Key Summit walk, near Milford Sound. One of the rare occasions we escaped. 

Conga lines of slow moving campervans and rental cars make up about 80 – 90% of traffic on some roads. The campervans stop in the same places since tight wild camping restrictions have been introduced. They call it freedom camping but it’s anything but. More like a Butlins holiday park where everyone tries to cram into the last few spaces.

Walking the land is the same too. The much hyped Great Walks rightly attract millions, sadly they all seem to be on the walk at the same time as you. Even rising early to be beat the crowds was in vain.

The sunrise chasers are no longer just a handful of experience seekers or photographers. Enter the Instagrammers, up early seeking that magical sunrise shot to earn a few extra likes or followers.

The wonderful world of Mount Cook as seen from the Hooker Trail. This walk was packed, not quite sure how I managed to get an empty photograph.

The tracks themselves are usually dead ends rather than circuits, meaning everyone is heading the same way and you also get those returning against you. This only emphasises the feeling of being in Piccadilly Circus, Times Square or Shinjuku, as you and hordes of others march along the same path.

Perhaps as a cyclist I’m spoilt. I can enjoy the isolation of mountains and unspoilt views quite easily. A week in the northern Spain’s Asturias recently when I barely saw another person. This is escape. Even my local club ride is more of an escape than New Zealand!

So avoid New Zealand. Admire the beautiful, empty landscape images for sure, but go elsewhere to actually experience them. Scotland has similar landscapes on a less grand scale. Norway has more and better Fjords. There are infinitely more beautiful mountains passes in Switzerland. Sorry New Zealand, you’re overrated and over run. Shame, because you are beautiful.

The landscapes

I’ll share the beauty and variety of New Zealand here to save you going. Of course you don’t realise that I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other people when taking these pictures. 

Otherworldly
More from the Hooker Valley 
Eglinton Valley on the way to Milford Sound. An amazing drive. One where people almost screech to a halt beside you to take a photo before speeding off again so they don’t miss their boat cruise. A 100 metres behind me are three coach loads of people milling about, cursing me for being in their photo probably.
The road to Milford Sound. Beautiful. We stopped for lunch in the campervan. Within minutes somebody knocked on the window and us asked to take a photo of them!
The majestic MIlford Sound really does live up to the hype. Waterfalls, imposing rocks and dolphins.
Waterfalls at Milford Sound 
The peaks of the Key Summit track
One of the many lakes we passed, this one near Queenstown
Roy’s Peak. Not pictured is the queue of people waiting to take selfies of their Jesus Christ crucifixion pose.
The drive towards Wanaka. I was actually surprised by the (relative) lack of sheep I saw in New Zealand!
A brief ride. Single track. Flat they said. If you’re a pro single track rider perhaps! Great fun.
Driving down the West Coast, rugged. The black sands of hell. 
More from the northern tip of the West Coast
Abel Tasman, a 2 hour kayak and 3 hour walk to escape the crowds. 
Man looking for his socks out of shot. Can’t say I particularly enjoy Kayaking. Hard bloody work!
A friendly land owner lets us stay. Our only night of peace in three weeks. That water was bloody cold. A dip and it took me 2 hours to warm back up!  
The Tongariro Track. Get as far as you can in 4 hours because that’s the limit on the car park stay. Madness!
Quick, contemplate before you’re overrun!
The imposing trunk of a giant redwood. Impressive.
A beach on the Coromandel Peninsula

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19 thoughts on “Cycling in New Zealand

    1. Like most other large city, Auckland has the same impatient, aggressive & self entitled driving attitude as London in my experience

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    2. You’re probably right there. I didn’t drive in Auckland, although I did in Wellington. City driving seems to bring out the worst. Hell, cities seem to bring out the worst in all of us!

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    1. As a proud kiwi it’s a bit awkward to read reviews like that. Interested that you didn’t get much joy on the coast south of Greymouth; I’ve only driven them a couple of times but the road south of Hokitika past the glaciers and up over the Haast pass to Wanaka looks like it should tick a lot of boxes?

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    2. Thanks TF. I thought that stretch of road was pretty dull and stays away from the coast and any nice climbs. There’s many better. I think the real issue is too many tourists so it will be interesting to see how New Zealand responds, especially as the growth continues rapidly from the likes of China.

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  1. Beautiful pictures! Shame about the experience. I have to say I was there in Jan and Feb 2017 and it did not seem as busy then. Maybe that was because we had 7 weeks and were able to get to more distant places. Doubtful sound is stunning and empty. Stewart Island too. The South coast between Invercargill and Dunedin felt very remote and untouristed. I agree with you on the North Island though, Rotorua, Bay of Islands and Coromandel Peninsula are packed, beautiful but not get as “get away from it all” as you might expect!

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    1. I think cycle tourists are generally a the top. We get off the beaten path usually and don’t i.oact the areas we visit. Although we probably don’t add as much to the local economy, except for that monster evening meal to refuel!

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