The Alps to Ocean (A2O) mountain-bike trail was all part of former Prime Minister John Key’s bike New Zealand vision, and like most visions, it’s taking a while to be fully realised.
If you are used to pedalling across the Hauraki Plains or around Napier, or on the Central Otago Rail Trail, it’s longer, hillier and a wee bit scarier in places. But some of the long downhill sections are totally exhilarating!
It’s hoped by 2018, the entire ride will avoid busy on roads, although most of these are pleasant minor roads, with just a couple of them sharing a busy highway with cars and campervans.
Anyone can ride the A20 and people of all grades of fitness do, plus it costs nothing.
It takes you from Mount Cook down to Oamaru, but for logistical reasons, our group of 11 started in Tekapo, an option many choose to do to avoid a heavy gravel section and the need for a helicopter ride.
It also meant pedalling 300km as opposed to 370km. We had a ute and trailer accompanying us with our gear, and it also acted as a sag wagon for tired riders.
The trail can be completed by top riders at full hurtle in 24 hours, but we took eight days. This allowed us time to stop and worship the Mackenzie Country’s supreme scenery: gorgeous mountains, canals with salmon farms, languid lakes, farmland and forests we could speed through like real mountain bikers.
Our first day was 54km, mostly beside the Lake Pukaki canal. It seemed flat rather than downhill, but water needs a gradient so we were descending from high country into Twizel.
Day two brought our worst weather, a howling sou’easter with hail-laced rain. As the designated driver, I sat in the cab, encouraging everyone else along. This time, the canal was flowing the opposite way, out of Lake Ohau. Thankfully, when we reached the lake’s weir, the gnarly weather disappeared.
The third day began with the notorious 11km climb up to a high point at Tarnbrae. We had a picture-perfect view of Mt Cook and huge vistas of the terrain yet to come. The ride downhill into Omarama was a blissful reward.
We had a short fourth day as we cruised down to Otematata. This is the way holiday cycling should be – with a serious tail wind and all of us nearly airborne, screaming with delight on the long downhill stretches.
On day five, we were straight away confronted by the 1.5km climb to the massive Benmore Hydro Dam. At the top, I coughed so much, I thought my lungs were going to choke me. The engineering on Benmore is impressive; it is a significant part of this country’s can-do history.
Down the other side, we kept Lake Aviemore company and eventually reached Richie McCaw country (Kurow) by mid-afternoon.
After a rest day in Kurow, day seven was our most challenging. We stopped at the excellent Flying Pig Café in Duntroon (try the lamingtons), but then came a true test of endurance up a gigantic zig-zag climb.
Scenes from the Narnia movies were filmed here. That night, we called it quits in the middle of gorgeous farmland around the little town of Windsor, staying at a friend’s farm. Most riders on the trail push on through to Oamaru, but we were grateful to sleep in comfy beds and to sample some delicious cheeses.
For our final day, it was good to be fresh and appreciative before a surprisingly easy short ride through dairy farmland into Oamaru. We had lunch in the Botanic Gardens and then rode through the Whitestone Precinct, to the finishing line at the Pacific Ocean.
There was such pride when we reached the sea. It is a truly great ride, with the bonus of making us fall in love with New Zealand all over again.
An insider's guide to The A20...
Best home baking: The Flying Pig Café, Duntroon, had lamingtons and pineapple cheesecake to die for.
Best pub meal: Omarama with its great outdoor area and friendly locals. Try the chips fried in duck fat and succulent steak.
Best incentive to keep young riders going: Our Rider of the Day ribbon presented every night to the person who showed a keen spirit and no whinging!
Best road sign: Slaughteryard Road No Exit (outside Oamaru).
Best Photo Op: At the top of the Tarnbrae climb – on a clear day, you can see Mt Cook, Twizel and Lake Ohau.
Words: Mary Lambie