Tour Aotearoa Day 21 – Haast to Wanaka

On paper, today looked like an easy day. Nearly entirely paved, I began with a gentle warm-up of 50 flat kilometres through the wide Haast Valley. But things often aren’t as simple as they appear. A fierce headwind funnelled down the valley, turning it into a wind tunnel sapped my strength and tested my resolve. As I approach the finish line of this long journey – the toughest challenge of my life -, a general fatigue permeates my body; it’s unshakeable and I just need to keep my mind focused on the task and keep pedalling despite the aching muscles.

Wind aside, it was a privilege to pedal through the Haast Valley. Verdant mountains, densely covered in native forest and wearing a rocky crown lined the valley on either side. The river snaked across the valley in delicate strands like braided hair, appearing like the river might change its course from day to day. After passing through the valley, I began the steep climb up to Haast Pass at 564 metres. The thick rainforest canopy plunged me into a dark, cold shadow, and I wished I could feel the sun. I’ve noticed the temperatures dip as I’ve headed south, and today I found myself wearing thermals, shirts and a jacket. Cycling past glaciers were a reminder of how cold it was, and what a distant memory the sweaty days of the North Island were.

From Haast Pass, I stopped to admire the spectacular view as native forests, tranquil rivers and soaring peaks collided dramatically to form Mount Aspiring National Park, a remote wilderness that seemed almost untouched by people. I stopped beside a high cascading waterfall for lunch, witnessing the powerful forces of nature and feeling insignificant within this vast landscape.

After climbing back onto the bike, I was pleasantly surprised to notice the wind had swung around in my favour. The tailwind seemed to place a helping hand on my bike, pushing me along the road towards Wanaka. Aware there was still a long way to go, I kept a steady pace in the hopes of conserving my energy.

Soon I met the northern tip of Lake Wanaka. Tonight’s hotel was on the waterfront just at the other side of the lake, but Wanaka is a large, 42-kilometre long lake, so I still had a long way to go.

I rode along the Hawea River Track, which is marketed as an easy, family-friendly hiking and biking track. It meandered gently beside the Hawea river, with the only notable climb, a short ascent up to ‘the Neck’, which is a saddle between two separate lakes; Lake Wanaka on one side, and Lake Hawea on the other. From this lofty vantage point encircled by water, I felt like I’d climbed to the Crow’s Nest aboard a ship. The morning’s wind had dropped and the becalmed lakes were stunning, forming perfect mirrors of the cloudy sky.

The final 20 kilometres of the route was gravel, but fast, flowy and fun. I felt strong and invigorated and finished the day on a high note. By the time I pedalled into Wanaka, I’d seen more tourists today than in the last 20 days of riding combined. This stunning area has reaped the benefits of tourism and is visibly more affluent. It feels like a different country to the New Zealand I’ve been pedalling through for the last three weeks. I like to think I’ve seen a more authentic side to New Zealand.

There’s no shortage of great accommodation in Wanaka, and tonight I’ve splashed out on the Te Wanaka Lodge, a boutique hotel fashioned in an alpine style just a short walk from the lake. I’m reminded of the delights of bikepacking. I’ve wild camped with scant facilities, and I’ve stayed in basic motels, and in comfortable 4-star hotels. I’ve eaten dehydrated packet food and I’ve eaten in fancy restaurants. Bikepacking can be whatever you want it to be, and I’d urge you to try it.