Tour Aotearoa Day 22 – Wanaka to Queenstown

At 93 kilometres long, today promised to be a shorter day, but it would also involve one of the country’s longest climbs up and over the Crown Range, reaching the high point of the Tour Aotearoa at 1,076 metres.

Soon after leaving Wanaka the paved road angled towards the sky, and I settled into a sustainable rhythm that I could maintain until the top of the climb. I was glad I’d posted my tent and sleeping bag to the finish from Franz Josef as my bike felt noticeably lighter. The road climbed up and above the tree line, offering expansive views. Lake Wanaka stretched behind me, all 42 beautiful kilometres of it, and I could trace my finger along yesterday’s route back to the Haast Pass.

I stopped to stretch my legs and take a photo beside the Cardrona Hotel, which was built in 1863 and which makes it one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels. It’s a real time capsule as one of the few surviving monuments of the Cardrona Valley’s gold-rush frenzy. Once it would have been surrounded by a township that included three other hotels to accommodate the hopeful miners, but today it caters to the passing traveller heading up and over the Crown Range.

After several hours, I summited the crest of the Crown Range and celebrated reaching the Tour Aotearoa’s high point. Though higher mountains penetrated the sky nearby, this was a personal summit for me. From this lofty height, it almost felt as if I had a bird’s eye view of the surroundings.

The descent was a fun, swooping gradient as I accelerated down onto what is known as the terrace at the same speed as the cars, but from there the route seemed to plunge off a cliff as a steep series of switchbacks began a section that is known simply as the ‘Zig Zag’. It was a white-knuckle, brake-squealing ride, and I was almost glad when it flattened out.

I headed into Arrowtown. Arrowtown is another product of the goldrush, but unlike the ghost-towns that litter the surrounding wherever gold was found, it has successfully reinvented itself and today thrives as a charming and much-loved town. When gold was found in the Arrow River in 1862, over 1,000 miners swarmed like bees to honey, and the township grew to 7,000 people. That’s now shrunk to 3,000 inhabitants, and the town won the prestigious award in 2020 as New Zealand’s ‘most beautiful small town’. Riding down the main shopping street felt a bit like riding into the Wild West with grand facades and many heritage buildings.

From Arrowtown, I joined the remarkable Queenstown Trail network, where many traffic-free cycle routes crisscross the map taking you between the various nearby points of interest. The routes were in excellent condition and it was clear some money had been spent on them. I must be getting close to Queenstown…

I followed the Twin Rivers Trail, as it twisted alongside first the Shotowa River and then the Kawarua River. Though just outside one of South Island’s busiest towns, you wouldn’t know it as this is one of the most remote trails in the cycling network, and I enjoyed the isolated sensation and of being totally immersed in nature. From Kawarua Falls, I joined the Frankton Track as it hugs the waterfront of the lake, seemingly in no rush to reach Queenstown as it passes around the Botanic Gardens Peninsula before finally arriving.

Bustling Queenstown lacks Arrowtown’s charm but makes up for it with the mass of heart-racing adrenaline-pumping activities on offer. This is a place where you can take a helicopter ride in the morning, white water rafting in the afternoon, and finish with one of the world’s highest bungee jumps just before a delicious dinner complemented with locally produced wine. This is the one of the adventure capitals of the world, and I felt like I belonged.