Monday, January 24, 2011

Mavora Lakes, NZ: Gravel Road to Heaven

We met a couple of bike tourists from Sweden almost two months ago.  The conversation upon meeting others of our species generally includes: where are you going, where have you been, how long have you been in New Zealand, and if they are traveling in the opposite direction, where is the nearest grocery store.  This couple mentioned that they did a particular route, and it was the best thing they had experienced in New Zealand -- the gravel road that passes by Mavora Lakes north of Te Anau.

Since then we have done a fair amount of research online and questioning locals about if our skinny tires, drop handlebars, and loaded panniers could handle it.  No red flags came up, the weather forecast showed several fine days, so we decided to go for it.

An ambitious cyclist would do it in one day, most others two, and we stretched it out to three.  Our first day traveling north was on a quiet Sunday morning.  The gravel road was very well packed and with a steady, almost imperceptible, uphill grade.  By early afternoon we had covered the 70 kilometers from Te Anau, including the 38 kilometers of gravel.  The hardest thing we had to do the rest of the day was select a campsite.

The road passed large pastures of grazing sheep for many kilometers, making the landscape along this gravel route not much different from many other roads in New Zealand.

The road made a steady climb towards the mountains where the glacial Mavora Lakes are located.

Look familiar?  The outlet of South Mavora Lake was the film location for Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien on the Anduin River.

Mavora Lakes is a Dept of Conservation recreation area, with a few designated campsites with tables, water, and toilets.

Fine weather offered beautiful views looking towards North Mavora Lake from the shore near our campsite.
The next day was the real highlight of the trip.  Leaving the Lakes and the DOC controlled area, we entered land that was privatively owned, with a public road running through it.  A stern sign stating no camping allowed was posted at the boundary.  Here range cattle wandered the grasslands in a glacial-carved valley.  The cattle were a bit skittish as we cycled by, and an extra ring or two with our bell was necessary to keep them moving away, as well as to confuse the big bulls that lumbered towards us.

Big, sunny skies.

The valley began to narrow as we moved north, with mountains hemming us in on either side.

At the point where there was no more valley, we dropped down into the channel of the Von River.  This view is looking south from where we came.   

A steep couple of kilometers dropped us into the narrow Von River valley.
It was early afternoon, a day of full sun a little wind, and warmer than we had experienced in a while.  After 45 kilometers, we rested in the shade of trees next to an old stone house at a stock station.  The longer we lingered, the more we realized the stone patio would make a nice campsite.  We waited to set up our tent, instead leaving our bikes fully packed and just sitting down to cook dinner, out of sight of the road.  We had not seen a car for hours, and John wandered out in the open to take a photo.  Just then a fast-moving ute came down the road, and spying a figure, pulled in to investigate.  We were informed by a polite but stern gentleman that no camping was allowed and that we really shouldn't be there without permission of the owner, which we did not have.  Obviously, being on bikes, we could not leave the restricted area that night, so he said we could stay, just leave the place clean.  We said many thank-yous and apologies, and set up our tent for the night, a bit chagrined.

A lovely, illegal campsite.
The following day brought a change in weather, and we had to bundle up to stay warm under cool, overcast skies.  Today we would cycle the remaining 20 kilometers to catch a steamship that would ferry us across Lake Wakatipu, transporting us from this open land to the bustle of Queenstown.

And if we get a chance to tell another bike tourist about the trip, we might also just have to say it was one of the best experiences of our journey.

Cycling the last bit of gravel to Walter Peak Station.

The TSS Earnslaw, a vintage steamship operating on the lake since 1912.  Before roads were constructed to Walter Peak Station, sheep were transported on this boat to and from Queenstown.

The ship is powered by coal shoveled into the furnace in the engine room below the deck.

Last views of Walter Peak Station from the deck.
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DJDScotland said...

Hi Guys - great post! I did this ride at the end of 2011. You might want to mention the couple of river crossings. Like you, I did this in summer and found it v refreshing but apparently the rivers can get a bit wild at other times of year, after rain, so it's worth taking care - get off your bike and consider removing your shoes if they are the only ones you've got.

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