Sounds2Sounds is the latest event on the increasingly well appointed New Zealand bikepacking calendar. Conceived by the Kennett Brothers (New Zealand’s mountain bike race and brevet pioneers and prolific route and guidebook editors) it connects Totaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of Te Waipounamu/South Island with Piopiotahi/Milford Sound in Fiordland. The event links many of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network routes into a 1460km brevet, with a few alternates to make it suitable for various bike set-ups, and plenty of elevation to keep the legs and heart working hard.
I signed up for the event as soon as I caught wind of it, despite it starting only a month after Tour Te Waipounamu — the hardest race on the NZ bikepacking calendar. I planned to ride this event at a more relaxed pace, and it would be the perfect opportunity to break in my new Otso Fenrir — a beautiful stainless steel bikepacking specific bike with a carbon Enve fork, which was fresh out of the box just a few weeks before the ride rolled out. I got it set up with a Revelate Designs kit and managed to squeeze in one two hour loaded ride: to an urban park to practice pitching my Big Agnes Scout tent and make sure everything was in working order.
After disembarking from the pre-dawn water taxi to Meretoto/Ship Cove on March 1st, 84 keen riders spaced themselves out for a quick debrief and karakia — a Māori prayer for favorable conditions on our ride. There was no mass start, rather riders were left to roll off as they felt ready, to ensure social distancing of at least several bike lengths on the Queen Charlotte Track. I teamed up with friends Rachel and Debbie for the first day, and with similar motivations to ensure a good time was had, we stuck together all the way to Milford, nine days later.
The Queen Charlotte Track is a fun 70km undulating singletrack through lush coastal forest, with plenty of opportunities to look out across the turquoise water of the sound. The Fenrir flowed around the switchbacks, and the seat dropper ensured the steep, sometimes rocky descents, were not too hair-raising. Although it was our shortest day, at 90km, the 2600m of elevation gain made it a challenging first day.
Day two offered a stark change of scenery as we slowly crawled our way up the wide open Awatere Valley into a stiff headwind. Our first apple tasting came from a trail angel on the Taylors Pass road standing by with buckets of juicy apples and pears from her garden. The vineyards in the lower valley soon gave way to steepening tussock covered hills as we ascended into the guts of the backcountry on the Molesworth Muster Route. Shortly after arriving at the station gate in the early evening we heard we’d narrowly missed the actual muster, as thousands of cattle had been herded through the campsite just a few hours before our arrival — Molesworth Station is both a recreation reserve and New Zealand’s largest operating farm. With access restricted after 7pm we settled in to camp with a posse of other riders for the night.
The morning frost was a good motivator to get going, pedaling hard to warm up before the sun made its way high enough to reach us. Soon after, the climb to Wards Pass (1130m / 3707ft) had us stripping back the layers, and by the time we reached the cafe and hot pools at Hanmer Springs it was too warm to even think about having a dip. Instead we fueled up for a team time trial with Andrew and Hazel to quickly dispatch the busy road to the Culverden shop to resupply. Some zig-zagging on quieter backroads, via a couple of disappointing apple trees (too green), had us arriving at The Hogget pub in Hawarden for another 7pm-ish finish, establishing this as our preferred time to stop for the day. Bruce sorted out the key for the Rugby Club showers and camping at the domain while we feasted on surprisingly gourmet meal options for a very small rural town.
Consensus the next morning on the road was that none of us had slept well, but the legs slowly woke up while we witnessed another beautiful sunrise. We rolled up and then down through north Canterbury, to Amberley for a well needed second breakfast and perhaps the best coffee of the ride. Shortly afterwards we branched off the Hurunui Heartland route, following the alternate via Oxford, to avoid Christchurch city. The day was highlighted by more wild apple tasting (red but sour) and a stop for a famous Sheffield pie, as well as a couple of locals coming out to cheer us on. I’d outlined an ambitious schedule of nine plus days riding, but today’s 220km plan to Mt Somers went out the window as we reached the Rakaia Gorge campsite around 7pm, took a look up at the climb ahead, and called the day done.
The climb out of the gorge was nowhere near as daunting in the dark the next morning, and was well timed for another magic red dawn as we started out across the Canterbury plains – hugging the foothills of Kä Tiritiri o te Moana/Southern Alps. We made time at Mt Somers for an obligatory pie and coffee, followed by several more successful apple stops on the ride to a relaxed cafe and resupply break in Geraldine. From here things got surprisingly hilly, as we began the traverse inland via climbs over Mount Gay (small but sweet apples) and Rockwood Roads to a creekside camp before Mackenzie Pass. It was a peaceful Friday evening, apart from the locals out hunting wallabies after dark who insisted on speeding back and forth through the nearby ford — I guess there’s not much else to do for fun out there.
In anticipation of the view across the expansive grassland of the Mackenzie Basin we were pedaling early, passing two dead wallabies and one live one that escaped the hunters’ guns. Early light on the Southern Alps while we were on the descent from Mackenzie Pass was ample reward for the sometimes steep climb. I was keen on the optional mountain bikers’ direct route to Twizel, but my legs voted against me, and my stomach confirmed second breakfast was the better choice as we rolled up to the Greedy Cow cafe in Tekapo and ordered a table-full of flat whites, croissants and cinnamon rolls in the sun. Tekapo marked the start of the Alps 2 Ocean route via lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau. A sharp change in weather was forecast and by the time we left the glassy Lake Pukaki, took a decent stop for lunch in Twizel, and reached the aptly named Lake Ohau — Place of Wind — waves were whipping across the lake. An early stop was debated and when it turned out accommodation at Ohau Lodge included a three-course dinner and breakfast, and they had a guest laundry, a rest-day was declared with a 5:30pm finish.
By now we were over 1000km in and we finally got some nasty South Island weather thrown at us to see what we were really made of. After warming up with our only hot pie for the day at Omarama, and Rachel and Debbie had bought some warmer socks and gloves, we decided to push on and find out. It was a heads down grunt up the steep rough road to Omarama Saddle (1260m / 4134ft), battling into a rather unpleasant southerly front.
With our field of view narrowly focussed by the rain it didn’t seem to take too long before the brakes were on for the even rougher descent to Top Hut. It was more sheltered from the storm in the upper Manuherikia Valley, and realizing that the river wasn’t up as much as feared, we plowed on. It was a super slippery ride, with approximately 20 river crossings to wash the mud off us and the bikes. The road briefly turned to the worst kind of mud — incredibly sticky peanut butter — stopping us in our tracks until a suitable tool could be found to scrape enough off to move on. The day ended with a friendly welcome in Oturehua — many thanks to the locals at the Railway Hotel, Gilchrist’s Store (owned by Debbie’s mother’s cousin!) and Crows Nest Accommodation for looking after riders as they passed through at various times during the event. They even have an apple tree on the main street!
It was a cruisy 60km in the slowly lifting fog on the Central Otago Rail Trail, arriving in Alexandra for elevenses of a hot bacon croissant, cream donut and latte in the sun. After a quick stop to help ourselves to the most delicious apples of the ride — left on the Anniversary River Track for S2S riders — and then an unwelcome bee sting, it was onto the Lake Dunstan Trail and a blur of e-bikes as we rode against the flow of traffic. Word of the latest Great Ride has spread fast, with nearly everyone in New Zealand keen to get on it before tourists are let back into the country. The spectacularly cantilevered bridges over the lake, and the aroma of wild thyme do make this a unique ride.
With over 110km already under our wheels we slowly inched our way up the 1000m climb to the route’s high point at Duffers Saddle (1280m / 4200ft), regrouping with Bill and Brett for a group photo to celebrate. Sadly it was not all downhill to the finish, we still had another 50km and 500m up the Nevis Valley to get done. My legs were not impressed about the overtime in the saddle, so I had to channel Jens Voight and give them a talking to — “Shut up legs, do as I tell you” — before happily arriving at the rustic Garston Ski Hut at 9:30pm. It was our longest day by a couple of hours, but we felt like the lazy ones as we got into our cosy sleeping bags while a steady stream of Godzone adventure race teams trickled by, enveloped in their little bubbles of light and fatigue.
What goes up must go down, and when it’s a 650m descent to hit The Coffee Bomb caravan in Garston it takes no time at all. The caffeine kept us rolling along nicely on the Round the Mountains Trail, though the chore of opening gates through the Southland farms got a little tedious. Our self appointed domestique Debbie kindly went ahead and made the job a little easier for those of us lagging behind. Never one to shirk her responsibilities, our chief apple taster Rachel checked a few more trees off on the way to Mossburn for a venison pie and, you guessed it, coffee top-up for the remaining leg to Te Anau. With just 125km to go we spent the evening socializing with other riders: the three B’s Bill, Brett and Bruce who we’d played tag with for the whole ride, Andrew and Hazel who’d finished earlier that day, and a couple of others just watching the dots this time around.
It had been 13 years since my last visit to Fiordland National Park, part of Te Wähipounamu-South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Area, and I’d forgotten how dramatic the stunning sheer-sided alpine scenery was. Needless to say the last day was our slowest, as we rode along craning our necks to try and take it all in, and making countless photo stops.
The superb views made up for the lack of apples and cafes — though we did come across a surprise coffee cart at Mirror Lakes, and Rachel found an apple in her bag she’d stashed days earlier. There was still 1650m of climbing to do but we enjoyed every slow minute of it, especially without the pre-Covid tourist traffic levels, and we had the road virtually to ourselves. The final prize was the 900m descent from the entrance of Homer Tunnel down to Piopiotahi/Milford Sound – an exhilarating finish to an already memorable ride. There was no fanfare but we did arrive to a one-man welcoming committee waiting to take our photo in front of the iconic view of Mitre Peak, and buy us a beer — cheers Bill!
Thanks to everyone for the dot-watching and support, especially to the trail angels and the locals that went the extra mile during the event — it was very much appreciated. The photos might make it look like a holiday but my legs and backside beg to differ.
Total time 9d 9h 9m
Distance 1480km / 920m
Elevation gain 16,764m / 55,000ft
Thanks to the following for their support:
Photos: Hana Black, Rachel Berry, Bill Brierley
Hana Black has put her previous life as an outdoor clothing designer/developer on hold to follow her dream of freewheeling about the planet. In 2016 she rode the inaugural 3000km Tour Aotearoa – the classic New Zealand bike packing tour. Hana and partner Mark Watson are recipients of the 2018 Bikepacking.com Explorers of the Year award for their contributions while biking the length of the Americas: Alaska to Patagonia. Follow their adventures at Highlux photo – Alaska to Argentina and Instagram @BeingHana and @Highluxphoto