It’s not yet lunchtime and I’ve already cycled 65 kilometres off-road, over windswept grassland and loose rocks. Beneath a fleece of grey cloud, I’ve bumped along tussocks of ochre and umber that stretch to the horizon where they rise to mountains capped with snow.
I’ve skirted powder-blue lakes, cut through pine forests and dodged the odd sheep that got too close to my snaking tyres. And now, instead of riding it, I’m hauling my bike uphill on my back.
It’s the only way to make it to the top of Ben Ohau, a 1,600-metre peak in the Southern Alps, the mountainous backbone of New Zealand’s South Island.
I like to think that John Acland, one of New Zealand’s early explorers, would have been proud of my efforts. The intrepid Englishman arrived in Christchurch with his friend Charles Tripp in 1855 to take up sheep farming.
Discovering that the best farmland in the low-lying Canterbury Plains had already been taken, they started exploring higher ground, said to be “impassable” and fit only for wild pigs.
Acland’s view was: “In the colonies you always like to see for yourself, and the worse the account you hear of unoccupied country, the greater the reason for going to see it.”
Before long, Acland and Tripp had become New Zealand’s first high-country sheep farmers, an industry that thrives today. It’s in this kind of terrain that I now find myself, calf muscles burning as I scale the steep, uneven slope with my heavy load.
Ben Ohau is just one of the many challenges facing competitors of The Pioneer, New Zealand’s first seven-day mountain bike stage race, taking place between January 31 and February 6 2016.
The 546-kilometre route wends its way south west from Christchurch, Canterbury, to Queenstown in Central Otago, tracing the journeys of New Zealand’s early explorers along the way.
Participating teams of two will race along everything from gravel paths to rugged farmland, crossing more than 30 privately owned properties never before opened to the public.
Each evening, competitors roll up for a hot meal and ready-pitched tent at different host towns, ranging from country villages Geraldine and Fairlie to super-remote Lake Tekapo, Lake Ohau, Hawea and Snow Farm.
Unlocked In A Place So Few Will Ever See
Part of the race’s appeal is that it gives you the chance to meet farmers still working their ancestors’ land, as many of them will be manning aid stations along the route.
With a total elevation of over 15,000 metres – the equivalent of cycling up Mount Everest almost twice – completing it will be a test of endurance. But don’t let that put you off registering (which can be done online until January 14), because lighter options are available.
There is also a three-day traverse, taking in the final 219 kilometres from Lake Ohau to Queenstown, as well as one-day rides in Christchurch and Queenstown, and a seven-kilometre ride for children. Besides, there has never been a better time to cycle in New Zealand.
At a cost of around NZ$80 million (A$75 million), the government recently completed the Nga Haerenga, or the New Zealand Cycle Trail, a project designed to promote 23 “Great Rides” across North and South Islands. Two of them – the Alps 2 Ocean and Queenstown Trail – feature in The Pioneer.
Back on Ben Ohau, my three cycling companions, Dave Beeche, Geoff Hunt and Bernard Robinson, also have bikes slung across their shoulders. This Lycra-clad trio are from the New Zealand event organisers Lagardere, and today I am joining them on their recce of the race, which has been 18 months in the planning.
Our climb comes halfway through stage four, the 111-kilometre stretch between Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau. “We wanted to put on a world-class mountain-bike stage race that’s up there with the likes of the Transalp in Europe,” Beeche, Lagardere’s chief executive, tells me as we pause for breath on the mountainside.
“New Zealand is most famous for its beautiful lakes and mountain scenery on the South Island. This race will pass through these areas while also taking you off the beaten track.”
Below us lies Mackenzie Country, the wild bowl at the foot of the Southern Alps, carved out by ancient glaciers. The area is named after James McKenzie, a Scottish sheep thief who ran stolen flocks in this then-uninhabited region in the 1840s.
Beeche points out Lake Pukaki, its glacial water blazing turquoise even under today’s sombre sky, and the dark smudge of Twizel, where Peter Jackson filmed part of The Lord of the Rings.
A falcon wheels overhead. The only sound is the wind, nipping my cheeks and swaying the tufts of straw-coloured grass. At this moment I feel a sense of satisfaction – that I have somehow unlocked a part of New Zealand that most visitors don’t see.
“All the elements of adventure, discovery and going on a journey to new places are embodied in the word 'pioneer’,” Beeche says, explaining the choice of the race name.
“First the Maori then the Europeans stepped into the unknown when they arrived here – and you will need this type of pioneering spirit – and a basic level of fitness – to get you over the finish line.”
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Journey Begins At A City Rebuilding
The last country in the world to be settled by humans, New Zealand was initially discovered by the Polynesian forebears of today’s Maori around 900 years ago.
Captain James Cook became the first European to land there in 1769, and his reports about the country’s resources – including timber, flax, seals and whales – led to an increase in British interest: by 1840, New Zealand had become a British colony.
Like Acland and Tripp, many early Europeans – also known as “Pakeha” – arrived by ship at Lyttelton Harbour, a port just south east of Christchurch. This city, still rebuilding itself after the 2011 earthquake that claimed 185 lives, is where stage one of The Pioneer, and my own two-wheeled journey, begins.
Under a cloudless spring sky, I follow Andy Hunt, a guide from Natural High bike rentals, around the 37-kilometre circuit of the flat Canterbury Plains and soaring Port Hills.
We head south, leaving behind the pulverised cathedral and piles of rubble in the worst-hit Red Zone district of Christchurch, and the willow-lined Avon River, where punts still glide along its tranquil water.
“The European settlers renamed many parts of the land to make unknown territory feel familiar to them,” Andy says, as we reach Halswell Quarry Park.
He explains how the new arrivals quickly began to transform the landscape. “You see this gorse?” he says, waving his arm towards yellow flowering bushes carpeting the hills and emitting a tropical scent that’s a mix of pineapple and coconut. “These were introduced as a hedging plant from Scotland, but they spread wildly in our temperate climate and are now as much of a curse as the possums that the Australians brought over.”
The Maori used the thorns as tattooing chisels, while the Europeans would bush-burn large swathes of them to convert forest to farmland.
Now begins some punishing climbing up winding single track, rewarded by the sight of the Canterbury Plains, a mosaic of green within the serrated skyline of the Southern Alps.
Sweat stings my eyes as I grind through my gears behind Andy, unable to believe that this is meant to be the easiest day of The Pioneer. Just when my thighs can’t take another revolution, I look up to find the trail has led us to a clearing with spectacular views down to Lyttelton Harbour. The turquoise water, surrounded by the rumpled, olive-coloured Port Hills, is still busy with ships today.
A former dairy farmer from nearby Lincoln, Andy knows this landscape and its history like the back of his cycling glove. “We are standing on top of an ancient volcano,” he says.
“Christchurch’s first European settlers, or Canterbury Pilgrims as they became known, landed at Lyttelton Harbour in 1850 before embarking on their historic trek over these hills.”
In The Footsteps Of Gold Rush Pioneers
Setting off on foot or horseback, the settlers would have used tracks such as Dyers Pass, which we reach after an adrenalin-fuelled descent down single track strewn with rocks and drops.
Today, Dyers Pass is asphalted – part of just nine per cent of tarmac roads used in The Pioneer.
Though most British settlers initially came to New Zealand for sealing and whaling, then sheep farming, the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s quickly attracted a deluge of prospectors.
Stages six and seven take you into gold mining country – past Cardrona Valley, now known for its vintage hotel and ski fields, and up the Criffel Diggings Trail, where you can still see remnants of the hand-dug water races (channels cut in the hillside to aid gold mining).
On the final stretch of The Pioneer, gravel crunches under my tyres as I near New Zealand’s self-appointed “adventure capital”, on the (thankfully flat) Queenstown Trail.
I push on past the vineyard-cloaked hills of the Gibbston Valley, home to New Zealand’s largest wine cave and stellar pinot noir.
Pedalling over the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, I leave behind screaming tourists bungy jumping off what was once a key access route to the goldfields.
When I finally wheel into Queenstown, I’m exhausted but exhilarated. Sweat pours from beneath my helmet and my legs are flecked with dirt.
William Rees, Queenstown’s founding father whose statue stands near the town pier, must have known the feeling. The Welsh sheep farmer arrived here after six weeks’ rough riding through unmapped territory.
Standing by his statue, I watch as the sun casts pools of orange on Lake Wakatipu, before finally setting on the jagged horizon, and my own pioneering adventure.
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This article was written by Ellie Ross from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.