Bikepacking  An E-bike Lap of the South Island

With trusty Wellington commuter e-bike turned tough, off-road vehicle, Gunilla Jensen embarks on her first bikepacking adventure. Rather than starting small, she undertakes quite the feat — cycling once round New Zealand’s South Island.

By Gunilla Jensen (February 1, 2021)

I was meant to go to Denmark to visit my family in April 2020, but Covid happened. By the end of the year, I had a considerable amount of annual leave.  I considered tramping parts of the Te Araroa, but I was quite keen to see my friends in Dunedin and Christchurch, so my initial plan was to do a tiki tour in my car. 

I have been up and down the South Island West Coast a few times, but I’ve always wanted to do it slowly, so a thought occurred to me, that I could bike it – that would certainly be slow! However, I’ve never done any bikepacking, so the idea was a bit crazy. 

I commute to work by electric bike (e-bike) on a Felt Verza E30 commuter bike. I love it and it’s fun. 

I started investigating how to go bikepacking with my e-bike.  When I invested in a second battery to increase the distance to 180km between charges, I knew I was committed because batteries are eye-wateringly expensive.  I repurposed my tramping gear, so besides the second battery and a new pair of Ground Effect shorts and Ortlieb pannier bags, I didn’t have any great expenses.  

My rough plan was basically to cycle down the West Coast following the Tour Aotearoa route. In Wanaka I would head over the Otago Rail Trail to Dunedin. Then it was back up to Picton. I tried to recruit friends, but none were crazy enough to join me.  This was despite my “marketing department” promising sunshine every day, no sandflies, tailwind all the way, and all downhill…

There were a few “what if’s” in my mind… All by myself, big distance, no experience, in the middle of nowhere – it was just a bit crazy!

For safety, I enabled location sharing on my phone and brought my Personal Locator Beacon with me.  A friend from Dunedin had promised she would come to my rescue if needed. I also learnt that AA Roadservice covers e-bikes.   

Since I was on an e-bike, I didn’t pack super light. My tramping gear and experience helped me go lighter, but I did bring a few luxuries. On my front forks, I had my spare battery and my tent. In the handlebar carrier I had my valuables, and on the back I had my charger, clothing, food, sleeping bag, mat, tools and first aid kit.

On Boxing Day 2020 I set off and biked to the Bluebridge terminal. Bluebridge carries bikes for free. It was a rough crossing, so I was rather queasy as I biked along Queen Charlotte Drive, but a big smile was on my face as the adventure had begun. 

I met a fellow cyclist at the backpackers in Havelock that evening. He was biking to Nelson the following day on the same route, so we biked it together. It was such a good start to my trip and gave me confidence. 

The next morning I set off on the Great Taste Trail which includes the 1.4km Spooners Tunnel. It is such a beautiful trail and follows old railway tracks, so it’s lovely and flat. 

I didn’t book much accommodation in advance. My plan was if the weather wasn’t good, I would just stay where I was another night. With the lack of international tourists this year, it was not a problem and I often found myself having a whole bunkroom in a Backpacker’s Hostel all to myself. The lack of snores was good for my sleep, but my heart goes out to the suffering tourism industry.

Then came the day I went over the Maruia Saddle Route with six stream crossings. This gravel road is only recommended for 4WD, so I would never have gone here in my Corolla. My commuter e-bike was certainly no longer looking like a posh, clean Wellington commuter bike – instead it looked like a proper adventurous, tough bike that I could trust through anything. 

The highlight of my trip was the West Coast Wilderness Trail. It is so beautiful! I enjoyed the scenery, the people I met and having a cup of tea with Paul Sinclair by his Trappers Rest tepee (if you do this Trail, stop for a cuppa and a yarn there).  

I was quite sad when the Wilderness Trail came to an end, but in my opinion SH6 is the most beautiful highway in the world as it meanders through the glacier villages, under our big giants, through Bruce Bay, native forest and over Haast Pass. There are so many highlights on this stretch of road.  

I was unbelievably lucky because I only had one day of rain on my whole trip around the South Island. The forecast was for rain the day I crossed the Haast Pass, so I left at 6am from Haast. I saw the first car at 7am and it started raining at 9am when I reached the Gates of Haast. I was cold and wet when I arrived in Makarora at 11.30am, where friends took great care of me for the rest of the day:  warm shower, good food, many cups of tea and good conversations.

When I turned off the Tour Aotearoa route in Wanaka, I very much appreciated the work that the Kennett brothers and others have put into creating an excellent, safe and scenic cycling route. I headed for Clyde and nearly completed the Otago Rail Trail in one day. 

I spent a few days in Dunedin and did the Port to Port cycle path with a friend. We took the ferry from Port Chalmers to Portobello with our bikes and biked back around.  It was a lovely day and the Port To Port Cruises and Wildlife Tours companies were great!

Back on the road again heading for Christchurch, I found the trucks on SH1 quite scary. They were good at slowing down and giving me space, but the turbulence behind the big trucks was frightening. I know trucks have a bad rep among cyclists, but I thought they were trying to be as considerate as they could be. I was aware that I was on holiday and had all the time in the world, but the truck drivers were working and had to get their loads to a destination within a certain timeframe. Maybe we all need to see it more as a ‘privilege’ instead of a ‘right’ to be using our roads. 

I stayed off SH1 as much as possible, taking small parallel roads between Dunedin and Christchurch. A good friend gave me a ride between Oamaru and Timaru, where I found it hard to find a good SH1 alternative without going far inland.  The Canterbury Plains were rather boring. I took the less used, smaller roads, put some music on and sang along as no one could hear me. 

Travelling by car is definitely faster and more comfortable with aircon and soft seats. However, in the bubble of the modern car, you hardly use your senses. You don’t smell the fragrances in the air, hear the wind in the trees, feel the sun on your skin or have a sense of achievement after completing a long day. In a car you don’t notice how many fruit trees are along our highways. I would frequently stop and munch on fresh, tart apples, pears and plums. 

After a couple of nights in Christchurch (how I wish we had cycle paths in Wellington like Christchurch), a friend escorted me out of Christchurch to the start of the Hurunui Heartland Trail. The Hurunui Heartland Trail promised the best of rural New Zealand and certainly delivered on the promise, where my bike was turned into a mustering bike for moving sheep stock. It was on this Trail that I passed 2,000km. I gave my adventurous e-bike a pat for doing such a good job without any problems and celebrated with a Cookie Time Cookie. 

After the 2016 earthquake, a lot of SH1 was destroyed from big slips. NZTA has done a good job with the new road. A wide road and a shared pedestrian cycle path right next to the sea, so I could see all the seal pups frolic in the pools. I wish the path carried through all the way to Picton. 

I had been a little concerned about my solo trip, but I needn’t have. I met so many interesting people, strengthened my faith and had many laughs on the way. They sometimes walked away thinking I was absolutely crazy. And yep, they may have been right — but at least I was having a fabulous time being crazy!

Wilderlife