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The A2O experience - Sarah Bartlett

Spontaneity creates adventure - I am a firm believer in the art of throwing oneself headfirst into any available deep end, so when a friend asked over beer and good food, “Would you be interested in doing the Alps to Ocean with me?” I quickly responded with a hearty “YES! Absolutely”.

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Did I understand what the A2O was at that point? Not entirely. I knew it was a beautiful biking adventure through our stunning South Island back country, correct information. I did not know, however, that it would be challenging and at times frustrating. It would test my physical strength and patience but leave me feeling so incredibly proud and accomplished. I pushed off from Lake Tekapo as a debatably normal human but barreled into Oamaru 4.5 days later as a grinning, bikepacking junkie, already thinking about their next fix.

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So, why on earth would I agree to a 300 km bike ride? Fish out of water comes to mind, the succinct answer is this; I have used up a good chunk of my time employed in the hobby of fighting for my life. Cancer has been a close acquaintance of mine for the past seven years and having ended that relationship victoriously I was more than ready to show the universe I was back in the ring. When you are slammed in the face with the stark reality of your own mortality there isn’t much that seems insurmountable, 300 kilometer bikepacking adventures included.

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Having never considered bikepacking seriously or even at all it was daunting to take on the A2O as my first jaunt. It soon became apparent that this was more than a ‘Famous Five’ style outing into the countryside as gear lists were created and shared and instructions given. My well seasoned outdoorsy friend (and soon to be director of bikepacking) Joshua, exercised the patience of a saint as I relentlessly fired off inane and naive questions around gear, bikes, tents, cookers and anything else remotely involved in our expedition.

Most of my pre-trip anxiety was based around the gear I didn’t need to take. It took a solid week of refining, defining and editing what started as a Mt. Taranaki pile of clothing and extras down to a terrifyingly small collection more akin to a hill on the Canterbury Plains! That is, almost non-existent. This was a mental challenge but definitely worth the time and effort because trust me, when you are pushing your pannier laden mountain bike up the craggy, avalanche scarred Ohau range you will thank me that you removed the extra jumper, pajamas, books and hairbrush. Every gram of weight counts.

If like me you are a well experienced “just in case” packer then you need to think in layers. To be blunt, if you are going to camp along the way and carry everything you need then you are going to be more than a bit grungy and grimey. Once you accept this it is much easier to think logically about your clothing options. Base layers of thermals then build through to wind resistant clothing and wet weather gear. A warm and clean set of clothing to sleep in, woolen socks - I took three pairs after culling five! Padded bike shorts, an absolute must. A frugal supply of undergarments, good bike appropriate shoes, a hat for cold and a hat for sun. An item of gear that the cool and calm Joshua strongly recommended was a buff. I laughed and made survivor jokes at this item but decided he probably knew what he was on about and ordered one. Unsurprisingly he was absolutely correct, this flimsy tube of fabric was magical. A protector against all sorts of elements as well as a snazzy headband! I thoroughly recommend investing in one.

Weather watching intensified as our proposed set-off date drew closer. The A2O website allows you to monitor the weather conditions on each section of the trail as well as the ability to look a week ahead. Very handy when counting your days of biking and tentatively painting a picture of what you may encounter. We grabbed our window of time, booked my bike and bags for pick-up in Oamaru, took a deep breath or ten and headed off. We decided to use a shuttle service from Oamaru to Lake Tekapo where we were beginning our ride. The upside of this was having a secure base in Oamaru for vehicle storage as well as collection from Friendly Bay when we rolled back into town. The frustration of using a shuttle service was exercising patience when we were itching to get pedaling. Dropping off cyclists and bikes along the way meant we departed Tekapo later than we would have liked.

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The alternative route from Tekepo to Twizel is a lovely start to the trip, biking alongside canals and the vast dry Mackenzie Basin grasslands eases your mind and body into bikepacking mode. Because of our later than preferred start, as well as my need to stop every five minutes for an hour to adjust my bike, we ended up setting up camp in the late dusk light. The Mackenzie Basin is counted as the world’s largest and highest quality Dark Sky Reserve for a very good reason. My main body ache complaint from the first day was a pain in my neck from staring upward into the stars after dinner!

A much needed and wanted coffee in Twizel early on day two and we headed out to ride the water’s edge of Lake Ohau. After 18 kilometers of canalside road we began one of the most beautiful sections of the A2O, the Lake Ohau foreshore. The weather was absolutely golden, closer to a cool summer’s day than mid-autumn. The trail is a touch wider than a single track and winds lazily in sync with the lake. The weather was so beautiful that we shed our sweaty socks and shoes and took a gloriously cold water dip at the old hut. This is what adventure is about, doing the things that are fun and impulsive, that remind you you're alive and that hint at childhood memories of being in the moment.

Back on the trail to bike through to Ohau Lodge. This is where I learnt my first very memorable lesson. If you think there might be something wrong with your bike then you really should stop and check. Joshua noticed I was falling back further along the sealed road leading to the lodge, it was at this point that he was most likely seriously reconsidering my general fitness, biking ability and seemingly deluded self confidence, though he tells me he was actually considering that my bike had a problem - I think he is being polite. Unbeknownst to me my back tire was very low on air and with the added weight of my panniers it was what I imagine cycling through a swamp of porridge would feel like. I started to seriously doubt my abilities as I became slower and more fatigued. A stop at the bottom of the Ohau Lodge drive to check my bike clarified the situation and it was easily resolved. My deflated self esteem and muscle fatigue were not so easily replenished, not ideal as we began the 900 meter ascent up the lower slopes of the Ohau Range. It was at this stage that I named my bike Bertha. Bertha and I developed a love-hate relationship as I pushed her up the never-ending false summits, 11km to the top. The descent down to the historic Woolshed campsite was one of the highlights of the trail for me. I adore a fast downhill session and who knew that doing it in fading light would be so fun. If you were to ask Joshua for his opinion on my reckless downhill skills you might catch a wee tale about Bertha and I crashing because it was just a bit too dark! Moving on.

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The facilities at the woolshed are fantastic. A clean long-drop toilet, flat ground for pitching tents and the melodic babbling Quail Burn stream meant we had a comfortable night once pitched and settled. I absolutely recommend catching the sunrise at the woolshed site. The hills on the horizon slowly emerge, nestled in clouds as the valley clears for the day. An inspiring and motivating vista to head into day three with.

We enjoyed a swift and fun run down from the old woolshed through to Omarama, stopping for more coffee and stocking up on supplies at the ever present and reliable local Four Square supermarket. Another stunning day meant we enjoyed a beautiful ride through to Benmore Dam/Otematata. Autumn is a visual feast along the A2O trail, if you are able to ride during this time of the year I strongly encourage you to do so. I have never yelled  “This is SO beautiful” so much before! Each wind and swoop along the lake’s edge revealed painting worthy reflections, contrasts of colour and drifting leaves. I made the cautious decision to take my trusty DSLR camera along on the journey and I am so pleased I did. It started the trip nestled in the bottom of my pannier, well wrapped in thermal tights and a dry bag, but, with every photo op it migrated closer and closer to the top until it enjoyed a somewhat haphazard bike adventure dangerously zipped just below deck!

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The trail to Benmore Dam leads you through the Dunstan Downs High Country Sheep Station. The woolen residents of the station were aloof and nonplussed by our presence, barely looking up from their grazing as we rolled past. By this point Bertha and I had made a truce, the bike to remain stable on tight corners and myself to stop insulting her generous back end. It was timely that peace had been found between my bike and I as this section is grade three and requires a good level of fitness, technical ability and determination. The single track is at times rocky with tight, blind corners so caution is required. What goes up must come down and the steady climbs are rewarded by joyously quick switchbacks and longer downhill runs.

We rode this section somewhat serendipitously mixed in with a tour group of eager E-Bikers, we had encountered them over the previous two days, sometimes eyeing up their support bus with just a hint of envy. Stopping at the peak of the station before the incredibly fun run down to the dam, a contingent of the tour group were generous in their admiration of our lack of technological assistance! They venerated our fully loaded traditional mountain bikes and were even more impressed when we told them we were camping along the way. I would like to take this opportunity to say that it does not matter the style of bike you choose to pop your bottom on! Self propelled or assisted, you are out there doing it! As I said to the glorious E-Bike gang, you have chosen to be outside! Out in the world when you could easily be indoors, working or watching a screen and yet here you are, an active participant in your life. E-bikes have made biking New Zealand accessible to so many people, that can only be a positive and uplifting thing.

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The outlook to Benmore is breathtaking, the valley and lake are picturesque, almost surreal after zooming through tussocked craggy backcountry for a few hours. Those shades of autumn! I can’t wax lyrical enough about the utter gorgeousness of the A2O at this time of the year. Farewelling the E-Bike bunch we decided to head down Te Akatarawa road in search of a campsite for the evening. Following the Waitaki River through to Lake Aviemore was a peaceful way to end a big but wonderful day of bikepacking, the road, eerily quiet, created a peaceful atmosphere to wrap up the day’s efforts. Bertha and I mastered a new skill on this stretch of road, opening and consuming a peanut slab whilst biking uphill without wibbling or wobbling, a fine moment indeed. We decided on the Waitangi West camping ground, paid our fees and set up our tents. Given it was still light another cold water swim was in order. The sheltered and enchanting inlet at Waitangi West must be a haven for eager swimmers in the summer season, unsurprisingly we were the only humans taking advantage of the lake, gloriously cold it quickly invigorated tired muscles and spirits. Cold water swimming is a real treat, I highly recommend throwing yourself into water at any opportunity - even more so when it seems off-season, even better if those around you tell you you’re mad! The benefits are vast and wonderful.

I have been asked to comment on any ‘memorable interactions’ while biking the A2O trail, camping at Waitangi West delivers nicely on this topic. If you ask Joshua about the dangerous creatures of Aotearoa he will scoff good naturedly and when questioned he will recount the “real” dangerous animals that are an “actual threat” where he grew up, you know, bears, wolves, bobcats, more bears. So it was tremendously entertaining and somewhat satisfying to hear a surprised and slightly alarmed mountain man exclaim from his tent that something had crawled in! He quickly established the presence of a curious Hedgehog who had managed to bumble its way through the unzipped corner of his vestibule and into what must have seemed a welcoming and warm burrow. Being zipped safely into my own tent I offered up helpful advice, including “Just nudge it with your shoe” “roll it back out” and “NO, do NOT pick it up”. The hog was humanely escorted out with a gentle roll and no doubt Joshua added the prickly critter to his list of real dangerous animals of the wild.

Rain seemed imminent on the morning of day four. Wet weather gear was moved to the top of panniers and furtive glances cast skyward as we packed down our tents. The weather gods seemed to favour our entire trip with not a drop of rain making contact the entire time, a huge relief.  We whipped through a seemingly short and easy ride to Kurow where we relished top quality coffee and service at Wild Sage cafe. I highly recommend their scones, perfection! One of the great aspects of cycling the A2O is the community of cyclists that seem to move loosely together along the trail. We found ourselves recognising familiar faces, checking in with progress and conditions and encouraging one another. During our down time in Kurow I caught up with others and was alerted to the apparently treacherous river conditions heading to Duntroon. After some strategising it was decided that we’d have a crack as the detour route was along the highway. By the time we approached the promised raging torrent all warning signs had been removed and the river was easily passable, Bertha didn’t even get a wet bottom. The remainder of the trail through to Duntroon crosses farmland, it is easy riding, feeling considerably placid compared to the day before.

Duntroon. What a place! I sincerely mean this. We camped overnight at the Duntroon Domain for $10 each. This included the use of full kitchen facilities, laundry, lounge, scrupulously maintained bathroom facilities and the best of all - hot showers! Bertha even got to sleep inside what I am convinced is the country's largest laundry room. Showered and no longer smelling like a dairy farm, we decided on a side quest to the local watering hole - The Duntroon Hotel, a mere 280 meter walk from our campsite. This establishment is brimming with good quality hospitality, beer and food. All three were received with grateful enthusiasm, even when the lovely lady behind the bar cheerfully informed me “It’s all uphill to Oamaru from Duntroon, that’s why I drive”. The atmosphere was a cheerful hubbub of locals and bikers alike. Once again we encountered familiar faces who seemed just as delighted with the soft seats and beverages as we were. Duntroon was quite a high spot on our journey, hot showers, hot food not prepared over a camp cooker and couches to sit on really made it an oasis. Wobbly legs, casualties to both beer and bike, carried us the 280 meter walk back to our tents and a final nylon entombed sleep before heading out on the homeward stretch to Oamaru.

The hotel bartender was indeed prophetic, it is uphill to Oamaru. The topographic profile for the last section of the A2O is daunting, especially when viewed at 4am in the morning when your brain has decided to wake up! The first 27 km seemed a bit mean after four days on the bike, a final test of mind over matter with the end so very near. Once the first half of the 54 km pedal to Friendly Bay is dealt with it is great fun. I definitely recommend stopping at Elephant Rocks, pop a gold coin in the donation box and have an amble about the stunning limestone wonders. The historic Rakis railway tunnel is a blast, headlamps and bike lights are very helpful here. From the tunnel on it is a sweeping ride downhill with the chance to build some serious speed, then through farmland and back to civilisation. We took one final pit-stop at the Fort Enfield Tavern before rolling into Oamaru, through the beautiful botanic gardens and into the historic precinct and a very satisfying and accomplished last dismount at Friendly Bay where the A2O officially terminates.

A2O Sarah Bartlett 2023 - 8“Would you be interested in doing the Alps to Ocean with me?” with the power of hindsight, would I still have agreed to go? A hearty “YES! Absolutely”. The A2O is a challenging but rideable trail for a new long distance biker. There is enough flat and downhill to off-set the ascents. The trail itself is well maintained and supported, passing through plenty of small communities which meant we were able to stock up on supplies and of course caffeine! Heading into the ride I had never bikepacked before, I was strong and fit though, which I believe enabled me to cope well with the physicality of the adventure. Fitness and in particular bike fitness is something that should be considered when committing to any multi-day bike trip. Get some extended time in the saddle ticked off, become comfortable with being uncomfortable. No matter how padded your bike pants are you will eventually be sore in places you never considered possible! Like any endurance activity, long haul biking is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Remaining calm, resting well and eating enough will go a long way in helping you maintain your zen. I cannot recommend the A2O enough, if you are sitting on the fence about committing to the trail my advice is this, simply say yes. Life is for living, you won’t regret it.A2O Sarah Bartlett 2023 - 8