Solo Bikepacking & Camping Around the Top of New Zealand South Island

A loaded touring bicycle at the top of a mountain overlooking a lakeContributor: Felipe Spina

Embarking on a 42-day solo bikepacking and camping adventure around the top of New Zealand’s South Island turned out to be an incredible journey filled with unexpected challenges and breathtaking landscapes.

My decision to hit the road was a spontaneous one, triggered by the impending end of my work contract and the need to take a break from my intensive 6.5 years as a conservation biologist in Latin America. Opting for a bikepacking style to keep costs down, I brought my trusty old hardtail MTB all the way from Brazil to New Zealand, decided to camp as much as possible, and to cook my own meals. Despite facing two freezing nights in heavy snow due to inadequate gear, my improvised setup with dry bags, straps, and bungee cords surprisingly worked well, though it did require some time-consuming adjustments each morning and evening.

The support and guidance from Warmshowers hosts played a crucial role in enhancing my experience. Meeting Phillip Palmer in Nelson marked the beginning of an enriching encounter with a seasoned cyclist who not only provided a warm place to stay but also shared valuable insights and tips on bikepacking in New Zealand. My route took me through a series of iconic trails, including the Tasman Great Taste Trail, where I encountered mischievous Weka birds during my first night of wild stealth camping. This would become the night routine pretty much every time I did wild stealth camping. As soon as I set up the camp, Wekas appeared from nowhere and tried to raid my food. I have to confess it was both a bit annoying but also entertaining to see those curious and mischievous birds so often.

A tent pitched under a shelter in the snow next to a lakeThe challenging Old Ghost Road, blanketed in heavy snow, added a touch of unexpected adventure. The 85 km-long Old Ghost Road traverses the majestic native forest, open tussock tops, river flats, and forgotten valleys. If the terrain was not challenging enough to do with an old loaded MTB, it was there the weather suddenly changed, and I found myself pedaling under heavy snow, at the very top of the trail, without coming into contact with anyone else on the way for 2 days. Looking back it was a memorable epic ride, but at the moment it soon became clear that I was neither prepared, nor had the right gear to face snow.

I then followed along the Heaphy Track for some stunning scenery and diverse ecosystems. The Heaphy Track is an 82 km track within the Kahurangi National Park, the second largest national park in the country and home to many Great Spotted Kiwi, interesting rock formations, caves, and natural arches. From the Heaphy Track I headed to the Abel Tasman National Park, facing some challenging hills on the way. At Abel Tasman I gave my legs a break and managed to find a Kayak to explore the beautiful coastal area, and this time the sun was with me.

View from the front of bicycle handle bars of an empty mountain trail and streamFrom there I jumped back on the Tasman Great Taste Trail and headed back to Nelson. I was supposed to finish my trip there, but the experience was so amazing, that I decided to extend my journey by 20 days, modified my gear and ventured into the Marlborough Sounds region, conquering the Queen Charlotte Track’s steep hills. I then headed towards Picton, to do the Molesworth Road, but first once again received valuable support from the Warmshowers community.

The Molesworth route takes you on a journey from Blenheim to Hanmer Springs. It follows the Awatere River, then crosses Wards Pass to follow the Acheron to its confluence with the Clarence River. It is one of New Zealand’s longest uninterrupted gravel roads that winds through the South Island’s largest working station, the Molesworth. It was a long, hilly and remote stretch of road, but the weather was nice despite some windy days and the scenery was very beautiful.

After a quick pass in Hanmer Springs to stock up on supplies that cost me going over the same pass twice, I followed on the Rainbow Road, which again tested my limits with rain and snow. This popular touring route offers cyclists a remarkable high-country wilderness experience complete with craggy mountains, beech tree forest, beautiful open tussock lands as well as remote campsites and backcountry huts. The trail connects Hanmer Springs with St. Arnaud (the main gateway to Nelson Lakes National Park) via the original stock route between Marlborough and Canterbury. It passes through two working farms – Rainbow Station, which is privately owned, and Molesworth Station, managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). My first night at Lake Tennyson in the tent under snow and heavy wind was pretty challenging and epic. The following day I had to climb higher and face even more snow on the way. Luckily on the second night I managed to shelter in a backcountry hut, and the sun appeared again on the third and final day of the Rainbow Road.

Loaded touring bicycle in front of a lake and mountainsThe Nelson Lakes National Park offered a sunny respite, allowing me to explore Mount Robertsson hiking. I then headed to Murchison and Motueka, rejoined the Great Taste Trail, concluding my epic solo journey with a return to Nelson. In total I pedaled over 1550 km and had a cumulative elevation gain of 36500 meters while cycling. It was an amazing and epic solo journey!

New Zealand’s South Island, with its abundant parks, campsites, backcountry huts, and friendly locals, proved to be a cyclist’s paradise. The safety of the region made it an ideal destination for exploration by bicycle, and the entire experience left me with unforgettable memories.

Check out my videos on YouTube for a visual journey through my New Zealand Solo Bikepacking and camping trip.