Can there be a better start to a trail than farewelling the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ and plying across a pristine lake on a 100-year-old steamship, with a backdrop of the most remarkable mountains? Well if there is, I want to find it! Leaving Queenstown (or should that be ‘Queenopolis’ given the recent population explosion?), you leave the bustle of business for simpler shores. The trip on the TSS Earnslaw is like the briefest of ocean journeys spiriting you away to a whole new land; and once you leave the steamship’s dark coal-smoke clouds behind, a fresh new journey begins.

Overview map of the Around the Mountains trail

I have guided many cycle groups on this trail and have noticed how riders hop off the boat, full of anticipation of what lies ‘around the mountains’, fizzing in their excitement, much like I imagine how the first pioneers who arrived on these shores might have felt. I love the way that in less than an hour cyclists go from comfort to corrugations as they ride towards the Von Valley. I can still picture some of their smiles as they pedal lakeside with the hanging glaciers over their shoulder, while steady headwinds try to blow them backwards. Their joy persists on the trail between two farm stations, before heading inland, when stern faces contemplate the Von Hill appearing ahead.

The graceful curves of this trail are a nice break from the straight railway lines

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Any cycle-tour leader knows that word-choice is critical for describing an ascent. It is something that they don’t teach you but you soon learn. What is merely an undulation for some is a hill for others, and the same hill can be a mountain for yet others. The wrong term from me could mean no relief from the riders tormenting me about my description for the rest of the tour. Sometimes it is best to just point to the feature rather than describe it. So I just point. Arriving at the climb sees a few of us walk, some ride, while some do a bit of both; either way it is an achievement to rise 300 metres onto the barren plateau at the top and leave Otago behind. Now we’re in Northern Southland. This plateau can be a harsh environment despite being a public road. In the Von Valley there is no thick scrub or building to offer shelter, no cellular service, and being up at 700 metres in the south it can be bone chilling at any time of the year.

The six-pane window in the hut looks right up the Von

The Von brings back fond memories of my spring data collection for the Great Rides App I have built. The Von was the place I trialled my equipment before venturing nationwide. The three GPS units attached to my bike became my trusty cycle log. The first tracking point I gathered in the Von quickly snowballed to five million at the end of my Great Year. That’s a lot of data! With the devices recording and my wife and I dressed for a snowstorm, we rode through this beautiful valley. My gloved frozen digits soon became clumsy appendages, hopeless for entering waypoints of passing trail features on the GPS. The features we saw and recorded were something else. A tussock terrace hemmed in by craggy mountains was a delightful highlight; it’s no wonder the Tour Aotearoa cyclists who ride the length of the country rank this valley so highly.

The only traffic we found on the Von

After crossing some chilling fords we reach the historic Bullock Creek Hut. It’s a privately owned musterers’ hut open to the public for day use only. It was built right back in the early pastoral days. I am fascinated at the use of beech tree branch framing inside the hut, the rough sawn cladding, and the views down the Von through its rustic six-pane window. Shepherds once wintered here to keep sheep below the snowline of the Eyre Mountains. Brrr! It would have been a scenic, remote and frigid existence for those pioneers.

The Bullock Creek Hut takes you right back to our early pioneer days

We continue pedalling, extremities still numb from the cold, while my GPS units collect data plotting our tyre tracks as we ride to more lakes ahead.

If there was a jewel along this majestic trail it would have to be the Mavora Lakes. Just a few metres off the main trail and surrounded by a canopy of virgin rainforest, is another world much like that of Middle Earth – in fact there are several filming locations within a Hobbit’s hop of these two lakes. When you reach the first marked viewpoint on this side trail, a lake view opens up to South Mavora; the suspension bridge over the lake outlet seems unreal.

Crossing one of two fords on the way to Mavora Lakes

The lake edges have no buildings, and to cross the lake is to enter a wilderness. Continuing further along the road to North Mavora brings us to the grassy terraces of a Department of Conservation basic campsite offering some of the most idyllic tenting options in the front country. We pitched our tent after our ride and took a forest walk – careful not to disturb hiding Hobbit’s – before hitting the sack. As morning broke, we headed outside where the sandflies were truly mean suckers. We were out of there lickety-split!

Mavora Lakes is a majestic gem and well worth a small detour (Credit – Around the Mountains Images)

Back on the main trail the gravel road continues south before arcing eastward through farmland. Under normal weather conditions this is a welcome turn as the prevailing westerly wind will now push us along. Soon we reach the Centre Hill cattle-yards where we hop onto the purpose-built cycle trail. Here civilisation starts to reappear. The ‘Around the Mountains’ trail was one of seven quick-start projects of the overall NZ Cycle Trail project. This trail was proposed in two parts; however, the first stage, following the Oreti River of the Von, got tied up in Environment Court cases and sadly was later abandoned. As a result, the original second stage became the first and the purpose-built cycle trail starts near the cattle-yard. With a howling westerly at our backs we made good speed on this wide and flat trail – it was one of those days when a sail would have been useful. For a distance the trail playfully mimics the snaking bends of a freshwater spring-fed creek. It is lovely riding.

The second half of the trail passes through scenic farmlands

We are not alone in benefiting from the breeze. Massive blades of wind farm turbines flash as they come into view, heralding our arrival at the back streets of Mossburn – the deer capital of New Zealand. Following the demise of a deer processing factory, the town is now supported by farming and the increasing tourist traffic flocking to Fiordland. At about the halfway point on the Around the Mountains trail, Mossburn is the first township of several along the way. Some people will stop and choose from a couple of places to eat and will stay here. Not us. We continue east.

Some farm homes have seen a few years

Next, we negotiate the Mossburn Slaloms, a series of power poles that weirdly and annoyingly ended up right in the middle of the trail, before we reach the junction to Lumsden. Lumsden was formerly known as ‘The Elbow’ as it is where the river turned 90 degrees, and was also known as ‘The Hub’ as it was at a railway crossroads. Today the rails have become trails, and tourists have replaced trains at the former Lumsden railway station – a hectic gathering place each night where freedom campers come in to roost. The free overnight parking here is proving extremely popular with the punters, and while dividing the opinion of locals, there is no denying that it keeps the largest town on the trail full of life. We cycle north, passing The Elbow, coming around the Eyre Mountains, to head for the bottom of Lake Wakatipu.

On some sections the trail has rail

Onwards we travel through blink-and-you’ve-missed-it Five Rivers and then over the Jollies hills before dropping into the Mataura catchment. The trail hops over a couple of creeks with the help of some suspension bridges before reaching the small township of Athol. One of the highlights of Athol is a brand-spanking-new custom-built art gallery beside the trail.

The Golden Gate suspension bridge is a real photo stopper (Credit – Around the Mountains Images)

If you are after some local art for a lasting memory of your ride, then park your bike and peruse. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, have a look at the depth of talent on show in here. Wow! After appreciating the works we point our bikes in the direction of the ‘Golden Gates’, two towering and beautiful cycle trail suspension bridges over the Mataura River. These bridges are a sure-fire photo stop, a visual celebration of structural engineering.

Northern Southland offers the most scenic of spots (Credit – Around the Mountains Images)

The trail continues to follow the former railway line down a long straight into the settlement of Garston. Garston’s claim to fame: New Zealand’s most inland village. Recently it has had an upsurge of commercial activity providing a new place to eat and stay as well as two stores – one selling locally crafted art, jewellery and homewares, the other an eclectic mix of imported furniture and New Zealand honey … odd, but in a small town one does what works. Garston seems to be on the up! As I sip a hot chocolate in the sun and look up to the skyline, I feel warmed in body and mind by memories formed in the hills above us. The prominent rock feature I’m looking at on top of the Slate Range is Welcome Rock, a place where I spent several seasons, both designing and building (by hand) a cycle trail, with landowner and good mate Tom. I can still remember those cold winter days, clearing snow to cut trail on these former gold miners’ water races. My thoughts return to the present as the Kiwi flag above us starts to flutter then flap; the afternoon anabatic wind will be our friend helping us home to Kingston.

Fairlight station heralds the last stop before Kingston

We ride north, crossing the Mataura River twice and passing the former railway station of Fairlight. Perhaps you’ve seen it featured on a TV One promotional advert showing a ball rolling along its dilapidated platform. Just before Lake Wakatipu comes into view we pass Trotters homestead, the remains of stone walls the only remnant of the first European settlers’ home in the area. After saving a waypoint marking this historic ruin we head downhill, a fast flowing trail through former glacier moraines and terminating at the quaint lakeside village of Kingston. The wharf that extends out into the clear waters marks the finish of the trail that traverses around the mountains of southern Wakatipu. It is quite fitting that the end of the trail at the end of the Kingston railway branch is the site of the well-known and loved Kingston Flyer steam train. In 1911 the Flyer brought the TSS Earnslaw (where our adventure began) up to here from Dunedin in sections, to be reassembled, launched and used as a ferry before a road ever reached Queenstown. Heritage encircles our cycle journey.

Kingston wharf is the end of the line (Credit – Around the Mountains Images)

By riding the Around the Mountains trail we have come around the Eyre Mountains – a series of rugged ranges separating the Von Valley from Kingston and Lake Wakatipu. The range was named after a New Zealand Lieutenant-Governor of both the lower North Island (New Ulster/Northern Island) and the South Island (New Munster/Middle Island) in the early settlement days. I prefer the Māori name for the ranges of ‘Taka Ra Haka’ which refers to the sun dancing along the mountain tops in the evenings. At our home in Kingston, we measure the advance of summer by the extent the sun skips over the ridgeline above our house – some days, the troughs between peaks bathe us in 10 minutes more sunbeams than the day prior. At journey’s end I reflected on the trail and the experiences it delivered. It’s a journey of contrasts; fleeing from civilisation to the wild; riding on-road before going off-road; and from barren open expanses to forest-filled valleys. I liked how we departed the lake before circling right back to its shores. Yes, this trail is about leaving the bustle and being taken on a journey around the mountains, circling Taka Ra Haka – to a place where the sun frolics along the mountain tops.

There are several bike outfitters and accommodation providers, so it’s worth checking out the official trail website and the Great Rides App for more details.

Profile: A Great Ride Cartographer and trail designer Gary Patterson has mapped his way around the globe from sub-Antarctic islands to back-country bike trails on almost every continent. He recently returned home for an epic adventure riding all 22 NZ Cycle Trails Great Rides to create a mobile app. The Great Rides App is the only mobile application for the trails, and can be freely downloaded from the app stores. Follow Gary’s travels to inspire, plan and guide you on your own journey.

Photographs: Gary Paterson and photographers as shown (OCRTM).