Vuja De: Bikepacking New Zealand’s South Island

After first experiencing New Zealand‘s South Island during a life-altering thru-hike in 2015, Mckenzie Barney returns with a same-but-different journey in mind. This time astride her Kona Sutra LTD, Mckenzie reconnects with the familiar terrain through a new medium all while stitching together classic stretches of mixed-surface bike touring routes to cover the 1500km from Picton to Bluff.

There are certain events that become an invisible division of life before and after the milestone. Mine was thru-hiking the length of New Zealand. The elusive mystery of these islands in the middle of the Pacific beckoned me from my comfortable existence in the US, and I obeyed the calls within. I ditched my day job and cleared room for a life unexpected. In 2015, the dream of thru-hiking from top to bottom of NZ became a reality, joined by a ragtag tribe of extraordinary humans and a documentary film thrown in the mix. Slowly, I walked myself to a simple existence of self-sufficiency. My life was forever changed.

Now, seven years after that maiden voyage, I return to this country with a deep appreciation. For one, it’s my partner-in-crime, Jim’s, homeland, which in so many ways makes so much sense. On another existential level, the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ became my catalyst for exploring the world by means of human-powered travel. Earning one’s travel the self-supported, long-distance way is rewarded with heightened awareness. While other fast-tracked tourists thrive in comfort, they are denied the deep connection to a landscape. Fueled machines conquer time with efficiency, but by using the human body as propulsion at an analogue pace, the hours seem to slow down. I find there is no match for the cadence that comes with long voyages with everything I need (food, water, shelter) in my backpack or bike bags.

Walking long distances naturally evolved into bicycling long distances. Mile after mile, the body becomes the machine. The mind evolves into the conductor. And the soul, if kept quiet, can show the way. Route planning for all of my bicycle voyages is far from rigid. Instead of over-planning, I allow the experience to unfold and redirect as I go. For this South Island ride I have two weeks to try and get from top to bottom. I plotted out my route to roughly follow the Tour Aotearoa route– a concoction of cycle trails, gravel paths, dirt tracks, and pavement—that winds the length of the country.

Picton to Bluff: A Reintroduction to New Zealand’s South Island

The frequently used French phrase déjà vu (literally “already seen”) is known to us all as that jarring feeling of experiencing something that we perceived has already happened. But what occurs when we flip that on its head and rewire our perception? Vuja de is the reverse of déjà vu. It’s experiencing the familiar as if it’s unknown; the very act of re-examining the recognizable. Something told me that by re-visiting this corner of the atlas and embarking on a similar path that I first traveled seven years prior, the world would open up to me once again.

So I begin here, from Picton at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. Only this time instead of shouldering a rucksack, I am throwing a leg over a bike and pointing my wheels southbound for Bluff. This may not be my first time traveling New Zealand, nor my first bikepacking voyage, but it is this bike’s first long-distance departure. I’ll be riding Kona’s Sutra LTD, a steel drop-bar 29er, assembled with bikepacking bags. In contrast to the largely traditional touring set up that I used for my previous Cairo to Cape Town ramble in Africa, I’m eager to get this ATB machine out on its first voyage. I’ve allotted two weeks to tackle the 1,500 kilometers from Picton to Bluff, a schedule that will allow for a few spare days for rest or to sit out any foul weather.

Coastal Ridgelines & Re-Routes

Mountains jutting out of the sea always ranks at the top of world vistas, in my Seattle-raised opinion. On the fresh first morning of my South Island ride, the Queen Charlotte Sound put on a show. Winding through the contours of small coastal fishing towns, I eventually reached a crossroads that snapped me out of my dreamlike daze. Roadwork forced me to abandon my original Tour Aotearoa route plans, and creamy asphalt through vineyards and world famous wine country replaced my intended muddy mountain trails. By day two, I had reached the iconic view of Nelson Lakes from the remote alpine village St. Arnaud, population 110.

West Coast Wilderness Trail

From the Nelson Lakes region I finally hopped on the long-awaited gravel track. With my bike felt fully dialed into its element; the steel freedom vessel chomped through gravel with an idyllic ride.

I arrived at the west coast with a sense of relief. A slight malfunction on my part (dropped the bike on derailleur-side) earlier in the trip had bent my derailleur dropout. Thankfully it proved to be no problem for a humble ma-and-Pa bicycle shop in Greymouth. Within a half-day the bicycle magicians had alchemized my rig back to good as gold, and I was on my way into West Coast Wilderness Trail.

Word has gotten out about this stunning West Coast Wilderness Trail, and for good reason. I couldn’t decide which was more peaceful: the oxygen-enhanced native bush I was riding through, or the reassurance from my now properly-operating derailleur and access to my two lowest climbing gears.

Entering the World Heritage region of the Southwest of New Zealand, I weaved through sandfly-laden rainforest and rode past Franz Josef and Fox glaciers that hid behind misty clouds. Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) is known for its highly unpredictable weather patterns and, despite the cushion in my schedule, I accepted the challenge of a few rain-soaked days in the saddle. The Glacier Highway gave way to the Gates of Haast just as my legs decided to get into gear. A sunrise start and a few steep climbs later and there it was: the top saddle of the Haast mountain pass. I had officially crossed boundaries from the West Coast to Otago region.

The icy blue waters of Lake Hawea and the quaint town of Wanaka called for an off-day to rest the legs in between climbs. The following morning I trudged up the Crown Range toward the adventure haven of Queenstown. Halfway up the ascent I stopped at one of the oldest and arguably most photographed buildings in New Zealand, the famed Cardrona Hotel.

Coffee indulged and rainstorm avoided, I crested the Crown Range summit and bolted down zigzag switchbacks into the greater Queenstown area. With just an hour to spare I boarded the TSS Earnslaw, a historic coal-fired steamship, built in 1912, the same year of the infamous Titanic tragedy. The Earnslaw is the southern hemisphere’s only coal-fired steamship. I boarded the vessel and parked my bike safely into the bow while I explored the historic operations below. Everyone boarded the steamer for a scenic cruise of Lake Wakatipu, but when the boat docked at the remote Walter Peak Station across the lake, I was the only passenger drop off. A remote gravel section awaited me, populated by a few homesteaders and the aptly named Around the Mountains gravel cycling route.

I reached the holy grail of gravel-riding from Walter Peak Station to Mavora Lakes. Time stood still as I hummed to the rhythm of my pedals and gravel crunching beneath my Maxxis 29×2.25” tires. Originally intending to camp in the late afternoon, I simply could not stop riding. The setting sun, empty lakeside mountains, and desolate tussock country called me to keep going.

By 8:30pm I reached Mavora Lakes, an iconic setting for a few notable Lord of the Rings scenes. Draining light demanded that I begin scouting a forested home for the night, and I found a cozy spot to tuck in south of the lake. Once my Big Agnes Tiger Wall tent was pitched and dinner scarfed, I became acutely aware of the quiet. Motionless tranquility engulfed my home for the night. Nothing but bird song and the occasional whoosh of the wind accompanied me. No humans. No cars. No light pollution. When I awoke the following morning I was careful not to disturb nature’s perfect harmony.

Places and moments like this are harder to come by these days. So much noise. Not enough stillness. We run around, consumed by business, not paying enough attention to what matters most. What about the sacred silence, trees whispering their folklore, sunlight warming the skin after sleeping out under the stars? These intangibles, in my opinion, are ever more paramount. These are my medicine and the reason I venture out on trips like this: to reconnect with what matters. After all, we are just a tiny part of a larger ecosystem at play, a terrain of wonder and wilderness and rhythm and patterns.

The best way I know how to make sense of our time here is to follow the path that feels most illuminated and organically aligned. “Follow what feels right,” as some say. Things tend to work out when you listen intently on mornings like these. Mornings that fit like an ah-ha puzzle piece into the jigsaw of existence. As I swatted away sandflies and hopped back aboard my expedition rig for the final 150 kilometers to the bottom of the island, I couldn’t help but beam with gratitude for it all.

Land’s End

The cycling gods always have the last laugh. Six kilometers before reaching Bluff, my self-imposed and geographical finish line, I had my first and only flat tire of the trip. Tire repaired and Murphy’s Law noted, I carried on, eventually making it to the familiar Bluff signpost I had last seen seven years ago.

Thirteen days and 1,500 kilometers after setting off from Picton, I reached the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island in Bluff.

New Zealand is a country full of adventurers, travelers and vagabonds. Many start or finish at this very sign post that denotes the land’s end. The distances marked to other momentous cities around the world remind you just how far you’ve come.

For me, this signpost is akin to a personal time stamp, from which I can measure before and after. More than just serving as a bookend for my first thru-hike, life after this symbolic marker led to more self-supported adventures, starting my first company, meeting my partner, traveling the world, and eventually, bikepacking/touring. In seven years a lot can change, but some things remain timeless. I owe a lot to the trail that sparked it all for me, from the Te Araroa footpath to the Tour Aotearoa bike route. In our forward-thinking obsession with progress and efficiency, it seems only natural to cycle back to the places and pathways that were the catalyst for where we are today. Therein lies the opportunity for a little known magic called vuja de, where we can notice things previously unseen, turning our wheels amongst the ordinary until they become extraordinary.