For the October school holidays, Stu Waddel from Licence to Ride planned a beauty: take a Britz 4-berth campervan, with a bike rack, two adults and two girls (aged 4 and 5) and explore the South Island. They added their quiver of bikes: a single speed with an attachable bike trailer, a classic mountain bike from the early 2000s, a pink flower bike suitable for a 5-year-old girl and a balance bike to ensure their youngest wasn’t missing out.
The family quickly learnt the secret to campervan travelling is that plans often need to change. They'd hoped to check out the west coast, but rain was forecast all week, so instead, they opted for a run from Christchurch to the Catlins, down the east coast.
Christchurch to Christchurch
Best Time of the Year
all year round
- Curio Bay
- Tautuku Bay
Christchurch to Rakaia Huts
Distance 60km - Driving Time 50 mins
Britz has a sweet set-up in Christchurch, with pick-up from the airport, and the new purpose-built premises makes it easy to get yourself sorted for an adventure. We had bikes loaded onto the back of the camper, and ample storage meant it didn’t take too long to sort all gear and food. So, here came the first of many changes to plans: on leaving we realised that it wasn’t long before dinner time; instead of aiming for Ashburton for the first night we found ourselves at the Rakaia Huts. It’s an old fishing community with an equally old and classic playground, a wild stone beach and $5 donation campground.
Rakaia Huts to Moeraki
Distance 229km - Driving Time 3 hours
After our first night, we travelled south as far as Moeraki Boulders and explored the eastern coastline. The boulders were great fun to play on, and a good introduction to some of the sweet beaches we’d encounter further south. We also spied one yellow-eyed penguin on the peninsula where the lighthouse and DOC have teamed up to create a rescue and rehab centre. The girls’ eyes lit up when we were fortunate to have a close encounter.
Alas, weather was starting to show its ugly side and a cold wind, with overnight rain, meant the idea of riding was limited to talking about it or exploring from the campground. A ride along the beach at Moeraki was a good start to our two-wheel missions. You can join a track from the village, which drops to the beach, then pedal power along to the boulders and back.
Moeraki to Curio Bay
Distance 255km - Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins
Day three presented a choice: pull into Dunedin and ride Signal Hill by myself, while the family explored the southern city or drive south? Weather again made us push on through, and we found ourselves camping at Purakaunui Bay Campsite.
As yet, the bikes hadn’t had much of a run and continued rain by night, plus a lack of built trails around the Catlins–Clutha area, made me wonder if we’d find anything. But the southern coastline pulled us in for the wild ocean air and two more fantastic beach rides. It became obvious to me that if one wasn’t here to surf then the next best way to explore the beaches was by bike.
My first Catlins coastal beach ride was around Curio Bay. A memorable ride at low tide and looking out to the glistening ocean, while seabirds flew overhead and the golden sand rolled under the wheels. A dip at the half-way point was a welcome surprise, before return. We watched the sunset, and a yellow-eyed penguin comes and says hello before waddling to a nest. This was the most southern point of our trip.
Curio Bay to Taukuku Bay
Distance 40km - Driving Time 40 mins
The next day, before heading north, the rain had again fallen overnight. We timed our stop for a low-tide ride at Tautuku Bay. When driving south the day prior we’d spied the beach from The Florence Hill Lookout. It’s a popular place to stop and enjoy the pristine views of the coast. Today, having planned out our ride, we hitched the bike trailer onto the single speed and the four of us rode from one end of the beach to the other.
The beach is also used by locals to access their baches at low tide, so we shared our ride with a couple of vehicles, other than that the beach was all ours. The wild and remote beauty of the coast was a highlight of the ride.
Owaka to Oamaru
Distance 250km - Driving Time 3 hours 20 mins
We had our last night in the Catlins at Newhaven Holiday Park, in close proximity to Owaka. Given time we could have waited for the tide to drop and explore the coastline again, taking in the sea lions at the north end of the beach. However, with one night left on the holiday, we opted to drive north.
We stopped in Oamaru and checked out the easy, flowing trails of the local bike park. It’s a good ride and a great way to put some fresh air into a day of driving. Oamaru also has a spirited commitment to biking, from the old penny farthing casually riding through the main town to the Alps2Ocean trail end. One gets a sense a few happy biking travellers have been welcomed into a number of fine establishments for a deserving beer.
Oamaru to Ashburton
Distance 162km - Driving Time 2 hours
We travelled on and had our last night at the Rangitata River Huts. The campground is superb: plenty of room and very welcoming. Our bikes were a great way to explore the place and we found the best ‘rocket ship’ playground for the girls to play nearby.
For our last day en route to Christchurch, we planned to stop off at Ashburton, and I’d ride the Ashburton River Trails. It was the icing on the cake: an easy ride with a fast and technical single track that follows the Ashburton River to the ocean. You can also combine an additional 10km of single track heading away from the coast from the carpark at the State Highway One Ashburton Bridge.
Other worthy stops given time or allowable weather would be the trails around Timaru and Dunedin. While the Catlins present pleasurable beach rides as small day trips, there are a number of backcountry roads where some more serious miles can be made up.
The beauty and wildness of the east coast, particularly when travelling through the Catlins was a true highlight. Our camper allowed us to experience the remoteness of the coast, plus the bonus of close encounters with the yellow-eyed penguin. Despite the changeable weather, this is a great time of the year to travel.
Where was the best view?
Riding along the beach at Tautuku Bay.
The beauty and wildness of the east coast, particularly when travelling through the Catlins was a true highlight. Plus the bonus of close encounters with the yellow-eyed penguin.
Did you have a favourite campground you stayed in and why?
Rangitata River Huts. The campground is superb: plenty of room and very welcoming.
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