Two or three days of mostly gravel and trail bikepacking, with three stiff climbs and a solid dose of bike pushing in classic adventure territory.

Area: Otago
Distance: 274kms

Start and finish: Albert Town/Wanaka
Difficulty: Hard

Based in Wanaka, we’re close to some fantastic bikepacking possibilities. We are however, kind of on the edge of the good stuff, not in the middle, so setting out from home (ride to the ride!), inevitably necessitates a bit of road travel. This 3 or 4 day route manages to minimise the tarseal by using the great bike trails alongside the Clutha to exit Wanaka, with just a fairly short stretch of road to the turn off into Thomson Gorge Road.

Thomson Gorge Road provides a great shortcut over rugged tops with some nice camping opportunities, over into the Maniototo, which in turn opens up all kinds of backroad travel options.

Once over the gorge, the backroads are lovely – mostly very quiet. If the timing is right, the Whitehorse Pub provides a welcome refresher, before a short road section leading to the turn off to St Bathans and Falls Dam. After the dam, follow your nose – you’ll skirt around a bunch of small fisherman’s huts before picking up a vague double track alongside a fenceline. This leads on to the main track up the Manuherikia River towards to old homestead. You’ll turn off before the homestead and follow DOC signs heading north up the river.

Once you reach the Omarama Saddle you’ll be treated to some wide views of the surrounding area. From here you can detour onto the tops higher up if you’re motivated enough. Otherwise it’s a long fast descent back to cow land and Broken Hut Road. If you need to resupply or just fancy an ice cream or five, Omarama is about 10kms off your route to the east on Broken Hut Road. Otherwise take Shortcut Road back to highway 8 towards the Ahuriri turnoff.

Take the gravel Birchwood Road up the Ahuriri. About 5kms along by a bridge there’s a great swimming spot in the fast and deep river. Wonderful on a hot day to de-dust and cool off.

The track dives back into the hill country at Avon Burn. Initially following the river, you’ll pass a decent old farm hut (check out the questionable ‘ousider art’ on the walls!) which you can stay in if it fits your schedule. I arrived there about midday so just kept on trucking, but it provided a nice shady lunch stop – it can get very hot in these parts.

Soon after the hut the track climbs very steeply – basically you’re into bike pushing territory. The angle of some of these high country 4WD tracks is quite astounding, and a lot of them don’t seem to have any useful purpose – it just looks like someone had a lot of free time and a digger at their disposal! Eventually you’ll get to Mt Melina itself. Fantastic vistas from here. The down is long, rocky and quite wild. You’ll need to check your route regularly as tracks fade away and reappear. Once back at the valley floor keep on trucking out to Highway 8 again west of Lindis Pass. A bit of road now until you are nearly opposite the old Lindis Hotel. An overgrown track (hard to spot) dips down off the road about 500m before the Hotel itself. This brings you to a shallow river crossing next to a waterpipe bridge (I don’t recommend crossing the pipe with a bike – from experience!). From here, the hotel is a few hundred metres along the track. It’s a great overnight stop, with plenty of history. There is water and a toilet here.

Continue along the dirt road on the true right of the river. This leads out to the highway again, where about 1.5kms of road will bring you to the turn off with Phillips Road, a gravel linkup that turns into Deep Creek Road and the Jolly Road to bring you back to your last stretch of tarseal on the Luggate Tarras Road (8a). Once you reach the historic Red Bridge over the iridescent hues of the Clutha River, you have the option to take the track back along either bank back to your start point in Albert Town.

Highlights
  • Crossing 3 passes with great views of the region
  • It’s a loop! And mostly off-road.
  • Cooling off in a fine swimming hole on the Ahuriri River
  • Earning the long and wild descent off Mt Melina
Logistics
  • This loop starts and finishes at Albert Town opposite a great DOC campground, but you could start/finish at various access points on the route: Tarras, Alexandra, Omarama.
  • The route crosses several passes which can be prone to high winds and nasty weather and extremes of temperature – so come prepared for anything!
Sleeping
  • There are great camping opportunities on all the off-road sections (some of the best and logical spots to camp to break the trip into 3 days are shown on the map above).
  • There is a great if tiny rustic hut on the east side of the Thomson Saddle (marked on map). It has a straw floor and is weather tight – good in a storm or cold night.
  • Good huts exist in the Manuherikia East Branch, including a large shelter at the old homestead at the end of Hawkdun Road.