I met a group of fellow cycling tourists at Lake Ohau Lodge, a stopover between Twizel and Omarama on the Alps to Ocean bike trail. One of them wore an exasperated frown when she said, “Why do New Zealanders not tell the truth about the standard of the trail? What are they afraid of?” I was taken aback, as much by the irony as the question. The questioner was German. While I was still thinking how to reply she threw her arms wide and mimicked: “Oh it’s so wonderful. The views are stunning.” She raised her eyebrows, “Of course the views are stunning if you look up from the thin bit of smooth ground in front of your wheel and risk swerving into the gravel and coming off!” Earlier on the journey I had heard the same story from a Dutch couple after the man came off and injured himself. In both cases they were experienced touring cyclists.
The track the German woman complained of, a hilly section between Omarama and Lake Ohau, has outstanding views over the lake and mountains, including Mount Cook, and for that reason alone it is such a pity the track surface is so bad.
What a wonderful idea it was to map out this track and what a shame the construction did not live up to the dream. The reality is a track surface composed of large stones poking out of the earth, some as big as house bricks but in nature’s way shaped like pyramids as if cunningly designed to puncture a tyre. The track is by any standard, shoddy, unfinished and worse, dangerous.
While this section of track is exceptionally poor, it shares the standard set by the famed Otago Rail Trail. That finished article is a thin line worn through loose gravel. I met a woman on that track who abandoned her great adventure after veering from the line into the gravel and injuring herself in the fall.
These tracks have become welcome commercial opportunities which is one of the reasons for uncritical praise. “Best thing that happened to this country,” I heard a motor camp operator declare. Not that he had personally been on a bike since primary school days, mind you.
But to get back to the German woman’s question: If it is excepted that a track designed for cycle tourists should be safe, that cyclists should be able to look up and about, enjoying the scenery without the anxiety of swerving into loose gravel, then these tracks are well below acceptable standard. But what is the answer to the accusation about truth and fear? An unwillingness to be considered a complainer? An anxiety about being mediocre, not world class after all? I don’t know the answer but I think the question is fair. The track really could be world class.