A point-to-point, 450km off-road adventure, joining together the finest remote New Zealand country pubs with great riding, great mates and a lot of beer.
Words & Photos: Tony Hutcheson
Kiwi Beervet is the product of too many midweek whisky sessions. Spitballing ideas with mates, a plan was hatched to hold a non-event. Don’t race, but don’t take it easy and, above all else, stop for a beer. It took a couple of Wednesday nights and an ill-advised number of drams to render an acceptable format. A challenging multi-day cycle tour that would test rider and bike, support New Zealand’s country pubs and redefine the meaning of social distance. There was just enough whisky for three rules:
- 1. No e-bikes.
- 2. No Lycra.
- 3. No riding past a pub without stopping for a beer.
A band of eight merry men started the 2019 event and almost as many finished. Attendees of the inaugural instalment concluded that it was sufficiently fun for at least one return match. The 2019 rendition circumnavigated the Marlborough and Tasman regions at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. 2020 migrated south to the home of bungee jumping and expensive merino clothing. Despite demand, the numbers were capped at 16, reflecting the accommodation capacity of the smallest pub we’d be stopping in.
All original Beerveters pledged a return for round two while the remaining seven places were allocated by mail in ballot, written application or dumb luck.
After months of preparation and many hours behind bars, the day finally arrived. The meteorological and Covid clouds cleared for the few days required to squeeze in our 450km pub crawl. Lights, camera batteries and hip flasks were all fully charged and Kiwi Beervet 2020 was underway.
- Ben’s ‘House’ to Danseys Pass Coach Inn
- 115km (ish) – 1,129m Climbing – 4 Pubs
The 2020 Grand Départ from Ben’s hillside caravan necessitated a culinary preface. Bodies required fortification by means of over-caffeination and a sterling breakfast courtesy of the fabulous Courthouse Café in Alexandra. After regrouping at Chez Ben, breakfast whisky was imbibed in honour of the occasion before mounting our trusty steeds and pushing forth into the great unknown; researched, scoped by car and Google Earth, booked in advance, but otherwise unknown.
Severe lack of judgement and exceptionally poor navigation were mere minutes away. At the very first turn I insisted on the – apparently – more downhill route. Ignoring logic and advice from locals we pressed forth and added 10km to an already very long day. The goal was to connect with the Otago Central Rail Trail and spend most of the day pedalling this while sampling the wares of the long-established taverns now reliant on the passing trade of e-bike mounted boomers.
Departing early can lead to disappointment on discovering pubs with closed doors. In an excellent display of karmic redemption the extended departure and navigation faux pas placed us at Chatto Creek Tavern right on opening time. This, I proclaimed, was my plan all along. Trustworthy, accurate, sincere: none of these adjectives are oft used to describe the words that pass my lips but, while the crew may not have believed my claims of exquisite timing and foresight, they were willing to take the open pub as a win.
Chatto Creek Tavern – thumbs up. Good beer selection, friendly staff, salty snacks, fantastic outdoor area.
The emergence of lunchtime and hip flasks signalled farewell to Chatto Creek. With 50km of gravel between us and our scheduled lunch stop we were about right for a Beervet schedule: late. Timing is everything on Beervet and getting it right is not tolerated.
Central Otago was, for a time, New Zealand’s wild west. Gold mining shaped the landscape and history of the province like nothing else except sheep farming, perhaps tourism, most definitely hydroelectric power, but other than those three things, gold mining is what the area is best known for – except stone fruit and Pinot Noir.
Much of the old infrastructure was installed to extract and transport gold, its related people and supplies. The Otago Central Rail Trail is littered with the bent and rusting remains from the bygone boom days of the South Pacific gold rush. These relics can provide welcome cerebral respite from the gravel-grinding task at hand. It is, after all, a rail trail and while it does traverse some of the most fantastical landscape in New Zealand, it is straight and wide.
One of the more scenic and historic highlights of this trail are the Poolburn Gorge tunnels and bridge – providing easy access (excluding the 10km straight line ‘downhill’ that required significant pedalling effort) to Ida Valley and our lunch.
Oturehua Railway Hotel sits at the north eastern end of Ida Valley right on the rail trail. Back in April I’d called ahead to arrange lunch and was informed by Graeme, the exceptionally helpful and friendly publican, that there would be “no problem at all, just call ahead a few days prior”. I failed to carry out this one simple request. Instead I chose lunchtime on the day to call ahead. “We don’t really have any food at the moment.” The words wafted across the phone line like the stench of a fart in an elevator, unwelcome and unavoidable. Fortunately these words were followed by: “I can probably rustle up some toasted sandwiches and cheese rolls but you’ll need to be patient as I’m on my own today.” Perfect! On arrival we found the publican’s daughter working alone as forewarned, but she despatched 15 drink orders and 17 lunch orders (two greedy souls in our ranks) with effortless ease.
Oturehua Railway Tavern – two thumbs up. Good beer selection, astonishingly good service and the best cheese rolls I’ve ever tasted.
If Ford Prefect had ventured south before the earth was destroyed, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have this to say about the Kiwi Cheese Roll: “The Kiwi Cheese Roll or, Southern Sushi, as it is known in Aotearoa, is the culinary equivalent of being shot in the stomach by a medieval trebuchet loaded with stale white bread filled with onion soup powder and cheese soufflé. In New Zealand it is revered among knowing gastro-snobs as the pinnacle of human culinary achievement but, due to its effect on the mind and arteries, is outlawed in all nations boasting fully funded health systems. When mixing long distances in the saddle with beer, they are indispensable.”
Departing Oturehua we soon summited the high point of the Otago Central Rail Trail with a whopping climb all the way up to 618m above sea level (a climb of 118m from lunch). We celebrated with a dram. Leaving the rail trail at Wedderburn we enjoyed easy sailing through to Naseby (located at 2,000ft above worry level) and the welcoming warmth and whisky collection of the Royal Hotel.
Royal Hotel – two thumbs up. Very good beer selection, good chips and a whisky collection that would send Winston Churchill weak at the knees.
It was tough to drag ourselves away from the Royal, but heading out through Kyeburn Diggings at too-late-o’clock our reward was remarkable evening light that certainly took the sting out of the tail of the last 14kms of mostly climbing and provided yet another “I meant to do that” bragging opportunity.
Arrival at Danseys Pass Coach Inn was acknowledged with a celebratory dram followed by an indeterminate quantity of beer. Allegedly built specifically for Kiwi Beervet in 1862, the plush, comfortable accommodation, excellent bar, fabulous food and possibly the most loungable lounge area in the known universe is without question the exemplar standard of overnight accommodation for a weary cyclist.
Danseys Pass Coach Inn – four thumbs up, everyone should go there twice. Maybe highlight of the trip.
- Danseys Pass Coach Inn to Otematata Bar & Eatery
- 107km – 1,257m Climbing – 4 Pubs
An excellent breakfast and pre-ride dram readied us for what, in my head, was going to be a gruelling climb to start the day. Meanwhile, back in reality, we enjoyed 10km of gentle climbing on some of the most stunning backcountry roads imaginable. With postcard perfect scenery around every bend, the climb to the actual Danseys Pass took at least two units of time longer than should have reasonably been required. This presented no significant issue for those of us taking our time in the caboose, but for the unfortunate few in the engine room the wait at the top was both chilly and moderately tiresome. The tail end eventually caught up as we crossed from Otago to Canterbury. A couple of celebratory drams and a solid skid contest made the descent into South Canterbury a captivating affair.
After a near disastrous navigational double-flinch, the committee erred on the side of caution and made the call to stick to the formed road rather than take the more adventurous route down a river valley as was planned. This resulted in a bonus climb celebrated with a bonus dram.
The day’s route included over 1,200m of ascending. The puzzlingly small amount of climbing to reach the pass was soon explained when presented with ample opportunity for ‘short pinch’ climbs, all of which were acknowledged with a commensurate number of ‘short pinch’ drams. Thus was the route to our scheduled lunch stop at Duntroon Hotel and the start of our time on the Waitaki Valley section of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail.
The Waitaki Valley in South Canterbury is the South Island’s rechargeable battery and the jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s energy supply. If you include the five Tekapo and Ohau hydroelectric dams, which feed into the Waitaki dam system, they produce more energy than any other dam system in the country (I think) and provide huge numbers of discerning holidaymakers each year with the opportunity to combine the breathtaking alpine vista with the serenity of a screaming two-stroke jet ski.
The good folk at the freshly renovated Duntroon Hotel were wrestling an already busy lunch rush when 15 stinking cyclists arrived at the bar leaner. This, it was proved, did not faze them. All lunch orders were delivered before our first pint could be extinguished, which presented the risk of a one-pint lunch. The excellent service was countered with a second round of drinks thus ending the situation in a draw. An extended relax in the sun and a dram was our reward.
Duntroon Hotel – two thumbs up. Fast friendly service, cold beer, good food.
With 60km still to ride it was clear that we had little chance to make the day’s final destination without another beer. Fortunately Kurow presented not only two pubs but also the Kiwi Beervet 2020 Special Stage Pump Track Challenge Extravaganza.
Kurow: population at the 1901 census 382 and one pub. Population at the 2013 census 312 and two pubs. The rapidly declining population and the erection of a second pub corrected the previously overcrowded pub-to-person ratio. The hospitality and friendly banter in both the Waitaki Hotel and the Kurow Hotel are a testament to New Zealand country towns and their public houses. Kurow sets the standard for the “nothing fancy going on here, just solidly good country pubs serving cold beer with a smile”.
Kurow and Waitaki Hotels – both get a thumbs up.
Meanwhile, back on the pump track, Sam hucks the gap, lands heavily and breaks his freehub. With 3.5 days, 3,400m of ups and downs, and almost 300km to ride, Sam made the only reasonable choice available – fixie for the balance of Beervet. Sam’s freehub issues were lubricated with a dram or two before pushing on for the final 30km.
Otematata had never appeared on my radar until a frivolous internet search returned a promise of various species of slow-cooked animal. Unable to resist such temptation, Otematata was duly added to the Beervet 2020 itinerary.
Little did we know that Friday is ladies’ night at Otematata Eatery, Bar & Lodging – replete with fashion sales parties (à la Tupperware), manicures and discount jugs (of beer). The atmosphere was electric, although this could have had more to do with our proximity to Benmore hydro station. The highlight of the night would have to be our waitstaff. A wonderfully entertaining young woman who could put the service in any city restaurant to shame and who literally called herself ‘C**tosaurus’. As hardy a group of male revellers as we were, none could dare repeat her self-anointed moniker aloud and chose instead to call her ‘Miss’.
Otematata Eatery, Bar & Lodging – two thumbs up. Fantastic service, good beer selection, good food, comfy digs, reasonable prices.
- Otematata Bar & Eatery to Wedderburn Tavern
- 104km – 1,700m Climbing – 1 Pub – 1 Per Diem Beer – Several Whisky Slushies
Today was forecast to be a big one. The original plan was to ride to the historic Vulcan Hotel in St Bathans, but intel gathered a few days before Beervet indicated that the old stone hotel had closed and the proprietors didn’t see fit to let me know. After a quick, rather panicked, phone frenzy, the incredible Sheryl at Wedderburn Tavern and Lorraine at Wedderburn Cottages teamed up to accommodate, feed and beer us. This would add a little over 20km to an already significant day, but an abundance of options there were not.
Our departure was deemed too early for breakfast by Otematata standards but our fabulous hosts left out enough toast and cereal to get us through to Omarama where coffee, pies and sammies could correct the weary mood. With no pub stop for lunch today each Beerveter was issued with their per diem lunch beverage thanks to the incredible folk at Garage Project brewery.
Clear skies provided a chilly start to the day. This was tempered by the jaw-dropping vistas of the Southern Alps as we pedalled west along the Alps 2 Ocean past Lake Benmore and onwards to the promise of caffeine and pastry.
Thanks to The Wrinkly Rams in Omarama, caffeination, plenty of food (and a few drams) had us all back in a Beervet state of mind ahead of the crux of Kiwi Beervet 2020. The 900m climb up to Little Omarama Saddle was our gateway from Canterbury back into Otago. Too steep for any reasonable Beerveter to pedal, only Ben succeeded. An assessment of his equipment revealed that his slick road tyres must have afforded him significant traction gains in the deep, energy-sapping mud towards the top of the climb.
I’d spent so long gazing at maps while planning the route for Kiwi Beervet 2020 that I hadn’t given much thought to what I might see along the way. Halfway up the climb to Little Omarama Saddle, Dom, The Real Chops and I stopped to refill bottles from melting snow. Looking back to where we had come from revealed a view of the Southern Alps, Aoraki (Mount Cook) and Lake Oahu the likes of which I had not imagined possible.
This was serious stuff and required urgent action. Official Kiwi Beervet vessels were readied with snow then topped with generous measures of whisky to create the first of many whisky slushies. Our brunch aperitif was enjoyed while marvelling at the wonders of the MacKenzie Basin and beyond. Maybe highlight of the trip.
The field had split significantly on the steep climb and much mirth and merriment was had on the saddle while the tail-enders meandered up the hill. Snow skids, sandwiches and the per diem beer were all enjoyed. A few minutes of resting in the snow was all my Garage Project Beer needed to metamorphose from a lovely lager into the greatest beer experience of my life. The big climb behind us, the big downhill ahead, a great bunch of people and location, location, location combined to create the perfect beer moment. Maybe highlight of the trip.
A MegaBeervalanche start formation was employed to commence the return descent into Otago. A trail that would struggle to be vaguely interesting on a mountain bike, on a Beervet cruiser, after a beer and a few whisky slushies, it was an absolute hoot. Sam extracted the chain from his fixie and with a wind assisted descent he managed a respectable distance before needing to re-engage his drivetrain.
As we descended towards Falls Dam I was struck once again by the insane beauty of the landscape. With the snow-dusted Hawkdun Range as our constant companion frequent photo stops were compulsory, although herding cats is a fool’s game and interest in photographic folly could only briefly be held as the desire to reach a pub with beer was too great.
The night at Wedderburn Tavern was a last-minute addition and came with no expectations. A very small, warm and friendly country pub in the middle of nowhere it was hard to expect much from the culinary offerings. As previously highlighted, misjudging situations is one of my strengths.
Two staff, one in the bar and one in the kitchen. Not much can be said other than these two girls smashed it out of the park. While we were entertained with beer and jolly banter in the bar, the chef produced 15 gorgeous meals, all served at the same time and each a winner. Wedderburn Tavern instantly became one of the highlights.
Wedderburn Tavern – three thumbs up. Good beer selection, great food, fantastic service.
- Wedderburn Tavern to Blacks Hotel in Ophir
- 58km – 400m Climbing – 4 Pubs
With the most significant pedalling days behind us, today was scheduled to be a slow crawling test of a different kind including a short double back and return to Oturehua. A late breakfast, tardy departure, and solid round of drams ensured an on-time arrival at Oturehua Railway Hotel, but not before eating the Oturehua Store out of pies and sausage rolls.
The minimum two pints required to provide adequate energy to forge ahead was complemented with the pub’s special of the day, the mighty Reuben sandwich. These turned out to be every bit as good as the now famous cheese rolls and the kitchen was duly emptied of both. Whisky supplies were replenished with the acquisition of half a bottle of single malt, thus setting us on the correct footing to complete our journey.
The pedal towards Poolburn George confirmed my suspicion that the 10km straight, flat section of rail trail that caused so much anguish on the first day is, in fact, uphill in both directions. Wanting to minimise the double back, our retour took us over the hills rather than through the gorge and delivered us safely into the waiting beer and garlic fries of the White Horse Hotel in Becks.
The tempting array of antiquities and bric-a-brac for sale at the White Horse Hotel was equalled only by the surprisingly large selection of chips. These combined to present enough incentive for another two pint layover.
White Horse Hotel – two thumbs up. Good beer, insane chip selection, and curios from yesteryear available.
The peloton was split again during the charge to Omakau. Questionable route planning on my part resulted in a few lucky punters accessing the rail trail via a shortcut, which was closed off to the balance of the crew by a bemused farmer so they were forced to backtrack a couple of kilometres before hitting the main road. The Lauder Hotel was again left off the itinerary as we made a beeline for the only brewery of the trip, Dark Horse Brew Werkz, located at the Omakau Commercial Hotel.
With the two-pints-per-pub policy in place we had managed to turn a flat 60km day into what felt like a significantly less flat 110km day. With six pints on board we had left in front of us a 1.8km sprint from Omakau to a pub that needs to be seen to be believed.
Blacks Hotel in Ophir was recommended by a friend who understands the unique criteria for an overnight stop on Kiwi Beervet. At no stage was I sceptical. On the contrary, I was rather excited. But, equally, at no stage did I imagine just how utterly brilliant Blacks Hotel would be. Comfy, friendly and kitsch beyond belief. Beer was all but abandoned for the night as the enormously talented young barman fired out stunning cocktails one after another as though it was no more arduous than pouring a glass of water. The gin and whisky collections were of particularly notable merit.
The barman was also one of the proprietors and while he was wowing his adoring fans in the bar, the chef (business partner and the barman’s father) was conjuring up equally magical treats in the kitchen. This was a Beervet finale that will long be remembered and near impossible to best.
Blacks Hotel – four thumbs up. Mad decor, astonishingly good cocktails, brilliant food and super-friendly staff. Maybe highlight of the trip.
- Blacks Hotel Ophir to Monteith’s Alexandra
- 64km – 1,300m Climbing – 1 Pub – 1 Per Diem Beer
After a simple breakfast and the ceremonial issuing of a second per diem Garage Project Beer (no pubs today) and a wee dram, a visibly weary team set forth for the final stretch back to Alexandra. A short day in terms of distance, the added climbing, astonishingly strong head wind and a catastrophic navigational disaster on my part that necessitated some fast talking and a formal apology, helped convert the proceedings into a substantially greater undertaking than was foreseen.
Despite its various setbacks, the final leg of Kiwi Beervet 2020 transmogrified into a finale worthy of the Kiwi Beervet marque. Traversing classic Central Otago terrain and ending with some signature Alexandra singletrack proved to be an exceptional way to end five days of riding and the lives of a few questionably lightweight touring tyres.
The lunacy that was Sam coasting down a backcountry gravel road at circa 50km per hour on his fixie with his feet on the top tube and cranks spinning like F1 pistons rates as a memorable moment of the trip and needed to be celebrated with a dram. This impressive feat of human achievement may have surpassed even beer as the highlight of day five.
The good folk at Blacks Hotel had prepared a scrummy packed lunch to sustain us through the day and aid in the absorption of a rather imprudent quantity of martinis and negronis ingested during the closing ceremony the previous night. This, in conjunction with our per diem beer and a couple more drams for good measure, provided just enough energy to reach our final goal of Monteith’s Alexandra where a lively round of paper-scissors-rock ensued to allocate car collection and return journey driving honours. The winners celebrated with a dram, the losers did not.
Monteith’s Alexandra – thumbs up. Cold beer, hot food, reasonable way to end a ride.
Cold beer and classic pub fare was hoovered before fond farewells, high-fives and lengthy car rides. Each man leaving with the satisfaction and knowledge of a job well done, of pushing the envelope of human endeavour beyond any hitherto known limits. Each returning to our homes safe in the knowledge that our reputation, liver and criminal record had 12 months to recuperate.
Kiwi Beervet 2020 will long be remembered as the gold standard of cycle touring expeditions – near impossible to best, we can only hope to replicate.
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