Rock and Pillar Range, New Zealand

The main reason for my trip from Wellington to Central Otago in New Zealand's South Island was a 12-hour mountain bike race, where I could continue my love affair with endurance racing. However, the opportunity arose to spend a few days before the race riding with good friends Tim and Mike, taking an overnight trip up into the Rock and Pillar Range, which was too good to pass up.

Photo by Mike Wilson.

We packed enough for a comfortable overnight stop, assuming the air temperature would get close to freezing before morning. We included cheese, crackers, and enough wine to make for a civilized candlelit evening. With cooking gear and food, bike spares and tools, and far too many cameras, our loads were weighty but manageable. Everything was distributed across dry bags and panniers and attached to our bikes using Freeload racks. None of us likes riding with heavy loads on our backs; it makes the saddle feel harder and the legs more fatigued, and it compromises bike handling and the fun of mountain biking. The New Zealand-designed Freeload racks are a neat solution, allowing loads to be carried in dry bags securely attached to any design of bike, balanced between front and rear.

Our chosen access to the Rock and Pillar Range started off State Highway 87, just past the small town of Middlemarch, little more than an hour's drive from Dunedin. We turned the pedals at 2 p.m., bathed in glorious sunshine, and started climbing immediately. Grassy farmland soon transformed into a world of tussock and matagouri, a native New Zealand shrub well known for causing plenty of punctures in the tires of unwary bikers. The consistent gradient and firm rocky surface of the four-wheel-drive track made the climb completely rideable, legs and lungs allowing, and the view of the valley disappearing below eased our perception of effort.

Photo by Paul Smith.

After a couple of hours the change in flora to hebes (the largest plant genus in New Zealand) and low-growing alpines signalled that we had passed the snow line. Shortly after this we reached a junction where we needed to decide whether to stop for the night at Leaning Lodge or continue up and over to the larger and more comfortable Big Hut. The decision was made by the shift in wind direction and drop in temperature we felt, marking the onset of an expected southerly change. Late autumn weather in Central Otago is changeable to say the least. Sunshine and gentle northerly breezes can turn very quickly into angry-looking skies and icy southerly winds hitting New Zealand straight from Antarctica, turning a warm day into a sub-freezing reminder of winter. At 1,150 meters (3,773 feet) on the barren slopes of the Rock and Pillar Range, we weren't going to take any chances. Leaning Lodge was waiting for us at the end of a pleasant half hour ride and a short, technical descent along a barely-there track through the hebes. In all, it was a ride of 10 kilometers with 900 meters of ascent, which had taken us under three hours at a leisurely pace.

Photo by Paul Smith.

Leaning Lodge is the sort of hut that perpetuates my romantic vision of backcountry New Zealand: threadbare, full of character, and steeped in history. However, it could just as easily be seen as basic, cold, and dilapidated. The former ski club hut was built from two army huts and moved to the site in 1957. Nestled on the slopes at an altitude of 1,200 meters--and leaning backwards slightly and tethered to the ground--it commands glorious views over the Strath Taieri Valley. There are huts like this dotted throughout the New Zealand backcountry. Many are owned by the Department of Conservation and some, like Leaning Lodge, are adopted by clubs or trusts. Facilities vary wildly between luxurious backcountry retreats with coal fires and cooking facilities to basic huts like Leaning Lodge, with sleeping platforms and a long drop toilet. But they all offer safe overnight shelter for a very modest fee. The network of huts makes it easy to travel light, and opens up access to remote backcountry for trampers and bikers alike.

Photo by Mike Wilson.

By the time the storm clouds rolled over the hillside and engulfed the Leaning Lodge hut, we had collected water from the nearby stream and were ready to hunker down for the night. The following morning we awoke to clear skies, an icy covering on our bikes, and a sunrise enriched with the clarity brought by a passing storm front. After breakfast and freshly brewed coffee, we tackled the last grind up to the top of the range--a modest ride and push to our high point at almost 1,500 meters (4,920 feet). The warmth of the sun battled the chill of the southerly wind as our wheels cracked through iced-over puddles. Exploration of the Rock and Pillar Range by bicycle is made easy by the flat plateau and network of four-wheel-drive tracks. We visited hidden tarns and distant rock formations and made the most of our limited time, lingering for as long as possible.

Photo by Paul Smith.

Our descent followed the same route we took up, so we knew what to expect--a dozen kilometers and an altitude drop of 1,200 meters down a rough track. We cinched our luggage straps, zipped up our jackets, and locked in our big toothy grins. The descent was a fun 45 minutes.

This trip took us a shade under 24 hours, the sort of trip that is well suited to a quick escape after work. Dunedin residents could leave after work on a summer evening and return soon after breakfast the following day, creating a perfect overnight getaway and leaving the city and pressures of life behind. We finished our short trip smiling and exhilarated at both the environment and the experience.

And what of my 12-hour solo race the following day? It ended after four hours. My heart was still up in the Rock and Pillar Range. I retired from racing that day and vowed to spend more time exploring backcountry New Zealand with my bike.


Access: Approximately 9 kilometers north of Middlemarch, from the car park just off SH87 (Car Park GR 766 658).

Maps: CD15 and CD1.

Difficulty: Grade 3--Moderate. The climb is relentless and requires good fitness, but the terrain is not particularly technical (95 percent four-wheel-drive tracks), and the descent will be manageable for most confident novice riders.

Distance: 25 kilometers round-trip.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this ride: Weather on the Rock and Pillar Range is very changeable. Go prepared for high winds and freezing temperatures at all times of the year. Access across farmland from the car park is by Department of Conservation concession; leave all gates as you find them. Leaning Lodge fee is $5 per person per night; send to Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club, Box 1120, Dunedin, New Zealand, or leave at the lodge.

Read more from Paul Smith at his website, Inspiring Riding: Bicycle Powered Adventures.

7 responses so far ↓

Waterboy - Dec 12, 2011 at 6:00 PM

Thank you for sharing a great trip. The Rock and Pillar Range is beautiful.

Ross-Barry Finlayson - Jan 17, 2012 at 6:22 PM

O.M.G. this has made me homesick.Hope you don't mind if I share this? Looking forward to more.

Ross-Barry Finlayson - Jan 17, 2012 at 6:44 PM

Can you give me instructions how to subscribe to your blog. Arigatoo.

John - Jan 18, 2012 at 8:35 AM

@Ross-Barry - You can subscribe to the blog using the RSS feed and a RSS feed reader such as Google Reader. The RSS feed for this blog is
Hope that this helps.

penny - Jun 20, 2013 at 6:39 AM

hi, can i confirm with you ? can this trail be done in 1 day (no overnight) ? Is it ok to go without a map ? Would i get lost ? Thanks!

Paul Smith - Jun 21, 2013 at 4:55 PM

Hi Penny. Yes, it is easily do-able in a day. It is about a 3-4 hour trip up to the very top of the Rock and Pillars (less to Leaning Lodge - which has been replaced now with a shiny new hut) even travelling at our leisurely pace. The descent down again will be no more than an hour. So there would be time to keep going and get all the way along to Big Hut on the top too. No map needed. Just follow the obvious 4WD track. You'll cross a fence 2/3 up, and you'll see another track off to the left to Leaning Lodge after that. The 4WD continues all the way to Big Hut. Just follow is SE once you hit the top - it heads over a distant outcrop and down to the hut. Have fun!

penny - Jun 23, 2013 at 2:19 AM

Thank you for your reply! Just noticed you said "25km round trip", that is manageable. I was refering to Dave Mitchell's book "Mountain Biking - South", his Rock and Pillar trip is grade 4 with 74km round trip" ! To do his trip in 1 day, i don't think i would have time to admire the view ! Thanks for posting your trip here. It helps me to make decision of where to bike for my next south island trip. Cheers !

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