Lake Hāwea is an often overlooked destination by most tourists in the Southern Lakes area of New Zealand. Its mostly uncrowded waterfront lies just a few minutes north east of the more crowded Lake Wanaka waterfront, which in turn, lies just over an hour from the even more crowded Queenstown waterfront. Its tracks, are also overshadowed by the more popular tracks closer to and around Tititea Mount Aspiring.
Once a year, private land around the dammed lake is opened up for the Contact Epic bike race, where mountain bikers race 95-160km along its edge. I had volunteered to be the Tail End Charlie for the first section of the 2017 edition, and was itching to get out to the far reaches of the lake on my own.
Although I wouldn’t be able to circumnavigate the lake, the plan was to head up the Dingle Burn Track and camp at the Turihuka Conservation Area. Leaving from the Albert Town Campground I took the Hawea River Track up to the lake. Its an easy, and lovely 14km, pretty wide off road trail that ends at the Hawea Dam and was part of the race. Sailz General Store & Cafe is the only option for supplies on the way, limited and pricey, but the cafe does make delicious savoury scones and good coffee. There’s also a free Spark Wifi spot just out front.
The second section i did, wich was not part of the race, was the Gladstone Track which starts at the water’s edge in town and crosses fields perched above some cliffs over looking the lake. 7km of wonderfully scenic and easy riding. Once this trail ends its around 15km on Dingle Burn Rd. A shared gravel road with a couple of climbs, the biggest when crossing the Timaru River. The uphill after the one lane bridge thankfully paved and sealed.
Once arrived at the Dingle Burn car park, vehicle access is restricted and the gravel road soon turns into a fairly hairy 4WD track, often cut out of the side of the cliff, with some high vertical drops into the Lake on the west side. Rounding Rocky Point is when the scenery changes from wonderful to epic. The view now goes all the way down the lake to the Hunter Valley and Silver Island ahead, Tititea Mount Aspiring on a clear day to the NW, and peaks of the Southern Alps previously out of view.
Descending down to the Dingle Burn Farming Station is a fun ride that ends abruptly as the public trail then follows the beach front across Silver Island. The track across the station was open for the race avoiding the following off road section. Crossing the cattle grazing area would be peachy if cows haven’t dropped bombs of poo all over the muddy and hoof dented flats, or in my case, if the aggressive grazing cows aren’t startled by your presence. I ended up having to use the private track for a bit and crossed a gated sheep grazing area to avoid them.
The climb up around the Dingle Burn Peninsula is a short, rocky, and steep single track at first, with pushing more ideal that cycling especially loaded with bags followed by a lovely high field of tussock grass with more amazing views up the lake and into the Hunter River Valley.
My favourite part of the ride followed, a single track cut into the steep grass hillside with the lake on the west and the small forest of the Turihaka Conservation Area in view ahead. It had just the perfect balance of danger and fun for my skill level, with at times some tricky manoeuvring in hairy spots, but at the same time, straight enough to pick up some speed even fully loaded.
There was promise of a picnic table in Turihuka, I never found it. But there is a drop toilet and lots of options to pitch a tent either in the dense native forest, or in the grass along the waterfront. I spent a wonderful night star gazing losing myself along the edge of the Dingle Burn. My plan was the camp two nights and ride unloaded on the 4WD track that continues north to the Hunter River, following the Contact Epic course. This requires crossing the Dingle Burn River and +40km return, followed by a full days ride in the rain the following day back to Wanaka.
I decided to stay one night in Turihuka, then pack up, ride back to the camping area I had seen along the Timaru River about 17km back. I arrived in the afternoon after pushing my bike back up over the Dingle Burn Peninsula. This was my first introduction to the New Zealand sand flies. While pitching my tent, a swarm of these evil little beasts surrounded me. I crawled in and franticly crushed all the ones that had entered my tent, and only left my tent once to put up the fly sheet before going to bed. But the sun was shining bright and I still had a lovely night listening to the river and watching the fan tails feast on the swarm of sand flies around my tent.
Rain kept me in my tent even longer the next morning until it cleared in the afternoon and I cycled across Hāwea Flats to avoid the hills and take advantage of tarmac, followed by a ride up Mata-Au / Clutha River on the 12km Newcastle Track from Luggate, another part of the Contact Epic race that has a couple of moderately challenging rocky areas at first, and then turns into an easy packed dirt single track until nearly its end where it meets the Hāwea Swing bridge.
The Dingle Burn track is a nice get away from the more popular areas of the Wanaka area, there are lots of options to incorporate other tracks if cycling straight out of town.