The Nevis road is reputedly the highest road in New Zealand. The best way to tackle this is to first cycle the easy few kilometres from Cromwell to Bannockburn, heading south and to pitch camp in the campground there. Bannockburn is a tiny hamlet sporting little more than a good pub, fine old church, and a number of old, abandoned stores and defunct post office. Bannockburn has slept out the last hundred and thirty odd years since 1867 when it had a population of over 2000, and now appears more than a little bewildered by the onset of enthusiastic wine growers fresh to the area.
However, if you want an idea of early New Zealand gold towns, fossick around the hills and explore the remote remains of Carricktown and the scatterings of stone huts that once signalled a lonely digger's dream of prosperity. (The pub is a fascinating place for old local stories, ask the publican about one of New Zealand's oldest murder cases.) Don't forget to stock up on water for the next section. Most of the land today is given over to sheep farming and, on day two, as you wend your way through the foothills toward the Nevis Road proper, you will come across an impressive old woolshed built from brake stones once used to slow the descent of wagons down the steep road you are about to ascend.
The road climbs 1,265 metres and can take a good four hours, mostly pushing up steep gravely roads. But like most tough routes, the rewards are brilliant and unforgettable. Vehicles are rare here. At the top of the Nevis hill you can look back toward Bannockburn and further on across the great Nevis Valley. This is broad, beautiful country with a fast clear river running the length of the track. Be warned, you have to ford the tributaries of this river 24 times. Not dangerous and all part of the fun.
You might like to camp somewhere along the valley or in the lee of ruins of an old homestead. This is a country of settler dreams that never eventuated. The winters are harsh and even in summer you might wake with a little ice on the awning until the sun chases the shadows away. A word on water. New Zealand was once safe from Giardia, sadly, today it is not. If the streams are clear and fast running from the mountains then you might take your chances.
Across the Nevis plateau on a clear, sunny day the clouds appear to hang motionless on the hillsides, almost never changing shape in the still air. There is a great peace in this country. A sense of majesty and landscape like walking through the remains of ancient cathedrals. It is the geology you connect with mostly, for whatever sparse human habitation has struggled here the land almost appears indifferent. It is an honest place, unwritten and, as yet, unsigned.
Cycle on and out of the valley and climb again to the hills overlooking the Southern Alps north and west toward Queenstown. The road down to the main highway is fringed with purple bugloss flowers and slowly, old isolated stone farm buildings begin to appear again. You look out over square fields of hay in the plains and great ridges of mountains beyond. Grand country! At the end of the road turn left and head a few kilometres to Garston, there is a pub there.
If you turn right as you come out of the Nevis Road then it is a pleasant ten kilometre cycle to Kingston where you will find a store, campground and pub. Kingston is famous as the home of the steam train The Kingston Flier, a beautifully restored engine that runs a popular tourist route through the alpine foothills.
Turning left takes you along an older section of the Flier tracks, now pressed into service as part of the Around the Mountains cycle trail.