St James Conservation Area is a 78,000 hectare is managed by the Department of Conservation, near Hanmer Springs in the South Island. The Department of Conservation purchased the land in 2008 from private ownership and created the 64km St James Cycle Trail in 2010.
This track has been on my radar for a few years now, and with a weekend free, it was time to check it out!
We left Christchurch on Friday afternoon and drove to the DOC campsite at Lake Tennyson, just 1.5 km from the Maling Pass entrance. Due to the predominant wind, this is the end which you’re recommended to start the St James Cycle Trail.
I’d heard the fishing at Lake Tennyson was pretty good. So, having purchased a 24-hour fishing licence at the Christchurch Hunting and Fishing shop, and a suitable fishing lure, I decided to give it a crack.
We arrived at around 8.30 pm to the sight of fish jumping just a stone’s throw from where you camp.
You have to wade out to about knee depth and cast out about 10-15 metres. There’s a shelf that drops off which is the area where the bigger fish are.
I’m also told that if you walk over to the other side, the fish are bigger. This evening, my luck was limited to catching two smaller trout which were returned as they were a bit too small.
Lake Tennyson Campsite, St James Cycle Trail
The DOC campsite at Lake Tennyson is a small grassy area with a shelter that you can use to do your cooking in (no cooking facilities) and a toilet, but it’s free which is awesome. It gets pretty cold here in the evening, even in the middle of summer as the sun disappears behind the mountains. The mosquitoes are annoying in the morning, but as long as you come prepared, this is a great spot.
We awoke in the morning with the sun shining, what a great way to start the day!
On Saturday morning at 8 am it was time to set off from Maling Car Park, the starting point of the St James Cycle Trail.
At this point, we had a pretty casual attitude toward the route options. We hadn’t made our mind up about going the full distance, or stopping at Lake Guyon at some point along the way. The decision would depend on how we handled the terrain.
By chance, we met an active family of four that had planned to take a route from Lake Guyon across Fowlers Pass. That means that once you arrive back onto Tophouse Road it’s a 10km trip back to the car. Much nicer than a 25km grind from the homestead!
What this effectively meant, was more fishing time at Lake Guyon. Music to my ears!
With a fishing rod strapped to my mountain bike, we departed along the first part of the trail, a climb of about 250 metres or so. The first 45 minutes or so was fairly flat going, passing a couple of streams and generally in cruise mode. It was a bit more of a struggle to get up to the top of Maling Pass. We had to get off a couple of times to walk the bikes up.
Downhill to Waiau River
Once you get to the top that’s where the fun starts as it’s about 3kms of downhill before you reach the awesome Waiau River. On this downhill section there’s plenty of loose rocks, so can be a bit tricky. Unfortunately, one of the members of the family we met in the car park had a fall on this part and had to get some attention. Once you hit the Waiau River it’s fairly flat going with a few ups and downs but nothing serious.
After cruising along this part for about an hour or so, we came to the main ‘intersection’ on the St James Trail. If you’re heading to Lake Guyon is where you need to turn left at.
If you look at the times on the sign you can get a bit put off! 14 hours to the homestead car park? Wow. There’s a pretty good section on estimated time here.
We decided to spend the night at Lake Guyon hut and head over the Fowlers Pass the following day. Coincidentally, this allowed four hours of fishing time at Lake Guyon!
Lake Guyon Hut, St James Cycle Trail
The hut is located only a stone’s throw from the lake, and there’s a stream right next to it. You can use this for keeping things cold. There are only four beds though so it’s a bit of a gamble if you’ll get a bed or not. It was very much a wait and see approach as to how many people would be staying.
Fishing at Lake Guyon
With time to spare it was time to go fishing! Alas, my reel handle had fallen off the fishing rod somewhere along the track*, rendering the rod absolutely useless! To rub salt in the wound, the fish were trolling me on the edge of the lake.
You can’t ride 5 hours with a rod to be teased by trout like this! With a piece of wire and one of those tools you find in a puncture repair kit, I was back in business!
I cast in a couple of times and sure enough, they followed up the lure. After about 10 casts in a certain spot 100 metres from the hut, I hooked one. Away it went with a hiss of the reel, exciting times!
However, this is as far as the good news goes. With the fish within a metre of my reach, I threw the rod onto the bank and took the line by my hand. Like Usain Bolt before crossing the line, this was cruise mode when success was seemingly in the bag.
But with one big flick of its tail in 10 cm of water, the trout simultaneously jumped in the air and snapped the line at the hook, before taking off into the depths of Lake Guyon. I stood there stunned for a minute, wondering what had just happened. It soon sunk in that there would be no trout on the menu, nor for the remainder of the trip, as that trout had taken my one and only lure.
By this time it was dark and there were now 6 of us at the hut. We were all fairly tired from the days ride and need of one of 4 beds. While the mattresses in the DOC huts aren’t very wide, they are long with a bit of improvisation. Two of the mattresses were placed next to each other on the ground, and this comfortably slept four of us. One more person and it would’ve been a case of drawing short straws!
Fowlers Pass, St James Cycle Trail
We woke at 6.30 am and got back on the St James Cycle Trail. We lacked knowledge about the upcoming Fowlers Pass crossing but made up for it in enthusiasm. As the fishing rod was still in working condition, I decided to leave it at the hut. So, if you are considering this trip take a lure (or five!) and you might be sorted!
Things started out pretty cruisy, as we reached the old homestead and made our way up Fowlers Pass. The track gets narrower the further you get into it. We had to walk the bikes most of the way, however seeing other tyre tracks made it look promising.
Crossing about 5 or so streams, we reached the start of the climb about 45 minutes later. We were now pushing our bikes 99% of the time up Fowlers Pass. This would carry on for the next three hours as we climbed higher and higher. It was at this point where the wind was picking up the higher we climbed. Our bodies were screaming for us to stop. That the $20 entry fee into the Hanmer Springs Hot Pools wasn’t looking all that expensive!
For anyone considering this, it’s pretty hard going especially if it’s windy. For all but about 100 metres of the 4 or so km’s, it’s pushing your bike. It feels great to have done it, but it’s now Monday and I’m in central Christchurch. Twenty-four hours ago, I was cursing like a drunk sailor, questioning my reasons for giving it a go!
Downhill to Maling Pass, St James Cycle Trail
I will say that once you hit the top, it’s an awesome cruise down to the Tophouse road that takes about 20-30 minutes. I would like to say the hard part of the journey ended when we reached the summit of Fowlers Pass. Unfortunately, as we reached the road, the wind changed to a gusty headwind. We still had 10kms to ride to fetch the car.
About three cars passed during this time, but no one would stop to give one of us a lift. Reaching the car at the Maling Pass car park, after what felt like an eternity, the ride was complete!
With shattered bodies and windblown faces, we soaked ourselves for a few hours in Hanmer Springs hot pools
It topped off a pretty awesome and eventful weekend, which felt a lot longer than 48 hours!