Zen On Dirt

Percy Pass: Boat rides, big climbs, bike-ineering, and amazing views

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Several people had mentioned Percy Pass as a ride to us. Usually it was accompanied by a ‘It has a really hard bike carry’ or ‘It’s a bit of an adventure ride.’

Generally, given our (my) propensity for not having a very high tolerance for BS while bikepacking these days, we’ve been doing our best to avoid the ‘locals’ favorites.’

I’m not quite sure why Percy Pass got so sticky in my mind. Sure, it had multiple mentions during our interactions with others. Sure, it was in the Kennett brothers’ book. Sure, it would be a beautiful link up to where we were aiming for.

But I think what got me was that we’d get to take a boat across lake Manapouri to get to the start of it.


Back in the 1970’s, a power company wanted to dam Lake Manpouri and raise the water level 30m. This would have flooded a massive amount of land, turned Lake Te Anau and Lake Manpouri into one lake, and provided the power needed for an aluminum smelter down on the south coast.

The locals in the area wanted none of it, so they protested, wrote letters to parliament, and eventually got the entire country behind the Save Manapouri movement. It was the start of the New Zealand conservation movement, and it succeeded in reaching the compromise that the dam would be built, but it would have to operate by keeping the lake within normal levels. To get the needed vertical drop for the water, they dug a 7km hole in the ground that drops from the bottom of the lake to sea level, essentially increasing the depth of the lake, and empties out into Doubtful Sound and the Tasman Sea.

To get the power south, two massive 220,000V power lines were run through Fiordlands National park and a service road was built to keep them maintained. That service road was our goal for the day.

It would be all well and good except that half a mile of the road, from the top of Percy Pass down to the valley below, wasn’t built as the vertical drop was enough that they didn’t have to build pylons on the hill to support the power lines. There was our bike carry.

Look closely. Kiwi humor found on the road signs.

But that was a problem for later in the afternoon. We hopped on the 7:15 tourist boat to the west arm of the lake. The benefit of a big tourism industry on the lakes is that you can get pretty much anywhere you want to go easily, an often for a semi-reasonable price.


Once on the other side, we dropped weight and rode up to the Doubtful Sound overlook. It was a big climb, but since the only cars on the road are the busses ferrying people from the boat in Lake Manapouri to the Doubtful Sound dock, there was next to zero traffic.


And we got a view!


Back down, put the bags back on the bike, and start climbing.


At one point in time, a pylon blaster who was coming down in a truck stopped to talk to us.

‘You guys are facing a challenge. This is a bloody big hill.’

Little did he know that the uphill was the easy part.


And the beautiful part.


A the top, another group of pylon blasters cheered our efforts.


Once on the saddle, all we could do was look down the massive drop down to the next set of pylons, far below. Wow.


As it turned out, the Southland Mountain Bike Club had marked a track through. It was definitely high-grade bike-ineering at the top, scooting around a big slip, negotiating rocks and wet tussocks, with the definite consequence of if you drop your bike, you’re probably not going to see it again.

And that was the straightforward part. Once we got into the bush, not only were we faced with treacherous trail, but we also had downed trees and mossy and slippery rocks to deal with. I definitely went ass over teakettle once…Scott started to offer more help through difficult sections after that one.

After nearly two hours, we emerged only slightly worse for the wear. A little bit of blood shed, a little bit of paint shed. No broken parts on people or bikes.

Looking back up at the pass. The trail traversed above the slip to the right of Scott’s head, then came straight down the looker’s right side and into the bush.

I had to giggle. This ‘trail’ is a thing. People do it. Multiple times in their lifetime. It has had some of the best scenery of the trip so far…

The road didn’t get much better once back under the pylons. It was the steepest sustained road we’ve seen in NZ so far. I had to walk down large chunks of it. It was actually a relief to get to the valley floor and actually have to pedal. Da-yum. New Zealanders are a bit nuts.


We pondered recommending the route to Montana Miller, who is also in NZ and looking for routes. Maybe we could get him to call Scott a peckerhead again like he did after he embarked on the Camino Del Diablo on our recommendation.


The road finally improved and we climbed some more (this was definitely a heaps of steeps climbing sort of day) up to a little two person hut on the Borland Road. Unfortunately, there was someone in it, so we set up our tent outside.


Then our stove wouldn’t burn nail polish remover (turns out you can’t get methelated spirits in Manapouri and the nail polish remover had worked when we tested it in town) so we were left with the prospect of cold ramen for dinner. Awesome. Not the day we wanted to end a day that we had been riding so high on.

Things were not looking good.

Fire! I said. Let’s make a fire! So after much love and attention, we finally got enough coals going to heat up ramen and even make a cup of tea. Fire makes it all better. Life ain’t so bad out here. And the scenery definitely does not suck.


One thought on “Percy Pass: Boat rides, big climbs, bike-ineering, and amazing views

  1. We’re considering this one, we’ll keep you guys updated on Scott’s peckerhead status

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