Saturday, February 20, 2021

Milford Sound - go now, thank me later

One of the various cancelled trips in 2020 (contributing to an eye-watering amount of Air New Zealand credit) was a week-long ride out of Dunedin.  The first half was going to be with Brendan through to Queenstown, and among the options I'd considered afterwards, was a ride out to Milford Sound - one of a few top-shelf tourist destinations in NZ that I've never been to.  

Even before COVID intervened, I'd ruled it out - the 240km return trip out of Te Anau would either have chewed up too much of my available time, or I'd have to rush and risk a superficial visit.  Neither appealed.

Some 12 months later, the border is still closed, and rather than griping too much about an inability to travel abroad, many Kiwis have sensibly thought about what to do at home.  In my circles, the pondering has extended beyond "what would I like to go and see...", to include "...while no overseas tourists are here doing the same thing?"  

Among my friends, Simon, and Karl at Ride Holidays, had both publicly noted that the traffic volumes on the Te Anau-Milford Highway (SH94) would be a fraction of their normal levels, and it was on my radar too.  That said, the trip materialised out of the blue one evening while hosting ex-Wellingtonian and now Wanaka resident, Ashley, for dinner.  An innocent "when are you going to visit again?" query turned into a flurry of calendar checking, web searches and online booking, and before she'd left for the evening, we were locked and loaded.  Ironically, we'd booked at a near-perfect time -  a couple of weeks into the school year, we could expect few tourists of any kind.  

A little over three weeks later, Ash picked Sarah and I up from Queenstown Airport off an afterwork flight, with some slightly disappointing news.  Her hubby, the handsome Park Ranger, was tied up with an emergency and wouldn't be able to join us.  The slight upside was that the car loading 3D jigsaw was ever so slightly easier to complete.  We had plenty to talk about, and the drive to Te Anau passed quickly.  

Friday - Te Anau to Milford

We woke to beautiful clear skies.  I'd unpacked our bikes before going to bed, and it was pleasing to note that my recently replaced rear tyre was finally holding air.  Despite Ash packing some breakfast supplies, we decided to head to a local cafe for a cooked breakfast.  

Suitably fed and watered, it was time to hit the road.  I made a quick dash across the road for some insect repellant, a few OSM bars, and some cash, and after brushing teeth, we were clipping in and rolling out.  Sarah and I initially rode alone, with Ash knocking out the first 30km or so to Te Anau Downs in the car.  

As per my usual approach to these things, I hadn't done any homework and knew little about the route.  Sarah, on the other hand, had driven it twice, once with Khulan about a decade ago, and again with her sister Saruul more recently.

The road alongside Lake Te Anau was undulating, and it took us a wee while to get our clothing dialled.  Aside from a few stops to re-adjust, the distance through to Ash's parking spot passed quickly.  We didn't see her car at the Lodge there, and nor did I make it out at the effective Milford Track trailhead (where the walkers jump on a boat to take them up the lake).

Sarah climbing away from Lake Te Anau, with Middle Fiord over her left shoulder

Ironically, once we got away from the lake, and started to ride up the Eglinton River valley, if anything the terrain mellowed. As expected, traffic was few and far between, and those vehicles that were on the road tended to give us plenty of space.  Eglinton Flats seemed to be a popular stopping point for cars, though one of the regular "No Drones" signs along the road reminded them they needed to do their selfies themselves.

Eglinton Flats

Not long after Eglinton Flats, we approached the Mirror Lakes.  Despite Ash still being ahead of us, the weather was so fantastic Sarah and I had agreed to stop and take a look.  Upon arrival, we found Ash's bike parked up, and consequently, we were able to enjoy the incredible effect without feeling the need to rush.

Must've been a still day when these lakes were named!

At the far end of the viewing boardwalk, not only did we find Ash, but also a very welcome coffee cart!  The cash I'd withdrawn before leaving Te Anau had been an afterthought, but a fortuitous one, since there's no better thing to spend it on than a coffee in the middle-of-nowhere.  The barista seemed very well set up, from his machine right through to the heavy coat and hat he was wearing.

Hot drinks demolished, the three of us set off together finally, and while Sarah and I had been moving a bit faster than Ash up to this point (while she was riding at least!!), there were no pace-related teething problems as we adjusted to riding as a trio.  

I was contemplating suggesting we stop at Lake Gunn for lunch - preceded by a short climb, it looks like it may have been formed by an ancient landslide blocking the river.  Fortunately, we continued on further up the road to The Divide shelter, where unbeknownst to us at the time, the sand-flies aren't quite as voracious.  The carpark there was a wee hive of activity, by virtue of it being the southern road end of the multi-day Routeburn Track, and a shorter walk or two.  

From what was displayed on my Garmin map screen, I couldn't quite get my head around the route ahead, having incorrectly assumed that the river valley we were about to descend into drained towards the coast.  I soon discovered my error, and after admiring the Hollyford River from a couple of lookouts on the steep drop into the valley, we started climbing again, up-river towards the Homer Tunnel.

Looking over the Hollyford River towards Lake Marian

The Hollyford River valley was steeper than the Eglinton had been, but the gradient was still very mellow, and the riding conditions really couldn't have been better - it was warm but not hot, and whatever wind there was didn't register.   

I usually completely miss these, and this time, I just missed myself

The valley was very impressive, with steep cliffs either side.  There were plenty of small waterfalls above the road, and it clearly would be a sight to behold during, or immediately after, heavy rain.  

Mt Talbot, if my map reading is half decent

About 3km short of the tunnel, we stopped and had a proper lunch by a stream.  At about 900m above sea level, and a kind of random place to stop, we were unmolested by sand-flies, and were able to enjoy sitting in the sun.  We filled our bottles from the stream and enjoyed the cool, fresh, and undoubtedly clean water.  

A late lunch spot.  Photo:  Ashley Peters

The last of the climb up to the tunnel was sweet, and sprinkled with distractions.  There was a road crew quarrying rock out of the riverbed, and a trailhead for the Gertrude Valley which seemed popular.  

Looking up towards Gertrude Saddle

The tunnel didn't come into view until the last few hundred metres.  After passing a phone box, we pulled up at a "wait here" sign.  From a loudspeaker came a voice:  "wave if you want to ride through the tunnel".  We waved up at a surveillance camera, and were immediately told to go up to the portal, and wait for the next command!   Once there, a few seconds later, we were told there were no cars coming, and that we could go through.  

The eastern portal of Homer Tunnel

The tunnel was not at all what I was expecting.  I'd imagined something like the single-lane Hataitai bus tunnel, or even the unlined Summit Tunnel on the Remutaka Incline.  Instead, I found a sealed and well-lit tunnel with what seemed like almost enough space to have two lanes for much of its length.  There was a crew working inside it, and between that distraction and the 10% downhill grade, the 1.2km seemed to pass by in no time at all, and with little time to fully observe the structure.  No need to worry about that though, the uphill passage would surely be done at a more leisurely pace!

The climb from Te Anau to Homer Tunnel happens over almost exactly 100km, whereas the full descent to Milford at sea level is only 20km.  It starts with a few switchbacks, before joining the Cleddau River valley at the Chasm.  We'd hoped to see the chasm ourselves, but the track was sufficiently well closed that we thought better of sneaking along it on foot.

Looking down-valley from just below the Homer Tunnel

Just above the crossings of the Gulliver and Donne Rivers, there was a random digit "2" painted on the road - I had just enough time to try to wonder what on earth it meant, before rounding a bend and riding over "SINGLE" "LANE" "BRIDGE" written in much quicker succession.  

A wee bit further down was a photogenic old suspension bridge over the Tutoko River, which we took, reserving the highway bridge for the return journey.  

Our accommodation, at the Milford Sound Lodge was the next thing we reached, but given the lovely conditions, we agreed to stay on our bikes and explore the village.  (We'd left Te Anau at 9am, and first passed the lodge just after 3:30pm.)  That didn't take long, but included a visit to the marina at Deepwater Basin, the airfield, a board-walked foreshore loop track, and the grand but slightly grotesque (for my tastes) cruise terminal.  Most of the residences were down a street marked as private, signage which we begrudgingly respected.  

Looking down the airfield towards Mitre Peak

We hit up a riverside path to get back to the lodge, only to discover it was a work in progress in places, necessitating a bit of walking.  It was a bit of an inauspicious way to end a fantastic day's riding, but thankfully the scenery made up for the hike-a-bike, and there were no complaints from my hard-core companions!

At check-in, we booked a table for dinner, and then retired to our rooms for unpacking, washing, and resting!  

Given we felt like beggars rather than choosers, we were all really impressed with the quality of the dinner.  The alternative for Sarah and I was OSM bars, though it wouldn't have surprised me if Ash, world famous for the quality of her snacks, had something more delicious stashed in her frame-bag.  

The walk back to our chalets started badly - Ash had stopped inside, and while waiting for her, I found myself surrounded by sand-flies.  Flapping of my arms and frenzied bug squashing didn't seem to be an effective strategy, so I resorted to running until I was safely inside our chalet.  

Saturday - Tourist Day

The next day started with breakfast being delivered to our rooms, and beyond that, we whiled away a few hours waiting to hear back about an enquiry with a local helicopter company.  Just as I'd never been to Milford Sound, nor had I been on a helicopter, and this seemed a perfect place to right that wrong.

Eventually, the call came, and soon after a great lunch at the lodge restaurant, we were reporting to the office at the airfield.  While low cloud was preventing us from landing at Tutoko Glacier - the option we'd originally requested - our pilot told us that the consolation trip we were doing up to the top of Sutherland Falls was, in his opinion, the better flight.  

Needless to say, the views were spectacular, and it was also fascinating to watch the machine being flown.  We were subjected to one very hard clmbing turn where my brain really struggled to understand quite what was going on - no doubt the point of the manoeuvre!

After flying up the top section of Sutherland Falls, we landed for 10 minutes or so at Lake Quill, from which the falls drain.  Then, it was back into the 'copter for the short trip back to the airfield.  

Lake Quill in the background, with Sutherland Falls below it

From the airport, we headed slowly down to the cruise boat terminal, via the foreshore walk again, and the Information Centre cafe.  Ash had booked us all on an overnight cruise aboard the Milford Mariner, and after stashing our bikes in their back office, we boarded (wearing most of our luggage!) and set sail.  

The format of the cruise was great - a "half cruise" of the fiord, before anchoring at Harrison Cove for the night.  Once at anchor, we were presented with an option of kayaking, a blat in one of two "tenders", or neither!  I'd left my board shorts and my riding gear with my bike, but FOMO prevailed, and I risked getting my evening-wear damp and joined the better prepared (and more keen) women.  It was more fun than I expected, and as always, better to regret something you did, than something you didn't!

Returning to the Mariner - which even has a special hole in the hull to streamline the kayak loading

After kayaking was a hefty buffet dinner, a good sleep, and breakfast fit for hungry cyclists about to ride back to Te Anau.  Once we'd finished our early breakfast, the engines were fired up, and we briefly popped out to the Tasman Sea, being treated to a few Fiordland Crested Penguins ashore on the way out, and dolphins on the way back (swimming, naturally).  Animals aside, there were wonderful cliffs, waterfalls, and forest in abundance.  Great success!!

Sunday - Milford to Te Anau Downs

The beauty of leaving our cycling clothing onshore, was that by the time we'd got suited up to ride, the drivers on the boat had all returned to their cars and driven off, giving us the road pretty much to ourselves.  

Before we got stuck into the ride proper, I stopped by the airfield control tower.  I'd happened to mention to our pilot the previous day that my uncle Colin's best mate had been an air traffic controller at Milford.  I was somewhat stunned to learn that about 40 years on, Perry was still doing it!  Unfortunately, Saturday and Sunday were his days off, so I was sad to be unable to say gidday, despite dreading having to admit that I haven't been in touch with Col for years.  

We knew the climb ahead was significant, but it turned out to be easily dispatched, well rested and fed as we were.  Having so recently ridden it in the opposite direction, it was not completely unfamiliar, though it is often difficult to anticipate what a fast descent will feel like when ridden uphill.

Unlike the other side, the tunnel was in view for a wee while before we reached it, by virtue of the switchbacks below it. You can't easily make out the tunnel itself, as the western portal is shrouded by an avalanche shelter, but the shelter sticks out like the proverbial.  

We had a longer wait at the traffic control point, albeit with a countdown, courtesy of NZTA.

With about 30 seconds left on the clock, we were given the green light, and got to the shelter just as a queue of cars emerged from the tunnel.  Our "guardian angel" on the loudspeaker was giving them a stern telling off as they passed - it seems that they'd ignored requests to wait and entered the tunnel under their own steam.  Tsk tsk!

True to form, it was much easier to observe the tunnel itself while climbing its 10% gradient.  

Lined, just inside the entrance.  Photo: Ashley Peters

I was fascinated that my GPS didn't seem to be bleating that it had lost satellite coverage, and on the contrary, it seemed to know exactly where we were (well, apart from the adjective being used).

Not quite, Garmin, but close!

Wholly sealed, but not entirely lined, the tunnel had regular signage indicating progress.  There was a fair bit of water in it, and around the midway mark was a shroud whose role seemed to be diverting water from the ceiling down into the gutters.  

Unlined, 1000m still to ride!

In the opposite direction, we'd had the tunnel to ourselves, but given our relatively low speed, it wasn't that surprising that oncoming cars were let through.  That said, bikes are wonderfully narrow, and it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that the cars had been warned of our presence.  Despite how long it might have actually been, even 1.2km at 10% goes fast when it is along such a fascinating stretch of road (the Wikipedia page is well worth a read).  

What goes up, must come down, and upon emerging from Homer Tunnel, we were treated to a very enjoyable gravity-assisted recovery.  I stopped to fill my bottles at the tried and true stream we'd drank from two days earlier, before using my superior mass to good effect and passing Sarah and Ash before we bottomed out at the Lower Hollyford Road turnoff.

I'd earlier gauged interest in checking out the dead-end, and between times had slightly cooled on the idea myself.  After initially ignoring the turnoff, I got told I was silly, and turned back with Sarah in tow!

Sarah and Ash about to cross the Falls Creek tributary

The road turned to gravel about a minute from the intersection.  The surface was really good, though in one place was wet, and we got a bit covered in lime spray, which was annoying.  We passed through Gunn's Camp, but deferred a stop until the return trip.  

A few kilometres short of the road's end, and the start of the Hollyford (tramping) Track, we came to a closure.  Judging by the many vehicles parked up, the track was still accessible on foot, but we chose not to proceed beyond the gate.  

Prior to reaching Gunn's Camp, about half way back along the 13km section of road, we were treated to sweet native bush, occasional fat kererū, and altogether very pleasant riding despite that we were now travelling upstream.

When we reached Gunn's Camp, it was a little unclear what had happened.  It was pretty obvious a landslide had come through, but when the road had been cleared, rubble had been piled up rather than removed, so it was a slightly confusing scene.  

While we were having a bit of a look around, we were accosted by a road-worker, who we engaged in conversation.  His disdain for our ignorance was clear as he explained the tragic events surrounding the closure of the camp, but in many ways, it was a fair tone to take.   He seemed to warm to us slightly as we listened to his history lesson, but frustration and anger at the events he was describing remained apparent.  In any case, the storm the locals endured back in February 2020 looks to have been a harrowing experience, and with the pandemic sweeping in not long after, it is no wonder that the community is feeling a bit neglected and overwhelmed.  If the stories he told about theft and vandalism at this site were true, his bitterness seemed well placed, but it was still annoying to be tarred with the same brush as the ratbags, and we seemed on a hiding to nothing - judged for having the ability to come in and put a bit of money into the local economy, rather than thanked for it (as had been the attitudes of the various operators in the sound).  

An old marine buoy, disguised as an "H-Bomb".  In better days, it read: "Property of the USA Government.  Deactivated by the New Zealand Prime Minister"

As we rode away, it took me a little while to come to terms with the conversation, but in the end, it was easy to empathise with the fellow whose community had been given the rough end of the stick, both by mother nature and their fellow man.

Before too long, we were back at SH94 and had knocked out the climb to The Divide.  Although we knew Ash would be waaaaay up the road by now, we pulled off at the far end of Lake Gunn, as I wanted to quickly check out the outlet.   

The first loop we rode was great fun - nicely manicured singletrack through beech forest - but a second track wasn't maintained for the types of bikes we were on.  It came with a just reward though, in the form of two musicians, who'd set up a recording studio of sorts, and were playing sweet, sweet music.  We stopped to listen for a bit, and I couldn't resist giving them $20 (the smallest currency I had!).  Ironically, we didn't hang around for the end of their second tune, given that the local sand-flies had become aware of our presence.    

Not what you expect to find when you're riding in the bush!

It was strange trying to play memories of Friday's ride backwards to work out what came next.  Strangely, I had absolutely no recollection of the accommodation at Knobs Flat, but when we passed the Deer Flat campsite moments later, knew that the Mirror Lakes were imminent.  The big question on my mind was whether or not the coffee guy would be there!!

HUZZAH!  His flag was flying, and not only was he there, but so too was Ash.  Fortunately, the buskers hadn't got my last twenty, so an order went in, and before it was delivered, we'd lathered ourselves with insect repellant.  It was surprisingly oily, which was frustrating in its own right, but made worse when I spilt a little bit of oil from our tuna-lunch sachet, and then couldn't work out which oil I should be wiping off, and which I should be rubbing in.

Before leaving, Sarah and I did a quick pass of the lakes, only to find that between a bit of breeze and a duck paddling around, the effect that we'd witnessed a couple of days earlier had ben completely ruined.  

Unfortunately for us, not only did that annoying breeze hang around, it intensified, and was in our faces for the rest of the ride.  While I did a good job pushing into it up front, Sarah and Ash did a good job in the back, and between us we made acceptable progress to the unmolested car at Te Anau Downs.  

Neither Sarah nor I had any appetite to continue, and were glad to be able to put our bikes on the car and change out of our riding kit!

What with Steven back in Wanaka, we'd suggested to Ash that she have dinner with us in Queenstown, before continuing home, a plan she endorsed.  En route to Queenstown, when not distracted by yet another sign to the Round the Mountains cycleway, I booked a room at the Sherwood.  After chowing down a rather large pizza at Sal's in Frankton, Ash dropped us there and we began the series of farewell hugs.

Monday - fun day

Our flight back to Wellington wasn't until 4pm, so a decent ride was definitely possible.  My first suggestion was Skippers Canyon, but Ash hadn't thought we would have enough time to do it, so after breakfast, instead we headed towards Glenorchy.  In theory, we had plenty of time to get there and back (about 100km return from Queenstown, with six hours to play with).   

Gravel path around Queenstown Gardens

The first few "off-road" paths we took were great - slightly slower than being on the road, but fast travel nonetheless.  That all changed on the Sunshine Bay track, and between that and the Seven Mile Track that took us unexpectedly into a mountain bike park, we started to haemorrhage both time and energy.  Sarah was in no mood to rush, and I was in no mood to worry about being late.

Sunshine Bay

I should have known better than to assume a lake-side road would be flat, and as we neared the dog-leg in Lake Wakatipu, it was clear getting to Glenorchy and back would be unduly stressful.  I had a bit of a look at my Garmin map, and we checked out a potential loop past Moke Lake.  One access track seemed to be someone's driveway, and another was walkers-only, so we continued towards Glenorchy for a while longer.  At Bennett's Bluff, a crew were working on a parking area, and after checking out an old track to a lookout, we decided this would be a perfect place to turn around.

Looking towards Glenorchy from Bennett's Bluff

The relatively early call gave us an opportunity to ride a few of the side-tracks we'd skipped after the mountainbike park.  Without the time pressure, the views across the lake and our more immediate surroundings were even sweeter.

Sarah on the jetty at Bob's Cove

An old stone ruin

We grabbed lunch on the Queenstown waterfront before riding back to the Sherwood.  My plan was to collect a couple of small bags with a change of clothes each, and ride to the airport, before getting changed and going back to pick up the bike bags in a cab.  Sarah didn't think much of my route to the motel - nor did I, to be fair - it was shockingly steep, but at least came with cracking views up the lake!

While I was getting our backpacks out, I happened to engage a woman standing nearby in conversation.  In response to a grumble about what a hassle it is to travel with bikes (while of course noting how wonderful it is to ride them!), she said she was about to drive to the airport, and offered to ferry our bike bags!!!  That offer kindly accepted, our arrival at the Air New Zealand lounge was half an hour earlier than it otherwise would have been.  While the buffet was closed due to a COVID level increase, at least our flight wasn't canned, as it might have been had we been going to Auckland.  

* * *

It is always lovely to see Ashley, and while we'd missed also seeing Steven, we were all still able to enjoy the (long) weekend's activities.  

I've been privileged to spend some pretty incredible days on the bike in places that are just off-the-scale - Taroko Gorge in Taiwan (Day 6, here) would probably sit at the top of the list; Las Cuevas to Los Andes (switchback doping on Day 3, here) was almost as incredible and a close second; any day in the Pyrenees or Alps in France from the 2013 trip; New Caledonia had some crackers, from which it would be hard to pick a favourite; The Road to Hana on Maui, was good enough to make number two on Sarah's all-time list (she also picks Taroko Gorge at #1). 

Reflecting on the ride from Te Anau to Milford, I'd be hard pressed to nominate a more spectacular one- day ride in New Zealand, and I'd not hesistate to place it in amongst the fine company above.  SH94 was amazing, and unlike those international highlights, it was surprisingly benign.  For the distance, and remoteness, you get incredible bang for your buck.  The way the scenery unfolds, and its quality, give you constant reward for your effort.  The tunnel is a nice bonus for those of us who get a kick out of engineering projects (or simply are glad not to have to climb over the top of whatever it takes you through).  The happy ending - a descent where you barely have to turn the pedals if you don't want to - is a nice way to add the final 20km to the ledger.  And the destination itself is something to behold (provided you're suitably lathered up with insect repellant).  

I've no doubt my experience was improved by the clement weather and the mighty company, but even absent those, I imagine this road would deliver.  Even if a trip there is not possible before the hordes return, I'd highly recommend both the ride, and the format we adopted. 

Until such time as the borders reopen, I feel very lucky to live in a country which happens to have managed itself so well through this pandemic, granting us access to fantastic locations like Milford Sound.   I feel lucky to have such fantastic riding companions, and lucky to enjoy one of the best sight-seeing modes of transport there is.  And, I'm glad I'm taking advantage of all of that.


NZTA publish State Highway Traffic Volumes online, and the data tables there make interesting reading.  Historically, traffic along SH94 peaks during the summer, at around 2500 vehicles per day, an order of magnitude less than typical Wellington commuter traffic, and less than half the traffic you might expect on the much tighter Remutaka Hill.  Short version:  even when it is busy, it ain't that busy...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Don't leave town till you've seen the country: North Island back-country tour (Part 2)

(Continues from Part 1...)

Our route through to Raglan had taken us through parts of the country that I'd never seen, by bike, or in many cases, even by car.  On the other hand, between Raglan and Wellington lay untold fond memories.  In the north, rides with Simon in 2012 and Brendan only a few months prior; and around the Whanganui catchment, the two Tāwhio o Whanganui events (2011 and 2013) among others.  

I'd avoided pinning down the route for a few reasons.  Firstly, I wanted it to be informed by how we'd been enjoying things in the first half - if we were well and truly over remote gravel routes, various entirely sealed options were available, with the likely one being SH3 through New Plymouth.  Secondly, I felt less need to get organised when at home with a big computer screen, paper maps, and route mapping tools, figuring experience would help with planning on the fly.  Finally, I was torn between showing Sarah parts of these areas that I'd loved, and feeding my addiction for new roads, made worse by's running tally.

Whatever the cause of our flexibility, I was becoming very good at using Garmin Connect's course tool on my phone, aided by the AA map segments I'd photocopied prior to leaving home, and wasn't regretting the spontaneity of it all.

Day 7: Raglan to Otorohanga

After the previous day's chance encounter with Matt and Amy Dewes, I'd looked with interest at their route to Otorohanga, and was surprised to find upon reconciling it against the route I'd taken with Simon, that almost all of the "new" second half wasn't going to be new at all.  Out came the mapping tool again!

After suiting up in freshly laundered kit, and thanking the Tolley's profusely for their hospitality, we got underway.  Not five minutes later, we'd doubled back as far as the bike shop to request a quick investigation of Sarah's front derailleur tuning.  We left soon after with it fully functional, but none the wiser as to the cause of the problem.  

We finally left town on Te Hutewai Road.  I was 99% sure Simon and I had arrived in Raglan via this route, and had in my mind's eye a particular section of road that didn't seem to exist (or at least wasn't apparent heading in the other direction).  

I was getting bogged down mentally - fretting about Sarah's bike despite it now being fully operational, trying pointlessly to re-engineer almost decade-old memories which weren't aligning with up to date data, and also being frustrated that my GPS unit hadn't held charge overnight so was riding cold-turkey from the real-time information I usually enjoy consuming.  

I was nonetheless excited about Sarah seeing the incredible Bridal Veil Falls, and it didn't disappoint.  We admired it from the top two lookout points, and I got down on my knee and asked my wife to marry me, which was well received!  

The road climbed for what seemed an interminably long time, but eventually we began our descent of Kawhia Road, still inexplicably signposted as closed.  

We stopped and I pointed out to Sarah a strange-looking basin that I thought had some significance.  Despite having a reasonable historical record of this spot when I first saw it ("The guy had also told us to keep an eye out for a disappearing lake, that vanishes at the height of summer"), I was again trying to tap into memories that had already proved themselves unreliable.  Such a shame, as a fascinating comparison was only a couple of clicks away.  

Lake Disappear, Summer 2020

File photo:  Spring, 2012

The descent would have been very enjoyable had it not been for a couple of locals on motorbikes.  They sped past us a couple of times, having taken a side road in between passages, before doubling back and accelerating towards us.  One howled at us menacingly, in what was the only overt aggression we experienced on the trip, let alone the day.  I was glad to be taking the turn off towards Kawhia a minute or two later, hopefully reducing even further the chance that we'd be further harrassed by these two.

While we didn't see them again, we were passed by a posse of mild mannered motorcycle tourists on the undulating gravel road through to the sealed route out to Kawhia (SH31).  There, we stopped for a bite to eat in the shade, and chased that down about 8km later at the Oparau Roadhouse.  

Approaching our first truly mid-ride shop since Paeroa!

Before leaving, we spoke to a woman on her smoko break, who was interested in our ride, particularly given we were going to be heading past her place on a "windy gravel road".  For the first time in the day, we were spoilt with choice, but I'd selected Pirongia West Road as the ascent with most appeal (Okupata Rd, Kaimango Rd, SH31 being the three obvious alternatives).  

As we started our ascent, I felt myself immediately relax.  I enjoyed taking the piss out of myself by telling Sarah that the false memories, bike troubles and unruly locals had just been a ruse - all this time I was actually just stewing over re-riding old territory.  The occasional quirky gem also helped lighten the mood.

Cows chilling out in between races...

The climb was on the whole an absolute cracker, and what's more, it was an actual climb - a 500m ascent spread over 17 glorious kilometres.   While the lack of native bush on the road itself was slightly disappointing, the uninterrupted views over Kawhia Harbour were welcome. 

We could occasionally see across to Okupata Road on a parallel ridge, and I knew it would converge with our route at a crossroads that Simon and I had visited (despite using neither of these roads).  Without the feedback from my GPS unit, I was surprised how long the intersection took to come, though this didn't overly distract me from the lovely surrounding bush that we'd finally found.  

Our first views East over the King Country

From the crossroads, a sealed descent took us to Ngutunui School, which I now realise I'd confounded with Otamauri School (a Hawke's Bay stopping point with Simon on a wholly different trip...).  From there, we dropped down to SH31 through to its merger with SH39, both of which led to Otorohanga.  Given the traffic volumes we experienced in the few minutes we rode along it, a slight detour onto back roads seemed worthwhile.  

Our arrival into Otorohanga was a bit messy - in hindsight the 20% residual charge in my GPS would have been more than enough to assist with the location of our overnight stop, but instead I relied on my phone.  Sarah and I separated - me to go grab some post-ride supplies while she attempted to check in at the wrong campground.  After a bit of the two of us riding around in circles, we reunited, and were soon ensconced at our digs.  

Stats:  130km ridden, and to my great surprise, almost exactly half of it previously unridden.  

Day 8: Otorohanga to Te Kuiti

I'd lamented the booking at Otorohanga a few times upon discovering that Te Kuiti was a mere 20km down the road, even without taking the highway.  I'm sure we would have coped with that extra distance the day before, especially with a decent afternoon tea stop on offer!

I don't generally experience the "accommodation anxiety" which comes with credit-card cycle touring.  Rather, I do enjoy not having camping gear, relishing in the lighter load, enhanced hygiene and comfort, and eased logistics (like security and charging facilities) that having a fixed overnight target brings.  

However, one downside is that occasionally, the viable options for an overnight stop are constraining.  This was one such instance, though mapping out a point-to-point ride in the countryside where the points happen to be much closer together than the length of the ride turned out to be both pleasurable and fun to enact.

We headed out of town on Rangiatea Road, on the north bank of the Waipa River.  As we'd come to realise, the road on the south bank was only a stone's throw away (not quite literally, but close), but bridges across the river are few and far between.  In fact, we'd cross the Waipa at the first available bridge, about 20km upstream, having ridden a 35km loop to travel about 400m between Rangiatea and Otewa Roads.   

Other than that particular constraint, the route was entirely arbitrary, making it ever more satisfying that the roads were quiet and interesting, and that the scenery was solid.   

After ducking and diving a wee bit on sealed roads, we turned off onto Hoddle Road.  I was pleased not to attract too much of Sarah's ire, as this truly was an added extra - two sides of a triangle in which we were forgoing a sealed road for a solid unsealed climb followed by a unsealed descent.  

Back on the primary loop road, we were soon crossing the Waipa River at Toa Bridge, and riding down the river valley with steep cliffs on both sides.  On our left shoulders was an impressive bush-clad ridge, which in another quirky feature of the ride, we'd climb back up - this time 5km down the river and 5km up the ridge had us travel about 500m as the crow flies. 

The climb itself was nice, and once we got up high and into open farmland, gave us good views to the north west where we knew Raglan sat behind the impressive Pirongia Forest Park, around whose boundary we'd skirted the previous day.  

I couldn't resist a diversion onto Bush Road, which was a glorious gravel descent to pick up a valley road which we'd ignored about almost an hour's climbing ago.  

The bush on Bush Road was not entirely unexpected

Rather than take the gravel road through to its terminus, we turned off onto Walker Road, and enjoyed a gradual paved climb which set us up to bomb down into Te Kuiti.  I'd booked a motel room half way up the next morning's first climb, which we dispatched after half an hour chilling out at the BP station cafe.  

The walk down to find dinner in an eerily quiet town on New Year's Eve was not as bad as it seemed it might be, and fortunately, the overnight traffic on SH3 didn't necessitate use of the earplugs that we found on our bedside tables!

Stats:  80km ridden, most of them optional yet strangely necessary given quirks of the road network!

Day 9: Te Kuiti to Taumarunui

For a long while I anticipated replicating the stunning third day of my recent cycle tour with Brendan, but I was reminded of a comment I'd made to him during our mind-blowingly good ride that day:  "there's no way we just happen to have stumbled upon the best roads in NZ - these are probably everywhere."  Confident in the truth of it, I figured Sarah and I would try a route slightly west of that which Brendan and I had taken, albeit with the same destination.

As we made our final preparations to leave the motel, my kind offer to do a coffee run down the hill was (also very kindly) declined, so we bombed down the hill together to the BP for a pair of flat whites to see in the New Year and to grab some lunch supplies.  Then, it was back up the hill to fully load the bikes, and say farewell to Te Kuiti for good.  

We stuck with SH3 for just over 20km through to Piopio - our longest stretch on a major road in the entire tour.  We were well cared for by what little traffic there was - I've been cycling in and around traffic for three decades now, and it really does feel like the e-bike era has ushered in a new-found tolerance for cyclists.  A long way to go to get to European levels of empathy and care, but it has to start somewhere, and I believe it has.  On the other hand, we were forced to ride past a Trump placard, though at least with the recent crushing defeat at the polls, the last laugh was on us.

Just before Piopio we hummed and harred about stopping at a berry-picking place to see what we might be able to purchase other than berries, but it was on the other side of the road, and besides, there was still a bit of life left in the morning's toothpaste remnants.  Unfortunately, there was nothing open to stop at in Piopio a few kilometres later, and by that time we were both regretting forgoing whatever we'd missed.  

We turned off towards Aria, and I did a bit of route reconfiguration on the fly so that we didn't actually pass through Aria itself.  We joined Ohura Road, and came to within 2 or 3km of the Aria-Matiere Road that Brendan and I had taken.  

This soon turned to gravel, and not long after that when we reached the intersection with Waitewhena Rd (which I'd originally planned to emerge from), where we had a short break on a one-lane bridge - highly recommended as rest stops, given the comfortable seating arrangement the standard design offers.  

Then began a 30-odd-kilometre run south to Ohura (ironically, no longer on Ohura Road)!  About half way along we stopped to chat to a young farmer and his posse of dogs.  We told him we were headed for Taumarunui, to which he responded that it was a good hour in the car, seemingly incredulous at our itinerary!

Mirroring my last passage through Ohura, I was very keen to make use of the public facilities there.  My relief was such that disappointment to discover that Fiesta Fare wasn't open for a coffee (or what's more, the pork burrito that'd been on offer last time) hardly registered.  

I'd never actually ridden the 10km section between Ohura and the Forgotten Highway (SH43), and it had been over a decade since the single time I'd ridden the entire length of SH43 itself.  What I'd remembered (rather than read) was that it had been gruelling, and my intent was to bypass most of it using Kururau Road.  

Such a strange position for this sign, when a left turn towards Taumarunui would see you there within 40km

It was a crying shame to miss the shop at Lauren's Lavender Farm by a few minutes, because that surely would have been the highlight of our 40km sampling of the Forgotten Highway.  After about 1000km of really lovely riding, this much-hyped stretch of road was not one I enjoyed.  Partly it was due to an insufficient lunch - the wraps we'd bought at the BP were delicious, but in hindsight I was mindful that it is the bread in a sandwich that typically gets you up the hills - the filling just makes it easier to swallow!!! (Wraps are hereby banned as a riding snack!)  The primary reason for my dissatisfaction though was the almost complete absence of native bush - with one DOC reserve as a notable exception.  

Despite not enjoying the road much, it was nice to be on a relatively smooth and predictable surface, so in the end we stuck with it all the way into Taumarunui.  Had it been a head-to-head competition with my previous Te Kuiti to Taumarunui route choice, this day was definitely the loser.  If Sarah and I  experienced elation at all, it was to stop, in contrast to the wonderment that the ride elicited for Brendan and I.  That said, it is better to regret something you did than something you didn't, and besides, this had hardly been a complete dud - it just had great competition.  

Stats:  132km ridden, with too few calories ingested.  Only a single (long) gravel sector.  

Day 10: Taumarunui to Raetihi

We dragged ourselves out of bed much earlier than usual on the 2nd of January, by virtue of rain in the forecast.  We were on the road by 7am (9am or even later had been typical), with plans A, B and C formulated and declared.  

All going well, we'd enjoy riding the Kaiwhakauka Track from Whakahoro before the trail, notoriously bad when wet, became so.  If rain had set in before the intersection of Oio and Upper Retaruke Roads, we'd peel off and ride up the latter and Fisher's Track to National Park, and if it was pissing down for the duration, we'd stick with SH4 and save ourselves a lot of climbing!

First things first though, and we started the day with a backroad loop which took us over half way to Owhango.  It included 20 minutes or so on gravel, before we gained some decent elevation on SH4.  

Overlooking the North Island Main Trunk Line and the Whanganui River, towards Kakahi

We turned off just before we reached Owhango - anything which might have been open later in the day would surely have been closed now - taking Otapouri Road to connect with a stunning, and almost 40-kilometre-long, descent to Whakahoro.  

Awesome sediment layers in road cuttings in these parts

Plan A was still looking promising when we reached Oio Road, but the road became increasingly damp, and there was light rain in the surrounding hills.  When we reached Whakahoro, we were definitely wet, and the long descent had me feeling a bit chilly.  I didn't like the idea of getting colder, and nor would lingering improve the state of what lay ahead.  So, rather than find and then knock on the door of Blue Duck Lodge for track intel and potentially a hot drink, we charged ahead, nervous but hoping for the best.

I'd never experienced Papa mud first hand, but knew of its M.O. and wasn't relishing the thought of riding through it.  We had heard that DOC had been doing some "upgrading" of the track, but Simon had thought it was incomplete.  I didn't know much else about the track, so when we hit our first patch of wet papa, it was very hard to know if this was going to be the exception or the rule.  

I estimate our wheels clogged up in the space of less than 15 seconds, from completely clean, to so caked with grey clay that the space between the tyre and the bike frame and fork was suddenly full.  We stopped, too late of course, and then began the cleaning up process.  Relatively speaking, this was a fairly simple affair by virtue of the profile of our tyres.  Basically, we shaved all the mud off by turning the wheel through our hands - because the tyres were pretty smooth, that removed almost all the mud, an impossible task had we been running knobbly mountain bike tyres.  We then set to getting rid of as much muck as possible from around the bottom bracket area, off the drive train, and brakes.   We sacrificed a couple of water bottles to aid with that task, refilling them at a conveniently located creek until the bikes were looking (and sounding) adequately clean.  

To get a sense of how bad it could have been, here's a photo posted by another rider who rode this track a fortnight later.  Believe it or not, there's a mountainbike hidden in here somewhere!  Photo:  John Carman

We then continued into the unknown, with Sarah under marching orders to ride super conservatively both with safety and component longevity in mind.   We really were in the middle of nowhere, and if we had issues that made one or both bikes unrideable, it was going to be a long and stressful walk out. 

From the DOC brochure and occasional track signage, we knew we had a 17km climb to the intersection with the Mangapurua Track, which would be at least a couple of hours - our moving speed seemed to be sitting at around 7km/h by virtue of a mix of cautious riding and walking.  I wasn't troubled by this, knowing that we'd had a good run to the start of the track, plenty of daylight (and lights if necessary), food supplies, and a warm bed waiting for us in Raetihi.  I regularly encouraged Sarah to nurse her bike and to walk if necessary, advice she seemed to heed.  

Following that strategy, we made consistent progress, and the track was actually mostly rideable.  The surface was wet, but we hadn't experienced any proper rain overhead, and there were no obvious signs that it was going to get worse (i.e. no thunder reverberating in the hills).  It was a shame the sun wasn't out, as there were a few spots where it would have been really nice to stop had it been warm, but on the odd occasion we did pause, the cool air soon started to creep in and forced us onwards.  

We didn't linger long in Mosley's shelter

For the most part, the trail climbed consistently through native bush, with frequent bridges and the occasional short walk up or down a slippery and/or steep section.  When the track reached a section of private land, it opened up into pasture, and beyond that, followed a 4WD track which served as vehicle access for the landowner.  Occasionally it looked like we might have another papa clay issue, but we only carried our bikes briefly, keen to avoid a repeat of our first experience, and nothing came of it.  

Passing through the Cootes' property

About 3 hours after leaving Whakahoro, we reached the junction with the Mangapurua Track, a place Sarah and I had passed before, en route to the Bridge to Nowhere with our beautiful daughters, and Simon and Miro.  

As we rode on, I had strangely conflicting recollections before realising I'd actually been to the bridge twice.  The sun briefly came out, and we celebrated by having a picnic - I located a couple of suitable blocks of papa which served nicely as seats, and we enjoyed our sandwiches (not wraps!) in the sunshine.  

Shortly after getting going again we stopped to talk to a cycle tourist who was planning to camp before catching a jetboat the next day.  He had more gear than the two of us put together, but seemed to be enjoying himself.  He was also one of only a handful of cyclists we bumped into the whole tour.  

The descent to Ruatiti Road was fine, and in fact, our bikes had passed this impromptu adventure with flying colours!  We didn't linger at the roadend, and carried on up the valley, both quietly looking forward to the sealed road that awaited at the midpoint of the remaining ride.  

The day wasn't done with us just yet, however, and the heavens opened during the sealed climb up to SH4.  That didn't stop me taking yet another photo of the "historic horse watering trough" near the top of the climb, but did prevent Sarah from noticing it!  

We rolled into Raetihi after a few trouble-free minutes on yet another near-deserted "main road", and headed for the Four Square for a pick-me-up.  Before getting there, I noticed a gentleman walking down the road, raincoat hood up and carrying a large camera.  Such was the novelty of seeing a person, my brain was obviously running a quick database search, and came up with a hit:  "Gordon?!"  He too then went through the same process, grappling not only with our location, but presumably also my attire.  I was delighted to hear: "Jane's over there in the car."

Reenacting arrival into Raetihi, sans Ruapehu in the background.  Photo: Prof Gordon Anderson

She was indeed, and as our conversation got underway, the statistical improbability of our meeting began to register.  Jane and I had clocked up untold Zoom hours during lockdown, to the point that she, Prof Karen Smith and I would occasionally refer to ourselves as the three musketeers.  I'm glad I had the wherewithal to address Jane as "Professor Bryson", a title which had taken effect just the previous day - that elicited a laugh as both she and Gordon had sufficiently parked work-related issues to have overlooked the significance of the date, despite the promotion one of the most sought after academic accolades.  

Aside from that connection, I'd been on secondment when Jane officially became Acting Dean of my faculty, so when we both returned to the office, she would be my manager!  It wasn't lost on any of us that had Sarah and I rolled into town a couple of minutes earlier or later, or if the rain had been a touch more intense, we'd have completely missed one another.  It just happened that their holiday drive across the island intersected with our ride down the island at the only moment our routes would intersect, and that I'd had bothered to look directly at Gordon.

My two bosses, briefly catching up on the main drag of Raetihi

Our accommodation for the evening was a delightful Bed and Breakfast on Ranfurly Terrace.  Our hosts were very welcoming, and it was fantastic to be able to launder our clothes and clean up more generally.  Some of our gear got a good rinsing off with the hose, though giving the bikes a once over was deferred until the morning, when, true to form, the mud had dried and cleaned off easily with a dry brush.  

Stats:  132km ridden, and it felt like one bullet dodged.  Occurrence of a chance encounter with a vanishingly small probability.  

Day 11: Raetihi to Hunterville

After a solid breakfast and the aforementioned bike cleaning, we set off in damp shoes but otherwise clement conditions.  We didn't get too far before our first stop - the local petrol station for a quick coffee.  

After just over 10km on SH4 towards Whanganui, we peeled off onto Oruakukuru Road, which was initially sealed, but soon turned to gravel.  This took us past some truly magnificent trees, and regularly teased us with views towards Ruapehu, which remained largely obscured by clouds.  

We had a brief spell at the intersection with the now-deadend Old Fields Track, before doing a complete 180 and riding the (current) Fields Track away from the elusive mountain.

We never saw much more of Ruapehu than this...

The two roads were separated by the Whangaehu River, which we could have followed for the rest of the day.  Instead, we admired it from above before taking yet another side road which connected with the Turakina Valley Road.  

Unlike the Whangaehu, which Sarah and I had ridden northwards with Brendan and Viv a few months earlier, I'd never been down the Turakina, despite years of missed opportunities.  Back when Simon and (his) Sarah had summer access to a place in Rangataua, on the last day of their holiday, Simon would typically ride to Hunterville down this valley before jumping in the car for the rest of the trip home.  I'd had the pleasure of visiting them on a number of occasions, but had never been in a position to join Simon on this leg.    

For the first quarter or so, I was wondering what all the fuss was about - perhaps I had unreasonable expectations, but the road certainly wasn't living up to them.  I should have known better than to question Simon's taste in dirt roads, and indeed, by the time I'd given up on it, the scenery really came to life.

I happened to be just behind Sarah when she asked what "that big white bird was".  I hadn't made it out, but needn't have worried.  It settled on a dead tree, alongside a mate, enabling us to identify them as sulphur crested cockatoos.  We'd seen a flock of about a dozen a couple of years earlier, but maybe 25km downstream - and if to give us further evidence of their range, one of the two birds was visible on-and-off for the next hour or so of riding.  

By the time we stopped to briefly admire a handsome waterfall, I was feeling like a real dick for ever doubting Simon and this mighty fine road.  

Soon after the road became sealed, we passed an intersection which I assumed was where Sarah and I had emerged from en route from Whanganui, but I couldn't for the life of me remember the climb that started soon after.  I was expecting a pine forest, and sure enough, it was there, but after a subsequent intersection with the road we'd actually been on a couple of years earlier.  

We got a little damp prior to arrival in Hunterville, but not so wet that we couldn't enjoy some afternoon tea at our first shop since we'd left Raetihi.  It took an interminable time to cross SH1 to go to the supermarket - this was Sunday afternoon, and there was a seemingly endless queue of cars heading back to Wellington, presumably with at least one occupant dreading a return to work the next day. 

Our accommodation was about 10km south, and I'd originally intended to ride 6km on the highway. I wasn't keen to backtrack to take the loop west of the main road, and nor was I keen to be stuck with the traffic.  Fortunately, there was an alternative which looked like it might add only a few kilometres, and while we'd have to ride on SH1 briefly, it would be northbound, and shouldn't have the same traffic issues.

The road looked so flat on the map, but just far enough out of town to feel committed, we found ourselves at the bottom of a wall!  I was ahead, and figured I'd ride out of earshot for the duration, a strategy that seemed wise given the unexpected and unwelcome mountain before us.  

We regrouped at the top, and dropped down into the Rangitikei River basin.  There, I became even less popular, courtesy of a torrential downpour.  Running the math, it didn't seem likely that we'd have stayed dry if we'd braved SH1, but there was enough doubt to make my route choice very contentious.  

We cowered in a wee bus shelter for long enough to demolish our post ride snacks - pringles chips and kombucha for her, and chocolate milk for yours truly - but not long enough for the deluge to stop.  In the end, there was nothing for it but to get out there and continue.

Hard to make out the raindrops, but rest assured, they were there in abundance

The rest of the loop was flat at least, and we got across the main road easily, finding our turn off soon after.  We were soon climbing again, this time unavoidably, but it did not improve the mood of a very wet and pissed off Mongolian!  

Fortunately, our overnight accommodation was the sort of place that would cheer anyone up.  The Maungaraupi Country Estate was a grand old homestead, and almost 115 years old.  We had the massive place to ourselves, but our hostess Andra had kindly supplied a chicken casserole for dinner, as well as ample breakfast supplies.  What's more, there was even streaming TV so we could catch up on a couple of episodes of a show we'd been watching while our riding gear hung near the heater.   

Stats:  138km ridden, most (but not all) of them harmoniously.  

Day 12: Hunterville to Levin

We were both relieved to wake to dry conditions.  After breakfast, I gave the bikes a once over.  In addition to lubing both chains and topping up the tyre pressures, I noticed my rear brake pads were very worn, and replaced those.  That done, miraculously dry riding gear was donned, decidedly damp seat bags remounted to the bikes, and we said our farewells to this gem of a place.    

I hadn't photocopied the AA maps beyond Hunterville, and so route selection was a bit of a lottery.  I really rate the free-for-members maps for planning purposes - outside of the towns they show pretty much everything that's there, but also indicate the surface (sealed or not), and whether or not the road is major or minor.  The online maps I've tried aren't great for route planning - if I'm zoomed in enough to even see the minor roads, I struggle to keep track of the big picture, and often end up in the wrong place, if not completely lost.  

This lack of planning showed, and we ended up on one of the main routes into Feilding.  Nonetheless, we got there without coming to grief, and celebrated this with a coffee and muffin each.  It seemed like forever since we'd had mid-ride supply options, and we intended to take full advantage of it today.

After a bit more ducking and diving, we hit a southbound road, west of, but parallel to SH1, I was starting to feel a bit sore in my lower back, and I also needed a slash.  Sarah drifted off in front of me, and rather than call out or push through my discomfort and chase, I laboured on, trying not to stop, but desperately wanting to.  In the end, I did take a quick break to both stretch and wee, and didn't see Sarah again until the very end of the road.  

After crossing SH1, we rode towards Himatangi Beach but turned south again before we got there.  We were slightly more tempted to go to Foxton Beach, but in the end extra kilometres had no appeal.  A great Foxton toasted sandwich each later, riding enthusiasm had been somewhat restored.

De Molen - part of the Foxton skyline since 2003

We crossed SH1 yet again to take a back road into Shannon.  Up until this point the roads had been sealed, and so it was a bit of a treat to have a short gravel sector.  When we crossed the disgusting-looking Manawatu River, I couldn't help but think about our "100% Pure New Zealand" branding, and what a bloody crock it is.  

Clean green NZ...

I'm usually very deliberate about buying something whenever possible while touring, but we passed through Shannon so soon after our break in Foxton, and so close to our final destination, we had no appetite for another stop.  

After a nifty little gravel loop that cut out a few minutes on the main back-route between Palmy and Levin, we only had to endure the traffic for 10km or so, before taking a road on the outskirts of Levin that cut back across to SH1.  It was alarmingly un-flat, but happened to have an ice-cream shop at the far end, so seemed like a great idea eventually.  

Having celebrated the end of the ride accordingly, we checked into our motel, and then went to the movies!  A couple of times we'd considered evening entertainment, only to find that the nearest cinema was a town or two away.  Wonder Woman 1984 was a strange film, but wasn't a terrible way to pass a couple of hours.  That said, it would have been had we emerged to find the Kaffir Lime Thai restaurant closed, but we did manage to sneak in a pad thai before getting breakfast supplies from the supermarket and knocking off for the day.

Stats: 135km ridden, three mid-ride shops, and only one day to go!

Day 13: Levin to Karori

Through to Levin, a touch over 80% of the thousand miles I'd ridden had been sight unseen (the rides chronicled in Part 1 were up over 90%).  I spent the morning poring over my "Big Map" on to see if I'd missed anything between Levin and home during my various forays to ride every street in the region.  The verdict was that if I stuck to the roads, I'd have ridden every inch previously.  So - best not to stick to the roads!

After our final motel breakfast:  a box of cereal, can of boysenberries (for her) and fruit salad (for him), yoghurt, and plunger coffee if we could muster it, we loaded our saddlebags for the final time, and rolled out under blue skies.  

We stayed off SH1 as much as we could, and survived the Ohau bridges, the second of which I was planning to cross under (on foot over the railway line, before crossing the two lanes of traffic to get back onto the left side of the road), but we reached it at a break in the traffic.  

The Waitohu Valley Road back route into Otaki was sweet, and it dawned on me that it was the first time I'd ridden it fresh - the last couple of times I'd been through there was at the tail end of 200km-plus rides!  I have to say I much prefer it with rested legs!

We didn't stop in Otaki, and once over the bridge, I gauged Sarah's interest in crossing the highway to get onto a trail along the river.  She indulged my curiosity and quest for novelty, and I was relieved to find that the path was a pleasure to ride!

...until we came to a gate and a sign indicating private property.  We were faced with a few options - ignore the signs and continue, double back as far as a wee access track onto Te Waka Road, or try to find an alternative route.  Neither of the first two options appealed, but we were close to the river and the ocean, and what little I know about the "Queen's Chain" suggested legal access might exist.  

We made decent progress on a worn path through the scrub, and then started walking down the beach.  Eventually, the best strategy seemed to involve wet feet, but that seemed like a small price to pay to rejoin the vehicle track at the opposite end of the private land.  

After a few minutes on a fun bit of 4WD track, we struck the end of Sims Road, and were able to follow back roads through to SH1 just north of the Peka Peka Beach turnoff.  

There we were faced with another awkward decision.  Cross two lanes of fast moving SH1 traffic, or skirt around a fence onto a pristine cycle path, which looked poised for an official opening.  The latter seemed the wise choice, but unfortunately, every driveway the path crossed had a pair of fences that also needed bypassing, each of which made us feel a little bit worse about daring to use this amazing off -road facility,  Our outrageous behaviour did not go unnoticed, and just before we joined the legit access to Peka Peka Beach, we got hollered at by a passing contractor.  Fair call, I suppose.

At Waikanae Beach we dropped in to see my brother and his family, who had some delicious lunch ready, and were fantasitc company for an hour or so.  We'd run a wee bit late due my route misadventures, so unfortunately our flat whites were long gone, but it was the thought that counted!

Dave gave us some suggestions for a route south, which we followed, crossing the Waikanae River on a foot bridge that connected two sweet bits of off-road path.

We quickly dispatched Paraparaumu and Raumati, and took a sealed trail through QE2 Park which I didn't recognise, but must have ridden before it was sealed.  

We rode on the footpath through to Pukerua Bay, and then the cycle path along the Taupo Swamp.  In fact, by the time we'd got to Middleton Road just south of Tawa, the majority of the time between there and Otaki we'd been on half decent cycleways - the councils and/or NZTA would do well to sort those few pinch points at Ohau, which would make the access to Wellington a hell of a lot safer for cycle tourists.

We didn't head straight home - I felt a great need to start the next day with a decent coffee, and for that we needed fresh beans.  Usually I'd drop down Ngaio Gorge to get to the city, but instead chose Onslow Road for the wonderful views we'd get of Wellington.  What better way to be welcomed home! 

Various sets of traffic lights weren't in our favour, and it seemed to take an eternity to get to Havana.  As it was, we made it with only a couple of minutes to spare, and the lovely young woman behind the counter was impressed that we'd ridden so far to buy some beans from them, and flying Havana logos no less!  (I wasn't cheeky enough to ask for a discount on the beans!)

I may have cheekily suggested we take a MTB trail up from Aro Valley, but instead we took the road - I've had a soft spot for Raroa Road even before I did an Everest on it, and it is one of those climbs that I'm quite happy to do at the end of a long day.  

Two minutes from home - a good cause for celebration!

Khulie and Kaitlyn were at home when we arrived, and after 15 nights away, it was both wonderful to see them, and to put on a fresh set of clothes!

Stats:  123km ridden, but I managed to sneak in 11.5 new kilometres.  500 grams of X-Blend beans hauled up the hill to prime the Rocket for the morning.

* * *

I hadn't really considered this before setting off, but this was the second longest cycle tour I'd done after Le Cycle-Tour de France (third if you count the fully supported 2018 TdF).  My total distance was 1750km all up, with Sarah skipping about 100km, clearly surpassing our one-week, 1000km tour up the West Coast a couple of years ago.  As she has pointed out, our ride this time was probably close to half unsealed (timewise, if not by distance), and so it was a big step up.  She handled it with class, as anyone who has followed her riding prowess over recent years will have anticipated.  

I'm really pleased with how the route took shape, and the only thing I felt I'd dropped the ball on had been the route into Feilding - I'm sure we could have done better there.  We passed plenty of majestic forest, a few of NZ's nicest waterfalls, and had the roads pretty much to ourselves the vast majority of the time.  Our daily distance seemed about right - a couple around the 150km mark, with the majority around 120-130km.  We barely had to dip into our OSM stash, and the absent shops weren't particularly missed.  The flights at the beginning was fun, and it was great not having to repack the bikes at any point in order to get them home.  

The bikes were fantastic - we're yet to take them to Oli for some stem-to-stern lovin' - but there's a short list of things which need particular attention:  Sarah's rear derailleur cable, diagnosis of the cause of the front going out of whack, and remedying what sounds like a loose ball bearing in her bottom bracket (an issue which arose in the last couple of hours of the trip, fortunately).  My Open ran like a dream, though the headset feels a little stiff now, and one of the front brake pistons feels a bit gummed up.  That said, the beauty of a once over by Oli is that it the feel of the bike will improve in all manner of ways, such is his care and attention to detail.  

I had no complaints on the luggage front.  The Revelate bags are perfect, both in terms of capacity and function.  That said, we did post Sarah's top tube bag home - she'd rubbed one knee a bit raw, and when I took it off I noticed that even a sticker on the narrower top tube had been rubbed during riding.  I haven't been in the habit of carrying jandals, but they were a great thing to have to mince around in at the end of the day, particularly on those three days we finished with wet feet.  Our tool kit and emergency supplies were barely tested - we didn't even have any punctures to fix.   

Sarah's companionship was amazing.  

Riding with her is quite a different experience for me than riding with Brendan or Simon, and I regularly have brief moments of acute concern, triggered by all manner of things - from sharp looking rocks, potholes, vehicles, and even in response to strange sounds emanating from her bike.  One thing that was bloody obvious throughout this entire ride though, was that much of that concern is unnecessary - she's handling her machine incredibly well, and little (and occasional large) accidents that were commonplace in the early years, are few and far between now (touch wood...).  

It is no surprise to me how much I enjoyed it.  The riding.  The scenery.  The serenity which I ought to be able to feel in the throes of normal adult life, but is an experience I'm more inclined to have literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but my legs and bicycle between me and dire straits.  The sense of excitement at not knowing what's around the next corner.  And then the excitement at finding out.  The gratitude for being able to do this at all.  And the pride at executing a well made plan, day after day.  I finish envigorated, and ready for more.  And the stark contrast at the crushing fatigue I feel after a few hours sitting on my arse at work is not lost on me.  

This gig really is my happy place, and while it is special in and of itself, being able to share it with Sarah makes it that much sweeter.  I know her motivations and experience of it are not identical to mine, and I'm really grateful for the sacrifices she makes to partake.  Ditto our beautiful daughters, who've put up with absent parents two Christmases in a row now.  

Speaking of which, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.  

I hope you've enjoyed the tale.  Rest assured, there will be another before long.

Kerikeri to Karori, 1750km in 15 days