Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fantastic Figure Eight

Each year since 2009, Simon and I have headed away for a 3-day Spring Cycle Tour.  New Plymouth to National Park was more a training ride than adventure, ditto the Triangle Trip of 2010.  Last year's was a humdinger though, from the gloopy mud down at the mouth of the Mohaka, to the apocalyptic scenes south of Minginui, and the finale - a mad-cap dash through some private land long after the point of no return. 

This spring, Simon was once again on point from a planning point of view.  A month or so ago, we got together to look carefully over the 1:250000 Auckland and Taumarunui maps.  And, a lofty and convoluted plan was hatched - 3 big days criss-crossing a massive rectangle (er, quadrilateral maybe...) with Te Kuiti, Awakino, Raglan and Pirongia in the corners (aka vertices).

Te Kuiti was chosen as the start-finish, since it was closest to Wellington, and over the next weeks, things slowly but surely fell into place.  Simon sorted accommodation with his friends Pete and Libby in Waitomo, and made a last-minute booking at a B&B just outside Pirongia. 

Oli and Kashi had helped transform my Big Top into the perfect platform for this sort of ride, the rigid carbon niner fork trimming almost 1kg off the weight.  Some of my touring gear is AWOL, but I managed to borrow a Revelate Viscacha from Jonty Ritchey to complement my own Ortlieb handle-bar bag.

Packing for these things has become a breeze.  Into the front bag went some tools, suncream, small cable lock, electrolyte tablets, ayup helmet lights and small battery, armwarmers, and a couple of innovations:  my new Steripen water purifier, and a 60mL V "Pocket Rocket" - a "fast energy blast" for emergencies (like the one I had about 10km short of Taihape a couple of years ago...).

Into the seat-bag went a woolen singlet, woolen long-sleeved top, a Ground Effect Baked Alaska, my Metallica boardies, a spare pair of socks, 3/4 overtrou and jacket, beanie and polypro gloves, chamois cream, cell phone and GPS USB cables + plug adapter, and a couple of tubes.  I also popped a fibre flare light on one of the Big Top's seat stays and my Garmin Edge 705 on the stem. 

I had one set of riding gear, and I'd carry a slimmed down wallet, some one-square-meals, and my cell phone in my jersey pockets. 

When I first started using my GPS unit for stuff like this, getting the route into the Edge was a doddle, with exporting directly into Garmin's crs format.  Since then, the "upgraded" mapmyride site lost that functionality, and more recently, the classic interface has been turned off completely.  A bit of scouring on the 'net led me to which seemed to do the trick (well the route at least, but not the elevation which had come across previously).  Simon would be bringing the maps, in case the hi-tech solution failed (or if I failed to bring the charger).

We left Wellington at 6pm on Thursday evening, having both taken annual leave for Friday.  As it got dark, I fired on the headlights in the car, and an intermittent fault with the dash light (conveniently illuminating the speedo) announced itself to be in full effect.  It wasn't until Waiouru that I noticed no red glow off the bikes on the rack, and Simon got out to investigate.  It was apparent that the whole back end of the car was dark, a tad ironic given the trailer light-board I'd recently purchased to ensure the lights were all visible.  Dead!  We completed the drive to Rangataua with a pair of rear bike lights flashing merrily away, and I'd flick the hazard lights on when someone appeared in my rear-vision mirror.

Day 1 - Friday

The next morning we awoke to a clear day, and Simon enjoyed a spot of cereal with a mountain view.  I filled my bottles from the rain-fed tank, and enjoyed nuking them with the steripen.

Chilly, but what a view!
We were Oscar Mike not long after, and apart from a quick coffee stop at National Park, we made good time to Te Kuiti.  We did the 5-minute-quiz in Friday's Dom Post, scoring a measly six out of 10.  But, we paid close attention to the questions, even doing the quiz a second time...
The i-site on the main drag of Te Kuiti gave us directions to the local auto-electrician, and we were lucky that they'd not only have a look at the car, but also open up on Sunday afternoon to let us retrieve it.  Bless you, Brodie and Jordan at BK Auto Electrical Ltd!

My fully loaded Big Top, waiting patiently...
The ride started with us retracing our steps back to the intersection of SH3 and SH4 just under 10km out of town. 

Settling in...

After the delay with the sparky, we decided against our first long-cut through a valley to the south of SH3, but, when we got to see the road we would have been on from our route, we realised we might have saved ourselves quite a bit of climbing. No use crying over spilt milk though!  Our first stop was Piopio, and the Fat Pigeon Cafe.  We chatted briefly to a pair of women who were very interested in our ride, and set-ups. 

After some good kai, we were off again.  The road wasn't too busy, which was nice, and without exception, drivers were giving us plenty of space.

One of the beauties of cycle touring was soon realised - it is incredibly easy to see interesting things, and to stop for them.  Nearing the top of a climb, we found ourselves alongside a stone wall with a flight of steps in it.  It would have been impossible to stop a car here, but our narrow bikes fitted nicely in the road shoulder, and we were soon admiring the view down into a river gorge.

I had a bit of a sketchy moment getting down off the rock, and wondered whether or not there was enough traction between my hard plastic sole and the rock I was just clambering off, but all that slipped was my pulse, and I was soon back on my bike.

We turned right off SH3 at the 49km mark, and were greeted with a perfect endorsement of our route choice...

The gravel road wound its way slowly into the hills, and we really started to soak in the scenery.  I'd transferred my cell phone from a plastic bag in my pocket into the handlebar bag, and it was great to be able to access it so easily.  And, accessing it easily I was, often.

Cliffs, with caves just around the corner

Eventually the long climb we were on came to an end, and, along the top of the ridge we'd just ascended, we got occasional glimpses of Awakino Gorge and the coast, and the valley we'd soon be riding north through. The end of the ridge was marked by a transmitter tower, some particularly wind-swept trees, and more glorious views.

Looking west
After a sweet descent, we turned right and made our way slowly but surely up-valley.  We were treated to fantastic trees, and I commenced my Kahikatea, Tawa, Totara and Rimu recognition classes. It was amazing to think that just a few days earlier I'd been releasing kahikatea seedlings at Makara Peak with my bro Ed.  Seeing these mature specimens helped me imagine what Makara Peak will look like for my great-grandchildren and their kids.

Kahikatea aside, the road was incredibly quiet, which helped offset the feeling that we'd been riding uphill for a very long time...

This one inspired by Dave Sharpe!
We crossed one saddle, and after a quick descent found ourselves battling into a headwind.  It seemed it was just coming in off the Tasman Sea, and once we'd passed the head of the valley, only a kilometre or so from the coast, and turned inland again, the funnelling effect of the valley gave us a sweet tailwind despite heading in pretty much the same direction as we'd been before.

Simon was starting to wane a bit, and said he'd meet me at Te Anga after I'd popped into Marakopa for a couple of bits of fish, and chips!   Soon after I'd left him, an oncoming truck almost slowed to a halt rather than risk peppering me with gravel at worst, or covering me with dust at best.  The courtesy shown to us by the few motorists we'd seen was well up there with the lovely scenery. 

After another turnoff to the coast was a short climb, before the plummet down to Marakopa.

Looking south a few kilometres from Marakopa

And, Marakopa itself
Being narrow was handy near the bottom of the descent as a large truck was almost entirely blocking the road.  Minutes later, I was disappointed to find that the shop at Marakopa had closed at 4pm (it was now 5), and I left without getting my feed, or filling my bottles.

I thought Simon was probably up the road by now, so rode fairly purposefully up the valley towards Te Anga.  It was dead flat, and I had a tailwind, and I soon realised that Simon almost certainly was behind me.  I eased off a bit, and by the time Simon pulled up, I'd already discovered the Te Anga Tavern was long since closed too...  For a lot longer than an hour, by the looks of it.  More likely a year, or even a decade...!

Simon, arriving in Te Anga
On of the other motivating factors for skipping a section bypassing SH3 had been a number of side-trips on this next stretch of road.  The first of these was Marakopa falls.  Simon decided he'd leave his bike at the top of the access track, while I was keen to keep any walking to a minimum and rode down, figuring I'd stop at the first flight of steps.  I didn't, overlooking temporarily that I'd ditched my suspension fork!

I was pretty damn thirsty by this stage, and the falls looked to be coming out of some nice native bush so I grovelled my way down to the river's edge.  The path showed signs of being permanently in a fine, wet mist, thrown up by the falls themselves, and it was difficult to keep out of the mud.  I filled one bottle at the river, and then made my way back up to the viewing platform.

Marakopa Falls

I gave the bottle two hits with the steripen, which was just as well, because only a few minutes up the road, the native bush stopped, and it was pretty clear the river had spent considerable time in amongst livestock.  No sign of any trouble five days on, touch wood...

As the sun lowered, our shadows got longer on the road, now heading East towards Waitomo, and our lodgings. 

We gave a visit to a cave attraction a miss, but did stop at the Mangapohue Natural Bridge, basically the remaining roof of a big old cave...

A minute or so after leaving the bridge, we had a bit of a monumental moment.  For the first time in 104km (since leaving SH3), we were passed by a car!  We'd seen perhaps two dozen vehicles, but they'd all been coming towards us.

The last 20km of the day were done with weary legs, and despite being very near Pete and Libby's place, we had to stop to rug up a bit.  We were soon warming up though, and had a delicious meal, hot showers, and great conversation before hitting the sack.  Sleep is always great after a 170km day on a mountain bike!

Day 2 - Saturday

Simon had posted a wee bit of food and a koha for Pete and Libby which hadn't arrived, so in the morning Pete drove us down to Waitomo to see if we could find it.  The postie wasn't there, so after a quick gander at Pete's next MTB track project, we headed back home for breakfast.

We were fed within an inch of our lives: peanut butter on toast, then baked beans and fried eggs on toast!  I managed to squeeze down a flat white when we made a return trip into town, where we did see the postie, who did have the parcel.

Simon gave Pete and Libby a copy of the Kennett Bros' new book - the seventh in their New Zealand Cycling Legends series, called The Muddy Olympians, about the six NZ MTBers who've raced at the Olympic Games.  We headed home, and we were soon suited up, and ready to roll, including a bit of suncream on my rump!  I'd discovered I'd got a little sunburnt through a tear in my shorts (from the Day 3 Cape Epic crash!), and I certainly didn't want it to get worse.  As it was, it was slightly swollen, and very pink!

Behind us, part of Pete and Libby's stunning view

We had a few kilometres to back-track, and all of it was uphill.  I'd eaten too much and was feeling nauseous.  Simon was similarly distressed, and the climb wasn't helping.

We were soon turning off the "main" road, and onto the unsealed Hauturu Road.  It was a great gradient for the most part, and much mellower than the climb from Pete and Libby's had been.  This probably helped us to not puke.

Hauturu Road

We stopped at a three-way intersection for a drink (but nothing to eat), and a few minutes later reeled the bikes in to check out plaque marking the Robert Houston Memorial Reserve. 

Soon, the stunning bush on both sides became stunning bush only on our left, and we were afforded expansive views to the north. 

The road then tipped down, and we were soon in the valley floor, this time heading in the same direction as the water.  

Around a corner we saw a man and woman on horseback, walking with about 8 or 9 dogs.  We'd now seen more people on horseback than cars on the 30-odd kilometres we'd ridden since turning off the Waitomo Road.

Traffic jam!
We stopped for a bit of a natter with the riders, who informed us that we'd get a good feed at the Oparau Roadhouse once we'd exited this valley.  We bade the farewell, and continued our cruise down-valley, glad we'd stumbled on a rather scenic part of the world.

Eventually the valley widened, and the road had a fine coating of silt hinting at flooding.  Not long after Simon and I started theorising about this, than we noticed the fence on our right and the vegetation neatly folded around the fence wire.  We were glad we hadn't stumbled upon this river in flood...!

Evidence of flooding in the fence.
Before too long we were climbing gently, and we soon found ourselves turning onto Kawhia Road, and a few minutes later we were pulling in to the Oparau Roadhouse. 

Oparau Roadhouse, one-stop-shop
It had been talked up by the equestrians, and I had high hopes for a stack of pancakes with bacon and banana and lashings of maple syrup.  My hopes were dashed, but I did have a mighty-fine mince and cheese pie, and a coffee, and a cookie, and some of Simon's honey-roasted peanuts.

We sat outside, and eventually realised that the strange noise was coming from a herd of turkeys grazing in the paddock across the road. 

Gobble, gobble, gobble
Simon was still feeling pretty crook, and didn't manage to eat much, despite my urging.  We still had plenty of riding to do!  Kawhia Road was sealed, and travel was fast - though not so fast that I didn't have time to pull over and indulge my latent spelling-nazism. 

It was nice to finally ride a stretch of road that wasn't lined with lush native bush on one side or both, and Kawhia Harbour provided some welcome relief.  We got occasional glimpses of the pebbly beach, and I liked the layers of shell left by the receding tide - but didn't quite get the camera organised at the right time.

Kawhia Harbour ahoy!
We turned off the very busy main road - with about one car every minute or two - a few kilometres short of Kawhia, despite Jo giving good intel on the fish'n'chip shop there.  The grand signposting of the turn off to Raglan set my expectations a tad high, so I was surprised that the intersection looked more like a layby.  We were back on the gravel, and heading up yet another valley.

There was a heap of traffic initially - about 5 cars in quick succession - but then it quietened down somewhat, to none.  About 15km later, we plonked ourselves down at our next turn off, digesting the "Road Closed" sign posted there.  Surely we'd get through on our bikes?!
How bad could it be?!
Simon had been suffering all day, due to a combination of a long day the day before and a HUGE breakfast, necessitating a bit of a team-talk.  There was pretty much no option to dramatically shorten the remaining riding for today, so instead we focussed on Sunday's plan. 

Pooped Simon
We had planned to cross back out to the coast from Pirongia, heading back through Marakopa, and then inland to Te Kuiti on a minor road north of our outbound route.  But, there looked to be other nice options parallel with the highway that would still give us a 90km ride but not be so arduous.  We weren't sure how easy it would be to retrieve the car if we arrived back late, so in the end it was a no brainer to commit to the shorter ride.

I sensed Simon's relief, and when I asked him about it a while later, he admitted that the stress he'd been feeling about Sunday's ride had been limiting his ability to enjoy Saturday's.  It was good to know we'd sorted that!  And, it was a nice reminder of the strength of our friendship that enables us to generally nip trouble in the bud.

Just before we set off, a young bloke emerged from a nearby property, and I asked him about the chances of us getting through the closed road.  He suggested we'd have no trouble, short of having to walk our bikes for a bit.  That too relieved a bit of stress, since the trouble spot was much nearer the far end of this road, and we'd get to it after a long ride.  Turning back would suck!

The guy had also told us to keep an eye out for a disappearing lake, that vanishes at the height of summer.

Disappearing Lake
The road closure ended up being a bit of a let-down, and we never had to dismount.  In fact, we could have driven through quite easily, though maybe there was something going on under the road that we were oblivious to.

We'd climbed a bit, and before long we were turning left onto a sealed road, and soon after that, we were turning into the DOC track to Bridal Veil Falls. 

There were various platforms, and from the first we were only a couple of metres away from the top of the fall - the river was relatively narrow - maybe between 2 and 3 metres wide, but it plummeted 55m into the pool below.

Bridal Veil Falls

We could see a couple of viewing platforms down in the chasm below us, but once we'd seen the view from the a second platform level with the one we'd just been on, we decided to save our legs!

Bridal Veil Falls - quite the stunner
We admired the beautiful scene for a bit, before saddling up, and hitting the road again. We weren't far from Raglan, but Simon was less keen for greasies than I was - I think I was still smarting from my rejections at Marakopa, Te Anga, and the Roadhouse.  We stopped at the turn-off we'd planned to make together, and he gave me a shopping list, and showed the point on the map at which we'd regroup after I'd had my feed.

No sooner had I got going than the road had turned to gravel again.  I enjoyed riding the climb without regard for pacing, and as the road turned north, got a great view of the coastline above Raglan. 

Looking north beyond Raglan
The descent into town was being sealed, and the workmen told me to look sharp as he let me through.  I managed not to get squashed, and was pleased that I didn't seem to be picking up any tarred stones on my tyres.

I stopped at the first shop I saw, but it didn't have the range I needed, so I limited myself to a powerade, and an incredible-looking piece of pineapple and date cake! A couple of clicks later, I locked my bike outside the supermarket on the main drag, and went in for our groceries.  I bought two packets of instant noodles, two small bottles of coke, two chocolate milks, a small can of tuna for Simon, and a cookie for myself.   I managed to get all these things into my jersey pockets, and was now in search of greasies.

Since there'd been a shop on the outskirts of town in one direction, I figured it would be the same on the outbound side, but I figured wrong.  A short climb later, I was turning around and blasting back into town, parking up outside a fish'n'chip shop directly across from the supermarket.  I felt like a bit of a moron, but didn't let that stop me ordering a bit of snapper and a scoop of chips!

Dinner, take one!
I didn't clean my plate up, but gave it a good nudge.  Raglan had solid cell phone reception, so I made a couple of calls, and flicked Simon a txt saying I'd soon be there.

He was waiting for me at Te Uku, just down the road from the awesomely-named "Roast Office".  I was a little sad I wasn't able to sample their wares...

The Te Uku Roast Office
I transferred all the food out of my pockets into Simon's bag, and then delighted him by putting the bag on my back!  He was sure he was going to be carrying it all!

It was nice to finally get off the main road linking Raglan and Hamilton.  I was pleased to pass by "Old Mountain Road" which sounded like hard work.

Oh deer
Eventually the road tipped up, and I watched Simon slip up the road away from me.  Eventually the gradient mellowed - imperceptible to the eye, but I could feel it in my legs.  The gap to Simon shrunk until I was alongside him, and we "enjoyed" hammering up the remaining climb side by side, as we've done many times over the years.  Neither of us puked at the top, which was also nice.

The descent was fast, but that didn't stop us from stopping to admire the beautifully lit scene off to our left.
More scenery
The final ten kilometres passed reasonably quickly, and we were soon, showered, fed, and I was duly thrashed at a couple of games of pool.  I was especially glad each time I sunk my first ball, since my light-weight approach to cycle-touring does not extend to underwear...!  A down-trou would have been unpleasant for both of us.

Our room had a poxy wee television, and its channel selection was even smaller than its screen, but turning in was a fine alternative.

Day 3 - Sunday

We didn't indulge ourselves with a sleep-in; even though we'd shortened our route, we weren't certain that my car's rear lights would be fixed, and early arrival in Te Kuiti might mean we'd get back to Wellington before dark.

Ironically, the evening before, I'd not been able to get to my camera in time to record Simon passing the "Alert riders..." sign, so I was pleased to have a second opportunity.

Pirongia had a Sunday market, which we stopped at, and Simon bought some gifts for Miro and Sarah.  I fired my cell phone up, and got a flurry of txts, reminding me it was my birthday.  Simon had mentioned it the afternoon before, but it seemed to have slipped his mind, and we were both spared the awkwardness of him singing to me! 

Where's all your gear, ow?!
Just under 10km north of Pirongia, we crossed the highway and rationalised our clothing a bit.   It was overcast, a little chilly, and rain was threatening in the hills - where we were headed - but, we were overdressed and working up a bit of a lather.

We made another right turn at Ngutunui Enviro School, and then started one of the most beautiful climbs we'd done.  The road was sealed, which made a pleasant change, but the bush was totally luscious.  Again, the bottom was steep, and Simon drew away from me.
Simon, way ahead!
I tried to settle into the climb, but he got a healthy lead before the gradient mellowed and I clawed my way back.  He'd eased completely off by the time I did catch him, so I kept the pace on, figuring he'd just had a sweet rest.  I could also see from my GPS unit that we'd made awesome headway into the climb, and that our next turnoff wasn't that far ahead. 
My turn to lead for a bit!  And, Simon's turn to carry the camera!
The road was windy (as in, it winded) and I eased off about 200m short of our intersection, hoping Simon would get a nice surprise!

We didn't get much of a view to the south, but it was a nice place to stop for a snack, and to bask in the quality of the forest we'd been skirting.  A fat kereru put on a nice show for us, which was a lovely bonus. 

In anticipation of a fast descent down to Kawhia Road.  Neither of us was expecting the view of the harbour that eventually opened up in front of us, but I guess we shouldn't have been surprised. 

Kawhia Harbour
Kawhia Road itself came as a surprise too, and I think we both got a bit of a start when a large truck passed in front of us about 100m away.

We turned left on Kawhia Road, and after a few minutes of traffic were making yet another turn, this time onto Kaimango Road.

We were both expecting a bit of a grovel, but we found ourselves on the top of a very flat ridge.  We saw a couple of young women on horseback, and the sort of native forest that had been a theme throughout this trip.

The next intersection had a strange shape to it, and may have been slightly mismapped on my GPS unit, which showed us about 100m short of the intersection when we made the left turn.  The descent that followed was "one of the best descents I've done", according to Simon.  We had Pirongia Forest Park on our left, and despite the riding being stunning, we stopped a couple of times, just because.

Whoop whoop!
At one stop, we spotted a rimu across the valley which was probably 30-40m tall.  Another stop was at a gnarly old pine tree which was full of epiphytes.

All good things must come to an end, and soon we'd left the bush, and were in a valley with pine forest in various states of harvest.  We stopped for a snack, and watched a digger lumbering its way along the road.

Little Yellow Digger?
The curve in the road was such that every few seconds, the driver would have to steer to the right ever so slightly, causing the claw to lurch, and one track to stop, tearing up the road a little bit in the process.  As we rode away from the stop, it was crazy to see how much damage had been done to the road, and over such a long distance!

More logging machinery
Our ride was coming to an end, so Simon and I smashed each other a bit more - nothing like a bit of racing to pass the time.

One hill top afforded us nice views over Otorohanga, but that was pretty much all we'd see of it, taking the turnoff onto Waitomo Valley Road a few kilometres short of the town.

Otorohanga in the distance
We passed a young girl riding her bike while her mum jogged, giving them a cheery hellloooooo!  Just short of SH3 at the end of Waitomo Caves Road, Simon got all excited about a couple of emu chicks - the funny things fatherhood does to you!

Emu chicks in with the cows, and mum
Despite being alongside the railway line, our final side trip was a little less flat than we'd expected.  As we rounded the final hill, I had my camera out, but must have been a little too excited to see Te Kuiti to get Simon and the town in a single shot.
Te Kuiti
With only a few minutes left of our 400km ride, we passed a sweet little old lady, who famously said to us "enjoy your cycling!"

We stopped at what appeared to be the only open cafe in town, and I txted Jordan, the auto-electrician, expecting him to announce a short wait for the car.  But, he said to come any time, so we scoffed some food at a leisurely pace.  Simon had asked for a raw egg in his shake, and by the reaction of the cashier, was the first ever request of that sort.

Outside, we collected our bikes, which had performed flawlessly, and cruised down to the supermarket, where I collected some beer for Jordan, to say thanks for opening up on Sunday, whether or not there was a hefty call out fee (there didn't appear to be).

Just before 3pm, we had the bikes loaded on the car, complete with fully functioning rear lights.  The icing on the cake of this glorious ride was the two hours of rain we had as we made our way south, dry!

Rain, rain, do whatcha like


Knowing what was to come when we did the 5-minute-quiz helped somewhat, and we usually remembered the 10 answers within a few minutes of the "game" starting up...  They were, in no particular order:  knot, Elvis Presley (apparently an anti-drug crusader back in the day), hashtag, (decline and fall of) the Roman Empire, Duchess of York, (Napoleon was exiled to an island in the) Atlantic Ocean, (economist, John Kenneth) Galbraith, Sultans of Swing, Lassiter's Reef, (metastasizing is) the movement of a disease from one part of the body to another. It's amazing the random shit you can remember with a bit of effort...

Here's a link to the mapmyride route of our final ride.  I'm looking forward to next year already...

Fantastic Figure Eight


  1. What a great trip, and write up!

    "Enjoy your cycling" - Amen, old lady. Amen.

  2. Lovely to read your story of the long and winding road, and lovely to see you writing at all in your inimitable style. It's been missed, bro. Such great photos of some stunning country too - reading one of your blogs always makes me want to jump on my bike and ride where you've been...

  3. Outstanding read as always, and inspiring! Must go out and do a nice big long ride again.

  4. Looks like you have been doing some cycle touring of your own! I approve of the greasy to riding ratio and must add this part of the world to my 'to explore' list!

  5. A brilliant read!!

    I spent a few years in the Hauturu Rd - Kaimango Rd - Honikiwi Rd area on Goat destruction in the various State Forests in the mid 90's. I remember that Gnarly old Pine very well. Beautiful country and fond memories. Thanks for bringing them to life once again.