If the "don't leave home till you've seen the country" jingle from the early-80s is not one of my earliest memories, it must be pretty damn close, and my hat's off to whoever came up with it. Last year's summer break was a feast of off-shore riding, with a stunning crossing of the Andes to see out 2019, and a family holiday in Niue to see in the beginning of a year none of us ever imagined. With international travel well and truly off the cards at the end of 2020, what better time to follow some decades-old advice, and sample our own backyard.
Even before concluding my most recent cycle tour through a stunning region of New Zealand - the near empty lands lying between Stratford in the south, and Te Kuiti in the north - I'd vowed to return with Sarah. We'd tentatively planned to do the North Island leg of the Tour Aotearoa bike-packing route, but my ride with Brendan, coupled with a discovery that the vast majority of the TA route we haven't done is on sealed roads, led to a "choose your own adventure"-type getaway instead.
Our flights to Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands were still going to be of great use, but instead of persisting with the logistical challenge of getting up to Cape Reinga, we would immediately head south. Before leaving Wellington, I'd mapped out a week's riding through to Raglan, which, aside from our pass through Auckland, would be completely unfamiliar. South of Raglan, I'd be in more familiar territory, and planned to make it up on the fly. How to get around Mt Taranaki and/or the Whanganui River might as well be informed by how much we were enjoying the remote gravel roads we would sample in the first half of the ride.
We had three weeks up our sleeves - our flights were on Monday 21 December, and neither of us was due back at work until 11 January. In all likelihood, our tour's duration would be closer to two weeks than the full three, but again, we could tweak depending on how much fun we were having!
Prep was a relatively smooth process. Both our Open U.P.s had been getting regular weekend thrashings, so were ready to roll. Gear would be stowed in a selection of Revelate Designs bags - bolt-on top tube bags (for bars, hand sanitiser, some bog roll, and a multitool), a Viscacha seat bag for me and a slightly smaller Pika for Sarah (for overnight gear), a Pronghorn handlebar bag (for wet weather / warm riding gear), and a Tangle half-frame bag (for tubes, suncream, Sweet Cheeks butt butter, chain lube, spare brake pads, a bunch of other bike-related bits we hoped not to need, and a travel floor pump). My gear-list could probably do with a minor refresh, but it is tried and true, and I always run through it before leaving home.
Day 0: Wellington to Kerikeri
Due to a long layover in Auckland, we'd spend much of the 21st travelling up to Kerikeri. At check in, our bike boxes weighed about 19kg apiece, by virtue of me putting some of my luggage in Sarah's box. Light-and-fast is unapologetically my cycle-touring motto!
We had a nice time chilling out in the Air New Zealand lounge, before being issued with disposable masks for our first of two flights. Given the worsening situation in most of the world, it is remarkable that this was one of the few pandemic-related impositions we experienced during the whole trip.
|Ready to roll!|
I hadn't anticipated the ride to our first motel to be anything other than leisurely, so we rode in our casual gear. We headed around the back of the airport, and I couldn't resist jumping onto Te Araroa when we crossed it on a fairly busy road. For the next hour or so, we painstakingly made our way closer to our destination, constantly flirting with an unacceptable riding experience! There was plenty of walking, and climbing over styles and other obstacles, but this was tempered by the excitement of being underway, and pretty decent scenery!
|Alongside the Kerikeri River|
After checking into our room, we celebrated by having a roast dinner, re-enacting the conclusion of a family 3-day-tour into Kerikeri a few years prior.
Stats: 15km ridden, and time-wise, almost as much walking as riding!
Day 1: Kerikeri to Whangarei
We demolished a box of cereal together in our motel room before rolling out, en route to the Te Wairoa Road entrance to Waitangi Forest. This forestry road not only helped us immediately feel more adventurous, but also kept us off the main road from Kerikeri to Paihia, which undoubtedly would have had traffic on it.
The route I'd pre-mapped coincided nicely with revised Te Araroa directions (due to some logging), however at the intersection of Skyline and Te Puke Roads, large signs suggested we had no option but to jump onto some singletrack. It took about half an hour of fun MTB trail riding to bypass about 100m of forest road, and for good measure we rode a third track out to the park hub, before finally leaving the forest for good. The loaded bikes handled remarkably well on the flowy singletrack, but we had a long day ahead of us, and it chewed up a fair bit of time.
|A nifty trail feature in the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park|
At Paihia, we met Dr Rissa Ota, a good friend who'd driven up from Wellington to explore the area on foot. After a good long chat and some morning tea, we went across the road to see which of the two ferries we'd be taking across the Waikare Inlet.
|Impressive intuition by Sarah's GPS|
|Sarah passing one of many kauri on the Russell Whakapara Road|
We had a picnic at the summit, before descending down to rejoin the sealed route. There, my body started requesting a stop of another kind, and it was some relief to take one of our only out-and-back detours of the entire trip, to the small seaside village of Oakura, and its assorted facilities!
|Looking north from Kaikanui Road|
We were discovering that the traffic on these roads was all but non-existent, and when we did see a vehicle, more often than not it was a source of light entertainment.
|Dirt jumps on the Ngunguru Old Coach Road|
We were within spitting distance of Whangarei, our day's destination, when the heavens opened. That not only led to a frustrating period of indecision about whether or not to get the raincoats out, but also made navigating to our accommodation a bit tricky, due to phone and GPS screens not being overly happy in heavy rain. Despite aiming for the wrong end the very long Kamo Road, we eventually reached our accommodation, and the rain eased in time for us to get dinner and groceries without another drenching!
Stats: 148km covered on a mix of forest roads, singletrack, gravel roads and pavement. One front brake caliper reset, a couple of mid-ride shops, and very many magnificent kauri admired.
Day 2: Whangarei to Leigh
It undoubtedly would have been possible to leave Whangarei without riding along SH1, but in the end we stuck with the direct route to our turnoff at Springfield Road, and arrived there very grateful for the quality of driving we'd encountered during the 11km stretch.
As soon as we turned off, the traffic volume dropped to pretty much zero, and it stayed very light through to our re-crossing of the highway into Waipu.
|Sarah cresting Ormiston Road|
We had an early lunch at Waipu, and were able to ride out of town on a section of gravel cycle trail adjacent to the main road. When it ended, the traffic on the road was heavy relative to what we'd been treated to on the trip so far, but minor relative to commuting in Wellington.
|One of these steeds is not like the others...|
Stats: 117km ridden, about half on gravel roads. Two supply stops. 25 degrees and no rain.
Day 3: Leigh to Takapuna
I was somewhat nervous about our ride into Auckland, assuming that we'd end up with stressful encounters with traffic. I'd spent a lot of time studying the AA map, and stalked a few Aucklanders on strava for inspiration, to no avail.
After a light breakfast in our cabin, we rode in drizzly conditions through to Matakana, where we topped up our bellies in a cafe. It was dry when we resumed riding, and while the road into Warkworth was narrow and much busier than we'd become accustomed to, the only cause for alarm was a very squirmy rear tyre on the descent into Warkworth itself.
After topping the air pressure up, we headed straight through the major intersection across SH1, and continued along a road which seemed major initially, but by its end, had featured a single-lane ford across a stream!
|My favourite section of sealed road on the trip: Falls Rd, Warkworth|
Despite being on a fairly major sealed road, and the direct route between Warkworth and Helensville, traffic was virtually non-existent. Maybe this was simply good luck, but perhaps that it was Christmas Eve had contributed. Nearing the intersection with SH16, we turned onto the unsealed Wech Access Road, and enjoyed a coats on-again/off-again ride through to our western-most point of the day, at Makarau.
Stats: 106km ridden, and (unexpectedly), zero regrets about the route choice. One rear light purchased for Sarah's bike.
Day 4: Takapuna to Miranda
We spent much of Christmas Day with my Great Aunt and her whanau, and the evening with a Mongolian family who'd moved to New Zealand around the same time Sarah had, almost 20 years ago.
The day off had been nice, and so too was it nice to climb into laundered riding gear for our short ride down to the Devonport ferry terminal. About a minute after arriving at the wharf, we were joining the tail end of a boarding queue onto a ferry which minutes later had us disembarking in Auckland.
The rest of the ride followed the coastline as closely as possible from Whitford through to Clevedon, and then onto Kaiaua, both of which we stopped at for something cold. We passed very many family picnics still in progress, and didn't have much traffic to contend with at all.
|Sarah paddling while I phoned home|
|The rarely spotted Hunua Water Buffalo|
Stats: 137km ridden, plus 9km for the dinner run. Zero gravel sectors, and zero One Square Meal bars eaten for dinner (thankfully).
Day 5: Miranda to Huntly
After a good sleep and a solid breakfast, we quickly dispatched the first few on-road kilometres, before jumping onto the Hauraki Rail Trail at Waitakaruru. We'd stayed off it up until this point, being somewhat uninspired by the surface (it looked like loose shells, for the most part), and that much of the time, it was really just a glorified footpath and immediately adjacent to the road. The delay proved a good idea, and we found ourselves on a mint off-road path, cruising alongside a fascinating mangrove swamp.
|Two minutes from the summit, lingering hail, and a wet camera lens!|
Stats: 133km ridden, joining only 13 other strava users on a westward traversal of one of the sweetest bits of gravel road I've ridden.
Day 6: Huntly to Raglan
For a wee while, a second night in Huntly was on the cards, which would've facilitated a round trip out to Port Waikato, However, our bed with the Tolleys in Raglan freed up earlier than expected, and we chose to head "directly" there on the 28th.
The Huntly Power Station looms large over the town, and like the old SH1 once did, presumably feels like a necessary evil to keep the town ticking over. After an incredibly rare visit to Maccas for coffee and pancakes, we crossed the mighty Waikato River, rode past the power station, and began a lovely foray into another strangely empty part of the country.
|From the Tainui Bridge|
The first 40km or so were sealed, but rarely flat. Following Sarah into the intersection with the road known to Garmin as "Old State Highway 22" (SH22 is now only 12.7km long, with this section revoked in the early 90s), I heard some nasty scraping come from one of her brakes, and we stopped to investigate under the shade of a tree. Sure enough, her rear pads needed replacing, which I managed to do without getting my (now much recovered) hands overly filthy.
|Te Uku Roast Office, open for business|
Stats: 106km ridden, almost exactly double the most direct route between the two towns.
The plan for the 29th had always been for Sarah to take a day off, but it turned out to be necessary. Over the last day or two she'd been having trouble getting into the biggest sprocket of her cassette, and on the way into Raglan, another tell-tale sign of a fraying rear derailleur cable was loss of the smallest sprockets too. Fortunately, a local bike store was open, and keen to help.
With that weight off my mind, I set out to do a variation on the Karioi Classic race route, namely, a figure-eight including a circumnavigation of Mount Karioi.
I deviated from the course immediately, choosing to leave on the state highway, before using the stunning Maungatawhiri Road to climb away from town. That was gravel until it intersected with the main road through Te Mata, which I stayed with down to Aotea Harbour and the turnoff to Kawhia.
|Great views over Raglan from Maungatawhiri Rd|
I'd chosen to do the southern loop anticlockwise, rather than clockwise as per the event, since Sarah and I would ride part of it in the opposite direction the next day. Aside from the variety it afforded me, it also meant I bumped into a pair of Wellingtonians coming down Kawhia Road, Matt and Amy Dewes. I'd been given a heads up they were in the area by a mutual friend, so it was nice to see them so randomly!
|Through my sunnies, the red of this pohutukawa was stunningly vivid|
Despite my fatigue, I did a side trip down Ruapuke Beach Road, but bailed on the walking track to the beach when it became too sandy to ride, so didn't quite make it to the ocean.
|Overlooking Te Toto Gorge|
It was nice to hit the seal as I approached Raglan, but being a sucker for punishment, thought I'd give a walking track shown on my GPS a whirl. That turned out to be a mistake - access to the track was through a camp ground, and it was unclear whether or not it was public. Then the track came to a gate, through which was an airfield! Faced with a choice between a runway and a beach, I decided the lesser of three evils was another pass through the camp ground!
We had plenty to celebrate - just shy of 800km covered for Sarah, with an extra hundred in my legs. We'd had very few problems to deal with, and the only potentially catastrophic issue had reared its head at the perfect time. We'd had great weather, by and large, and a route virtually 100% unfamiliar to us both, dishing up plenty of jaw-dropping scenery, and very little unpleasantness (including traffic).
Between us and Wellington now lay areas in which I'd done a fair bit of riding. When we hit the sack at the end of our Raglan rest day, we had only the following night's accommodation booked in Otorohanga, and while I'd managed to extract Wednesday 6 January as an absolute deadline for getting home, how we'd use those eight days was still up in the air.
My rest day stats: 93km ridden, solo and unloaded.
Continued: Part 2