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 wandrer.earth'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 wandrer.earth 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 fantastic 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 bold 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 were 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

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Don't leave town till you've seen the country: North Island back-country tour (Part 1)

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.

Upon arrival in Kerikeri, we found a spot in the shade outside the terminal, and assembled our bikes.  It was great to have the bigger pump, and while I wondered whether we'd use it again, it did regularly come in handy during the tour, and consequently, I wouldn't hesitate to carry it again for anything over a week's duration.  

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

We may have inadvertently strayed onto a walking-only section near the end, but were nonetheless rewarded with a beautiful sight, courtesy of the Rainbow Falls.

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.  

As it turned out, bikes (and their riders) were welcome on the passenger ferry from Paihia to Russell, so we didn't have to resort to the vehicle ferry between Opua and Okiato.

Impressive intuition by Sarah's GPS

Having just enjoyed Rissa's company, there seemed little point in stopping in Russell, but our passage through such a beautiful (and historic) wee spot seemed obscenely quick nonetheless.  

While our mapped route had us hugging the coast through to Helena Bay, we had the good fortune to take a gravel short cut on the Russell Whakapara Road.  Aside from the more arduous surface, this also came bundled with a hefty 250m climb.   On the plus side though, it took us through a kauri forest, and offered cycling within metres of these incredible forest giants.  In many respects, it was the most spectacular piece of road of the whole trip, and so it remains slightly embarrassing that I'd planned for us to bypass it!

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!

Soon after, we began a series of gravel sections enabling us to continue moving south without needing to use SH1.  The first included another significant climb, after which we were rewarded with expansive views to the north.

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.

At the top of Kaiatea Road, it was slightly frustrating to ignore a cycle trail sign, but it would have taken us in the opposite direction to where we were heading.   I was still rueing this when a second opportunity arose, and we turned off the sealed descent onto Old Kaiatea Road.  After climbing for a wee while, we entered the cycle trail itself, replete with some dirt jumps (which we safely ignored!).  

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 of 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.  

After a drink stop at Mangawhai Heads, we deviated onto a complex gravel network which would take us through to Pakiri.  We stopped briefly to talk to a mountain-biker who was emerging from a forestry road.  His description of the route through the forest oscillated from encouraging to discouraging, and in the end we stuck with the hot and dusty roads.  

It was some relief when we arrived at Pakiri, even though there were no shops open.  Without being able to pinpoint why, the riding since Mangawhai was my least favourite of the trip.  

One of these steeds is not like the others...

From Pakihi, we had a single (big) climb, which was unsealed for its steepest sections.  I had a few minutes wait for Sarah at the top, during which I was able to enjoy the views down over Omaha Bay.  The day had marched on, as had our energy levels, so even had Sarah noticed the turnoff to Goat Island when she passed it, I doubt she would have suggested a swim!

While pretty tiny, Leigh had all we needed in terms of our evening and pre-departure activities.  Namely, a convenience store for after-ride snacks and breakfast supplies, and a pub serving dinner.  

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.  

After a bit of ducking and diving, we eventually emerged at Dairy Flat, which provided a welcome bakery stop.  While devouring a pie and custard square, I identified a better route than the one I'd mapped - forgoing the major Dairy Flat Highway for a quiet road past an airfield.  

As we dropped into Albany, I expected the end of pleasant riding for the day, but some wonderful cycling infrastructure along the length of the Albany Highway took us to a point above Northcote, where we turned off towards my sister's place in Takapuna.

Three days in, I was having problems with both sides of my hands.  I'd done very little riding through November and December due to a secondment at work.  Consequently, my cycling callouses were non-existent and I had a bit of tenderness which I thought gloves might help with.  The tops of my hands were also unusually sunburnt.   For years I've been getting away with a single morning application of Sunsense Clear Gel and never burning.  It dawned on me that the point of difference on this trip was all the COVID-related handwashing that I'd been doing at our fairly regular cafe and convenience store stops.  After visiting no fewer than four bike stores on the outskirts of Takapuna, horrible memories of fingers that looked nicotine-stained at the end of my 2013 Cycle-Tour de France ensured I left empty-handed, something I didn't regret, due to a combination of physical and behavioural adaptation.

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.

We popped down to do a lap of my cousin's waterfront art installation, The Lighthouse, before taking advantage of more of Auckland's fantastic cycle ways.  We soon passed Vector Arena, eliciting fond memories of February's Tool concert - an incredible gig in its own right, but also one that could easily have got away, in that a few weeks later the border was closed and we were in lockdown.

The riding was simple and pleasant through to Pakuranga, but we probably made a mistake not doing a loop through Howick, and instead ended up on a major thoroughfare and had to resort to riding on the footpath.  We had lunch in a shopping precinct in Botany, and after a few more minutes cycling, rounded a bend to discover we'd reached a southern extreme of NZ's largest city.

Countryside ahoy!

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

We had views across to Waiheke Island initially, and then the Coromandel Peninsula, and between those vistas and occasional surprises in adjacent paddocks, our minds were distracted from the stiff headwinds.

The rarely spotted Hunua Water Buffalo

Had I done my homework better, we might have stopped for dinner at Kaiaua - the local fish'n'chip shop seemed to have a decent market nearby in the form of dozens of campers lined up along the shore in one of the few zones that permitted overnight stays, and was open for business.  

We stopped for a drink, but without realising the risks, pedalled on, and soon discovered that the cafe at Miranda, and the fast food caravan at the Miranda Springs campground were both closed.  Our B&B hostess kindly offered to drive us back to Kaiaua, but instead I rode onwards to the major intersection at Waitakaruru, closer by a fair few kilometres, and offering a tailwind home.  The burger joint there was closed, but I managed to get an assortment of delights at the convenience store, which actually amounted to a fairly enjoyable meal, all things considered (flavoured tuna and crackers, instant noodles, corn chips, kombucha, and icecreams).  

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.    

At the Piako River, the trail headed inland, and we had to cross the main road twice in order to avail ourselves of a coffee and scone at the Bugger Cafe.  Given we had to wait a full couple of minutes to get across, we realised the trail was a godsend - riding the road would have been a miserable, if not downright dangerous, experience.  It was narrow, and Auckland was heading to the Coromandel for New Years...

There was no need to stop at Kopu for further goodies, and no inclination to do a 10km-plus side trip into Thames, so we stayed on the rail trail and continued onward towards Paeroa.  It was a nice setup, tucked between the Waihou River and SH26, though after spending about 50km on it, I think both of us were glad when it finally delivered us into Paeroa.  

We parked up at a Subway and headed in for lunch.  Sitting contemplating the merits of an after-meal coffee, the deal was sealed when an almighty thunderclap hit over our heads, and the heavens opened.  The downpour lasted longer than the coffee, and it was still raining lightly when we decided to head out. Too wet to seek out the famous L&P bottle, but not wet enough to keep us cowering indoors. 

As we rolled out of Paeroa, a large fire intensified a few kilometres off to our left.  We weren't the only ones to suspect that it had been caused by a lightning strike!

I'd originally planned to loop around the base of the Hapuakohe Range, but at lunch had spotted a gravel road crossing the range - the only downside was that our route to it would take us to within about 20km of our previous beds (by which time we'd have about 90km on the clock)!  It could have been a lot worse, when one of our back roads took us to the Piako River with no bridge in sight.  Luckily, one was tucked only a kilometre downstream, and Sarah was none the wiser.  

The heavens opened again just before we got off the plains, and we hid in someone's mailbox for a wee while.  

A couple of minutes on SH27 delivered us to Ohinewai Road, which was a stunning gravel section up and over a 300m high saddle.  As if the native forest wasn't delightful enough, we did the full climb with thunder overhead, and at least one hailstorm, which had me fishing out my warm gloves both for protection against the cold air, and the impact!

Two minutes from the summit, lingering hail, and a wet camera lens!

As we reached the saddle, we also rode out of the bad weather, and as we started our descent, the drying out process began in earnest.  Nearing our overnight stop in Huntly, the skies started rumbling again, and while our post-ride snacks got a bit wet between their store and our digs, we were able to walk into a slightly depressed centre of town for dinner without further drenching.  We'd crossed over the recently opened SH1 diversion which now bypasses Huntly entirely, and it is sadly ironic that getting rid of a major road passing literally through the centre of town has had such an ill effect on the local economy.  

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.  

Yet again, traffic was nearly non-existent, and there was little scope for it to get lighter when we began our long, largely unsealed loop, starting with Wainui Valley Road.

We peeled off most of our elevation before the gravel began, but continued down-valley through farming country with occasional sweet pockets of native bush.  Having observed Sarah on many rides in rural Wairarapa, I knew from her body language the effect the sight of horses running has on her Mongol sensibilities, well before she described it to me.  

A decent climb took us up to an intersection, where, had we been more organised (and less inclined to ride than I was), we could have dropped down to Te Akau Wharf.  There, we would have been about a kilometre (as the dinghy blats) from the Tolley's place across Raglan Harbour, rather than a hilly 40km ride away.  We hadn't prearranged a ferry though, so the dead-end road down to the wharf would have necessitated a long climb back out the same way.  From the fact that no fewer than three "No Exit" signs were visible from the intersection, it seemed that more than a few drivers had taken a wrong turning here in the past.  

We turned inland, and some of the vegetation around left no illusions as to which way the prevailing wind typically blew!  It was kind of nice not to be experiencing it, since the tailwind section would have been the shortest part of the ride.

The road was sealed again by the time we rejoined the old highway, and we got a short taste of the real SH23 just before Te Uku.  I'd passed through this spot once before, with Simon back in 2012.  I hadn't reviewed my blog, but had I done so, I would have recalled my disappointment that the Te Uku Roast Office (presumably once a post office, but now a coffee shop with a very cool name) had been closed.  As it was, I did remember being disappointed about something, but I had no need to fear a repeat, and while Sarah sensibly had a cold drink, I enjoyed a late afternoon coffee! 

Te Uku Roast Office, open for business

I attracted my wife's ire with a deviation along Okete Road, which was not only hilly but also unsealed for a time.  If I'd been better prepared, I could have told her that not only had it much less traffic than the main road, but also less climbing, and needn't have fibbed about it being the same distance (what's 500m between spouses?!).  

Luckily, we arrived with friends soon after, and all was soon forgotten!

Stats:  106km ridden, almost exactly double the most direct route between the two towns.  

Rest Day

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!

After bidding Matt and Amy farewell, I completed the climb, but not before giving serious consideration to the Pipiwharauroa Trail through the Te Uku Wind Farm - at 18km for the return trip, it felt like a bit too much to add in to my day.  I had a snack at the Bridal Veil Falls trailhead, and while the ride to see it was considerably shorter, it was on tomorrow's menu, so also ignored.

Southern loop done, I turned onto the gravel Waimaori Road.  By the end of it, I was feeling pretty weary, and wondering if I'd overdone it early in the ride, embracing my solitude and the absence of my luggage.  

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.  

The road was tiring, but loaded with great views out to sea, and pockets of native bush to admire.  I'd see a car every 10 minutes or so too, to keep me on my toes.  The Te Toto Gorge trailhead carpark was chokka, explaining at least some of the traffic, but rather than take my bike for a walk, I made a mental note to come back one day, and pressed on.  

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!

When I finally got back to the Tolley's place, I was delighted to see Sarah's bike back and fully operational.  The mechanic had given up on the internal cabling, but had ziptied a full-length cable outer to the frame, which was less beautiful, but suitably functional!

Further good fortune meant we could celebrate the day's end at Raglan's Evening Eats event - a collection of food trucks and good vibes which runs periodically through the year.  

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