(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!
|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.
|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).
|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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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|
|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 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.
|Reenacting arrival into Raetihi, sans Ruapehu in the background. Photo: Prof Gordon Anderson|
|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 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.
|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.
|De Molen - part of the Foxton skyline since 2003|
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!
|Two minutes from home - a good cause for celebration!|
Khulie and Kaitlyn were at home when we arrived, and after 15 nights away, it was both wonderful to see them, and to put on a fresh set of clothes!
Stats: 123km ridden, but I managed to sneak in 11.5 new kilometres. 500 grams of X-Blend beans hauled up the hill to prime the Rocket for the morning.
* * *
I hadn't really considered this before setting off, but this was the second longest cycle tour I'd done after Le Cycle-Tour de France (third if you count the fully supported 2018 TdF). My total distance was 1750km all up, with Sarah skipping about 100km, clearly surpassing our one-week, 1000km tour up the West Coast a couple of years ago. As she has pointed out, our ride this time was probably close to half unsealed (timewise, if not by distance), and so it was a big step up. She handled it with class, as anyone who has followed her riding prowess over recent years will have anticipated.
I'm really pleased with how the route took shape, and the only thing I felt I'd dropped the ball on had been the route into Feilding - I'm sure we could have done better there. We passed plenty of majestic forest, a few of NZ's nicest waterfalls, and had the roads pretty much to ourselves the vast majority of the time. Our daily distance seemed about right - a couple around the 150km mark, with the majority around 120-130km. We barely had to dip into our OSM stash, and the absent shops weren't particularly missed. The flights at the beginning was fun, and it was great not having to repack the bikes at any point in order to get them home.
The bikes were fantastic - we're yet to take them to Oli for some stem-to-stern lovin' - but there's a short list of things which need particular attention: Sarah's rear derailleur cable, diagnosis of the cause of the front going out of whack, and remedying what sounds like a loose ball bearing in her bottom bracket (an issue which arose in the last couple of hours of the trip, fortunately). My Open ran like a dream, though the headset feels a little stiff now, and one of the front brake pistons feels a bit gummed up. That said, the beauty of a once over by Oli is that it the feel of the bike will improve in all manner of ways, such is his care and attention to detail.
I had no complaints on the luggage front. The Revelate bags are perfect, both in terms of capacity and function. That said, we did post Sarah's top tube bag home - she'd rubbed one knee a bit raw, and when I took it off I noticed that even a sticker on the narrower top tube had been rubbed during riding. I haven't been in the habit of carrying jandals, but they were a great thing to have to mince around in at the end of the day, particularly on those three days we finished with wet feet. Our tool kit and emergency supplies were barely tested - we didn't even have any punctures to fix.
Sarah's companionship was amazing.
Riding with her is quite a different experience for me than riding with Brendan or Simon, and I regularly have brief moments of acute concern, triggered by all manner of things - from sharp looking rocks, potholes, vehicles, and even in response to strange sounds emanating from her bike. One thing that was bloody obvious throughout this entire ride though, was that much of that concern is unnecessary - she's handling her machine incredibly well, and little (and occasional large) accidents that were commonplace in the early years, are few and far between now (touch wood...).
It is no surprise to me how much I enjoyed it. The riding. The scenery. The serenity which I ought to be able to feel in the throes of normal adult life, but is an experience I'm more inclined to have literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but my legs and bicycle between me and dire straits. The sense of excitement at not knowing what's around the next corner. And then the excitement at finding out. The gratitude for being able to do this at all. And the pride at executing a well made plan, day after day. I finish envigorated, and ready for more. And the stark contrast at the crushing fatigue I feel after a few hours sitting on my arse at work is not lost on me.
This gig really is my happy place, and while it is special in and of itself, being able to share it with Sarah makes it that much sweeter. I know her motivations and experience of it are not identical to mine, and I'm really grateful for the sacrifices she makes to partake. Ditto our beautiful daughters, who've put up with absent parents two Christmases in a row now.
Speaking of which, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.
I hope you've enjoyed the tale. Rest assured, there will be another before long.
|Kerikeri to Karori, 1750km in 15 days|