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 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

1 comment:

  1. Argh, that cabling!!

    Great report as always bro, but you'd better hurry up with part two, by crikey!

    My dear friend Peter helped build the chimneys of the Huntly Power Station and he and his Dad lived at Ohinewai, so we stayed there a couple of times. Lovely country.