December 17, 2014 by Katie Harrison
6 months into our cycle tour and we have a lot to be happy about. Our horizons are suitably broadened and are we oozing a confidence in ourselves and bike survival abilities. The time in Nepal has been a bit of a turning point, we have both decided with no question that off-road mountain biking is more suitable for us. We have done the time on Asian traffic riddled roads and are ready for a different challenge in the shape of New Zealand. The plan is to spend 3 months linking up 22 off-road mountain bike trails, sleep in our tent and hopefully eat lots of tasty meat.
Arriving in Auckland brought lots of mini excited clapping bursts. Brushing our teeth from the water from a tap, cooking a lasagne from scratch and arranging airport transport in clear English. hurahhh!
The first step was to base ourselves in Auckland for a few days to adjust to the new time zone and shop for bike bits and bobs. We were so lucky to get an invite to stay with Will and Tammy, an English and Japanese couple. They have been living in Auckland for the last 2 years after completing an 18month cycle tour through Asia including 8 months in China and finishing up with some obscenely remote cycling through the North Australian outback. They were exactly what our jet lagged heads and Himalayan fatigued bodies needed. An inviting and beautiful home where we could relax, cook nice food and share stories over yummy New Zealand wine. We definitely could have stayed a few more days. We also managed to meet up with a local cyclist who my uncle Chris in Canada virtually introduced us to, extremely useful insider advice and our rough plan of how to tackle the length of the country on mountain bikes was sharpened up.
The first day riding was a short cycle into the city to hop on a 40 minute ferry to the island of Waheike. We were treated to 3 Orchas parading past in full view which literally took my breath away. We then had a full day to traverse the Island from the North West corner to the South East corner to take another ferry the following morning back to the mainland peninsular of Coromandel. Waheike is close to the city, awesome landscapes and wine!! I could easily move there tomorrow. Cycling through the rolling hills it looked like Miami Beach meets Cornwall but with exotic flowers and brightly coloured birds sweeping out of the hedgerow. On route to our planned camp site we were invited to stay the night by a lovely family who found us sharking around for our camp spot. It turned out the lady was the main anchor for New Zealand’s prime time news and she had a spare fancy yurt. Boom. We had an awesome evening spent eating pizza and helping re-plant some trees (under close supervision of a TV gardener obvs) ready for their celebrity wedding in February. We had heard that New Zealander’s were open and friendly!!!
A stunning ferry ride between the islands in the morning landed us in Coromandel, a small historic gold mine town now famous for sea fishing. We devoured some local gigantic green lipped mussels.
This is where the cycling starts..we stuck to a 200km quiet dirt track road that hugged the entire peninsular. It dipped in and out of mostly rocky beached bays, rolling cliffs and fields of cattle and sheep. The cycling would have been relatively easy apart from the fierce winds knocking you off course and steep descents into each bay. The Ocean and sky are ridiculously blue.
We were staying in beautiful beach front camp sites dotted around the route which provide very basic facilities but unbelievable views. And quiet at last!!! Each evening was spent listening to the sound of the ocean and the foreign singing birds. Some of the sites had conservation areas for endangered species which we could watch scuttling around to their ground nests. One morning eating breakfast a Dotterel came and sat with us, there are only 2000 of them left in the world. Watching an endangered animal in its wild environment was really special. I wanted to give the little bird a best of luck high five but I settled for a mental note of trying to hit as many stoats as I could on the bike. New Zealand has no native mammals, all the rats, stoats, weasels and possums that have made it over are endangering all the indigenous wildlife and are regularly culled.
We had to carry all the food we needed for 3 days cycling for the first time in our entire trip..no tasty Asian food stalls in sight. It was a bit of a shock to the system..literally! One night the most lovely camp site owner picked us produce from her garden to brighten up our rice.
New Zealand weather can change in an instant, I thought the UK had variable weather but this is another level. It can switch from blue sky and scalding hot sun (due to the weak ozone layer) to torrential rain and back a again within minutes. Low rain clouds will sweep in from one of the coasts so constant vigilance is required to stay dry.
Weirdly there was a town along the coast that had attracted a Buddhist culture with Tibetan prayer flags and yoga and mediation retreats straight from Nepal (Like us.) I normally would have loved the chance for a few days off the bike stretching and relaxing but the recent memories of my last attempt at this are fresh. I didn’t write about this at the time but what has to be the funniest / scariest experience of our trip (maybe my life) to date was accidentally checking in at a Nepalese forest commune. What we expected to be relaxed meditation and yoga retreat in a picturesque mountain top location was in fact a very passionate and dedicated group of spiritual devotees worshiping the deceased guru Osho Tapoban. As someone who thinks I am relatively street-wise the experience really opened my eyes to a whole new world. We were due to stay 7 nights and we lasted 1 night before peddling away pretty fast. I had always pondered on what would happen if I was tempted away by a cult, so feeling smugly assured on my sensibilities. However it has put me off my yoga practise, temporarily!
Anyway back to New Zealand…..
After finishing the loop, back in Coromandel we stayed with a New Zealand couple for two nights. Wally and Sue are in their mid 60′s, have an impressive amount of travel under their belt and 3 grown up sons living around the world. They were lovely, open and kind people with lots of awesome stories. We spent hours in the kitchen together cooking tasty stews and baking bread for the local market.
Heading off we took a bus to Hamilton to pick up the Waikato river trail. A 3 day off road mountain bike route following New Zealand’s largest river. It was a mixture of landscapes that could easily be the Yorkshire dales and then dropping into a forest with tropical trees and birds. It did turn out to be a wee more challenging than expected, 60km of off-road single track = tough! We took a rest day at Mangakino.
Again settling into camp we met a young couple who were living in the area, 10 minutes later they had invited us to spend the following evening in their house instead of the local camp site. An awesome evening of making pizza together and a massive comfy bed. Sam and Richard rock and we are starting to see a pattern…
The next cycling stage was an off-road track called the Timber Trail. This is an 85km track through the Pureora national park. To start it we traversed to the town of Pureora which included cycling through overgrown walking paths and a narrow suspension bridge where we needed to carry the bikes overhead..but that’s all part of the fun.
We set off to do the trail in the rain shouting Tiiiiiimmmmber with a Dutch cyclist we had picked up for luck / company. The first 4k were on a perfectly manicured single track through dense original rainforest dotted with 1000 year old trees. You wanted to apply some appropriate speed but the scenery made you stop in your tracks every few meters, listening out for strange bird calls. The next 80km was really superb cycling. The track is one year old and clearly millions of dollars have been spent making it into a high quality mountain bike route. Mostly through forest and along historic deforestation railway lines we were treated with 100m long suspension bridges and blasted rock corridors. The second day ended with a 15km downhill. Exactly what we were after! A half way camp in the drizzle and no shower made no impact on how epic it was. Riding over the finish line, covered in mud and happy we rolled into a camp at Taumarunui for a shower and cake…actually it was the other way around!
The plan was then to head out to do the mountains to sea mountain bike route a; 3 day off road track. However on some advice from locals that because of the recent heavy rains it would be a muddy wash out we made the decision to do the “forgotten highway” instead. This route is 180km of super remote tarmac and gravel roads taking us to the west coast town of New Plymouth. It was a seriously good cycle along rolling hills of farmland and more native forest with only a handful of cars to contend with. It pushed our fitness up as it meant long days slugging mountain bikes on hilly tarmac, but we didn’t moan once..honest. The first night was a lovely camp on the top of a saddle (road over a hill) with views of endless telly tubby / hobbit like hills. The second night we had booked at a hostel / walnut farm along the route. Ian and Laurel had an epic set up where passing cyclists can stay in the old village school house, eat tasty lamb from their farm and meet another lovely New Zealand family. A gorgeous evening spent eating a home cooked walnut clad meal – we ended up staying two nights and loved every second. Ian was building a catamaran himself from wood grown in his own farm, really inspirational couple.
Cycling the next day we were treated to a clear view of Mount Taranaki. It is an incredible looking volcano at 2,518 cycling towards it from the East it looked exactly like the lonely mountain from the cover of the hobbit.
We have arrived in New Plymouth thinking of checking into a camp site but sent a message out on Warmshowers.com to see if any cycling hosts were available. Elizabeth and Brian got back to us within an hour and welcomed us into their stunning home. We had a king size bed, home comforts and two nights spent sharing tales. We visited the local Christmas light show and museum. Learning of how the Mauri culture was pretty much destroyed by western occupation in the 18th century was harrowing. Elizabeth and Brian were amazing, their first tour was after they retired and it took them through Northern Europe in a particularly cold spring.
Not sure how I didn’t squeeze in a paragraph about the pies, meat, gravy, burgers, coffee, milk, vegetables, avocados, kiwi fruits and cafés but they are SO GOOD. It could be our western starved taste buds or the fact practically every shop is a farm shop but its fab.
Three weeks spent on the North Ireland and so far New Zealand is perfect. Fantastic cycling but as you can see in our blog that has been completely eclipsed by the ridiculously friendly people who have invited us into their homes and made our travel experience what it is.
We are spending Christmas house sitting in Wellington where the plan is to rest, cook, drink mulled wine and watch films regardless of the heat and beach on offer. Then head on to the South Island in early Jan to carry on cycling. It’s the first Christmas away from home and we are missing our family’s very much.
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