But first we have to enter that country! The airline employee at Sydney airport refuses to give us the boarding pass. She from ‘DownUnder’ wants to see proof that we will also leave ‘GodsOwn’, New Zealand. She thinks our website is inadequate, saying that we have been cycling around the world and have visited and left 27 countries so far. Well maybe the website is not the best reference, because it shows that New Zealand is not planned originally.
There is no other option than booking a ticket on the spot and that was exactly what we didn’t want. We don’t know how long we will cycle and which routes we will take, so we don’t yet know when and where we want to leave New Zealand by plane. Moreover, we don’t yet know where to go, yes of course South America, but it will be Santiago (Chile) or Buenos Aires (Argentina). Let all these things be just the essential input data in the aircraft business. Combine this stress with the pressure of a ticking clock indicating the remaining time to board and after fifteen minutes you have two ‘grumpy’ cyclists with tickets ‘Auckland-Buenos Aires (leaving on December 28, 2019)’ in hand again report to the check-in counter. Anyway, with these tickets we accept our boarding passes in no time and there is nothing to prevent us from exploring New Zealand.
Well, okay the plane is leaving way too late and therefore we arrive at the Auckland Airport Kiwi Motel at 4 am and decide just before check out time at 10 am to book an extra night. The bikes also have to be removed from the boxes and put together. The boxes are of an ideal (=large) size, so that the bikes did not have to be completely dismantled and now, after a short time, are showing off in all their splendor outside our motel room. We consider that we want to use those large bicycle boxes and the protective materials again in two months’ time. However, this motel is not cooperating with this: the reception staff deserve an award for the special combination of “being-friendly-but-not-cooperating’! We check internet for other motels near the airport, call around and find a sweet Japanese couple that likes to store the boxes in their garage. They also rent for much less nicer motel rooms. We would like to come back here at the end of a New Zealand tour.
New Zealand is incredibly good in multi-day hiking tours and the government has also invested in multi-day cycling tours not long ago. The off-road tours are called the “Great Rides”, the backcountry tours are called “Heartland Rides” and in between the so-called “Connector Rides” are described. And there is also a route, the Tour Aotearoa from the most northerly to the southernmost tip of New Zealand, which forges many of these trails together. The routes can, according to the book that we drag along with us, be fine cycled by people in excellent condition on a mountain bike with a maximum of 10 kg of luggage. We think that we meet the first condition, but if we can cycle all the trails on our touring bikes without suspension and with each 20 kg of luggage (without water and provisions), we have to experience it on the way. Roelie is a bit worried about this and sees herself standing somewhere in a valley in the pouring rain and cold (yes indeed, this green country has that reputation) where there is a “mission-not-fun” further uphill and back uphill. Harry is not worried at all: we have built up some trust in the last 26,000 kilometers, right? And although we may have to push and curse, we will get there. In the last 26,000 kilometers, Roelie has gained the experience that Harry is the one who is raging in such situations …
Before we start to write about the cycling, first this. Already on the plane we notice that several people have difficulty getting into their seats. They are quite fat indeed. In the Mangere area around the airport, where we stay the first three nights, we estimate that 90% of the population is Maori and we notice that there are an incredible number of people who have a severe overweight. On the other hand: the people here seem to be happy, what a difference with the Aboriginals in Australia, okay they apparently (also) love fast food, but they are proud, love cheerful reggae-like music that can be heard everywhere and above all: participate in society. Quite a lot of houses are richly decorated with flags that we see again in the inner area of the mall. We look it up and it appears to be the flag of Tonga. Later we hear that (also) the people of Tonga are extremely exuberant and the rugby World Cup has been a reason for many to decorate their home. They are no longer in the tournament, but all decorations flutter proudly.
The sale of fireworks is quite striking. It is around Halloween and not a new year yet. How is it possible that we see many temporary points of sale? The answer is “Guy Fawkes” and we had never heard of it/him. Apparently, on a November 5 long ago, a group of Britons tried to blow up the House of Lords in London and kill the King. That didn’t work out and the soldier, indeed Guy Fawkes, who was caught with gunpowder and the fuses was sentenced to horrible torture until death ensued. He apparently had little interest in that and before the sentence was executed he jumped off the scaffold and broke his neck. To celebrate the life of the king, fireworks will be set off on 5 November.
So, can we finally go cycling? Yes you can, but please stop at a bicycle / camping shop for a gas can (they are not allowed on the plane) and pump the tires to the right pressure (the bicycle tires must be empty for every flight and with our hand pump we can’t reach the 4 Bar). After 10 kilometers of cycling we enter a retail zone and after three stores that are a stone’s throw away from each other, that has been arranged. We can go for it and to our pleasure it’s wonderfully beautiful summer weather and yes, we have a nice tail wind.
The many warnings about the danger of speeding and passing traffic are only by one truck driver confirmed on day 1. Not bad and this “connector ride” is already breathtakingly beautiful. That is promising! The sheep, horses, cows and chickens on the green hills, the turquoise sea in the Kawakawa Bay and the Firth of Thames and the rain forest with clear streams in between. We don’t see the hobbits or Teletubbies, but they can’t be far away in this fairytale land and yes, if you believe that God created the world, then He must have had his best intentions with this country. Anyway, we already understand that the New Zealander call their country “GodsOwn”.
At the end of the ride today we pitch our tent at an expensive campsite in the hamlet of Miranda where, moreover, it is a weekend, annoyingly many children roam around. Fortunately, we are assigned a place in a remote corner and we meet a sympathetic Belgian who, like us, has arrived on his bicycle today from Auckland. He has been in New Zealand for a long time and is training for the America Cup, a very prestigious sailing competition. In the coming weeks, work will be done on the ship and he will use that time to cycle through the country. His plan to cycle over the Noordereiland fairly quickly and then be able to stay longer on the South Island, sounds pretty good to us. We adopt his route, but we adjust it to the Great- and Heartland Rides.
Our second day on the pedals is dominated by such a Great Ride: the Hauraki Trail, an old railway line to the gold mining town of Waihi. The first 30 kilometers we cycle along the Firth of Thames without ever having a view of the bay; it is low tide and the coastline is formed by a mangrove forest. Then we cycle another 30 kilometers over that old railway line through a surprisingly flat part of this country and then turn into the hills. The first part is still an old railway line and this part is the most popular. That is immediately noticeable, because we come across quite a few cyclists, but it is also weekend we realize. There is an old tunnel on this route of more than one kilometer that is also walked from the adjacent parking lot. Unfortunately the tunnel is reasonably well lit and that makes it all a little less fun. When we come out of the tunnel we see that cars have been driven through a canyon around the mountain, perhaps that was nicer (but a bit unsafe) than that wet tunnel.
The second and last part of the route to Waihi was laid out not so long ago and really super nice! Happy with another great cycling day we pitch the tent in Waihi on a beautiful campsite and there is no child in sight. Since June the site has been “under new management” and the previous owner has done her best to score a lot of bad reviews with a harsh attitude. The new nice lady doesn’t mind that it is not that busy and in the meantime runs a very nice campsite where we are bitten by the small but extremely mean sand flies during the setting up of the tent. Many of these animals can no longer tell that, but what remains is an itch that lasts for days and the leg increasingly looks like a “war zone”. In the future, first the DEET and then unpack the tent.
The next day we cycle east to the coast from inland Waihi. In the beginning the road is beautiful but narrow due to many roadworks, after that the road is less beautiful and there is quite a lot of traffic for this sparsely populated country and especially when narrowing the road at the many bridges you have to be extremely careful. The eyes are once again focused on the mirror to spot behind traffic and anticipate. If we don’t look in the mirror we notice that there are huge high rows of conifers like wind walls everywhere. First we think that they protect the vineyards, later we think that they are not grapes, but avocado plants and even later the ambiguity strikes even further and we allow the option of kiwis. It is still early in the season, so there are no fruits and that makes it difficult. We’ll figure it out and come back to it, promises!
From the campsite in Papamoa (what are the names of the villages here often funny from a Dutch perspective). We set sail for Rotorua, a city that is best known for its thermal hotsprings (and the accompanying rotting egg smell) and as a mountainbike walhalla. For us it is the city of Rob Metz. Rob builds bicycles and has established a close relationship with the German Pinion, the manufacturer of our magic gearbox. Rob has a Pinion sprocket which we can take over and which is otherwise difficult (or not) available in Australia and New Zealand. On the way to Rob we drink a coffee before we have to go on the busy main road. Today we were able to cycle on quiet roads and bike paths first but now we have to cycle the highway. No, that is not necessary at all, because next to us people are also enjoying a coffee and advise us to grab the trail that has just been laid. Our route apps and google maps don’t know it and we check and double check and triple check before we start. But that turns out to be totally worth it and we cycle a beautiful, but also tough route to Rob’s Rotorua.
Rob says that building bicycles has started as a hobby and that he is being overtaken by the success. He now transfers his knowledge, company and brand to be able to stop himself and to be able to focus on the things that make him happy again. Our story of selling everything and traveling the world is well received by him. He builds a tiny house a little further in the back of the garden on the shore of Lake Rotorua to live in and in this garden is already “pre-sorted” for a self-sufficient life. He gives us small, unripe looking fruits that turn out to be delicious sweet cherries.
From Rob’s house it is a little more than 15 kilometers to our intended place for tonight: the Backyard Inn in the center of Roturoa. People warned us in advance that we were going to enjoy the sulfuric air there – there are furious mud puddles and other thermal incidents everywhere – but that is not so bad. The Backyard Inn rents out cabins and rooms and apparently also accommodates large groups, as a school with something of 30 youngsters arrives. The large camp kitchen is also full of young people in the evenings and the following morning. In addition to these accommodations, there is also a “tent field” where we, wonderfully quiet, pitched out tent. Occasionally some fireworks pop into the air, but it is not much since it has been heard for days; apparently there is not a specific time for the Guy Fawkes firework party.
In the morning the choice stress strikes again, which is also accompanied by a feeling that has not yet been mutually pronounced that we don’t like the idea, that we have to return to Auckland again at the end of our NZ adventure (by bus, train, plane?), at all. Moreover, the weather forecasts indicate that in a few days we will have bad weather for three or four days. Is it an idea to use those rainy days to get to the very south of the South Island and then cycle back? We don’t know it anymore but are about to cycle to Taupo. We get off the bikes again and sit down together in the camp kitchen to figure things out.
An hour later we are finally back on the bike: yes, to Taupo, where we are expected by Rose and Trevor. We hope that they can help us to create some clarity in the jumble of routes and draw a plan. At Adelaide in Australia we met the cycling Kiwi’s Peter and Felicity. Peter gave us tips at the time about a number of “great rides” and a telephone number if we were to visit Taupo. That number belongs to Rose and she and her husband Trevor are hosts at Warmshowers. We asked them if we are welcome and allowed to spend the night.
It takes an eternity to get out of Rotorua. First we get hold up by the sight of bubbling mud pools, then a geyser and then a nice gentleman who maintains the beautiful cycle path out of the village. He wants to know where we are going and overloads us with tips. And when we finally leave the town behind us, we hit the brakes again. We arrive at the world famous Rotorua Mountainbike Park, the mecca for mountain bikers with a 180 km track on 85 different routes. The cosy central square is surrounded with an MTB rental (lots of electric!), coffee shop, a facilities building and groups of people hanging around. We can’t resist the temptation to immerse ourselves in it, to sniff the ‘vibe’ and drink a cup of coffee.
The expectations on the rest of the Te Ara Ahi Trail, also one of the “great rides”, are high after the beautiful start. Too high, it turns out afterwards. For a long time the cycle path runs along the highway. It’s nice that we don’t cycle on that road, but it is not really great cycling. Further up the route takes a detour to Waimangu Volcanic Valley full of tropical plants. However to see the real highlights of the valley a tour must be booked with a bus, boat, guide, etc. We won’t do that and the road will returns to the highway and that’s where this ‘great ride’ stops for us and we set course for Taupo. The last 50 km we think we are smart by taking a road parallel to the highway, but there is quite a bit of truck traffic on this road without an shoulder. Later Trevor tells us that staying on the highway was perhaps a better plan. In Taupo we can cycle the last 7 km to the house of Rose & Trevor on a beautiful path along the lake.
Trevor & Rose turn out to be mega sporty people, who have cycled many long distance trips, but also MTB, kayak, hike, paddle board, ski and probably much more. Rose isn’t at home when we arrive. She is playing tennis what she didn’t do for a long time. With Trevor we look at our problem: how further from here and how to ‘knit’ as many trails as possible towards (and on) the South Island. Trevor gives us a lot of advice, but it doesn’t make it really easier: there is so much, we can’t do it all and we need to make choices. Rose and their son arrive home and we talk a lot about cycling, bicycle parts, cycling routes, cycling habits, cycling hazards, cycling plans and cycling and so on. And oh yes: what is growing on those trellis, which are protected by the meters-high conifer hedges? Kiwis!
A night of sleep has yielded a bit of a plan and that brings us at another one of the ‘great rides’ today: The Great Lake Trail, all single track and actually better suited for a mountain bike than for a fully loaded touring bike. The parts uphill are strenuous and on the edge of what we can handle. Roelie in particular has difficulty with the curvy and rocky trail, because of her heavy panniers and handlebar bag at the front. She has less visibility on the track and keeps forgetting that she’s wide down there. Combined with a few dozen curvy slopes of more than 10%, we are unsure whether we have done well to opt for this route. But pleasure and great enjoyment quickly take the upper hand. Wow, this trail is already beautiful! The view of Lake Taupo and the three >2,000-meter mountains in the background, still covered with a white layer of snow, is overwhelming!
When Roelie is getting some water Harry meets Trevor on his mountain bike. Hilarity arises because Harry doesn’t recognize him in his cycling outfit, helmet and sunnies. There is a conversation between the men if Roelie returns and greets the “strange man” exuberantly – until Harry realizes that he is chatting with his host from last night.
After a few hours we reach the end of the MTB trail. It didn’t go quickly and it is already quite late. We didn’t hurry having breakfast with Rose and Trevor and needed to get groceries in Taupo for multiple cycling days through the bush. We are not nearly halfway the intended day-stage and the route app shows that the last 25 kilometers is also going up considerably on a gravel road. Okay, we’ll see how far we get.
Around 5 pm we start the climb and are feeling that our energy level is running low. We reach the border of the Perorura National park and calculate that we will probably be on the bike for another 2-3 hours and it will be around eight o’clock before we can camp at the start of the Timber Trail, another ‘great ride’ and the route for the next two days. At that moment we see a sign indicating that there must be a campsite at the left of the road. We take a look and are immediately convinced: we pitch our tent here! The campsite is very basic: no water, a designated pasture for a tent or camper, a (clean!) pit toilet, fire places and a picnic table. What makes us very happy: the campsite is completely deserted, is completely shielded from the rest of the world and a wonderfully clean river flows past. Soon we walk around like Adam and Eve (incidentally without fig leaf), we wash in the cold water of the river and we filter around six liters of water from the river. In the evening we light a nice bonfire and watch how the surrounding natural beauty changes color with the setting sun. Harry is bleeding against the sheep that stroll around on a hilltop. We realize that perhaps for the first time on this world bike tour we will experience that ultimate free feeling that we experienced in the Rocky Moutains in 2017. This moment, this life, characterized by its pure simplicity and at the same time its intensity: it makes us deeply happy!
The next morning the rest of that climb is still ahead of us but on an extremely good mood we enjoy the gravel road up the mountain. We are quite happy that we didn’t need to do this yesterday, because even with rested legs it is quite tough and it takes us more than two hours to get to the start of the famous Timber Trail. The last two kilometers go slightly down again and Harry notice that his rear brake completely fails. It seems that there is no longer any oil pressure. He already noticed a reduced braking force in Taupo, but then (yes Roelie, indeed bad judgment on his side) he continued cycling instead of finding a bicycle mechanic in Taupo.
This is the moment that all owners of V-brakes (the old-fashioned rim brakes) will no doubt chuckle and point at an old “wisdom”: a long-distance cyclist uses material and equipment that you can repair yourself and on the spot. These philosophers are often dominant in the cyclists’ groups on Facebook; the majority of real long-distance cyclists are quite conservative in terms of materials. Our choice for titanium bikes with an innovative configuration (Pinion gearbox, hydraulic disc brakes, carbon drive belt) does not fit in with traditional wisdom. However, we believe in innovation and by sticking to the proven simple materials, you would still ride on bicycles with wooden wheels and in Fred Flintstone cars. Innovation is improvement, even though technology is becoming increasingly important.
But enough about this discussion among bicycle idiots, back to the problem! Uhhh yes, we cannot indeed fix this problem on the spot. First we hope that the pistons in the brake are stuck by dirt because we cannot find an oil leak. At the start of the Timber Trail there is a possibility to spray your bike and we brush it off but the pistons still don’t move. We consider the different options to get to a town with a bike shop; the safest one seems to be cycling back to Taupo or further up to Te Kuito. The other option is via the trail to Taumarunui. Harry does not want to go back and says that he dares to take the Timber Trail without a rear brake, “because it is mostly going uphill”. With the promise that he will step down if it goes down too steeply, Roelie agrees, and moreover the trail might be safer than a busy road.
The Timber Trail is 85 kilometers long and connects old tram lines and lodging routes from earlier logging through challenging single tracks. With a fully loaded bike you will not cover those 85 kilometers in one day or you have to leave very early and keep the average at 10 km / h, but then you have too little time to enjoy all that beauty around you.
It is already in the afternoon when we start from the open area of the parking lot. Right away we find ourselves on a single track into an old and dense forest over the flanks of Mount Pureora. Very special: you are only 100 meters on the road and you are already in the middle of a rainforest, far from all “civilization”. The tall old trees (some are more than 800 years old) are close together and are completely overgrown with moss. Also lianas covered with moss hang like wild garlands between the trees. We imagine ourselves in a film set of “The Lord of the Rings” and it would not surprise us if we encounter wizard Gandalf, dwarfs and elves. The moments when we can see the sky above us are limited. In certain places, nature is recovering after grubbing up trees in the time before this area became a national park. And we can see the sky on the enormously long suspension bridges (three of more than 100 meters!) over incredibly clear rivers and deep gorges. Wow wow wow what a great path this is! Simply indescribable. That is why we will continue to suffice with a series of photos, although they cannot give half the impression of how beautiful it really is.
Halfway the Timber trail is a campsite and we look forward to a copy of last night, but this time with the company of many hikers & bikers. We meet a few cyclists along the way, although some indicate that they will opt for the more luxury place to stay: the lodge, which is also halfway since 2017. Furthermore, at the end of the day we catch up with some hikers who will certainly camp at the campsite. Our surprise is big when we see a huge terrain with parked cars, caravans and pitched party tents. Huh, caravans? Some people have decorated a area with their trailers, pick ups, 4WD all terrain vehicles, fireplaces, party tents and thereby confiscating the shelters, the covered picnic areas. It is a kind of territory-marking-and-anarchy country. We pick a spot for our tent and get info from our neighbors; two trappers or hunters in camouflage clothing, about the water (not drinkable) and refreshment options (the creek below). We wash ourselves again in the creek, although this time we wear swimwear. Then we filter enough water for dinner, breakfast and a supply for the next cycling stage. When we cook diner, we see the hikers trickle in and gather up with each other, unfortunately a hundred meters from our place. The next day we talk to a hiker, a Danish young man, and hear that almost all of them hike the Te Araroa, a walking route from the very northern to the southernmost tip of New Zealand,> 3000 kilometers away. We have encountered these long-distance hikers earlier in the Rocky Mountains, our respect for these people has not diminished.
The lack of charm on the campsite is magnificently emphasized at midnight as a group of men turn on the light bar on a pick-up and set the whole area in the spotlight while they loudly chat and drink beer after beer. At 5 o’clock when it almost dawns they turn off the bright lights, put the empty bottles in the trunk and leave the campground. So inappropriate. Fortunately we were tired enough to sleep through most of that nonsense.
We expected the second half of the Timber Trail to be inferior in beauty and fun compared to the first half. This part of the track is mainly formed by an old tram line and we expect boring straight sections. Fortunately, that is not the case: on this day we also cycle with a “WOW-face” to the end of the trail. The tram line “eats” itself dozens of times through hilltops; gorges carved by people who, after decades, have been reclaimed by the flora, leaving you in a fairytale gorge. So beautiful! We got surprised by a pitch-dark tunnel and a “corkscrew lift” to let the tram line win a few tens of meters in height (or to go down) at a short distance. In summary: superlatives fail to describe this trail; as already announced, a few more photos with our iPhones to get the picture.
From the end point of the Timber Trail there are two options to cycle to the nearest town of Taumarunui. One is an asphalted road and is 22 kilometers long and mostly flat, but we are warned about the traffic and especially the lodging trucks. The better option should be the gravel road, 4 kilometers longer and a few rolling hills, but naturally more beautiful and safer! We choose the latter and find ourselves on a road with “fresh” gravel that is applied (or dumped?) in large quantities which is rather dangerous te cycle. We regularly see the lower asphalted road that apparently has hardly any traffic on this Saturday and no lodging trucks al all. The improvement on our ‘better bike option’ means that we will spend another two hours to reach the village safely without damaging our bikes and / or ourselves.
The first building that we encounter in the town is McDonalds. We can use the WiFi (and that we can order a Quarterpounder and a BigMac is of course of secondary importance) so that we explore our accommodation options on the internet. We also watch some internet videos about replenishing and bleeding the brake lines ourselves and we quickly understand that we cannot do that for one to two without a Shimano brake kit. It is Saturday and we understand that the problem of Harry’s rear brake can be repaired at the earliest on Tuesday. We find a nice house on airbnb to sit out the time (and let the forecasted storm and rain come over). It is a typical “grandma’s house” with a well-dated interior, which is being rented out by daughter via airbnb.
The bike is indeed ready on Tuesday. A tiny hole in the brake cable caused the oil leak. In the meantime, we have studied all cycle route options to the South Island and divided them into day stages. In addition, we will lose too much time on the remaining part of the North Island. Instead of cycling, we will travel a part by train to have enough time for the South Island. South should be (even) more beautiful than North and from Trevor and Rose we already understood that the southern part of the North Island is less attractive for cycling.
The train runs almost past our house but does not stop there, we understand since a few years much to the displeasure of the people of Taumarunui. We cycle to National Park Village and strangely enough we can board the train to the capital Wellington in this hamlet.
From Taumarunui to National Park Village is only 48 kilometers, but over 900 elevation. We can avoid the highway in the first half by taking a backroad. The surface changes from sealed to gravel when the road starts to incline. A few loggers warn us that it is strenuous to climb from this point forward. That is true, but not something we cannot handle. And it’s just great cycling! When we finally get on the highway we fear heavy traffic but it is a quiet road on a Saturday afternoon while the Jaguar club is apparently driving around. Just before we have to climb again it starts to rain and the temperature drops until the breath shows clouds. There is no place to hide and there is nothing else to do than to continue cycling in order not to get cold. The last 10 kilometers bring us 400 meters higher. When we finally arrive in National Park we are quite cold and long for a hot shower.
National Park Village is located, as the name suggests, in a national park that includes three large high volcanoes of over 2000 meters. They are covered under a thick layer of snow, but unfortunately there is nothing to see; we cycled into the clouds and see nothing of the surroundings. The village itself is more than 800 meters above see level and is a real ski village which means that it offers a deserted and somewhat desolate sight just after the winter sports season. We soon find our motel and the owner; Mrs. Visser (her husband has Dutch blood), gives us a great upgrade “because you ‘re Dutch and you look cold!”.
The train journey to Wellington is really beautiful. It is a so-called scenic train that runs from Wellington to Auckland one day and back the next. The super view of the snow-capped mountain peaks is still lacking due to the still low-hanging clouds, but we do get to see the views of the deep gorges beneath the countless railway bridges, the idyllic endless green hills with mostly sheep and lambs and finally the coastline and New-ZealandS capital Wellington.
The boat to the South Island leaves from the Wellington. In de meantime we found a solution for the way back to Auckland: we have accepted an offer via the internet to bring a motorhome back from Queenstown to Auckland on 19 December. That gives us a full month to cycle on South Island, part 2 of our New Zealand adventure. And it’ll start tomorrow. Looking forward!