Blog: New Zealand, North Island – Northland

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New Zealand North Island Northland

imageAuckland, Helensville, Dargaville, Whangarei, Russell, Doubtless Bay, Kaitaia – 569km (Total 6119km cycled)

Highlights: Back in New Zealand, cycling with friends, Boysenberry ice cream, beautiful views and surprisingly good driving from lorries.

Day 293-295 – October 15-17 : Back in NZ

After being in the air for two hours from Portland to LA and then 13 hours to Auckland, where we missed out on October the 15 completely, it’s not really the best time to be spending three hours outside a windy, cold Auckland airport at 8am putting our bicycles together.

We cycled the ten kilometres to the nearest campsite, crawled into bed (we’d booked a basic cabin for two nights) and proceeded to sleep for 18 hours. We even missed dinner time! I know I watched four films on the plane, but can only remember three. We will never get used to long distance flying.

We spent a day pottering around a sunny, windy Auckland trying to find free and working internet access, which turned out to be rather hard. We had become used to free, fast and available wifi in the remotest of places in Patagonia and North America. But New Zealand is still stuck in the stone age of the digital age with paid-for internet cafes, which used to be on every street corners in London but are now obsolete since we have free wifi everywhere. So we settled for a SIM card for our mobile and loaded it up with megabytes, so that we at least could get our email fix, but a price.

Day 296 – October 18 : Mighty, mighty Cardiff!

Riding from the south of Auckland to Northland is not something we would recommend, since most of the journey will be done through suburbia and on busy roads. The most direct way north is SH1, but as the Pedallers’ Paradise guide to cycling in New Zealand states – no sane cyclist would ride on SH1. So we took the long way around but still not the most scenic of routes.

Our first day of riding in a new place always ends up being a short day. Hunting fuel, food and just getting ready on the first morning takes time. So by mid-afternoon – and it was a drizzly and windy day – we had only done 25km and were in need of a rest. We found a Boy Scouts Camp and asked if we could pitch our tent for the night. NZ$15 later we had a lovely pitch tucked away in the forest, with our own shelter from the rain, fire pit and access to a hot shower. Bargain!

Day 297 – October 19 : Hot springs

We were woken many times during the night by heavy but short showers, which made the sandy ground beneath us very muddy. But we were still hot, dry and comfy especially Peli in her new Western Mountaineering sleeping bag. Smooth is the word! Though we have to watch out for her on slopes because the sleeping bag is over slippery on our mats and she might end up sliding into oblivion! Well, into the bottom of the tent. 

We finally found the Discovery Coastal road, SH16, which was rather “scenic” (read: hilly) and with the strong side wind this did make it a hard day. In Kumenu the local i-Site (the name for Tourist Info Centres in NZ) lived up to expectations and gave us some great information including directions to a campsite with discount hot springs and swimming pool. This knowledge made the final 22km into the wind was rather easier to endure.

We spent 45 minutes in the 40c hot water, which funnily enough drained us more that the strong wind. After a few lengths of the cooler outdoor pool and a great dinner knocked up by champion chef Peli, we crawled into bed.

Day 298 – October 20 : tired legs

The warm soak yesterday made getting out of our sleeping bags rather hard. It drained us! The wind had died down and sun had come out but the hills, of course, were still there.

We cycled into Helensville and quickly celebrated with them, 150 years young the town is. The rest of the day’s ride was through farmland with a mixture of sheep and cattle living merrily side-by-side. We had forgotten how green New Zealand is. It’s Tellytubby land: just rolling hill after rolling hill of bright, brilliant green-ness.

In Wellsford we asked at a RSA centre (an organisation for retired military folk) about a place to camp as there are no campgrounds in town. We were kindly pointed to the Centennial Park, where we pitched up next to a pretty little pond with its own miniature humpbacked bridge and nearby loos. Perfect. 

Day 299 –  October 21 : Wet gears

We got up early since dog walkers parked their cars right next to us. Though our departure was delayed by a slow flat that reared its head yesterday but which I struggled to find the cause of.

And for some weird reason Peli’s front derailleur started to play up. It went from shifting just fine to impossible to even move the thumb shifter. The more I fettled the harder to shift it became and the fewer gears she could use. The outer and inner cables looked fine but I changed them anyway and they seemed to run nice and smooth. And the shifter and derailleur moved and worked fine too.

But, I put it all together and it would gear down but not up. We got it set to middle gear and decided that we needed a bike shop to have them check it over.

But, the fettling wasn’t over. At a pit stop Peli spotted that I had somehow managed to wrap the cable around the bottle cage. I fettled it some more and lo and behold the shifting was completely back to its normal self. Huh?

Oh, I forgot to mention that this fettling was made all the harder by the wet weather. Just as we were thinking, “Oh, I can take my jacket off now” the rain came back wetter than before.

We were back on Stuart Highway 1 which because of the Labour Holiday weekend was rather busy.  But traffic disappeared as soon as we turned into the wind and onto Stuart Highway 12 for the last 21km to the campsite in Paparoa. Here we camped right outside the kitchen and since it was still raining, we took it over with all our stuff (can’t think where we get that trait from), had much need showers and washed and dried our wet gear.

Day 300 – October 22 : 300 days away

Wow. It has now been 300 days since we took off on our little journey. It’s been hard going at times, what with crashes and broken forks and asthma, but we have had lots of good solid fun, met some lovely people and seen some memorable sights. And had the odd slice of cake now and again. 

10am seems to be our NZ departure time, no matter how early we get up. We did only a few miles before we arrived in “Denmark” – flat, very flat and cycling right into the wind. Lucky the wind had died down compared to the last two days and then rain had decided to have a break too.

A few kilometres later we met two girls from Germany, who had also just started their tour of New Zealand, but had six months to explore these wonderful islands. They were struggling into the wind with their trailer and bright orange jackets. You cannot miss them!

Important note to any cycle tourer: check your spare inner tubes. I know you might think of them as a dead weight and if you’re lucky they are just that. Ours have lived in an outside pannier pocket with sun, heat, damp, cold and lots and lots of dust for company over the last year, all of which has taken its toll. One of the reasons why my inner tube swapping yesterday and today didn’t keep the puncture fairies away is that they are rotting away. Today I fixed a hole and while I was pumping up I heard the air coming out elsewhere. I quickly found the new hole (on a weakened fold in the tube where it had been wrapped up), fixed that, only to find that the valve gave up the ghost while pumping again. New tubes are in order as soon as we reach a bike shop!

The only other thing to report on this route other than the flatness and wind is that this is the area to grow Kumura, a sweet potato, we must try that out.

Now, can someone pass me that soapbox? That big one over there, yes. Thanks. What’s that? No, it’s OK, I can climb up myself.

Clears throat. Ahem.

OK. As I mentioned before, getting internet access in New Zealand even with our new SIM card is still harder than in the remotest of places in Patagonia! Even free access in McDonalds (yes, please forgive me) is dreadfully slow. If we do manage to get online there our smart phones either tell us it is too slow to work with or not secure enough. This makes it a bit hard to find out a meeting point with friend who is joining us in three days time and to find out if Peli’s new batch of drugs has arrived in Auckland. Come on New Zealand, sort out your internet!

Day 301 – October 23 : Horrid day

We somehow missed out celebrating our three hundredth day yesterday so we went to a cafe in Dargaville, managing to get absolutely soaking wet in the one kilometre ride from the campground to town centre. We quickly ordered breakfast and a pot of tea which turned out to be pretty much the best thing on the menu. My meal was OK, bar the not-so-tasty and dry bread. Peli’s on the other hand was down right horrid! She usually can eat pretty much anything (as long as it’s vegetarian, of course), but her food – kumara and corn fritters with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce (the only veggie thing on the menu) made her feel very icky for the rest of the morning. So much for a celebratory meal.

So we set out into the rain towards Whangarei on the east coast of the northland peninsula. We had been told by a lady from the i-Site in Kumenu that the road shouldn’t be that busy. Therefore we happily set out into the rain and tailwind.

But the i-Site lady was wrong. The road was very busy indeed and the logging trucks weren’t keen on keeping to the speed limits or giving us much room as the thundered past.

The silver lining of the day: dripping wet and desperate for a hot drink we stopped at a tavern at the half-way point. At first it looked very closed but I knocked anyway in the hope that we could at least use the facilities. They were indeed shut, but the lady of the house put the kettle on anyway. Within minutes we both were warming ourselves on two big free mugs of tea that hit the spot big time, thank you.

Day 302- October 24 : Rest day

At the Whangarei campsite we had a nice lie- and leisurely breakfast chatting to fellow cycle tourers Andrew and Hilary from Bristol and Andreas from Austria. Everyone had bailed out and decided it was time to have a rest day after all the wind, rain and hills.

The day was spent finding wifi, getting a prescription for more asthma medication for Peli (just to tide her over until her drugs mules from Portland and Auckland replenished her supplies), getting fresh inner tubes, fettling the bikes and doing some washing. The usual bike tourers’ admin, then.

Day 303 – October 25 : Visit

We left the campsite early to meet Anthony off his bus. He’s an old flatmate of mine from London who’d taken some much-needed days off from his job in Sydney to tour with us for four days. Hurrah! We love it when friends join us for part of our tour.

We finished up a few errands – new cable for Peli’s front derailleur picking up her medication from the chemist. Apparently she’s on an extra-strong prescription which needed to be specially ordered by the very helpful local pharmacist, who recognised her as soon as she walked into the shop and served her with a smile.

Leaving Whangarei we visited the nearby waterfalls in a very nice little park just outside the town. The first few kilometres were on SH1 which were busy but not scarily so. When we turned off SH1 onto Russell Road it became very quiet and very beautiful, rolling green hills with good views over the surrounding farmland.

The road in places was very rather scenic and the very last one before the campsite in Oankara was rather steep. Anthony flew up the hills like a mountain goat while we plodded slowly with our heavy loads. Like packhorses, I suppose. Oankara lies in stunning  Wanankakaka bay, of which we had a great view from our tent.

Day 304 – October 26 : The Germans

Departure was massively delayed because we got chatting to a lovely German family. Two young kids and their mum and dad who were cycle touring New Zealand for nine months. They also had a Hilleberg – the Keron 4GT. (Peli impressed them by knowing more about their tent than they did. See what happens when you become an obsessive cycle tourer?) Hendrik, their energetic five year-old who speaks delightful English along with his native German, is the spitting image of Matt Smith, the current Doctor Who. Astonishing. (Warning: in-joke. Look! An Eagle!)

We were warned that the road ahead of us would be hilly but also very beautiful. True as true can be, we slogged up hill after hill and enjoyed great views of little bays and beaches.

It was great to have Anthony with us and we, again, spent much time chatting and catching up. Which meant when we arrived in the pretty little coastal town of Russell, former capital of New Zealand, it was getting a bit late.

We quickly pitched up, picked up some beers and bbqed some sausages (anyone spot the Australian influence here?) while catching snippets of Coronation Street on the communal telly. We’ve seen more of British soaps while we’ve been here than in the past ten years in the UK!

Day 305 – October 27 : Bowling

Boy, can that boy chat! Yet another morning where we departed much nearer noon than we are used to. (Only pulling your leg, Anthony. It was good to have you on board, great fun.)

First thing, Peli dragged me up the steep hill to the viewpoint over Russell and the Bay of Islands, more than 120 of them, while Anthony hunted for coffee and freshly baked muffins.

We took the little passenger ferry over to Paihia, where we got our internet fix, 15 minutes for free, push that boat out! Anthony also booked a bus back to Auckland in three days’ time.

The next bit was unfortunately on the busy SH10 again and still rather rolling, which tired us out, especially me. So I called time out when we got to Kaeo.

With nowhere to camp in sight I brushed off my manners, removed wildlife from my beard and politely asked a passing lady if she knew of anywhere. She told us we could pitch up behind the bowling green, as long as we weren’t axe murderers. We must have reassured her, as we were welcomed by her troop of fellow bowling enthusiasts and given fresh water, a spot of grass to pitch on (not the bowling green, in case you were wondering) and some leftover biscuits and scones from a tournament held earlier in the day.

Anthony, that bad influence, twisted my arm so badly that I had to buy a round of beers since there was a bar on the premises, and as they were putting us up for the night it would be rude not to.

Three “handles” (as they call the beer glasses here) later, Peli reminded us that there was still some tent pitching to do before bed time and we still needed to cook dinner before it went dark.

Day 306 – October 28 : Short day

It’s much easier to get an early start when you wild camp and we were up and ready by 9am, having made use of the facilities in the college next door. We managed one kilometre before we had breakfast outside the local small supermarket.

We had two options: two long days of riding or one short day with a medium day riding. Since I was tired from the day before, Peli was feeling rather weak today and we didn’t want scare Anthony off cycle touring, we took the easy option: a short day into Hihi Bay campsite and a medium-length day tomorrow.

There aren’t many choices this far north in Northland as far as roads are concerned, so we again had to endure the busy and hilly SH10.

We arrived, pitched up in good time with dark clouds hanging over Doubtless Bay. We relaxed and chatted with tea and snacks. We’d forgotten how aggressive the ducks are in New Zealand, Peli nearly lost her fingers when when one jumped up into her lap to get her nibbles, they are not to be messed with. She nearly lost her ice cream the last time we were here, due to a duck attack.

As we enjoyed dinner, the rain started, which turned out to be rather hard in the night.

Day 307 – October 28 : Cake and ice cream for the birthday boy

We had nearly 50km left to Kaitaia where Anthony would leave us to take his bus back to Auckland before flying on to Sydney. So we were under pressure to find cake for the soon-to-be birthday boy, a date that we couldn’t make in November as we would still be cycling around New Zealand.

The first attempts to locate baked goods failed, so we bailed out and got ice cream instead. One thing, among others, the Kiwis really can make is ice cream! How can you forget the double boysenberry or Hokey Pokey flavoured yummyness?

The rolling hills became flatlands just as the clouds became darker and the headwind had more of a kick to it.

As we rolled into Kaitaia the shops and cafes were closing down for the day and the town started to look like a ghost town. We checked the bus time table and departure location at the local i-Site and were told that – contrary to the information in the Pedallers’ Paradise guidebook – there was no camping in town, only one 14km away. Not the best for a 8am bus departure when you need to be a the bus stop early with a bike.

We checked out the only backpacker sign we saw and let’s just say DO NOT go to the Hike and Bike Backpacker in central Kaitaia! It’s a dosshouse…

After some weighing up of the options, and some pleading puppy-eyed looks from Anthony, the three of us checked into a family suite at a little motel (with walls! and beds! and hot water!) and got warmed up with tea and the cake we’d managed to find in town.

Even though we were “celebrating” Anthony’s birthday he treated us to a delicious dinner (thanks!) in the only restaurant in town that was open apart from KFC and a seedy looking bar with karaoke blasting from within. 

Day 308 – October 30: Loitering

We said our goodbyes to Anthony (thanks for a great few days and see you in Australia!) early in the morning. After a leisurely breakfast in our own private kitchen (what a novelty!) we packed up and went over to the i-Site to book our bus ticket to Auckland.

We couldn’t get on the same bus as Anthony because they can just about take two bicycles at the time. Plus – as usual – we were not organised and hadn’t really decided what to do when Anthony booked his tickets.

So, tomorrow we will take the bus down to Auckland as it will save a week’s riding south and miss out on some of the busier roads and the ride across Auckland. This means more time on the South Island, and also a chance to collect Peli’s medications from our contact in Auckland (thank you, Martin, for putting us in touch with your old boss! The wonders of the Wide Eyed Web. And thank you, Laura in Portland, for sending them on!).

We then spent the day relaxing in the sun in the park next to where we’d planned to wild camp for the night. Loitering is really hard work, actually. You have to try to look like you’re just having a rest or stopping for a food stop, and it gets rather taxing when you have to do it for eight hours or more. Though the New Zealanders aren’t too bothered. They usually just give you a nod or a wave as they walk past even after you have pitched up.

In the end, we went for a little pootle to stretch our legs and found a more suitable wild camping location behind a building at the rugby field. We quickly cooked a peasant’s dinner of beans, bread, cheese and tomatoes, and settled down for an early night.

Northland has definitely had pockets of beauty, especially around the Bay of Islands, but in general we’ve been surprised at how busy the roads have been compared to the South Island. We’re looking forward to heading off the beaten track a bit as we make our way out of Auckland and onto the Coromandel Peninsula.

Click here to more photos from our visit to the Northland, the top of New Zealand.

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