Blog: New Zealand, North Island : Onwards through the centre

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Wanganui river

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Hot Water Beach, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo, National Park, Pipiriki, Wanganui – 414km (Total 6895km cycled)

Highlights: Active volcanoes, ice cream, wonderful hospitality, hot mineral pools, rainforests.

Day 309 – November 9 : Bus ride from hell

We had booked a bus to Tauranga to gain a few days and bypass a narrow and busy stretch, which had the nickname “The Suicide Highway”. A wise move, we thought.

The first bus arrived on time and the driver was helpful, nice and drove very sensibly. We changed buses in Thames and the new driver was a nightmare – swore at us, was unhelpful when one of our bags went missing (“I don’t care about your bag! I’ve a bus full of pissed off people and you’re pissing me off with your missing bag!” etc) and drove like a complete idiot. Yet another reason why we didn’t want to do this bit…

But after seven kilometres ride from the bus station in Tauranga peace was restored. We were in the beautiful home of John, Sylvia and Heather, the brother and family of Penny and Paul, two lovely Kiwis we’d met when we visited the South Island in 2010. We enjoyed a delicious meal and chatted away happily with our hosts.

Day 310 – November 10 :  Extra day off

We were taken care of so well that we decided to extend our stay by another day. We filled this with cycle touring admin, a visit to a local bike shop to buy new gloves for me and a mirro for Peli (hers had come a cropper in the Nightmare Bus Journey of 9 November). And, on our hosts’ excellent recommendation, we did a fantastic short walk up the local hill, Mount Maunganui, which gave us fabulous panoramic views over the local bays and beaches.

While in Hedgehog Bicycles shop in Tauranga we were shown something called Bzzzkill Dampers from Bontrager which from the online blurb and the mechanic’s spiel should neutralise the vibrations in your handlebars and stop numbness and tingling in your fingers. We were offered a tempting 10% off everything so decided to give them a go: let’s hope they work for my painful hands.

We then walked up the little Mount Maunganui which sits at the entrance to the bay and Tauranga harbour, which has a 360 degree view over the bay, town and harbour from 230 metres. It is amazing that this bay suffered a devastating oil disaster a couple of years ago, when a container ship ran aground and spilled its cargo and fuel. They have cleaned it up fantastically well and there is no trace to be seen, though we hear that there is still oil just below the surface of the sand.

An added bonus when we got back down to sea level – with slightly shaky legs (we’re still not used to this walking malarky) – was the fantastic ice cream parlour, Copenhagen Waffles, at the base of the mountain. Well worth the long wait in the queue. Though, in true seaside fashion, Peli managed to drop her last bit into the sand as we walked along the beach.

Day 311 – November 11 :  Smelly Town

We bid our farewells to our wonderful hosts and set off to climb a 16km long hill through farmland and orchards. Nothing bad on the downhill into Rotorua other than two deep gorges that we had to dip into and climb up out of to continue the downhill.

All the guide books we have read and the people we have talked to about Rotorua prepared us for the stink. We weren’t bothered by it, though, and only had the odd whiff of sulphur as we pitched our tent in a Top10 with a hot mineral pool, where we had a nice little dip (not too long this time).

The shower at this campsite was pretty good for Peli, which isn’t the norm. Over the last ten months we have tried our fair share of shower blocks in various countries. And I can tell you that either Peli is very picky or unlucky as she reports back at least eight times out of 10 that her shower was crap. Not hot enough, too hot, no beam, dirty… you name it. Whereas I can report that I nearly always have a good old wash, with plenty of warm water.

Day 312 – November 12 : Leaving Rotorua 

That part where we told you that Rotorua didn’t smell is a lie. As we did our shopping and last check at the i-Site the smell of sulphur did get to us. Poohey! I think this place does enjoy windy days!

Some day New Zealand will be covered in brilliant cycle trails as part of the National Cycle Trail Network which received funding in 2009: mainly off road in beautiful remote locations. But they’re not quite there yet, right now you have to accept short bits here and there. Today, for example, we had a 20km ride on a concrete-surfaced cycle trail alongside the busy SH5 that ended up going through a sheep farm.

If you try to find information online about the various cycle trails you will be sent around in circles on nzcycletrail.com, doc.govt.nz and the local i-Sites. They link to each other, other sites and .pdfs which tell you to go back to the site you just came from. It’s all rather confusing.

Although the i-Site will call around to check which parts are open for you, and the DoC will answer your emails, it’s a little frustrating to try to plan your onward journey with limited information. But, when all these cycle routes are complete you will be spoiled for choice with rides through this stunning country.

We didn’t get very far today as shopping and information gathering made it a late start. Last time we enjoyed a dip in a hot spring the next day we were slow and weak. Today, a day after a soak in a hot tub, I was weak and knew that there weren’t many miles in my legs. Peli on the other hand was on good form. That is, until we sat down for dinner, then she faded fast, though she kept awake long enough to enjoy a Doctor Who, which was rather hard to hear through the drumming of the rain on the tent.

Day 313 – November 13 : Headwinds

Pedallers’ Paradise said that we could get off SH5 and avoid the hills and the traffic. The campsite owners also said it would be a good option taking the back road to Lake Taupo. After a slight detour when James our GPS had us almost gatecrashing a Mauri funeral, oops, we got back on track on a road running parallel to the SH5.

The guidebook was correct that this alternative road wasn’t as hilly, but the wind had freedom to roam and there unfortunately wasn’t much room for the many logging trucks which thundered past us. (I’ve used that description before, as logging trucks don’t seem to do anything BUT thunder past.) We had our fair share of close passing, which made us wonder whether we should have stayed on SH5 with its wider shoulders.

Often, as we ride along, I’m in front and Peli is drafting

cycling behind me, so that she can have a clear view in her mirror. So, she often shouts out what is coming from behind, to warn me. This has turned into a great game for me: “Guess what vehicle is coming from the noise it makes and from what Peli’s shouted out”. Sadly she is getting  better at identifying the overtaking traffic which has made my little game quite boring. No more the shock/surprise when I hear her shout, “MOTORBIKE!” and 100 tons of wood comes flying past on a massive lorry. Or even the other way around. :-)

We had late lunch in Taupo and made the decision that we would plod on for an other 12km to a motor camp further south. Though upon arriving we found out that Pedallers’ Paradise was somewhat wrong: yes there is a motor camp but they haven’t offered tent sites for eight years due to the terrible local winds and weather which was almost blowing campers into the lake. The owner warned us about the weather and roads ahead before taking pity on two weary, dishevelled cyclists, and giving us an offer on a cabin for the night that we couldn’t refuse.

Day 314 – November 14 : Live volcano!

We set off reasonably early for us – quicker as we had no tent to take down – and headed into the blustery wind alongside the grey and choppy waters Lake Taupo. The hill wasn’t that bad after a night’s rest, I don’t think that we would have had it in our legs yesterday.

Bar the strong wind and the traffic it was a good ride for the next 35km into Turangi, where we stocked up on goodies and checked the road ahead at the i-Site. We chose the less hilly route up and around the volcanoes. If we’d taken the direct route, we would have had a massive steep climb into the wind and missed out on views of the active Mount Tongariro.

The clouds cleared enough away for us to clearly see the steam coming out of the crater. Mt. Tongariro took the scientists by surprise a few weeks ago and blew up, not much, but enough to get the clever people to scratch their heads.

When we stood at the reception at the campsite – a most welcome sight after over forty hard miles – our legs were trembling, not from the volcanic eruptions, but from two hard days’ riding into the wind.

Day 315 – November 15 : Hiding from the rain

We had made our mind up last night, we needed a short day-come-rest day today. So we just did 20km down to the nearest DoC campsite and hid from the incessant rain.

We have told you about the dawn chorus but not about the nocturnal bird life. My word, are they loud and scary! There’s the Morpork, which sounds like it is saying “MorePork”, a bit like an owl and nothing too bad. Then there is the Kiwi, whose “song” is more like a scream out of a horror movie! It will keep you awake the first few times you hear it.
  
While cooking up at the little shelter-come-kitchen we got chatting to the other campers there. The group from Israel, which wasn’t as rowdy as other groups of Israelis we’ve met, produced his recorder and started to play a song from each country represented in the camp shelter. The UK was easy (Oasis’s Wonderwall), Germany and Holland were a bit harder but I managed to find one song from Denmark that we all knew: yes, Barbie Girl by Auqa. It’s quite shocking to think that I had to sink so low.

Day 316 – November 16 : Who

We should have had a pretty easy ride to the remote village of Pipiriki on the Whanganui River, 65km downhill, from over 900m to 70m above sea level. The morning started out as wet as yesterday so it took us a while to get going, but as we rolled out late from the campsite it cleared up.

The first 30km went pretty well and we made good time even after a late start. In Raehiti we had lunch outside the old train station which closed in 1968, and by the look of it the rest of town did the same. There was a camera shop where the youngest camera on display was from the mid seventies.

In Pedallers’ Paradise promised us a bit of a “Wheeee!” downhill for the next 27km, but it all went a bit wibbly-wobbly-uppy-downy. If we followed the graph in the book the right way, e.g. up to down, we were sure we wouldn’t have as much UP compared to the amount of DOWN as we ended up with. If you see what I mean.

(Don’t worry, the good Doctor will soon be around in his blue box to tell us that it’s not so good for our space-time-continuum to squeeze in six years’ worth of Doctor Who episodes into 10 month, as it might reverse the polarities of the jelly babies in our neutron flow, and have us writing rubbish on the internet!) 

But one question. Got any jammy dodgers?

Day 317 – November 17 : Cycling – not singing – in the rain

It was dry during the night but along with the dawn chorus the rain woke us up. We packed and got ready in the rain, which meant that we were soaked before we even took off.

We were soon on gravel roads which reminded us of a place we have been before. Lots of rain, the only tarmac to be found on bridges, and trees straight out of a rainforest. Hmmm… could the Doctor have secretly transported us back to Chile and the Carretera Austral?!

The Whanganui River Road is also part of the Mountain to Sea cycle trail, which we could have joined further up the river but that needs to be timed with a JetBoat to come and collect you near the Bridge to Nowhere.

So, we started on the trail at Pipiriki. The first two km was tarmac then we had 10-15 km of gravel. A piece of advice: if you found this bit hard your next cycle tour should not be Patagonia or anywhere near the Carretera Austral!

We kept looking out for tracks and little notes promising chocolate written in the sand from Le Tandem, like the old days in Chile, but saw none. Sob.

Along the River Road there are small settlements named after famous cities in the world, like Jerusalem where we visited the beautiful restored church with a Maori altar. And we even found our former home town, London, aka Ranana.

After nearly 40km, and sopping wet to the bone, we found a simple free campsite, managed by the DoC, by the side of the road with the basics. Water and a long drop loo. Just the ticket.

Hot chocolate warmed us up while we dried ourselves in the tent, again another reason why we carry a nice big tent. But of course, weather being weather, guess what happened when we were dry and warm again? Yes, the sun came out. And Peli got her recorder out for a bit and treated me and the wildlife to a rendition of “Here Comes the Sun”.

Day 318-321 – November 18-21 : Wet and rest

I don’t think we been this wet since South America. We had solid showers all morning. Just as we started think we were drying out, more water arrived from on high.

Farm animals are funny: cows will keep a close eye on you, maybe take some tentative steps back or even treat you to a stampede. Horses will stare at you, even come closer to get a better look or even better run along with you as you ride past, a very joyful sight. But sheep will run to the hills before you even have time to shout “Mint sauce!”, yet they they will happily stand right next to the busiest of roads with cars zooming past just inches away. 

Yes, such are the ponderings of the full-time cycle tourer.

The Whanganui River valley is hidden behind a nearly 200m climb, it was a bit like a movie about a lost world. One side – remote, rainforest and very few people living their lives a few years behind everyone else. The other side had the busy highway and a strong headwind that blow dried us nicely as we headed towards Wanganui town.

Once in Wanganui we booked a bus to Wellington in two days’ time, shopped and headed for the campsite and the showers.

We will have a couple of rest days in Wanganui, hopefully that will sort my sore arms out and give us time to figure out where we will go on the South Island.

Click here to see more photos from the centre of the North Island.

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