Paul was convinced the first 40km to Mangapurua Landing, where we were to catch a 10am jet boat down the Whanganui River, would take close to 5 hours, so I set my alarm for 5am. I woke well before sunrise, and quickly packed up my tent in the dark and gobbled down some cold porridge. Paul, who stayed the night in a cabin, rolled past just as I was loading the final bits on my bike. The very first slivers of light poked over the mountains as we hit the muddy Kaiwhakauka Track, which was recently converted from a walking to a cycling trail.
Within the first 100m we realised the gravity of the challenge ahead of us. The mud was thick and sticky, and almost impossible to avoid. It covered our wheels and quickly clogged our frames and drivetrains. Riding for more than 50m at a time was often impossible. We quickly learned that even small-looking mud puddles on corners can cause a slip or sudden stop, so we pushed our bikes and had our shoes sank in the mire. The trail slowly wove up through the misty mountains. We passed through pockets of grassy farmland and ferny forests, still vainly attempting to dodge the mud. It felt not unlike the Timber Trail, only more dangerous, with steep drops off the side of the narrow path. I came close to taking a fall several times after slipping while attempting to jump over mud. I later learnt that only a day or two after I rode through another rider broke several ribs after slipping and falling.
We eventually reached the end of the trail and got onto the gravel road mountain climb up to Mangapurua Trig, which, while still muddy allowed a lot more riding. On the way up we caught several other riders that I saw leave while I was packing up. I stopped at the top to scrape great chunks of mud off my bike with a stick and pry handfuls out from behind the brake bridges and fork crown. From the top we raced down, enjoying being able to move faster than walking pace and the spectacular views of the mountains poking through the clouds. Our delightful descent came to an end but the awe continued as we rode along the narrow path cut into several sheer cliffs.
It was literally mountain goat territory, with several herds watching us pass. We eventually reached the Bridge to Nowhere, one of the only remnants of a failed attempt to settle the steep, inhospitable terrain. After a short break over the river far below and more mud scraping, then headed on for the last few kilometres to the boat landing. We reached the landing about 15 minutes before the boat arrived, just short of 5 hours. We loaded up the boat to capacity and enjoyed the 30km ride down the river. At the tour boat office in the small, remote town of Pipiriki we took turns giving our bikes a much needed hosing off and scrub and chatted to the Maori family who ran the tour company. Paul and I set off before most of the others for the remaining 80km to the regional centre of Whanganui.
The last stretch was relatively easy. The road was all paved, the sky was blue and the traffic was light, except the occasional cow, alpaca or road crew cleaning up a land slip. About half way to Whanganui I came across the first road-side fruit stall and enjoyed a fresh, juicy nashi pear bigger than my fist. The one proper climb was easy enough compared to the morning's grueling effort, and its peak provides a great view back down the valley to the mountains. From there I rode down the highway for half an hour or so into town. Paul arrived shortly after and we had dinner together, found a backpackers for a proper bed, showered, put on some laundry and resupplied with all the calories we could carry.
The sun rose through our window overlooking the river but we were already awake, preparing for a long 200km day with the hope of reaching Palmerston North. Now we had crossed the 1000km mark, our breakfast of milo cereal with chocolate milk was more of a necessity than a luxury. In the cool of the morning we moseyed the first few kilometres to Whanganui's famous Drurie Hill tunnel and underground elevator.
In the days before car ownership was widespread the elevator was built to save residents the 91 steps up the hill. Paul and I headed out of town along a main road with a stiff cross wind. We were happy to get away from the commuter traffic onto gravel back roads through yet more farmland. Before long we found ourselves in the pleasant little town of Hunterville, just in time for morning tea smoothies. At the café we met four other riders from the first wave who had joined together on the first day. I'd cross paths with them several more times before the Tour was over. The route took us along a major highway for a short while then turned off down a lane. Unfortunately I missed the turn off and raced ahead downhill. I quickly realised no one was following, checked the map and chased back up the hill.
It took me over half an hour of pushing hard, up, down and around hill after hill to finally catch Paul. I was cooked when I reached him. The remaining 40 or so kilometres to Apiti were uneventful and unremarkable. We arrived in Apiti not a moment too soon, feeling worn from the wind and heat. Although the pub was not open, the only other shop in town, the tiny service station, was. We chatted to the two old fellas overseeing things inside, one of whom was the owner's father. He fumbled around for a few minutes with the price list his daughter had left for him, trying to work out the cost of our drinks and food. In the absence of a proper lunch, we took the opportunity to eat muesli bars on the couches and chatted a little longer. The rest was much need as the ride out of Apiti seemed like a nonstop series of rolling hills and headwinds. It didn't take long for us to come up with the sad joke of 'one more hill'.
Thankfully we weren't headed into the foreboding Ruahine Range before us. Every corner we turned presented another hill. One more hill. Do these hills ever end? Eventually they did, and were replaced with a long straight road all the way to Ashurst. We stopped at the first take-away we could find. I smashed a milkshake and two crappy potato fritters that tasted like soggy battered cardboard. They'd get me to Palmy. Thankfully it was flat and mostly a tailwind to town. By now I was familiar with the feeling of riding drained into the sunset. My Garmin ticked over 201km just before we reached the motel; my longest ride ever. Paul and I demolished three pizzas but I was still hungry. Overall it was an unremarkable day, spent almost entirely in farming country, but it was an achievement nonetheless.
Paul and I rode out of Palmerston North as the commuter traffic drove in. One of the drivers, who probably recognised us as Tour riders, even cheered us on. We made it over the only big hill of the day, which was nice to tackle while still fresh, or as fresh as you can be after a day like the one before. On the other side of the range in Pahiatua we stopped at an empty cafe/pub and had a chat to the owner, then rolled wearily on to Eketahuna and its famous giant white kiwi.
Paul had plans to meet his family at Martinborough, some 90km away, but I was feeling the need for another short day so I decided to stop at Masterton and stay the night in one of the open houses. The last 40km of gentle gravel roads to Masterton were relaxing and finished with a gentle descent down the highway into town. I arrived at the house of Karyn and Willie, showered and had an afternoon nap on a bed on the verandah, with a light cool breeze. Willie and Karyn are kind and generous couple, who epitomize kiwi hospitality. Another rider arrived, Henry, who is an old friend of Willie and Karyn. We enjoyed a dinner of juicy corn, lasagne and a native NZ vegetable, similar to a zucchini or eggplant, and fruit crumble for dessert. After dinner the three others had a ukulele singalong and I strummed the few chords I remembered on old guitar. It was nice to be a home setting, after being away from my home and family for two weeks now.
Henry left before dawn and before any of us woke. I had breakfast with Willie and left soon after sunrise, enjoying the cool. Once again I was riding alone, but felt good as the route wasn't particularly remote or hazardous. It was a quiet, mostly flat, paved road to and beyond the vineyard town of Martinborough. An hour after Martinborough I was at the start of the Rimutaka Rail Trail, a disused railway through the Rimutaka Range that is now converted into a cycle trail.
Only five minutes into the climb up I dodged an elderly lady who struggled to do the same and fell into a blackberry bush after stopping. I helped her up, checked she was OK and marvelled at the lightness of her unloaded carbon bike. For another five minutes after that I dodged a stream of school kids that were racing down the hill, going hell for leather. The trail wound up through low scrub, following the route the old train tracks took. I passed through several more tunnels on the way up and stopped for a cool down in the creek near the summit. At the summit was a grassy shaded picnic area, and waiting there were the wife and friends of Bob, one of riders I met on the way up Mangapurua several days earlier. On the downhill into Hutt Valley I passed a hunter riding down in camo fatigues with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a running by his side. I gave a polite 'hello' but didn't feel like sticking around to chat.
I reached the end of the last proper trail on the North Island and shortly arrived at the famous Te Marua dairy for one of their popular milkshakes; jaffa flavour.
From there I skirted the suburbs of Upper and Lower Hutt, following the cycle trail along the river. It was mostly flat and easy, but I still managed to have a second stack, once again a slow motion affair involving hitting a rock on a tight switchback.
Nothing was broken so I gave myself and my bike a dust off and kept going.
For the final stretch around the bay into the city, I raced along the path between the train line and the highway with a strong tailwind at my back.
That night I was staying with John, the unfortunate man who crashed on the muddy Kaiwhakauka Track, so I had to make one last climb into the suburbs. I thought Auckland was hilly, but it's flat as a pancake compared to Wellington. For my last night on the North Island, John and his family treated me to a big dinner, beers and dessert. We topped it all off with another spectacular sunset over the city.
I'd now finished the North Island and with that, roughly half of the Tour. I was four days ahead of schedule, and with most of the hardest sections complete, I could now plan for taking my time down south and seeing the spectacular sights.