Cycling adventure photography

Tour Aotearoa - Part 1


Everyone has defining moments in their lives; moments in which we make crucial decisions, create great works or overcome immense challenges. Focussing on a new career and young family, it had been several years since I'd created such a defining moment that truly stands out. I have a tendency to jump in to endeavours that seem beyond my capacity, to bite off more than I can chew. In this vein, the Tour Aotearoa immediately piqued my interest as soon as I heard of it: A 3000km self-supported cycling adventure across the whole length of New Zealand, from north to south. The route takes in a selection of paved roads, gravelled country paths, several mountain bike trails and even 85km of beach. This is a whole order of magnitude more demanding than anything I've done before. Why the hell not? So on 9 August 2014 I registered my interest with the tour organiser, a full 18 months before the start date.
The following months were consumed by gear preparation, fitness training and bike loading practice. Almost everything I needed for a month of riding would have to fit on a single bicycle. I'd have to ride that bicycle over 3000km and push it up countless hills and mountains. The figment of my imagination slowly became a more concrete reality. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little afraid. After all, I'd prepared well, but it's the unexpected and unavoidable things that were mostly likely to cause trouble on an adventure like this. A broken part, an injury or illness, a bad driver, a pothole or a rock, some wildlife. Anything could happen over the course of a month. I knew I couldn't dwell on these 'what ifs'. I could only prepare my body and mind as best I could and get on with it.

The calendar finally flipped over to February 2016. Excitement and fear, confidence and trepidation brewed up in equal and opposing parts. Before I knew it I was on my red-eye flight from Canberra to Auckland via Melbourne, during which I only caught 1 hour of sleep. I followed the overnight flight with a LOOOOONG (10 hours) bus ride north to Waitiki Landing Holiday Park with other riders. Desperately trying to catch up on sleep, I managed a few short naps. Everyone was friendly and eager to start.
After nearly 20 hours of travel I arrived at Waitiki Landing Holiday Park and we built up our bikes. Stupidly, I left my camera on the bus and there's no reception up there, so I had to wait to make contact with the driver and organise retrieving it in Auckland. The six of us not staying at the holiday park (me, Tom, John, Dave, Jessie and Sam) rode the 21km up SH1 to Tapotupotu Camping Area. Tapotupotu is a beautiful beachside camping spot at a bay nestled in between hills. It's miles from anywhere and the serenity is almost tangible. We really couldn't have asked for a better start.
After meeting a few other riders who arrived before we did, including two other Canberra boys, I set up my tent on the grass right next to the beach sand and ate dinner; crackers, tinned sardines and an apple. The temperature was in the low 20's and the slightest of breezes whipped up knee-high waves. I would love to have just stayed there for a month instead. The light clouds were lit up in a firey sunset moments before the full moon rose to a crescendo over the hilly dune. The moon shone into my tent like a spotlight but I was much too tired to care. Normally I have trouble getting to sleep in new places and before exiting events like this, but my full day of travel knocked me out better than any sleeping pill could.

Day 1: Cape Reinga to Ahipara, 103km.

I slept well and woke to the peaceful sounds of gentle waves lapping, feeling very refreshed. I ate breakfast standing in a little estuary and gathered a small pebble to start the collection for my rock-loving daughters. My fear of the unknown and anxiety finally gave way to impatient eagerness and anticipation. After breakfast the six of us packed up and rolled down (although uphill) slowly to the Cape, even though the start was four hours away. We took the obligatory photos of the fantastic view then found some shade out the front of the toilets, like a bunch of creeps. Riders slowly rolled in over the hours. We checked out the eclectic mix of people and machines, eyeing off bike and luggage choices. There was everything from cyclocross bikes with (relatively) narrow tyres to full-suspension rigs, and minimalist lightweight bikepacking gear to German style pannier loads that took two people to lift.

2pm came eventually and we assembled in the carpark for the mass start. The fast 20km down the highway ended abruptly at the Giant Te Paki sand dunes, where a stream is the trail. As you can imagine, wet sand quickly makes an angry sounding drive train. Not the best way to start a 3000km journey! Fortunately, the stream soon terminates at the beach, where the sand is harder and drier. Unfortunately, we were to soon find out just how hard a completely flat ride can be. While a riding for 85km on nearly perfectly flat terrain would normally be a dream, I was hit with a punishing combination of wind, sand, heat and dehydration. The cross wind splayed our little group of three or four down towards the water as we fought to keep in each other's draft.
The heat caused me to empty my three water bottles much sooner than I'd planned. After four hours we gathered in the shelter of the dunes to rest and refuel. I was now also feeling the effects of not having any lunch. According to my calculations we were an hour away from a little holiday park were there was rumoured to be a shop. We slogged on, ever slowing. A road suddenly appeared from a gap in the dunes appeared, for which we headed with struggling smiles. I dismounted my bike to push it through the soft sand but immediately regretted the attempt to stand as I was struck with the worst leg cramping I've ever experienced; a result of dehydration, fatigue and hours of pedalling on the bike in the same position. It took all my will and using the bike as a crutch to not fall over into the sand. Once I recovered we found the holiday park office, and to our delight the on a shelf in the shop fridge sat two remaining soft drinks, like gifts from the gods. We had to split them between the three of us but that Fanta tasted better than any I've ever had. We raided the ice cream freezer and refilled our bottles, then set off feeling much refreshed; so much so we were now maintaining 30km/h without effort. The final 15km to Ahipara watching the sunset were a breeze.

We stopped for dinner (two burgers and chips) at what must be one of the best takeaway joints in NZ, then headed to a holiday park after dark, washed our bikes, set up tents and crashed for the night.

Day 2: Ahipara to Dargaville, 180km.

I woke before sunrise, groggy and a little sore from the day before. Paul, Tom and I set out as the sun peaked over the hills, with no particular destination in mind. Our ride started through rolling countryside, accompanied by a light mist.
We hit our first gravel after a few hours, which was soon followed by our first minor detour owing to a wrong turn. The detour led to us racing for the first ferry, which we thought we'd just be able to catch. We thought it would come on the hour but actually came on the half hour, which was a blessing in disguise as it gave us time to enjoy our first milkshakes and another burger from the old couple manning the kitchen in their converted caravan. We took the short ferry ride to Rawene with half a dozen other riders then spent some time along the highway skirting the aqua blue inlet between Opononi and Omapere.

We followed the highway some more and started up into the first proper climb, all the way up into Waipoua Forest and to the giant kauri tree, Tane Mahuta. This tree is the largest known in NZ and doesn't fail to impress with its height and girth. Less impressed were the other tourists having to share the view with us smelly cyclists. We'd been riding for half of a long day but still felt fresh. Our mood was improved even more by the wonderful descent down through the forest. Tom and I made full use of the wide, quiet road, taking turns to sling shot past each other. We were then disappointed by need climb again up the other side of the valley. The disappointment grew as we turned off the highway onto a horrible, freshly gravelled road that seemed to swallow our wheels and make them feel buckled. Again I became acquainted with my old friend dehydration.

We spent the last few hours of the day grinding up and down the gentle gravel rolling backroads into Dargaville, supported for a short while by some local farm kids who'd spent the last few afternoons racing the first wave riders down their road. Thoroughly tired, we rolled down the full into Dargaville as the sun set and scoped out somewhere for dinner. Four other riders recommended the $10 pizza & Indian curry special so between the three of us we ate three curries and two pizzas. Before we stopped we were 50/50 about pushing on through the night and camping at Poutu Point so we could catch the 8am charter boat pickup. After dinner there was no doubt between us; we were crashing here for the night.

Day 3: Dargaville to Auckland, 163km.

To make the 8am boat across the harbour we woke at 3am and left Dargaville half an hour later, deep in the night. We enjoyed the flat road and kept a quick pace for the first 15km. The ride was quiet, except for the occasional logging truck, so we turned off our headlights and just rode by the bright light of the moon. Except for the hum of our tyres, the roads were silent; every cow and farmer were fast asleep and the stillness moved not a leaf. We eventually reached the end of asphalt, which coincided with end of the flat farmland. We made our way through pine plantation, cursing each time a logging truck through up gravel dust into our faces as it flew past. The smell of wild aniseed growing beside the road, the sun rising, our first sighting of the sea and my exhaustion all coincided together shortly before we made it to Puoto Point 30 minutes before the boat was due.

Puoto Point is a quaint farming/holiday village at the bottom of a finger of a peninsula. It would have be nice to stay there the night but there's no way we would've made it without sleeping. The boat finally arrived, 30 minutes late. Our stress about not making the final places was laid to rest when we found out we were places 28, 29 and 30 out of 30. It was a huge feeling of relief to have made it and to have a seat. We later found out that the next day over 40 riders and bikes would squeeze onto the boat. Having spent a majority of the past 48 hours the bike, we all enjoyed the opportunity to sit or lie back and relax for an hour. The friendly captain and crew regaled us with banter, biscuits and watermelon. We arrived at Parakai and disembarked like sardines from a very large tin. Most of us opted for an early lunch in nearby Helensville, which is where Paul and I first witnessed Tom's eating ability as he inhaled two large pita rolls without hesitation.

The ride into Auckland was ordinary, to put it nicely. The weather was pleasant, if not a bit warm, and we experienced busy roads for the first time as we approached the semi-rural outskirts. Around this time I realised the ferry I needed to catch across Auckland harbour to retrieve my camera was on an hourly timetable, and if I raced from here I might just make the next one. So I raced ahead of the group, overtaking roadies and stopping only to check the map and accept an icy pole from the refreshment station set up by a wonderful Tour supporter. Down the main street of downtown I did my best bikepacking-style Premium Rush impression, jumping up and down curbs, squeezing between cars and dodging pedestrians. I made it to the terminal 2 minutes before the departure time. I fumbled with change at the ticket booth and raced down the gangplank, only to see the ferry pulling away merely metres from me. By miracle the captain saw me and brought the boat back in for me and I boarded, thanking everyone involved. I stopped at a cafe, refueled with a gourmet pie and juice and chatted with an old local about the Tour. I retrieved my camera from some dingy industrial area and headed back.
Auckland is busy city, not unlike Sydney. I weaved my way past the bustling traffic and pedestrians heading home, slowly making it up the hill to Mt Eden Cycles. Tom, Paul and I decided to take up their offer to sleep in the shop floor for the night. We unsuccessfully hunted for a laundromat (the three we found were either closed for the day or permanently shuttered) but did manage to get dinner and beers. Having been up since 3am, sleep came easily.

Day 4: Auckland to Te Aroha, 190km.

The traffic outside the shop woke me early so I decided to head up to the Mount Eden summit to watch the sunrise. It was blissful to ride a mostly unloaded bike. The slow sunrise over the city was worth the effort.

After we packed up, which still took much longer than it should, we got breakfast and started the journey out. It felt like forever to get through the suburbs and past the airport. Once we left the city we had the option of taking an inland or a slightly longer coastal route. We decided to take the scenic coastal route, and weren't disappointed. We enjoyed the views of the turquoise bays and stopped for a convenience store lunch in a park with some ducks for company. After a short final climb for the day we began a very long, flat and straight section heading south along Firth of Thames, with the best tailwind we'd get all tour. Tom and I enjoyed the easy cruise, riding at 30km/h while sitting up with our hands off the bars. The joy of the tailwind was eventually replaced with the suffering of a stiff crosswind as we turned west across the bottom of the bay.

What seemed like hours, but was much less, finally came to an end as we once again turned south along the Hauraki Rail Trail. We stopped for early dinner at the great little Puriri pub, where we once again availed ourselves of the old 'double meal'. No longer hungry, but still tired I felt deflated for the final two hours or so to Te Aroha. Luckily the Rail Trail was flat and has well-groomed gravel, so my body was the only handicap. We passed through Paeroa and took photos with the famous giant bottle of the namesake drink. The sun set to our right, and lit up the gigantic Mt Te Aroha to our left. By the time we rolled into Te Aroha I was too tired to even think about buying food, which is never a good sign. For the final 3km out of town to the holiday park I did the cycling equivalent of a stumble and collapsed on a bed.

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