The hills of Wellington gave incredible views over the city, and that morning's sunrise topped it off. Now that I was so far ahead of schedule, thanks mostly to the hastiness of Paul, I took the opportunity to potter around in the morning cleaning my gear and bike before heading into the city to look around before my afternoon ferry across the Cook Strait. There was a lot going on around the waterfront, with an art market and dragon boat festival in full swing. I took my bike to a bike shop to be babysat then wandered down to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewahe. The museum had some incredible displays, including a giant squid and, as you'd expect, a massive range of Māori artefacts. The sun was out so I joined the crowds and sat on a patch of grass, drank a beer and watched other people exercise for a change.
The break from riding in the land of normal people was much needed. I resupplied, had another lunch of rolls salami, salad and sweet potato dip, then headed down to the ferry terminal. I arrived at the ferry terminal a little early and was told the earlier ferry was delayed so I was offered the option of catching that if I liked. Fay and co., the bunch I bumped into in Hunterville, along with a few others, rolled up, having just arrived in Wellington. They were booked on the same original ferry as me but also managed to get on the earlier one with me. Once we loaded into the underbelly of the ferry, packed in with the train carriages and dogs, we headed up and enjoyed the cruise over.
Marlborough Sounds was beautiful. As we sailed through, the front deck of the boat was crowded. We unloaded from the ship and I rode on alone from Picton the 15km to Momorangi Bay, a place where a friend in the first wave, Mike, had stayed about a week earlier. The rest of my rolls went down well with the hot chips from the camp shop as I set up my tent in-between two campervans while watching another gorgeous sunset.
Even though I woke before sunrise, I still got about 10 hours sleep on account of going to bed at sunset. After eating breakfast by the bay and collecting another small stone for my daughter, Ralph from the campervan next to me invited me in for tea with his wife. I accepted as I didn't have much else to do while I waited for the dew to dry off my tent. Ralph and his wife were touring around the South Island in their campervan, enjoying retirement and life away from home in Christchurch. We chatted about the Tour so far and where I was headed. The sun worked its way and up dried my tent so, alone, I lazily wove along the winding road to Havelock, where I ran into the gentleman who was falling asleep at the café in Arapuni. I only stopped briefly for a sandwich before rolling on.
Just before lunch I stopped at the famous Pelorus Bridge for a swim. The cold, emerald water off the mountains was shockingly cold but a refreshing break from the warmth that was developing. I basked in the sun amidst the scores of Germans (I met far more Germans than Kiwis in my time there) and ate lunch. This would have made a great place to stay for the day but I had to get to Nelson for supplies, and the infamous Maungatapu ("Sacred Mountain" in Māori) Saddle stood in my way. Back on the bike, I immediately turned off the main road onto a gravel farm access road that followed the Pelorus River upstream. The mountains ahead of me spelt the end of my easy times. I overtook the same gentleman from Havelock, and before long I was at the start of the Maungatapu Track. It started at a challenging but ridable gradient, no harder than anything else I'd ridden.
I was beginning to think all the hype was overstated. How quickly I ate my words. The track gradually got steeper and steeper until it became an unrideable 25%+. The steep gradient combined with the loose gravel and large rocks made riding absolutely impossible. Even the two motocross riders who passed me told me they were having a hard time getting traction. The track was exposed to the sun, dry and hot. The kilometres passed slowly as I pushed my bike up that hill. Thankfully a creek crossed the track and I was able to take dip to cool down and fill my bottles. It wasn't a moment too soon. I didn't know exactly how much further there was to go, but I guessed it was several more kilometres to the top of the saddle. I pushed my bike up most of the rest of the way, only riding a few very short sections.
What sweet relief it was to be at the top of the saddle, but even that relief was premature, for it certainly wasn't any easier getting down the other side. Steep and loose was replaced with steeper and looser. My Garmin showed a gradient of more than -30%, and there were sections of shale that slipped over each other like plates of ice. Being on a fully loaded bike in the middle of nowhere, I wasn't willing to take the risk, so I walked/slid down the worst sections. If I crashed here it would have ended spectacularly poorly. The track eventually eased up into something more civil but still radical then flattened out at Maitai Dam, where I ran into Fay again, who was taking a break from the hectic descent before the last stretch. Together we followed the river into Nelson. What sweet relief it was to ride on the flat. Fay and co. were staying at the house of a friend of one the bunch, so made arrangements to stay in another open home. My host, Simon, who's a keen rider and was very interested in the Tour, was extremely hospitable.
A friend from Canberra, Harry, started the Tour in Wave 3, the day after I started. He was nearly caught up with me, having stayed the night at Pelorus, so I used the opportunity of waiting for him to get my bike serviced and pick up a care package from the post office.
The fantastic Brad of B-Rad Cycles replaced my rear tyre and serviced the bottom bracket and wheel bearings, then I picked up my care package from home, consisting of lollies and warm layers for the trek south.
Harry and I met up, had a small early lunch then battled the 50km/hr headwind along Tasman Bay out of Nelson. We struggled to ride 20km/hr on a flat path. Once away from the bay and in the shelter of vineyards, I came across only my second road-side fruit stall and we bought a bag of plums to share.
The wind died down as we headed inland into rolling farmland. We came across a curious sign, warning of an 'Ungravelled Road: May be in poor condition', which was both gravelled and in great condition. The road took us through a pine plantation and over another range. Down the other side, at the small town of Tapawera, we rode through hops fields and were blessed with the fragrance made by farmers separating the flowers from the vines upwind from us.
We felt weary as we pedalled late into the afternoon. The sun began to set behind the hills and dark clouds before us. We reached the highway for the final kilometres as darkness set in, cruising easily downhill. We shortly reached Kawatiri campsite, which was populated with five or six other riders, and where we set up our tents and ate dinner in the dark. Our sleep was punctuated by the occasional freight truck roaring close by down the highway, but those interruptions were nothing compared to the huge wind gusts at 2am that blew down Harry's tarp and my tent. The storm shortly died down and we slept like rocks until sunrise.
As often happens when sleeping in a tent, we woke just before dawn. Understandably, I was less than refreshed after being woken constantly by the trucks and wind. The other riders, once again including Fay and co. were up and packing at the same time, sheltering from the spits of rain under a gazebo. Incentivised by the rain and sandflies, to which this was my introduction, we packed far quicker than ever before. There was constant soft rain on the way to Lake Rotoroa. The lake wasn't very inviting, with the gloomy rain clouds and packs of carnivorous sandflies, so Harry and I wasted no time hanging around. We climbed another saddle along a muddy gravel road. Thankfully it was much shorter and tamer than most before, for the rain had truly set in. We caught Fay and co. at the bottom and rolled in to Murchison wet to the bone.
The rain stopped but the clouds lingered with intent as we set off again around 11am. A lovely quiet gravel road led us to one of my favourite places so far; the small bridge over the vibrantly blue Matakitaki River. I stopped on the bridge for about five minutes and watched the raging water pour through the rock it has carved over the centuries. The intensity of the colour and character captivated me.
A kilometre from there, at the bottom of the Maruia Saddle climb, Harry was sitting on tree a stump, eating chocolate and waiting for me. From the very first moments, Maruia Saddle astounded us.
There was an understated majesty about the muted greens of the beech forest, the crunch of the fine orange gravel and the gentle trickle of the countless small water falls.
The magical place exudes calmness. It's the kind of road I could ride up and down all day. There was every shade of green, from the bright mosses kept moist by the trickles down the hillside, to the deep, dark greens of the beech leaves. The climb was over too soon but we enjoyed the smooth winding gravel and raced downhill. At the bottom we were held up by a herd of cattle being moved by an old farmer on a smoky 2-stroke motorbike.
We arrived in Reefton, the first town in New Zealand and the southern hemisphere to get electricity, late in the afternoon and met Dan at the holiday park, where we shared a cabin, then got dinner and went to bed early. Today was a day of water, typical of the west coast. If it wasn't falling on us it was falling down beside and below us. It was also one of my favourite days so far. Despite the broken sleep and wet start, the Matakitaki River, Maruia Saddle and Victoria Forest Park provided just the kind of experience I came to New Zealand for.