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Riding New Zealand: North Island

In part one, Athena tours south from Auckland to Wellington

 

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My stomach flutters with nervous anticipation and my legs spin eagerly into the brutal headwind. Today is the first day of my solo cycle-tour of New Zealand and I am pedalling away from the city of Auckland. But like all great beginnings, mine does not run smoothly and I have to make my first stop at the local bike shop after just 0.5 miles where the guy there gladly re-true my front wheel and tell me in no uncertain terms that my plan to cycle around Waiheke Island is completely ridiculous. “What… with all that?!”, he says eyeing up my heavy load. “It’s pretty steep there you know.” I leave the shop with around 20% doubt and 80% determination to prove him wrong. It takes two men to lift my bike onto the ferry to Waiheke, and I hold up half the boat’s passengers as I lug her up the steep boat-ramp once we arrive at the island. Then, at last, I am cycling. That tense feeling runs out of my shoulders and down into my legs – adrenaline for the journey ahead.

I’ve almost forgotten about the heavy load behind me and my legs dance on the pedals, spinning faster and faster as I cycle away from the ferry and into the leafy wild of Waiheke. Then the road turns upwards and I am abruptly brought back to reality… That 20kg of tent and sleeping bag and one too many pairs of socks drags me down, but as I lift myself out of the saddle and I push my toes down into the pedals those first day butterflies in my legs carry me to the top. Waiheke is just as tropical as the name suggests and just as steep as that man in the bike shop had told me. It is isolated and beautiful; dotted with tall palms, sandy secluded coves, vineyards stretching towards the horizon and tropically-coloured flowers. At the crest of the hill my eyes are drawn to a sign that reads ‘London – 11,387 miles’. I am a long way from home, it doesn’t bother me though. As I soar down the hills that day I feel free and alive, completely independent and completely terrified…

Me, my bike, and the open road in New Zealand.

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"I was chased by cows almost everyday – adding sprint intervals with a 20kg load to my daily bike rides"

After exploring Waiheke Island I headed North into the wild region of Northland. It was my first experience of the ever-changing New Zealand landscape, where a typical day involved cycling past miles of fields of farmland and over rolling hills that reminded me so much of my home, Yorkshire, before finding myself riding through what seemed more like a tropical rainforest five minutes later. I made the obligatory tourist stop at Tane Mahuta, ‘Lord of the Forest’, the largest Kauri tree in New Zealand and was chased by cows almost everyday – adding sprint intervals with a 20kg load to my daily touring distance. I cycled up and down and up some of the most unforgiving climbs I would come across in New Zealand. The head-winds were relentless and I found myself checking the weather religiously, willing the wind to change direction. Eventually, the headwinds did change direction — but by that point so had I, and I was heading back South through the Bay of Islands to Auckland.

Tolling up seemingly ceaseless hills through gritted teeth and shouting into howling headwinds; I made myself stop, unclip my pedals, look up from the stem of my bike and out into the expanse that surrounds me. What I saw took my breath away

quicker than any of the hills I struggled up to get there. Crystal blue oceans framed by acres of tropical forests; the richest landscapes I have ever seen. At that moment a jumble of quotes sprung to mind: something about rainbows, and rain, and dancing through storms. What is it they say? That “nothing worth having comes easy”? I understood that now. So I clipped-in and free-wheeled gleefully down to the shore-line.

Those first few days were harder than I could have imagined, and almost every night I camped 10-15 miles short of where I’d initially planned. When it came to cycling, up until that point I believed that I could make my legs do whatever I told them to. But after finding myself exhausted from pushing 100km daily, I realised that I had definitely underestimated this magnificently wild country. But New Zealand was like an addiction and I was already obsessed with those everlasting horizons and greener-than-green views. When I passed back through Auckland the contrast between the vibrancy of nature I had lived in for the past 10 days and the hazy grey of city life was overwhelming and I was eager to get back out on the road. So, instead of taking the direct route south, I decided to take a detour and explore the Coromandel Peninsula.

 

..."I dug a hole in the black sand and sat in a natural bath-tub of hot steamy water at the famous Hot Water Beach"

I camped for two nights on a hill behind the beach and rolled out of my tent to watch the glow of the sun rise over a jagged rock in the ocean, leaving my footprints on the beach as the first trace of life that day. The next day I dug a hole in the black sand and sat in a natural bath-tub of hot steamy water at the famous Hot Water Beach. A couple of days later I hiked Mt. Maunganui and looked out onto the endless Pacific Ocean; the intense Kiwi sun bouncing off the sparkling water and onto my rouged but smiling face. At that moment it seemed to me that Mother Nature must have arrived at this little island in a far corner of the Pacific and emptied everything she had left there. After visiting Yorkshire that is…

Sixty miles further and I would swap the lush green hills for something that seemed to resemble another planet. Rotorua famous for its stinking (sulphuric and eggy) smell, chemical-green coloured ponds and 100ft geysers; mud pools bubbled and steam majestically erupted out of tiny crevices in the earth. The next day and Taupo was postcard perfect: a sparkling deep-blue lake edged by snow-capped white mountains. New Zealand was indescribably epic, like nowhere I’d ever been before…

On my cycle tour of the North Island, I’d been spoilt by nature and blown away by the landscape(s), but once I had left Taupo I had my sights on one thing only… The South Island. In my mind the name was in lights — green lights surrounded by mountains and stars and mystical creatures. I was impatient to get there, eager to see what more New Zealand had to offer.

So with a renewed zest for the adventure that awaited, I strapped on my panniers, clipped-in and continued pedalling south...

 

NOTES.

Time/Season
I travelled through New Zealand October-December.

Bike
I’ve been touring on a Condor Fratello (which I adore) with a Brooks C17S saddle, Shimano 105 groupset, hand-built Mavic wheels, and a Tubus Logo rack.

Luggage
I have two Ortlieb Back Roller panniers, an Ortlieb dry bag on the top of my rack, and a small handlebar bag.

Tent
MSR Hubba Hubba (2-man) light, freestanding, easy to set up, and very spacious for one person.

Flight
I flew from L.A. to Auckland with Air New Zealand. You have to pay extra for the bike but the airline was very good.

Maps
Take maps for sure, especially if you want to explore off the beaten track, but you can easily get by picking up free maps from any tourist information centre – they give all the main tourist routes and roads…

Camping/Accommodation
I’d recommend downloading the mobile app Campermate. It uses your location to find campsites and gives you details of price, facilities and reviews for each campsite. There are masses of campsites to choose from in New Zealand. Most privately owned ones cost between $15-25 NZD or the official DOC (government owned) campsites which are in general more basic but scenic cost between $5-15 NZD. There are also a lot of hostels and backpacker lodges which are pretty cheap (approx. $30 for a dorm room) and a nice option on a wet or windy night.

Coffee
You won’t struggle to find a decent cup of coffee in New Zealand. There are plenty of independent coffee shops in even the smallest of towns with excellent coffee, cake and lunch selections.

Tyres
A lot of the cycle paths and recommended bike routes in New Zealand feature gravel tracks so it may be worth getting slightly thicker tyres (cyclo-cross tyres would do the job). I had slick tyres so had to stick to the tarmac, which was never a real problem but did limit my options.

Traffic
At the time of year I was in New Zealand (October to December) the roads were in general a lot quieter than the UK. You will notice however a lot of large farming trucks – especially logging trucks – which I didn’t find to be particularly wary of giving space to cyclists or slowing down at all when they passed. I had no serious issues, but it is worth being aware and maybe fitting your bike with a small mirror so you can see them approaching.

Ferry
Once you get to Wellington you need to take a ferry over to Picton to get to the South Island. There are two ferry companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Both are roughly the same price and it only cost me $10 extra on Bluebridge for my bike. I booked a couple of days in advance, but you may need to book earlier at busier times of year.

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