New Zealand North Island Part 1
Landing in New Zealand was an incredible feeling. Australia had been conquered and I was returning to one of my favourite places in the world. I am very lucky to have been here twice before and it very much felt like I was coming home. Nowhere else in the world have I ever felt quite so alive. I spent a few days doing jobs in Auckland staying with an old friend of my mum’s. I then stored my bike with them and they kindly gave me a lift to the airport as I was off to join my parents for a few weeks over the Christmas and New Year period. It was absolutely unreal to see them. I had struggled so much, especially at first, with not being able to talk to them. We travelled around both islands and it was so good to have a break from the bike. Australia had taken a lot out of me and I felt the time off did me a lot of good both physically and mentally. Some major highlights of my time with them included paragliding and mountain biking in Queenstown, whitewater rafting in Turangi and hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is the setting for Mordor and Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Christmas Day was spent in the Te Papa Museum in Wellington with hundreds of other travellers and for New Year we had a great dinner in Auckland and sat out to watch the fireworks. In what has got to be the best New Years’ Day ever, we went out sailing on an America’s Cup boat. This was probably the highlight of my time with them. I just loved the speed and physicality of it. If anybody has a spare £10 million then feel free to buy me one! Sailing has now been added to the list of activities that I want to take part in during my life.
The time for my parents to leave came all too quickly. It had taken a little adjusting to having other people around but I loved having them here and certainly didn’t want them to return to the UK. I had really been dreading this and worried about how I would return to biking after the time off. As it was, I actually coped pretty well initially. I had a few more days to get my bike serviced and make final preparations in Auckland. The morning of departure was a different matter however. I had everything packed and sorted, had a ferry booked to get me out of the city and knew my route for the day. Despite this I woke up early in a very strange form of panic. New Zealand would be cooler and have more places to camp than Australia but for some reason I was massively doubting myself. I’m still at a loss to explain it really. I still get the feeling at other times as well though and it is something I really need to work on getting my head round.
I caught the ferry from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula to avoid a long boring cycle through traffic to get out of the city. It was definitely a good idea. The Coromandel is a part of New Zealand I hadn’t previously visited and like most of the country, is just beautiful. It was also just a little hilly! I disembarked at the Coromandel harbour, just south of the town itself. I made my way to the main road and headed south towards Thames. The views were immediately stunning but the prediction that New Zealand would be hilly was immediately borne out. Two pretty solid climbs in quick succession left me seriously out of breath. But the descents. Wow. This was what I was here for. This is why I slog for hours uphill. The sun was shining on the sea and I was flying downhill at dangerous speeds. It was a staggering release. All of the tension and panic from the morning was suddenly forgotten. The next 50 km or so, hug the coast and are pretty flat. I loved it. Cruising along the shoreline at a steady pace I made it to Thames very comfortably. I grabbed something to eat and drink and pushed on, knowing that I had a climb coming. I expected a good test over the Coromandel range but this was something else. I don’t think I experienced anything on that scale in Australia. The final few kilometres up the hill are pretty much straight so you can see the wall you’re trying to cycle up. It was pretty tough going. Eventually I dragged myself over the crest and let go of the brakes. What a run! I hit 72.6 km/h. This was faster than anything in Australia. What a mad country! I had one final climb to conquer, with the aid of a massive sugar hit from some sweets. I headed off the highway to the beautiful little village of Opoutere and decided to stay the night in the YHA there. They have a great system in New Zealand where you get at least 25% off at YHA hostels if you are travelling under you own steam as a low-carbon traveller. But to be honest, I was totally exhausted and just desperately needed a proper bed.
The hostel at Opoutere is beautiful. It is an old school and it really was a pleasure to stay there. That first night I was given a load of fresh vegetables by some of the other guests and after a good feed, I headed to bed. I decided to stay a second day. It had been a long off time the bike and I was clearly feeling the effects. Opoutere is also a remarkable spot with a huge river estuary and a long, isolated beach to explore. After a relaxed morning, I climbed one of the nearby peaks to enjoy the wonderful views and then headed to the beach. I walked for miles, enjoying the crashing surf and solitude. I made my way back across the estuary as the tide was out and some other guests had cooked extra food on their BBQ specifically for me. The Kiwis seemed keen to pick up where the Aussies had left off with their hospitality. I ended the day sitting on a dock, watching the tide fill the estuary and the sun set over the mountains. It was a magical first spot in New Zealand for me. As I walked back to the hostel in pitch darkness I was suddenly glad I had forgotten my torch. All along the side of the road, in amongst tree roots, were bright green spots. My first ever sighting of glow-worms!
I left Opoutere heading south for the town of Katikati. Seven years ago, Katikati College rugby team came on tour to the UK and played against my school, Warwick. As part of the touring experience, boys tend to stay with a host family of the school they are visiting. We had my opposite number, Andrew to stay with us. We got on very well back then so I sent him a message to see how he was doing and if he would be around to catch up in New Zealand at some point. Unfortunately for me, though definitely not for him, he had just embarked on his own world trip, and had just flown to Thailand. He put me in touch with his mum though, and a few messages later, I was invited to stay in Katikati! It is a great example of the bonds formed from something like a rugby tour creating friendships around the world. It was great to have a place to stay, with both his parents and grandparents. Katikati is a busy little town covered in beautiful murals and after a great BBQ I was shown around the farm where the family had been raised. It was a wonderful place with views over the bay and the distant mountains. It must have been fantastic to grow up there with so much access to nature and the outdoors.
The next morning I was sad to leave, but I had another bed to go to. Andrews mum, Lorraine, had spoken to Andrew’s elder sister Rebecca and I was welcome to go and stay with her and her husband Chris in Whakatane, further east along the Bay of Plenty coast. This was especially generous of them as they have a nine-month old daughter. I imagine that having a stranger to stay soon after having a baby would be the last thing they would want. They made me feel incredibly welcome and seem to be making parenting look remarkably easy. I ended up spending three nights with them. The second and third were spent at their family’s beach house at the gorgeous spot of Ohope. I simply camped on the lawn with other members of the extended family. I had an amazing couple of days on the beach building sand castles and trying to learn to surf. One evening they put a long fishing line out using a kayak but unfortunately they didn’t catch anything other than hammerhead sharks! These were released as they were only babies but still made me a little nervous to enter the water the next day. It had been a wonderful few days with the Wilks family. Their generosity wasn’t done yet but for the time being I was extremely grateful for everything they had done for me.
I continued east from Ohope to Opotiki but had decided against going completely round the East Cape. Instead I turned inland towards the Waioeka Gorge. Going inland in New Zealand tends to only mean one thing. Hills. This was no different as I made my way up this huge scar in the landscape. My knee was starting to become very sore with all the stress of climbing hills and was becoming a serious concern. I was taking anti-inflammatories and painkillers and with plenty of stretching, these seemed to ease the problem slightly. Thankfully the uphill was all pretty steady and I made good progress to the Department of Conservation (DOC) campground at Maganuku. These sites tend to be in wilderness locations with basic toilet facilities and either tap or river water. This spot was set in a steep-sided trough amongst the mountains. I went for a swim in the crystal clear waters and rinsed off the sweat from the day. There was even a rope swing to play on and I made a friend as six-year old Willow demanded that I help her get on. Her mum was happy to watch on and cook dinner as I was bossed around and regularly told off! She did cook me some food aswell, so I can’t complain really. I spent the rest of the evening exploring the valley, taking photos of the sunset from the old suspension bridge and trying to keep a camp fire going with slightly damp wood. All of this was under a blanket of clear, bright stars. This was what I had come to New Zealand for. I settled in for the night very content indeed.
I was left with 97 km to get to Gisborne. Here I would have a house to myself courtesy of the Wilks family. Lorraine works in the school there so they rent a house in the town. While they were away I could get the keys from the neighbours and have the place to myself. Heaven! The only major obstacle between me and Gisborne was Traffords’ Hill. What a tough start to the day that was. Over 500 m altitude gain in my first 15 km. There were some really steep sections but the views back down the gorge were worth it. I had to stop for a drink a couple of times but I continued my record of refusing to push my bike. Finally, I made the top and sailed downhill for the next 10 km or so. From there it was a generally easy run to Gisborne. I settled into my own house. Most exciting of all was having a fridge! I stocked up on food for the next few days and generally had a very relaxing time. I was wonderfully hosted by the Wilks’ neighbours Leigh and David and it was great to have another break to rest my knee and generally recover from a tough first week on the road in New Zealand. But what a country this is. I had already been lucky enough to meet wonderful people and enjoy the spectacular scenery. It was hard to believe that my time here could get any better but I was still looking forward to seeing what else is to come.