New Zealand North Island Part Two
I found leaving Gisborne very difficult. The help and hospitality of neighbours Leigh and David combined with the comfort of having had my own house for three days courtesy of Lorraine and Brian Wilks had lulled me into a very secure position. The feeling was similar to leaving Auckland, but for some reason even worse. As before, I knew that I could do it. I had just 97 km planned for that day to Wairoa but I dragged the process of tidying and packing out for ages. I finally managed to calm myself from this totally irrational position.
The delay in packing had the unfortunate knock on effect of meaning I left late in the morning, on what would turn out to be a very hot day. As always when I set off, the doubts lingered for a few kilometres, but soon the regular rhythm of turning the pedals settled me down. Heading east from Gisborne, the road takes you past Young Nick’s Head. These towering white cliffs were the first sight of land spotted by Young Nick, a boy aboard Captain Cook’s first expedition in 1769. The sun picked them out beautifully from miles away. I enjoyed the early part of the journey that day with lush irrigated fields contrasting against the parched hills of an especially dry Kiwi summer. Soon the road began to climb. This was another of those seemingly endless hills that I had come to expect in New Zealand. You reach a corner, thinking you are coming to the crest, only to see the tarmac stretching up and away from you to yet another false summit. It was painfully hot – my own fault, let’s face it – and this was not a hill I was going to conquer in one go. I continued my trend of never pushing but I did have to stop regularly for water and to cool down slightly. The eventual top was a huge relief. And what a view. Almost without fail in this country, you are rewarded for the effort. I could see all the way back to the sparkling blue Pacific, in the harshly named Poverty Bay, across ridgelines and forests. I can’t help but feel you appreciate the views more, having hauled yourself, and all of your possessions, up there with you. You don’t have the same respect for the hill and landscape if you have just driven up. From there, it was a long downhill run into Morere, where I had no interest in the hot pools. I did enjoy several cool drinks in the shaded garden of the cafe. The final 40 km took me down to the coast and along the northernmost part of Hawke’s Bay to Wairoa. I settled into the campground and enjoyed a wonderful river swim. I ended the day with yet another spectacular sunset over the distant mountains. What a contrast to the morning.
The day from Wairoa to Napier would prove to be one of the toughest of my trip so far. I got underway quite early, grabbed some food for the day, and enjoyed the early run out of town towards the looming hills. There was nothing on the scale of the previous day but the total climb was 2,697 m over the course of 133.3 km. It was a staggeringly long, hilly day. I really did think at a couple of times that I had taken on more than I could handle. It was the first day in a long time that I wasn’t certain I would finish. I was rapidly ploughing through my food and water. Thankfully there were a couple of very small shops along the way. Without these I would have struggled. There were some spectacular views with deep river gorges and high bridges to enjoy. Towards the end of the day I took on as much fuel as I could in the small hamlet of Tutira, knowing that I had the final, and biggest, hill to come; the Devil’s Elbow. This is named due to the initial climb, a steep run down to the bottom of the valley where there is a hairpin bend to bring you onto the uphill. Just to add to the growing dread, you can see the slope running up the other side at a seemingly impossible gradient. You can also hear the groan of struggling truck engines. Thankfully, the combination of an energy boost and knowing that this was the last significant hill of the day, meant I had a good fight left in my legs. I set off out of the saddle, forcing my legs to keep going and channeling the famous Jens Voigt saying of “shut up legs”. As I forced myself higher I began to think I could make it without stopping. I was no longer able to keep standing up. I refused to give in despite a tight bend that revealed yet more climbing. I had got this height and I wasn’t about to stop now. The feeling at the top was one of complete elation. I didn’t even pause to feel tired or grab a drink. I plunged down the other side, losing 350 m elevation in about 6 km. It was just pure joy. From there I rolled along the flat, through the industrial outskirts into the Art Deco heart of Napier. I was exhausted but had proven just what I was capable of to myself yet again. This memory of this day has already been used several times since, when I have been concerned about the distance to come. To do over 130 km with that much climbing has laid down a big marker in my mind of how hard I can push if necessary. I celebrated with the treat of a hostel bed and a McDonalds; simple things hey!
I had been recommended a campground in Dannevirke for my next stop. I set off from Napier the next morning with this in mind. It would be a fairly flat and uneventful day of 120 km. I ended the day at 350 m above sea level but this was gained very gradually over the course of the day. The only section of real note was the Takapau Plains. These plains are apparently famous for their constant winds. Of course I didn’t know this in advance. For 20 km I battled into quite a staggering headwind! My speed dropped by about 10 km/h which was just crazy. Thankfully, the plains were short, and there were a few final undulations before I reached Dannevirke. The campground lived up to its billing. It was secluded, quiet and had truly fantastic facilities for just NZ$8. The council apparently run it to encourage people to stay in the town and don’t look to make a profit. Perfect! Having showered, I noticed two other bikes parked nearby. It seemed like I would be camping with other cyclists for the first time. The excitement at the idea of talking to people that understood what and why I was doing this was incredible.There turned out to be five people in total with the other three slightly behind. Christian, and his daughter Marlena, were from Germany and then there was Steve, and his two sons, from Sydney. It was wonderful to meet them and we immediately got on very well.
After a late evening of chatting and great company I decided to delay my plans slightly to spend the next day with the others. It would be a real treat to slow my pace and have people to talk to all day. We still covered over 70 km but at a wonderfully leisurely pace for me. We took several back roads that added to the distance slightly. They were far more picturesque and almost free from traffic. It was a beautiful way to travel. As lunch approached, we looked for somewhere to pause for a break and something to eat. We came across the Tui Brewery in Mangatainoka. We took some time out in their garden as some people ate lunch, grabbed a coffee or in my case, treated myself to a lunchtime pint! I could handle this everyday, though I might not get so far.Throughout the afternoon, we spread out due to cycling at different paces and varying fitness levels. We had agreed to stay at another highly recommended campground in Ekatahuna so we knew that we would all meet up eventually. Heavy rain – from which some of the group sheltered – and a few wrong turns, meant that Marlena and I comfortably arrived first and were already warming up and enjoying some food before the others rolled in. The camp was as good as expected. NZ$6 for excellent showers, kitchen and free clothes washing facilities. This council really has it right in my opinion!
I still had 145 km to get to Wellington, including the imposing Rimutaka Hill. I decided to split this over two days. It would therefore do me no harm to have another lazy day. This was my thought process, although another day of company was probably the real influence on my decision. Steve and his sons decided to push on quickly to Masterton to get a train to Wellington later that day. I planned to catch up with them again before they headed to the South Island. This left Christian, Marlena and I to head to Masterton at very much our own pace. From there, they could get the train the next day, while I attacked the hill. It was a very chilled day, again following some quiet back roads and we had plenty of time to have a look around Masterton in the afternoon. In the evening, we headed to the cinema. It was wonderful to do something so normal and with company! The cycle to Wellington was really just a tale of Luke versus the hill. The first 30 km or so were slightly downhill and I covered them at a good pace. I then grabbed some food and drink, knowing the battle that lay ahead of me. I have to say that Rimutaka lived up to its billing. It really was a beast. The Tour De France this was not. I dropped into my lowest gear and just ground my way forward and upward. For over an hour I dragged myself along, pouring with sweat at around 6 km/h, but refusing to stop. Knowing I had all this height to lose before I reached Wellington meant that I was happy to push harder than if the rest of the route was undulating. I really was delighted to reach the summit without stopping. This was double the height of the Devil’s Elbow! I paused to take in the stunning views before plunging down the otherside and enjoying the run all the way along the Hutt Valley into Wellington.
I was left with two nights and a day to spend in Wellington before catching the ferry to Picton. I have to say that I really like Wellington. It is a lovely little city with a great atmosphere. I caught up with Steve and the boys in my hostel and then met up with Marlena. We headed to the Friday night food market. With fresh, tasty food and live music, this was a great way to spend an evening. We spent The following day being typical tourists; taking the cable car to the Botanical Gardens; enjoying the lively buzz, in and around, the outstanding Te Papa National Museum; chilling on the beach and climbing Mount Victoria. It had been a great way to round off my time on the North Island but I was excited to head to South Island. The mountains there are on a different scale and the challenges would be even greater. It was back to cycling on my own after four days of company but I had never felt stronger. This was why I really wanted to cycle around New Zealand; the wild weather, the towering Southern Alps and the staggering rewards of battling through this magnificent landscape. I knew my bike and gear could take it but one question lingered; could I?