Two Souls Departing

April 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Hot off the press

Traveler Magazine
          text and photography by Cherie Thiessen

Cycling New Zealand’s
North Island

Maori legend has it that at the site of the famous pohutukawa tree located at Cape Reinga, Maori spirits depart on their journey to their final resting place. A weathered white lighthouse also marks this northernmost point of New Zealand where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. It was our plan to cycle north from Auckland on the west coast along to Ninety Mile Beach and the Cape, then back along the Tasman Sea coast and south from Auckland to explore the Coromandel Penninsula. We had six weeks of warm weather, melting into fall in which to cycle 1200 kilometers, hardly a marathon.

Because New Zealand only has 5 million inhabitants, it would be easy to imagine quiet roads, and sometimes they were. Our route, however, didn’t take us on many. Sometimes it seemed those scant millions were all funneled down our route, a two-lane road never meant for the thundering traffic it now struggled to expedite. With no shoulders and a battalion of commercial traffic including logging trucks, fuel tankers, and semis it makes for impatient drivers, frequent congestion and occasionally suicidal cycling conditions. One such day was en route to Tauranga after completing the Coromandel route and heading towards
Rotorua.

“Oh no, a pilot car!” my partner hollered behind me. I saw the car rush past bearing a “wide load following” sign, felt the earth heaving beneath me and turned sharply left, down the steep embankment, buns over bars as we both tumbled to the bottom. I wasn’t going to tangle with an obese truck on a lean road with oncoming traffic. I almost departed that day in true Maori fashion.

The landing was soft, luckily. You could say that was the low point of the trip, metaphorically and realistically speaking. The soft fall weather had changed to a hard rain with attitude, not helped by the headwinds and the sheets of spray passing traffic christened us with. And no shelter en route this day. No welcoming takeaway bars, cafes, pubs or even petrol stations.   

We had been warned. “Parts of the north island are hilly and not cyclist friendly”, Richard Oddy, one of New Zealand’s best known cycling gurus, had warned us when renting us our Trek touring bikes. “The last time I rented bikes to a couple cycling your route, they returned with them in a taxi three days later. Cost them $200. Go south instead.” His suggestion fell on deaf ears. I had my heart set on rolling my wheels along Ninety Mile Beach and finding that Pohutukawa tree.

The hills, the frequently narrow and busy roads and the few days of pelting rain make up only a small part of the story. Cycling is a great way to interact with your surroundings – not just skidding across grass at the bottom of the ditch, but smelling the wild flowers, stopping to feed a horse, hearing the bell tones of a tui, sensing the wind passing by, and feeling so darn smug at the end of every day while fellow campers, none of whom have come by bike, watch in amazement as you roll in. If you’re the wrong side of 60 AND female, their amazement is tripled.

 

 

If you take our route and our advice, you’ll first take a bus out of Auckland. Buses are frequent and drivers helpful.
(see sidebar.) Get off at Waipu and within kilometers you will discover a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite with expansive ocean vistas, our first overnight
stop. 

Cycling gives you an opportunity to also meet the friendly Kiwis on every twist and turn. When crossing on the postcard sized ferry from Hokianga to
Rawene, we were bowled over by a helpful employee who offered to take our load from Rawene to
Kaikohe, our next night’s destination 40 hilly kilometers further on. He tossed us his car keys as his ferry pulled out, shouting for us to give them to the grocery clerk when we had finished loading up our gear! In orchestrated timing, his car pulled alongside us just as we were starting up the last hill into Kaikohe after enjoying an effortless unladen cycle.

Our skinny tires took us on a leisurely route from Waipu to Whangerei, to Russell and over on the ferry to Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, to
Mangonui, crossing to Kaitaia before beginning the final —kilometers along the windswept peninsula to Cape Reinga and back via the Tasmanian coast.

After a few day’s rest in Auckland central backpackers, it was back on the bus south to ….and our leisurely cycle along the blue fringes of the Pacific Ocean. Although nearly destroyed by the Coromandel Range leaving….., we anticipated every day and every adventure:
hot springs beach, the beautiful seaside resort of Whitianga, the gold mining town of Waihi at the base of the peninsula, the endless vistas of deserted sandy beaches. We became adept at tossing our bikes unto tiny ferries, ferreting out the best takeaways for cakes and coffee, tying bags of fruit and vegetables on our bikes from unturndownable roadside stands, and drying our laundry on the road. It was a trip that ended in Rotorua all too soon.

Richard Oddy had the final say, though: “You should return some time and bike the South Island.” We will, Richard. We will.

New Zealand
Additional information

 

 

Bikes: 
Some airlines will allow you to bring your own bikes as part of your luggage. If you decide to rent, however, try Chief Spoke, Richard Oddy at Pedaltours in Auckland. Although he does rent bikes, his
specialty is all inclusive guided bicycle tours in New Zealand, Australia and Viet Nam. Twenty five years in the business, last year Pedaltours organized 32 trips, from two people to 67..
http://www.pedaltours.co.nz 

Airlines: 
Air New Zealand flies direct from the U.S.A. and Canada. Enquire about the new ‘bed’ service. 

Buses:
InterCity buses regularly cover most of the routes. Be sure to reserve in advance, however, if you want to ensure your bikes get on. Drivers will ask you for $10 for each bike, which is payable to them and not the company. Check out the various passes which can save money if you use the buses frequently.

Campsites:
North Americans will amazed at the Kiwi campsites. You can choose from Department of Conservation
sites, which are usually in areas of scenic beauty and provide only the basics, or the far more prevalent holiday camps which make camping a luxury experience! All offer a children’s play area with the ubiquitous trampoline, kitchens with microwaves, boiling water, sinks, fridges, ovens and barbecues along with a television room/library/games room and laundry facility. Ablution blocks contain showers, toilets and sinks, sometimes even with hair dryers thrown in but always lots of hot water. Some sites even have pools, hot tubs, small shops, games rooms; one at Miranda even contained an outdoor natural hot spring pool! One of the larger chains is HAPNZ, (www.hapnz.co.nz)

Other important websites:
Official travel website: www.newzealand.com 

Accommodations:
On those odd days when the rain won’t let up and you feel like a real bed, try backpacker accommodations. You can find them almost everywhere.

OR when you need a little more luxury and maybe even a day or two of giving your head a break, book up for a tour or two and let someone else worry about organizing the perfect day. 
Aotearoa Lodge and Tours is perfectly located in Whitianga on the Coromandel Penninsula.
www.tournz.co.nz

The Treehouse: A 120 year old American cottonwood gives its name to this unique backpackers’ accommodation located in 17 verdant acres in Hokianga. Don’t like treehouses? Try the restored school bus.
www.treehouse.co.nz

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