Two Wheeled Tourism – cycling New Zealand’s North Island

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Adventure

(First appeared on www.touristtravel.com, 4/07 second rights Vancouver Sun 5/07.)

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. The soft fall weather had changed to a 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: “The North island is hilly, especially Northland. The South Island is easier cycling.” Richard Oddy, one of New Zealand’s best known cycling gurus, had cautioned 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 $300.” 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 (bird), 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 a few kilometers you will discover a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite with expansive ocean vistas, our first overnight stop. (See sidebar).

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 95 kilometers along the windswept peninsula to Cape Reinga and back via the Tasmanian coast.

After a few days’ rest in Auckland Central Backpackers, it was back on the bus travelling the short distance to Papakura where we unloaded bikes and wheeled along “The Seabird Coast” making an essential stop at the campsite and hot springs of Miranda – a 5-star camping experience.

Cycling beside the blue fringes of the Pacific Ocean the next day, the Miranda-induced euphoria sustained us over the steep pass encountered shortly after Coromandel. Like happy turtles, we trundled on, anticipating 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: “You should return some time and bike the South Island”. We will, Richard. We will.

Sidebar

Bikes:

Twenty-five years in the business, last year Pedaltours organized 32 trips, from two people to 67.  (www.pedaltours.co.nz)

Airlines:

www.airnewzealand.ca

www.aircanada.ca

Buses:

(www.intercitycoach.co.nz)

Campsites:

(www.holidayparks.co.nz)

Budget Accommodations:

Auckland  (www.acb.co.nz)

and Wellington (www.downtownbackpackers.co.nz)

New Zealand Travel website

(www.newzealand.com)

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