Kia Ora from Northland! The last 4 days have seen me pedal my way from Paihia in the Bay of Islands on the east coast, across the Twin Coast Cycle Trail to Horeke on the west coast and then up past Kaitaia to the most northerly point in New Zealand, Cape Reinga.
I feel like I'm easing into life on the road. It takes a while to get back into the routine of ride, sleep, repeat and I forgot how unforgiving the first weeks of bike touring are on the body. New Zealand is lumpy to say the least and I am in no way 'hill fit' so that makes for a tough time, but I'm adjusting slowly and everyday my fitness improves, I just have to get into that granny gear and spin my way up the hills. I've covered just over 200 miles and spent long days in the saddle and my posterior is starting to suffer. Here's where I have to make a confession; for my fellow bikers I have sinned. When building BB (Bamboo Betty) I decided to take the leap and I installed a nice Brooks B17 leather saddle which I have to say looked bloody lovely, but I struggled to get the hang of it. The ladies B17 is a much shorter saddle and I felt restricted in my positioning and kept sliding forward which made for difficult and uncomfortable riding. So with days to spare before I flew out here I ordered a brand new Sella Italia saddle, rode it for around 20 miles and decided 'to hell with it, I will break it in on the ride'. Now if another rider had told me that this was their plan before setting off on a 3 month bike tour I would never condone it, I'd shake my head, say it was a rookie mistake and that they'd regret it. Well I can happily report that the saddle is actually serving me very well (so there!), my soreness is just the run of the mill long ride settling in period that happens after multiple days riding. It's around 26 to 28 degrees here and my sweaty bum cheeks are chafing so the nappy rash cream is out in force and I'm hoping for nice thick callousy skin to form soon, haha. Whilst we're on the topic, the new saddle has a cut-out in it and I can highly recommend it ladies, much less pressure on the lady bits (yes too much info for some but these things need to be said sometimes).
Right, enough about my battered body, time to share my experiences over the last few days. The riding has been good, the Twin Coast Cycle Trail was a nice way to start my riding here, it's all gravel or dirt tracks and very little road riding. It was testing though as it is full of what my kiwi Warmshowers hosts called 'squeezes'. Basically a squeeze is a set of iron bars that prevent you being able to take a motorbike or likewise on the trail. One or two isn't a problem but there was literally one or two every few kilometres which meant getting off the bike and tipping it up vertically to wheel it through a tiny gap. It got old very quickly with 87 kilometres of trail. There were some lovely scenic views along the way and a rather nice winding switchback descent into Horeke. I stayed at a cool campsite in Okaihau on my first night, The Rail Stay with old train carriages as cabins. I pitched my tent in the shade of one which was rather funnily named Miss J - the world works in strange ways.
The weather here in Northland is wonderful. It's hot and sunny but that comes with it's own set of challenges. The land here is in drought, it's dry, the scrub is yellow and there are large roadside billboards by towns indicating the fire risk in the area which has always been pointing to high on the indicator.
I've found that a lot of public water points have been disconnected so I've had to buy bottled water along the way. It's another reason why wild camping (camping not in a dedicated campsite) isn't really an option for me here on the North Island as that usually involves being off the beaten track and sourcing water from rivers or streams which have all but dried up here at the moment. The locals have said that it's unusual to have had such a prolonged hot spell here but they say it's probably due to the hot weather coming south from Australia.
The campsites I've stayed at have been good so far. Motorhomes are abundant here and a lot of places don't accept tents, they only allow 'self-contained' vehicles which is a bit disappointing. They've all had nice facilities, long-drop toilets seem to be the norm here and outdoor shower areas which has been good given the hot weather and my sweaty little body. I've even washed my clothes already after only four days of riding as my t-shirt looked like a was a tie-dye with all of the salt stains.
The last two days of riding has been more road based but there's still been plenty to see along the way. For such a small country it amazes me just how little there is between the small towns. I've often had the road to myself for hours apart from the logging trucks and the odd car - a cyclists dream! I have to say that only four days in and I've seen a lot of death on the roads. Squashed possum is featuring heavily on the roadkill menu here in NZ and I've got a count going, I'm up to 10 so far with many 'unconfirmed and unidentified but very likely to be a possum' carcasses seen. I would be sad but they're actually a pest here having being introduced years ago without any natural predators (other than the car) and so they've surged in numbers and eat their way through a lot of vegetation. They make the most awful sound too, it's like a evil cackle and rather disconcerting when you're trying to sleep with them tramping around the tent. I had to shoo one away from the porch at 4am the other morning, the little blighters.
There's some pretty cool nature here though. The birds here are so different to the garden birds I'm used to seeing in the UK, they're all so brightly coloured and I'm enjoying learning along the way. I've seen Pukeko birds, they're a native swamp hen and are large black birds with a bright blue chest and a red beak. Then there's the Tui birds, they look a bit like a starling but have a white bit on their neck and tail feathers. Their birdsong is beautiful and there is a proverb 'Me he koroko tui' which translates as 'How eloquent he is; he has the throat of a tui'. I've also seen quite a few wild turkey wandering the grass verges although I'm not sure whether that's a thing here or whether they're escapees from a Bernard Matthews farm.
Before I arrived I'd read something about the Kiwi's being very into their post boxes. That is the ones at the end of their drive where the postie delivers the post. This article said that some people made little models of their house and others had elaborate post boxes to show off. Well I don't know whether that is just in the south but there's no sign of any lovely, quaint little matching wooden postboxes here in Northland. The folk here are just on another level and possibly eco-friendly minded in their upcycling approach to postboxes because they seem to be using microwaves as postboxes. Yes, microwaves you read that correct.
I didn't quite believe what I was seeing at first as it's bizarre but hell I'm on the other side of the world so things are going to be different right? I'm assuming they're broken microwaves and haven't seen any with cables running out the back so watch this space for any further microwave postbox updates.
The people here are very friendly. Already I've met so many people from all over the world; UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Netherlands and it's lovely to chat with people. It became one of the things about my Scottish Islands bike trip that totally blew me away and it's no different here. Two days ago I'd just taken a ferry from Rawene to KohuKohu and was riding slowly through the town looking for a water point when I saw a loaded bike standing by a cafe and a woman who waved at me. I rode over and met Aimee, a Montana woman on a mission to ride the same route that I'm taking, the Tour Aotearoa. We chatted for a while and then I asked her if I could sit down and that was us for the next hour discussing her ride, the route so far and everything about bikes and life. It was really lovely. She's the first bikepacker I've seen so far on the route and then Dave from the UK appeared on his fully loaded bike looking for coffee and he joined us to swap stories too. I was sad that I wasn't riding south with them but we swapped details in case we can meetup somewhere along the way later on.
I met a lovely couple in the amazing Rarawa campsite on the east coast a couple of nights ago. This campsite looks rather unassuming, it's 4km from the main highway 1 along a gravel road which strangely enough they call a metal road here. It was a simple nice little campsite by the creek that leads to the sea but less than a five minute walk through the dunes I was met by the most stunning beach.
The photos really don't do it any justice, this place was unreal and it blew me away. White hot sand dunes leading to a beautiful long stretch of paradise. You could see the coastline in the distance and the water was a lovely shade of turquoise, it made me grin like a cheshire cat!
These are the moments I treasure, when the world makes you take a sharp breath in and you feel all gooey inside. This is why I'm here, to explore, to feel and to see what isn't on my doorstep. Don't get me wrong, I'm a gal from a northern seaside town and am proud of my beach and coastline but this was just from another world. Anyway, I digress, on my way to the beach I bumped into an older couple wandering back and I remarked on how beautiful it was and the guy turned to me and said, 'it's just a beach, they're all like this, you should see some of the beaches in Australia'. Well we got chatting and later that evening as I was having my after-dinner brew he appeared at my tent and asked if I'd like to join him and his wife for a drink and a chat. I'd planned on going back to the beach at sunset but it was such a nice gesture that I grabbed my cuppa and headed over to their pitch to say hello. I was given a seat and offered wine which I declined telling them I didn't drink so he disappeared and brought back a pack of cookies for me saying, 'at least have a biccy with your tea'. It makes me smile just remembering the kindness of strangers. We sat for the next hour chatting about New Zealand and Australia as Diane was originally from Sydney and as the sun went down I made my excuses and headed for my tent with a little detour to see my camp spot from further along the path. Happy times.
Yesterday I tore myself away from Rarawa beach campsite and started the final push for Cape Reinga. Forty miles of hilly roads and there was definitely more traffic on the road. Te Rerenga Wairua is part of the Te Paki Recreational Reserves, 23,000 acres of public conservation land that have deep cultural signifance to Maori, and Cape Reinga lighthouse sits atop of this land. The Maori identify Te Rerenga Wairua as the departure point of the spirits as they begin their final trek back to the ancient homeland of Haiwiiki. The area is sacred and at the entrance to the path down to the Cape Reinga lighthouse there is a sign asking that people do not eat or drink on the site as a sign of respect. Having had a tough ride there I was feeling particularly rough when I arrived, I hadn't drunk enough water and needed to eat my lunch so I found the only piece of shade, sat down and tried to regroup. A man appeared and asked if I was ok. He handed me a breadroll and asked if I wanted it. His name was Sellwyn and he was a bus driver that had passed me on the way up to the Cape, he said I looked like I needed something and I explained that I was just a bit hot and dehydrated and would be fine after some water and lunch. It was strange, I was sat in a little alley (the only shade up there) and he was towering over me holding a breadroll - it made me think that when I offer to buy a homeless person a coffee or food then this is the view that they see. Thankfully I'm not homeless or penniless but it was food for thought and it was a wonderfully kind gesture and so I gratefully sat munching on the breadroll whilst he wandered off back to his bus to wait for his customers. Having revitalised myself I rode down the path to the lighthouse, the only bike in sight. This is where it all begins, the start of the Tour Aotearoa all the way to Bluff in the South Island. Only 3,000km to go....
Refilling my water I hit the road again after numerous wishes of good luck from many passers-by and after a few kilometres I turned off onto a gravel path that would take me down to Tapotupotu Bay campsite. It was hard not to think about just how awful the ride out of the bay would be on the steep gravel slope but that's a worry for another day. Another beautiful beach greeted me and my worries were gone.
I spent an hour resting in the shade before putting up my tent. I felt rough, tired and worn out. It made me wonder if I'll make it to the end of the ride if this is how I feel at the beginning. It's easy to be all gung-ho it, in fact I think that's my coping mechanism because if you think too much about the scale of it then it becomes this epic thing that feels unattainable. I tell myself it's just a few days riding, then another few, and another. One day at a time. Plus it's not a race, I have plenty of time and so I made the wise decision to stay here two nights and have a rest day. A day to prepare my body and mind for the next stretch. To relax, read a bit, have a paddle, sit and watch the world go by and of course to write. So here I am....
- Number of microwave postboxes: 5
- Number of squashed possums seen (for the record they were not squashed by me): 10
- Number of dogs I've been chased by: 2
- Number of Kiwi's seen (the birds not the locals): 0
- Number of sandfly bites: 0 (and long may it continue)
- Number of factor 50 sun lotion bottles used: 1 (50ml)