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“I was worried about you last night,” my new friend Alan said with audible concern in his voice. “You got a tough day ahead of you,” he continued in a somber tone. “Would you like me to boil you some eggs to take with you?”
During my first visit to Aotearoa, the name the Māori gave the country, a handful of years prior, I was fortunate to see its incredible world-renown natural beauty with my own eyes. Bikepacking through New Zealand, I now also got to meet some of its kind and generous people.
I started my journey in Auckland, financial center and the most populous city on the North Island, following the route of the biannual Tour Aotearoa cycling event, put together by Jonathan, Paul, and Simon Kennett, aka The Kennett Brothers, legends of the local cycling world. It took me out of the metropolitan area quite quickly, on dedicated cycling trails and mostly quiet country and forest roads with little traffic.
Turning south at the Firth of Thames bay and passing through medium-sized towns on the Hauraki Rail Trail, the first big memorable section was supposed to be the Timber Trail. It was, but initially for different reasons.
On the approach to the trailhead, I encountered forest roads littered with broken off tree branches of varying sizes, which were prone to wedge themselves into the spokes of my rear wheel. I tried to stay alert and apply extreme caution, but that one time I was just not fast enough to hit the brakes. While traveling at more significant speed, another foreign object had made its way into the wheel, hit the rear derailleur, and broke it in half. This led to the chain getting stuck in between the cassette sprockets and got bent in multiple places. I did not crash, luckily, but I had no way of propelling myself forward any longer. The bike upside down, shaded by trees and off to the side of the gravel forest road, I had no idea on how to continue from here.
It turns out, all I had to do was wait ten minutes. That was all the time it took until Yorleen and Marshall, a local couple in their late sixties, came down the road in their white SUV. I flagged them down and told them about my situation. Initially, they kindly offered to give me a lift to the next town, but once we got to know each other over afternoon tea and some snacks, they decided I wasn’t such a bad fella. Marshall put me up for the night at his place in Taumarunui and then the two would drive me for an hour to Lake Taupo the next day, where I had located the closest bike shop that could get my bike back into riding condition. I hugged and thanked both of them when they dropped me off at a backpacker hostel, a few minutes walk from the lakeshore.
After I had sorted out my mechanical issues and hitched a ride back to (almost) where I had broken down, riding the Timber Trail turned out to be an absolute delight. Weaving through the Pureora Forest Park for a length of 84 kilometers, lots of it on a converted tramway line, it provided hours of riding in solitude through dense conifer vegetation on well-groomed and soft forest trails.
On mostly gravel roads and in oppressive heat, I then labored to get to Whakahoro at the northern tip of Whanganui National Park, where I had the pleasure of meeting fellow bike packer/tourer Alan. In his sixties, with a weathered but kind look and a slender built, he pulled into the campground at Blue Duck Station about half an hour after me. His bike and setup told me that I was dealing with someone who knows what he was doing. He was on a west-to-east crossing of the North Island, so he had already done parts of the trail I was about to embark on the next day. His concern for my well-being touched me, and we kept chatting about our respective adventures until sundown, and it was time to get into our tents.
Riding through Whanganui National Park, I felt transported into a different world, the surroundings more reminiscent of a dense Amazonian jungle than anything I would have associated with New Zealand. Man-high branches of fern trees swinging into the trail, hitting my arms regularly, emerging from the sea of green on both sides of the path. Reaching the highest point of the trail close to Mt Pureora summit with a victory cry, my next milestone was the Bridge To Nowhere. A piece of architecture made of concrete, seemingly in the middle of the jungle, and a relict of the grand plans the original white settlers had for this region. Shortly after, the trail ended at a small boat landing area along the Whanganui River from where I had organized a pick-up via jet boat to haul me and my bike down the river to the Bridge To Nowhere Lodge to spend the night.
My initial plan had excluded this overnight stop, but in hindsight, I am glad I heeded the advice of the lady at the tourist office in Taumarunui, who called out the peacefulness and expansiveness of the area experienced at the lodge as something not to be missed. And boy was she right. Sitting on the porch of the lodge, looking over a bend in the river in almost stillness, the pace of life seemed to slow down. Given how laid-back New Zealand feels already, that is a hard feat to achieve. How remote one is at this place is underscored by the fact that provisions need to be hauled in either by boat, or, at the beginning of the season, by helicopter.
The following day saw another jet boat ride further down the river to Pipiriki, from where I picked up the road and mostly followed the rest of the river south, escaped the wilderness and arrived at Whanganui, a town of about 40,000 people. Stocked up on provisions and a new rear tire, I was on my way east through undulating hill and farm country, with plenty of sheep, cow, deer and horse sightings until the town of Palmerston North, the last substantial settlement before making it to the southern tip of the North Island.
Soul crushing headwind made the next day a bit miserable, the reasonable flatness of the terrain also gave the wind plenty of room to move. At least I had someone to commiserate with. Danny, in his twenties, from Manchester in England and himself on a bike tour through New Zealand, had stayed at the same campground as me in Pahiatua and we shared the road (and misery) the next day. He was quite fast on his Boardman mountain bike and on a bit of a tighter schedule than me, so we said our goodbyes in Martinborough at the local holiday park the following morning.
Something that I had quite some respect for in advance and even dreaded turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and scenic rides of the whole trip. The Rimutaka Rail Trail is a former railway line, converted into a cycling and hiking path, across the rugged Rimutaka Range. In the end, the heat turned out to be the more exhausting factor than the uphill grade, which was manageable and steady, built for locomotives to carry loads across in the late 18th century. Dotted with info columns, explaining its history, and riding through pitch-black tunnels, the views got more and more stunning the higher up I got. Gently rising hills all around with a solid layer of lush green vegetation, with the trail tracing along the hillsides as if cut into the forest with a precision knife.
Reaching Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island and the gateway to the south was a significant milestone. I enjoyed a break there for two nights, venturing into the modern center of the city a few times and enjoying its location right by the water. A visit to the Museum of New Zealand gave me a glimpse into its history, with an exhibition graphically detailing the Gallipoli Campaign, led by Australian and New Zealand forces in WWI, as well as various exhibits about the Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people.
A three-hour ride on quite a significantly sized ferry brought me to Picton on the South Island the next day. While I had enjoyed mostly off-road riding in the north, I did not get to enjoy this pleasure on the South Island. Ideally, I would have liked to reach Christchurch, my destination, via an inland route, mainly on gravel, away from coastal business and tourist traffic. Unfortunately, due to the dry conditions, the road I was hoping to take had to be closed due to fire danger. This left me with the coastal highway as the only option. The views of the ocean on my left were breathtaking, yet the experience of sharing the road with lots of vehicles with drivers in varying degrees of patience with cyclists was less so. Furthermore, a handful of highway construction projects, to rebuild and enforce areas of the roadbed damaged in the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake, led to several one-lane sections, causing slow down and congestion.
In a final attempt to find quiet roads, I turned inland again shortly after the coastal town of Kaikoura. The heat, headwind and the significant uphill climbs turned this option into a bit of an ordeal, but I still would take this any day over heavy traffic on the main road. Now on the Canterbury Plains, the remainder of my ride into Christchurch was over flat terrain. With mostly farmland on both sides of the way, the scenery conjured up memories of cycling through Kansas. With even a bit of tailwind, I cruised into Central City roughly three weeks after departing from Auckland. I concluded my journey, fittingly, I hoped, in Victoria Square at the statue of James Cook, who was the first to circumvent New Zealand in the late 17th century.
Apart from the kindness of the people I met and who helped me out on this journey from the North to the South Island, the most enjoyable feature this country has to offer for a person traveling by bicycle is the high degree of variation one experiences, even within the course of two to three days of riding. From coastal plains to conifer forests to tropical jungle-like topography, through remote mountain passes leading through resort towns for winter activities and coastal cities that offer activities to explore marine life. It is almost impossible to tire of one’s surroundings, for they seem to change regularly, provide something new around every corner.
New Zealand’s varying landscape invites to stay, to linger for a bit. To enjoy the view from that summit, from that mountain top or edge of a lake. To take a deep breath, sit still for a moment and marvel at the natural beauty so abound in this country.
The inspiration for my journey through New Zealand came from the Tour Aotearoa, a bi-annual bikepacking event stretching the full length of the country, a distance of 3,000km.
Due to time constraints I settled for starting in Auckland and following the TA route on the North Island to Wellington. For the South Island, I had put together an inland route using the Molesworth Road via Hanmer Springs to eventually get to Christchurch. Sadly, due to road closures, I had to stick with coastal State Highway 1.
I flew into Auckland Airport, which is the largest airport in New Zealand and also well-connected internationally. The airport shuttle transfer service supershuttle uses trailers for luggage transport with their vans, which are big enough to accommodate a bike box/bag. Advance reservation recommended.
As soon as I could roughly gauge when I would make it to Christchurch, I booked a domestic flight from there back to Auckland on Air New Zealand. Most likely because the packed weight of the bike inside the bag was under the weight limit for checked baggage, I did not have to pay an additional fee.
Water is (normally) readily available and drinkable. Although, to be safe, whenever you decide to pull water out of a body of water, some sort of treatment is recommended.
Careful planning should be done in the more remote sections, particularly towards the center of the North Island. Water sources here can be harder to come by and that only cafe you might have relied upon might be closed the very day you arrive. It might be worth packing some extra food/water as a contingency plan for those sections.
The ride on the North Island was, for the most part, on gravel or packed dirt forest roads. On the South Island, I was pretty much on tarmac for the rest of the way into Christchurch. I rode a Trek Checkpoint ALR5 gravel bike, with WTB Riddler 700×45 front and back. I later switched the rear for a Vittoria Terreno Dry 700×40, since the Riddler seemed to struggle with the sharp New Zealand gravel. Overall, the setup worked great and handled the varying terrain well.
Quality bike shops are usually available in bigger towns and cities along the way, but are harder to come by along the stretches in between. It is best to get an issue addressed at the first possibility rather than postponing it until later.
Quite a few bigger outdoor equipment companies have stores across New Zealand, however again concentrated in bigger cities. The ones you will likely come across are Bivouac Outdoor, Torpedo7, but also Macpac and Kathmandu.
In order to be connected right away, I decided to get a local SIM Card upon arrival in the duty free area at Auckland Airport from Vodafone. I went for the NZ Travel SIM with 4GB of data, valid for 60 days.
Credit Cards are accepted almost everywhere, but, as usual, having a little cash for businesses in remote areas is recommended.
Other resources I found useful:
- Tour Aotearoa Website: Primarily interesting to find out more about the race, but I would recommend getting the Official Guides for they contain a plethora of information about the route, including distance, elevation, places to stay/eat, bike shops etc. If found them incredibly valuable.
- Timber Trail Official Site. Info around riding the Timber Trail including trail maps and logistics.
- Tour Aotearoa Facebook Group: Former and future participants discussing everything from logistics to gear questions
- Cycletour New Zealand: Great planning resource for exploring alternative, but established routes on both the North and South Island
- WikiCamps: App for locating campsites nearby