TOUR AOTEAROA DIARY: PART 1 – THE CRUCIAL GEAR TEST (DAY -3)
For those of you who don’t know, I flew my mountain bike out here for a reason. The plan – and it is still very much a plan – is to cycle the length of New Zealand, as ‘off-road’ and ‘off-the-beaten-track’ as possible. What follows is a long read recounting my first trip out this week with all my kit…
After three cruisey weeks in Auckland getting myself together, on Tuesday I set off on the crucial gear test. I loaded up my bike and picked an 84km/ 52mile roundtrip out to Whatipu, one of the most remote and beautiful corners of Auckland’s West coast, over the Waitakere Ranges. The campsite there is right on the beach, at the end of a long and winding gravel road to pretty much nowhere. Perfect!
I knew to ride with a loaded bike (I haven’t dared to weigh it) would be tough, but those first few miles out of Auckland’s city centre were excruciating. On the whole Auckland’s drivers have been ok. A man was kind enough to point out the enormous planks protruding from the roof of his pick-up truck so I could pull out into the traffic to avoid them. When the cycle lanes on the faster roads were filled with parked cars, pedestrians did, generally, sympathetically, move out of my way. “Good thing you’re on the pavement” one man observed, encouragingly. “Much safer than the roads!”. Just five miles in and still in industrial Auckland, ‘BEST MILKSHAKE 2 YEARS RUNNING’ and ‘CHEESECAKE TO GO’ signs called out to me like homing beacons. I had left later than planned and was already a sweaty mess in the heat of the day, but I pushed on.
Reaching the Ranges, the greenness was so gratifying I felt like I might cry – so I knew I needed to stop to eat. I not only get hangry, I get hangcry, i.e. seriously emotional and weepy when hungry. One cheese sandwich and some chocolate later and I was ready to tackle the Waitakeres, and the ‘hoons’. I had been warned in my reading about hoons – the kiwi word not too dissimilar from hooligans, which denotes fast and wildly inconsiderate, usually young, drivers. I used what limited pavement was available but where it wasn’t, the hoons would what felt like deliberately speed up behind me, sometimes shouting or waving their arms out of the windows, dangerously close to me. It was thankfully a rare occurrence, but a very unwelcome one. Skid marks crisscrossed some of the stretches of road, a sign of hoon activity. There were also white crosses on some of the bends.
Huia was so gorgeous I was tempted to stop short of my goal. I had checked the gradient profiles and knew the steepest hill was still to come, making those campsite signs look even more appealing but I pushed on, and I was glad I did. The gravel may be punishing, sapping your momentum and rattling your bones, but being more at ease on a mountain bike, I am far more in my comfort zone on remote gravel tracks than on road! I saw a total of about three cars, no hoons, and the views just welcomed little rest stops here and there. With no cars rushing by, there’s no yardstick for how fast I should be travelling. The descent – when it came – was just utter bliss. The wind on my sweat-drenched skin, my bike eating up the gravel like it was designed to do, I simply grinned the whole way down.
There weren’t many at the campsite, a couple of cars and camper vans and an open expanse of grass, with just a few metres of dunes and vegetation separating the site from the sea. The ranges I had crossed rose up behind me. My Alpkit Soloist tent (a birthday present back in September) went up in a flash, and I settled in. It wasn’t until I took a picture that I noticed the peak of it looked exactly like a peak of the ranges behind me! Perhaps its designers were also fans of the New Zealand landscape. With not long to go until dark I hurried down to explore the caves (so large they still throw parties and gigs in there from time to time) and the beach.
THE BEACH. An unimaginably wide expanse of rippled black-brown sand, stretching out to the crashing waves with little vegetation-covered landmasses rising out at intervals, like hippopotamus surfacing muddy water. My binoculars proved their worth by allowing me to get my first close look at a pair of New Zealand dotterels, small indigenous wading birds which I recognised from the big THREATENED SPECIES posters at the information point. There were plenty of oystercatchers and black-headed gulls scurrying around, too.
As the sun set, I headed back to camp to cook up a feast of chorizo and red pepper pasta. My brand new lightweight gas stove worked, thankfully, as I had not brought an alternative carbohydrate! No sooner had I started tucking in, the sandflies descended. I had been warned but still, I had not applied repellant. Now as I grabbed for it, I knew it was already too late. They seem to hunt in swarms, more like midges than what we would know as a sandfly in the UK. As you are swatting a few away, half a dozen more are feasting on another part of you. The bites don’t really hurt or itch like mosquitos, but the little bloody spots they leave are still pretty gross looking. I’ve counted nearly a dozen bites so far – that I can see.
I called a defeat against the sandflies and mosquitoes, who were also showing up to Christina’s dinner party, and zipped myself into my new home. It was still mild outside, so I left the tent door open and watched sleepily as they failed to get through my tent’s inner sheet.
I woke up at about 1am. The invasion of the flies had sent me to bed early without a loo visit and thank goodness they had. Stepping out into the cool midnight air, the mountains were black against the star-lit sky. More than ever, they looked like the crests of four enormous waves lapping at the pewter-black sky above. The stars were astonishingly bright. I tried to pick out one of the few constellations I knew, but they were all upside-down of course.
I woke up again with the dawn chorus shortly before 6am. The pukeko’s (like bigger, blue, black and red moorhens) stood out the most, their distinctive shattered-shriek piercing the air so close it sounded as though they were in the tent with me. By 7am, they were curiously eyeing up my breakfast of porridge and kiwi fruit. Walking with food seems to be the best way to confuse the sandflies, so I ambled over to my fisherman neighbours. “How did the night fishing go?” I asked, conversationally. “Oh, we didn’t get a key-atch, too many sharks, hey”. Mistaking my excited response “SHARKS?!” for one of fear, he clarified, “Basking sharks, hey, whale sharks. Not man-eating!” I didn’t tell them I would genuinely have loved to have been in a boat surrounded by basking sharks under that incredible starlight, it didn’t seem to be the correct conversational attitude, hey!
Having packed down and paid my $10, by 10am the wheels were turning again. Turning uphill on the descent I had enjoyed so much yesterday, which it turns out, was three miles long. Unlike the hoons of yesterday afternoon, not only were the drivers slowing down to pass me, they were offering words of encouragement! “You’re making great pace!” one of them told me, while another apologised for the ensuing dust cloud. I was baffled but quite pleased. I always offer mental encouragement from the car when driving the hills and valleys of Devon, just not the verbal kind.
This time, I did stop in beautiful Huia. The coffee after that gravel climb was so very tempting, and I needed my water pouch filling up (the water on the campsite was untreated) so who was I to resist? It would be quite frankly rude not to. I considered the cereal-bowl-sized large coffees before settling on a medium, I didn’t want to be ducking behind bushes out in the ranges.
I powered through the final climbs but at what felt like cripplingly slow speed, but that was ok, I was used to it and settling in. I pushed my lungs through a steep 2km road climb and felt superhuman, but then sometimes I would have to count posts at the side of the road just to will myself onwards. I would pick a multiple I was allowed to stop on, originally five but then down to three, to make a game out of it. Every time I stopped, I had to reset.
Arriving back in central Auckland came all too soon but I was grateful for the shower and food that greeted me at the other end. There are a few minor changes I will be making to my rig, but on the whole, everything worked as it should, including my legs and my lungs – if a little slower and less efficiently than I would like.
Will I be able to cope with so much riding, back to back? What do I do if I get injured? How will I carry and portion food on a longer trip? How will I keep my clothes clean? Do I remember how to fix a broken chain? So many questions I don’t yet know the answer to but roll on Monday, when the real adventure begins…