Tour Aotearoa Part 1 – Fat Bikes in New Zealand, North Island from Cape Reinga to Auckland

Our Planned Route in New Zealand

The plan is to cycle the full length of New Zealand’s north and south island from Cape Reinga in the far north to Bluff in the far south following the route of the Tour Aotearoa which will take us off road as much as possible. It will be about 3500 kms and will also involve a fair amount of climbing.

The full Tour Aotearoa (TA) route in New Zealand from Cape Reinga in the North to Bluff in the south, plus the Otago Rail Trail and the Alps to Ocean Trail which we cycled once we finished the TA

Arriving in New Zealand from Sydney

It’s November 2019 and we left Goulburn, NSW, Australia just at the beginning of the fires. There was a major thunderstorm overnight with a lot of lightning and storm force winds. We were up and ready to drive to Syndey Airport by 5 a.m. and were hoping the storms had not meant the highway to Sydney would be closed with new fires. All was well, the storm had cleared and we arrived in a very smokey Sydney in good time. Despite lugging large bike boxes around the airport all went smoothly and we were in Auckland and getting on a shuttle bus to find our hire car that would get us nearly to the Far North of North Island, a small town called Kaitaia. It didn’t look too far on the map! Of course we hit the rush hour going through Auckland, our hire car turned out to be a bit of a wreck and we hoped that we wouldn’t have to turn left too often as that indicator was not working, plus the brakes seemed a bit iffy. There hadn’t been a lot of choice in hire companies if we wanted to leave the car in Kaitaia. No choice in fact.

After hours of driving on winding, steep roads and being diverted onto dusty gravel tracks we finally arrived at our B&B in Kaitaia after midnight (or 2 am Oz time) and had to wake the owner up to let us in. He was surprisingly good about it. We were just exhausted, so we put off our early transfer to Cape Reinga although this was going to reduce the time we had to cycle down 90 mile beach on the first day due to the tide times.

Cape Reinga to Ahipara – Cycling down 90 Mile Beach

The Tour Aotearoa route from Cape Reinga to Ahipara down 90 mile beach

After a very cramped two hour transfer we arrived at Cape Reinga in beautiful sunshine and as we had been warned not leave our bikes at the top we rode down the steep track to the lighthouse. There were quite a few people about but it wasn’t too crowded. It is a Maori sacred site where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean and we could see the swirl of currents in the deep blue sea. Then as the tourist coaches started to arrive we finally set off on our Tour Aotearoa, our end to end tour of both the New Zealand islands.

Where the currents from the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet at Cape Reinga
Looking South from Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga lighthouse and our fat bikes ready to start our Tour Aotearoa

As always at the start of a tour we took it slowly, especially as the first hour was quite steep but it was wonderful to be outside and under our own steam. To be honest we could have been in the UK with Sky Larks and other European birds singing loudly in the green fields that looked a bit like Exmoor; only it was very hot and humid.

It was great to see green fields and flowering verges again after the brown of Australia

After an hour we turned down a gravel track towards the sea. We could see the giant Te Paki sand dunes rising in the distance and as we got closer we found there were coach loads of tourists surfing down them. The coaches would then drive down the stream onto the beach and roar along at the edge of the surf at full speed.

The giant Te Paki sand dunes
Bus loads of people surfing down the giant dunes

We also set off down the stream which was fun at first as it had a smooth sandy base but it unexpectedly got deeper and as I peddled, up to my knees, it was like doing doggy paddle on the bike. Lucky it was fresh water. It was exciting arriving on the beach with the waves roaring on one side and birds singing loudly in the dunes on the other. The tide was a long way out as we were starting so late and the beach was empty as far as we could see in any direction. It was odd getting passed by a bus here, it would appear out of the spray haze, roar past then disappear into the haze leaving the beach totally empty again. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for the initial excitement to wear off. It was real sensory deprivation. Everything was either sand or sea and flat and it was going to be like this for two days. We tried cycling with our eyes shut for a while or playing I Spy, only everything started with S. I had to turn off my odometer to stop myself watching each passing 0.01 km. Added to that it was hard work even on a fat bike, and constantly pushing against wet sand was making my knees sore. You don’t get a downhill break on a beach.

Setting off down the stream towards 90 mile beach
Nothing but sand and sea for two days
Having a pic-nic on 90 mile beach. We propped our bikes up to make ourselves more visible in case another bus roared down the beach and didn’t notice us there
More sand … more sea …….. more …..

Due to our late start we had to find somewhere to stop along the beach as we didn’t fancy being pushed up into the dunes by the incoming tide and camping with the sandflies and no access to drinking water. About two thirds along we spotted a flag announcing a campsite and cabins, well think box with a window rather than cabin. We opted for a cabin as we were too tired to bother with a tent, and although it was just a box with no electricity at least it had a bed. There was an interesting (communal) shower that had a curtain held together with clothes pegs, this being all that separated you from the other guests wandering past, and there was a communal kitchen where we prepared supper alongside cyclists and trampers (what walkers are called in NZ). More importantly from our point of view it had drinking water. Like other businesses in the Far North, the car hire for instance, the whole place is a bit hit and miss with the local council trying to shut it down, but we were certainly glad it was here.

Our little hut at Utea along 90 mile beach

Because of the tide times we had a choice the next day, either leave at 5 a.m. before the tide comes up or after 11 when it should have gone out far enough to leave some hard sand to cycle on. I stuck my head out at five when the other cyclists left, admired the sunrise and their enthusiasm, then promptly got back in my comfy bed. After all the travelling we needed an easy day. So we pottered about and Bernie discovered that he had a puncture, which kept him busy, then we eventually braced ourselves for another mind numbing ride on the beach. Only we left too early and found we had to cycle on soft sand covered in driftwood. It was hard work even on the fat bikes so we took lots of bird photos until the tide went out and we could pick up speed again. I tried counting shells to pass the time, 109,999,908, 109,999,909, 109,999 opps lost count, 1, 2, 3…….. After a gruelling 3 hours we finally arrived at Ahipara and made a beeline for the cafe as they all seem to shut at 3 p.m. here. Then, rather too full of fish and chips plus a large and essential helping of strawberry custard cake, we went in search of a hosepipe to wash the beach off our bikes.

I thought about getting up at 5 to catch the early tide for about 30 seconds, then went back to bed
The tide is still too high and the sand up here is so soft cycling is very hard work even with the fat bikes
Australian Pied Cormorant
The end is in sight, that is Ahipara in the distance. It was actually a lot further away than it looks

Ahipara to Dargaville – Visiting the Giant Kauri Trees

Apihara to Dargaville

It was great the next day to be surrounded by green and to be going up and down hills, well mainly up, as we climbed to the Herekino forest. Despite the steep hills, my knees which had got very sore during the relentless push against the sand, were feeling much better. Cycling slowly up is also good as it gives lots of time for trying to identify new plants. We had heard a lot about New Zealand pies so stopped in Broadwood to try one. I guess heating up a pie inside a plastic wrap in a microwave was never going to have good results. Perhaps we will find some nicer pies further on. Soon we were on gravel roads again as we climbed and the views from the top were amazing, over the forests and green fields and the characteristic sharp little hills. Before long the track plunged down steeply to the river at Kohukohu where we were catching a ferry across the estuary to Rawene. Ice lollies were definitely in order here as it was about 30 Degrees C and humid. Rawene itself was a pretty little place built around the 1870’s on a hill with colourfully painted clapboard houses. Although we were staying in a very empty holiday park we had the most stunning view over the estuary from our bed.

Heading up to the Herekino forest
White Faced Heron, Egretta novaehollandiae
Coral Tree, Erythrina sykesii
Its worth climbing up a hill to get views like this
Arriving at pretty little Rewene on the ferry
The wonderful view from our room in Rawene

From Rawene we cycled, steeply of course, along the coast with fantastic views of azure blue water and white sand. It was really hot and there was very little shade. For our lunch at the small village of Wainamaku we could have anything as long as it was deep fried and covered in batter. This was going to be a bit of a theme in north island and left us craving fresh food and green vegetables. As we continued to climb we found ourselves in indigenous forest, Waipoua Forest, the last remaining area where the giant Kauri trees still grow. The largest of them, that the Maori call the Tane Mahuta, is estimated to be over 2000 years old. Unfortunately all the remaining Kauri trees are dying of some disease which no one has been able to stop. Maybe if they hadn’t cut down all the native forest in New Zealand this wouldn’t be happening! We stayed in the forest that night at the Waipoua Forest Camp and went on a great night walk in the forest with the Maori Ranger. We saw fireflies and heard Kiwis calling but unfortunately didn’t see one and our guide told us lots of stories while we tripped over raised roots and fell into streams. At the end we turned off our torches while he sung us a Maori blessing.

The sea was an amazing colour against the green hills and white sand
The Tane Mahuta Kauri tree, over 2000 years old. its girth is 13.77 m, and total height is 51.2 m. It has over 150 other species of plant living among its top branches
The forest was full of tall tree ferns with the Kauri trees towering above them
Alsophila dealbata, Silverfern that we found on our night walk in Waipoura Forest

The next day we headed on to another isolated patch of preserved forest at the Trounson Kauri Park. Here we were able to walk around the forest totally on our own, unlike our crowded visit to the popular Tane Mahuta. The Kauri trees here were almost as old and stood tall in large groups with other indigenous plants. Of course this visit took quite a while as I was taking 100’s of photographs of every new plant I could spot. Then we had a delightful cycle down, for a change, through farmland to the less than delightful Dargaville.

Heading to Trounson Kauri Park
Looking up a Kauri tree
Black Tree fern Cyathea medullaris. They can reach 20 m high
The epiphyte filled boughs at the crown of a Kauri tree

From Dargaville to Auckland

Dargaville to Auckland, if there had been more people about we could have taken a boat across the Kaipara Harbour and saved ourselves a 100 km cycle around the bay, but as it was it wasn’t running

Its funny how a day always seems to start with a big climb. In this case it allowed us to see where were where going to be cycling as from our high ridge we had views of rich green farmland in all directions. We could also see a pancake flat flood plain below us and soon dropped down to it as we arrived in Ruawai in time for coffee, we hoped. We passed about 3 closed cafes before finding the sign open. Good coffee and cake! We left the road again to head along the Ruawai Stop Bank Cycle Way that went along the river. It always amazes me that people are happy to build houses in flood plains. I always feel that the clue is in the name really. It was nice but we had to turn off it after about 5 km. The best thing was that we had a wonderful tail wind that increased steadily through the day and meant that we could hear the very loud birdsong that has been a feature of our trip so far. Of course what goes down always has to cycle up again.

The Ruawai Stop Bank Cycle Way. All the surrounding farmland and houses were quite a bit lower than the water level
The strongly scented flower of the Cabbage Tree, Cordyline australis. I had been wondering what the incredible scent was that I could smell all the time that we have been here. It turns out to be this
The cows had all come over to watch me try to get a close up of the Cordyline flower in the strong wind
This section got quite steep

I had generally been bending Bernie’s ear about the lack of native forest and all the bare farmland. So when we arrived in the historic town of Matakohe and went to visit their massive Kauri museum we both had very different reactions to what we saw. Bernie was in seventh heaven with all the wonderfully preserved, fully working machines used to clear the forests and remove all the massive trees and process the materials. I have to admit the exhibits were done well with full details of what their lives where like at that time. I, however, found the place really upsetting, as I saw it as a monument to how a few people managed to destroy the ecology of two islands and a habitat that had taken over 3000 years to develop in such a short space of time. I think mine where the only negative comments in their guest book! But, enough of my rant.

One of the many engines inside the Kauri Museum
Across section of one of the thousands of Kauri trees that were felled
The Pioneer Church in Matakohe

The next day the wind just got stronger and stronger all day and with our route winding around in all directions we had a good mix of head, side and tail winds. We had to do several short sections on main highways today which is always scary with a strong cross wind. With New Zealand being so narrow at this point there isn’t always an alternative. But most of the time we managed to stay on very dusty gravel roads which undulated through pretty green farmland and passed a lot of small holdings. We were passed by quite a few cars and a milk tanker who was collecting from the farms, so he managed to pass us several times and generally cover us in dust despite signs saying “Slow, Dust Nuisance”. We only had to do a short distance on the dreaded Highway 1 which luckily had a good shoulder and the crosswind had us all over the place. As we sped down the hill into Kaiwaka I realised too late that the shoulder disappeared at this point and I had about 10 cars powering up behind me. I managed an emergency jump onto the pavement and got a torrent of what I am guessing was abuse from a young male passenger in the passing car. Luckily, due to his badly maintained vehicle and lack of silencer I couldn’t hear what he said.

Good sign, I just wish the passing trucks took notice
The joys of Highway 1, at least there is a shoulder
We timed our lunch stop to perfection

There was a nice looking cafe nearby so we stopped for some lunch. We would probably be eating sandwiches for supper as our B&B was some way out of town. It was good timing, while we sat stuffing ourselves with Thai Green Curry the skies opened and we watched the rain bouncing off the road. Once it stopped we headed off on a small, quiet country road to our farmstay B&B. Of course it was over the steepest hill to date with the drop down to it so steep my brakes didn’t hold. I have no idea how we are going to get out of here again. We were staying in a modern mansion built by Paul who had come out from the UK 47 years ago and his Kiwi wife. We sat in their kitchen drinking cups of tea and listening to Paul’s strong 1970’s opinions on a wide range of subjects. We needn’t have worried about supper as we sat down with the family and were served up a massive feast of roast chicken and all the trimmings which was a real treat after all the fried food we have been eating.

It was a long haul back up from our Farmstay, but wasn’t as hard as we thought

In the end it didn’t take that long to haul our bikes back up the farms driveway and set off on a route that would avoid having to go on Highway 1, even if it was a long way around. Our quiet back road soon turned to gravel and before long started to head up onto Mangawhai Ridge which was being developed with some very expensive houses. Typically the access road had been put in without thought for any passing cyclists; the three ups were evil. I have really low gears on my bike but I only just managed to keep the peddles turning and was puffing like a steam engine at the top. Of course what goes up gets really good views. As we were on a bit of a detour we hadn’t been able to see anywhere to stop for the night so we had a look on the Warmshowers site (cyclists who open their homes for other touring cyclists) and contacted Jason. He was not a cyclist himself but had rescued many a passing cycle tourist and allowed them to camp in his garden. As it happened he had a large tent up in his garden anyway, for his two young boys to play in, so we were able to stay in that and cook in his kitchen. Thanks Jason, you are a star.

Back on gravel roads at the start of the hills
In a photo it looks like I am serenely cycling along, but the hill was so steep you can’t see it and I was puffing like a steam engine
You can see why they want to have expensive houses up here
While trying to get my breath back I noticed these.
Relaxing in our home for the night in the garden on our Warmshower host, Jason
Feijoa Flower, Acca sellowiana, they use the fruit a lot in NZ
One of our friendly and inquisitive camping neighbours in the garden
A Tui showing its white throat that gives it the name Parson Bird
A Tui having a nectar meal from a Flax flower

Having said our goodbyes to Jason and his two lively boys we set off up more gravel roads. It was going to be another hot day, showing 34 degrees C on my handlebar computer (in the sun) and very humid. Our route was hilly but not as bad as yesterday and we were passing through some stunning countryside even if the forests were of the ugly forestry planted pine variety. I was ready to stop when we arrived at our booked hotel in Kaukapakapa and ready for some food. Only the hotel was closed at this time of day and generally looked like a junk-yard. There was a number we could ring although, tired as I was, I felt like cycling on having seen the place. So we headed down the road to the well recommended Sharks n Tatties cafe where we sat in the cool for a couple of hours and decided that we may as well stay. I mean, how bad could it be! And as it happens it wasn’t that bad, although the room was smaller than the tent we stayed in last night and the place was a little odd.

The countryside was lovely and the hills not too steep today
We have seen hundreds of apiaries in New Zealand. They are all cashing in on the expensive Manuka Honey craze. Apparently more is sold than can be produced so there is talk of DNA testing it.
a local sheep farm
The noisiest occupant of the Sharks n Tatties Cafe who did a good imitation of a pneumatic drill
Our home for the night finally decided to open

We woke tired and covered in mosquito bites; we had spent half the night chasing them around the room not very successfully. We quickly packed up and headed down the road again to the Shark n Tatties cafe where we had become such regulars that they even remembered how we had our coffee and we remembered to sit as far as possible from the parrot who enjoyed sounding like a pneumatic drill. Then we were off on a series of fairly busy fast roads into Auckland. Not being city people we had decided to just go straight through and out the other side and it turned out not to be nearly as bad as expected. In fact it is easier and probably quicker to cycle through Auckland than it was to drive through.

On thing that really stood out today, in this land of such friendly people, was how unfriendly the Auckland roadies (road cyclists) were. We were passed by 20 or 30 of them during the day. I always waved and smiled but could have been invisible as far as they were concerned. No reaction at all. Now I know it’s not cool and against “The Rules” to have fat tyres, mirrors, panniers and worst of all to wear our sunglasses on the wrong side of our helmet strap, not to mention not wearing lycra, but it wouldn’t have hurt just to crack a smile. This would then exercise the cheek muscles at the same time as the leg muscles.

We ended up taking a series of cycle tracks, some of them along side motorways and one hanging under a long bridge, almost through the centre of town. We stopped for lunch just below Mount Eden, which I am sure has nice views but we opted out of cycling up it. Then it was on through the lovely Cornwall Park with its fantastic trees. Before long we were back passing the airport. We had booked into a B&B near here and the land lady kindly drove us the 2 km to get some food as I don’t think I could go any further. It had been really hot again, around 34 degrees C in the sun and humid so it was bliss to sit quietly for a while in a dark, cool room.

Don’t you just love this road sign
and sure enough there was a rainbow coming
Crossing one of the many bridges in Auckland well separated from the traffic
We had our own flyovers
Stopping for lunch just below Mount Eden
The lovely trees in Cornwall Park
Sometimes it was just safer to cycle on the verge
Our frilly, scented home for the night in Auckland

The next blog will cover from Auckland onwards, where it gets a bit more adventurous and to be honest, harder work. This first 600 km has been a nice gentle warm up for what is to come! Below is a couple of short videos of some of the sections we have done north of Auckland. The first is 90 mile beach and gives you an idea how just how monotonous it was, the second was filmed in Waipoua Forest.

Cycling down 90 Mile beach

This next video was filmed in Waipoua Forest.

Waipoua Forest and the giant Kauri trees

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