Australasia part 4: Taupu, NZ – Palmerston North, NZ
Wait, I hadn’t finished writing all these blogs? I thought I had written them up to Wellington but apparently not? Things all happened quite fast. One day we were cycling and the next day we weren’t. 3 months after finishing our trip, it still doesn’t really feel like we’ve gone back to normal life. We both have full-time jobs in Nelson, a house, a car (which we seldom use) but somehow things don’t feel normal. Maybe they never will again. Travelling with minimal materials, always on the move, meeting new people and seeing new things became the norm and it has likely changed us forever. Although life doesn’t feel like it once did, it feels like it makes more sense. We think a little more deeply about things and have a better understanding of why things are as they are. Rarely a day goes past when we don’t think of something that happened on our trip, and the feeling of nostalgia can sometimes be overwhelming. But it’s over now and its time to move on. However, first, I should update any of you that are interested, on our final few weeks of our cycle.
As we cycled out of Taupo we were in hysterics. We couldn’t cycle up the hill and had to keep pulling over. I’m not sure why it was so funny, but I had decided to buy 36 tortilla wraps for the next 3 days. I think I was afraid of running out of food and overcompensated. It was even funnier when I realised I had only bought 18, and it wasn’t that funny after all. A short 20km or so around the lake brought us to Whakaipo bay, a stunning quiet little bay with a small beach, lined by crystal clear water and not a soul around. We went for a swim in the icy water (Josie did too, believe it or not) and watched the sunset illuminate the volcanoes across the lake. Lake Taupo itself is a caldeira of a dormant supervolcano which has produced several of the planets most violent eruptions in recent geological history, and we were swimming in it.
A mountain bike track built by the local community was what we followed around the lake the next day. It was tough on our touring bikes, but nowhere near as tough as the MTB tracks around Rotorua. It took us a while, but after several hours we made it through the track to a village called Kinloch where we had lunch by the lake and bid our farewell to it. After a boring stretch of straight roads, we joined a gravel road over a long and winding hill towards the campsite at the start of the Timber Trail. The day ended up being a long one of over 90 km (long for us considering a lot of that was on mountain bike track and climbing on loose gravel) and it was late when we arrived at camp. We cooked up some pasta whilst a Tui was busy collecting nectar from a Pohutukawa tree overarching our tent. Tui’s are unique in being one of the few NZ birds which each nectar (known as honeyeaters) and they have a beautiful and very distinct song. You always know when a Tui is around. We awoke early but got on the trail at around 11 am as we got into a nice chat with a couple at the campsite. One of the things we missed in Asia was being able to have conversations with people every day. In New Zealand, you are never short of friendly people to chat to no matter where you are.
The timber Trail is a famous NZ hike/biking track stretching 84 km through native forest. It used to be an old track for harvested timber from the native Kauri tree to be transported down into the valley and shipped on for export or domestic use. The trail was grueling on touring bikes and it took us 2 full days of cycling despite only cycling 40 odd km a day. It was stunning through. Almost entirely native forest surrounded by local birds and an array of suspension bridges taking you high over the valleys and rivers below. We passed plenty of hikers as well as mountain bikers, but no other long distance cycle tourers. I guess other cycle tourers are a bit more sensible than us thought it was best to leave this track to the mountain bikers.
After the trail we made it to the town of Taumarunui where we could hit up a supermarket for the first time in 5 days. We stocked up big time as is often the case in NZ. We got used to cycling in SE Asia where you don’t need to carry more than half a day of food because there are places to eat and food markets everywhere. In NZ though, you often find yourself carrying at least 4-5 days of food. We had to become quite innovative with our food packing considering how little space we had in our bags. We checked the map and saw that the village of National Park was 45 km away and there was a tail wind. Despite there being a 900 meter climb, we decided to go for it and made it to a hostel/campsite in before it got too late. We had planned to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day which is a foot crossing of the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park (where the Mordor and Mt. Doom scenes were filmed in Lord of The Rings). However, the weather was not on our side, you couldn’t even see any of the volcanoes from the hostel due to the cloud clover. The weather was so unfavourable in fact, that they cancelled all the bus shuttle services to the park as well. So we took a day off and washed all our smelly, dirty clothes. We also ate a lot of food, as often happens on our days off.
We had excellent weather the next day and hopped on the 6 am bus at sunrise to get to the park. We were making good time with the crossing (It usually takes 5-7 hours) and made the decision to take the detour up to the summit of Ngaruhoe (Mt. Doom). The weather was perfect, no wind, not a cloud in the sky, and we had plenty of time to make it back to catch the last shuttle bus back to our tent. It was mega tough going, and there were times when we almost turned back. The scree was horrendously loose and every time you knocked a rock it would go hurtling down the steep slope into the valley. There was a small yet steep patch of snow we had to cross when we got to the summit, but we made it to the crater and had one of the most breathtaking views of our entire trip. We could see all of the national park, Taranaki, Lake Taupo and the Cook Straight. No sooner were we on the summit though that we had to make our way back down in order to catch the bus. By the time we made it back into the valley and onto the track we found ourselves in a mass of people. The track was like the M1 in England, people everywhere.
Our legs were not happy with us the following days. 11 hours of solid hiking with 2300 meters of ascending and descending had turned our muscles into jelly and the cycling was pretty chilled for a few days. Bending down to put the tent up was particularly hard. All I can say is thanks goodness we had our camp chairs. We took the road south of Mt. Ruapehu (highest point on the South Island) through Ohakune where we camped at a beautiful DOC campsite in the shadow of the mountain. We then found ourselves on some very slow gravel roads for a whole day in an effort to avoid the suicidal Highway 1. We were slow but it was enjoyable, following the rolling hills through the sheep fields. Every time we passed a wolf shed (this is the shed where the sheep are shawn), the farmers would offer us water. They also always asked “Why did you come on this road?”. “To avoid the suicide highway of course”.
We found ourselves a small river and went along a railway service track to try and find a spot next to the river to camp. Just as we were sneakily opening a gate to a field, hundreds of sheep came around the corner flanked by several dogs and a farmer on a quad bike. Caught in the act! We asked him if we could camp in one of his fields and he directed us down to a spot by the river with a picnic bench and a BBQ. We didn’t find the latter 2 things, but we found a quiet flat spot and had a lovely evening by the river. It pays to talk to the farmers that’s for sure. Way better than sneaking into their fields and anxiously jumping at every noise you hear all night.
We had to join up with the State Highway 1 the next day which was a pain in the ass. The traffic as expected was terrible, but at least we had a moderate hard shoulder to cycle on. We peeled off the highway at our first opportunity to join the Manawatu cycle trail into Palmerston North. This trail is on a road, but there was hardly any cars and the road quality was perfect. We camped in a small field in the rain on the first night, but were gifted with blue skies and sun the next day as we followed the road through some picturesque valleys . We made it to a campsite where unfortunately there was a wedding. I say unfortunately because there were lots of loud children (and adults) running around playing terrible music. Fortunately for us, there was a second, empty field across the road we could camp in, and we made the most of our afternoon by washing our clothes and ourselves in the river. We were told by the ranger that there were a couple of caves/overhangs across the river with glow worms, so we went hunting after dark but to no avail. It was a pleasant evening walk none-the-less.
We had a strong tailwind the next morning which pushed us all the way into Palmerston North where we planned to take a few days off and chill with a Warmshowers host. NZ has been amazing for Warmshowers and we’ve met some great people though it. We were now only a week away from Wellington and our finish line of the tour. Still with no jobs or somewhere to live lined-up, but that’s okay. We were keen to finish, but also still enjoying cycling, particularly with such less weight on the bikes! Good to finish the trip on a high I suppose. In fact, did we even want to finish cycling?