Australasia part 3: Melbourne, AU – Taupo, NZ
We hate flying, particularly with bikes. I sound older than I am when I say this, but flying isn’t what it used to be. It used to be a luxury and relaxing way to travel but now its a glorified, expensive bus service. A bus service for sardines. Coupled with transporting your bicycles and all your stuff and the stress of having to deconstruct the bike and pack it at the airport as well as the inevitable “extras” you always end up being forced to pay against your will, it’s just not an enjoyable experience. So believe me when I say we were ecstatic that the flight from Melbourne to Auckland would be our last for a VERY long time. The flight didn’t go without issue though, I didn’t have a visa for NZ (Josephine did) and I had to book a flight out of NZ last minute to prove I would be leaving, to be allowed to board the plane. A stupid rule which only gives airlines more money which they don’t need.
Auckland airport bio-security was more thorough than Australia customs, but not too bad. We collected our stuff and slept overnight in the airport before reconstructing the bikes for the final time and cycling across Auckland city to some friends on the North Shore. We stayed with Anneke and Tane (you might know them on Instragram as ‘Worldpokespeople’) and Annekes brother, for a few nights and settled ourselves into the country we would now be calling home. We followed their cycle journey on social media from London to NZ a few years previously and it felt to us a bit like meeting celebrities! They made us feel at home and after several nights good rest we set off south. Our plan was to do a zigzag route through the North Island to Wellington which we would decree as our official ‘finish line’. A direct route from Auckland to Wellington would cover about 650km but our route was in excess of 1300 km, because, well, why the hell not?
The Auckland area contains over half of NZ’s total population so we were pretty keen to get out of there ASAP when we left Anneke and Tane’s. There were cycle paths occasionally, but traffic was horrendous and would remain so until after we left the Bay of Plenty a few week later. We climbed a very steep hill that evening to get to the village of Bombay where Annekes parents lived who hosted us for a night. We also met a Swiss couple who were cycling NZ for 3 months. They had just landed a few days previously so we had a nice chat with them, and could impart some invaluable advice from our experiences. Its striking how similar the UK and NZ are. Yes there are some trivial differences (as there are between Sussex and Yorkshire) but in general, we are very very similar countries. Some people are quick to highlight the differences between different nations but if you stood all the nations on earth in a row based on how similar their cultures were (I define culture by cuisine, ethnicity, language, music, sport, sense of humour etc), NZ and UK would be holding hands. We should be looking for our similarities, not our differences. If that’s one thing this trip has taught us, everyone is, in essence, exactly the same.
The following day we were heading towards Hamilton trying to take the smallest and quietest roads possible. Not as easy as it sounds. We were on some small country roads for a few kms which had some intense downhills, I think I maxed out at 73 kmh, but inevitably had to join the SH2 for a bit which was not so fun. The driving is not considerate towards cyclists in NZ and we were happy when we could peel off on the smaller roads again. The headwind picked up and we were soon battling some strong gusts. One pickup truck drove past and gave us the middle finger (cheers mate?) and we got eaten by sandflies when we stopped for lunch. But the day wasn’t so bad. We passed some Marae (Maori ceremonial house) which were beautifully decorated and ended the day at a free campsite in a village with toilets and water available. There was a small touch rugby tournament going on which was enjoyable to watch, before snuggling into our thin summer sleeping bags for the last night before collecting our warmer gear in Hamilton.
We had brilliant weather the next day and a beautiful cycle path along the Waikato river into Hamilton. Excellent cycling, and we made it to Josephine’s cousin, Sarah by lunchtime. We had posted an 11 kg package from India to NZ in February and were now reunited with all of our warmer clothing and sleeping bags as well as some useless stuff we didn’t want to have to carry (like some porcelain mugs from Sikkim which were maybe not necessary). So, we decided to take some things and offload some things and post the package on (again) to Wellington and cross NZ with a very light-weight set-up. We sent on 27kg to Wellington which was literally a weight of our shoulders. The bikes were significantly more controllable and comfortable and if/when we do another tour it will certainly be with much less weight. We had some chores to do in Hamilton, Josephine opened up a bank account and I got a medical examination for my visa (NZ$500 for a neurological exam, blood and urine test and chest X-ray). Hamilton was nicer than we expected, very green with lots of native vegetation growing along the river. It was nice staying with Sarah and her husband and kids. They were a cool, sporty family and they even took us surfing in an hour away in Raglan.
After 5 days in Hamilton we left on our light-weight bikes in the direction of, HOBBITON. We had been longing to visit this Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit film set since before we even set off from the UK and now we were only a days ride away. We continued along the Waikato river cycle trail in the sun before being forced to join the SH1 for a few kms (our least favourite road) and then veering off down the small farming road towards the film set. There was a campsite on the hill just before the set owned by a farmer who charged a small fee to pitch your tent and have a cold shower. When we arrived at 4 pm it was empty but it soon filled up and by the evening conversation was flowing with people from all over the world with a range of backgrounds and stories, but all of us shared one thing in common, we we willing to pay NZ$84 each for a 2 hour tour of Hobbiton. It was so worth it. Josephine cried with joy (I didn’t) and it really did feel like you were in Hobbiton. The set was incredibly detailed and they have a full time crew of 20 or so gardeners maintaining the set. I would highly recommend it. You get a free drink at the Green Dragon Pub as well at the end.
After our tour we headed towards the port city of Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty. We followed some small roads south of the town of Matamata where we stopped for lunch and bumped into a Hungarian couple on a recumbent tandem bicycle. Yes you read that correctly. They were touring NZ for some months and we had some great craic with them. I even tried out the bicycle with Martin, which was literally like riding a bike again for the first time. They were taking a different road from us towards Rotorua while we were heading towards Tauranga. Between us and Tauranga stood the Kaimai range, a chain of mountains with only 2 ways across. The first way was a huge detour north through a gorge towards Waihi and then south into Tauranga. We were warned by a Dutch couple that this road was horrendous and dangerous and it would be best to avoid it. The second option was directly over the range via the SH29. Some had told us it was pretty steep and busy, but after what we had cycled we thought “How bad could it be?”. We almost died. I’m not kidding, it was flat-out suicide. There was no hard shoulder at all. an overtaking lane going up with trucks almost skimming our pannier bags. The traffic was astonishing. Tauranga is the biggest port in NZ and the road was full of logging trucks heading for the port. It was incredibly steep and windy with blind corners and holes in the fences all the way up where cars had gone through the fence. We only made it about 2 km’s having been almost skimmed by lorries several times. Josephine started crying and said she couldn’t cycle anymore. This annoyed me, not because I wanted to continue, but because she was right and it angered me how we had gotten ourselves in this situation. Why were the drivers so ignorant and why was there no safe road over these hills for bicycles?
We found a layby and Josephine (who normally is good at this) stuck her thumb out for someone to stop and assist us over the range. A guy called Trevor pulled up in a ute with a trailer full of tyres so we lifted the bikes into the trailer and he drove us right into the center of Tauranga. What a dude. He told us that the road had gotten busier and busier over the years as the port in Tauranga has been growing due to continued closure and transfer of duties from Auckland to Tauranga. Subsequently, Tauranga has been growing as well and we were actually shocked to see how big it was. We stayed 2 nights in Tauranga with an awesome family we met on Warmshowers. They took us down to Mt. Manganui at sunset for fish and chips and I spent our day off applying for a job and doing other various chores we always do on days off (cleaning, cooking, washing, emailing, buying etc.).
As is always good with Warmshowers, we got invaluable advice about the route ahead from our hosts and hosts friends and had a nice route planned from Tauranga to Rotorua via Te Puke. Te Puke is the kiwifruit capital of NZ so we were as expected, very excited. Not only were there kiwifruit plantations everywhere, there were also avocado plantations as far as you could see. Also plenty of roadside honesty boxes to pick up a bag of avo’s for a few bucks. It wasn’t quite kiwifruit season and the flowers had just started to fruit, but it was interesting to see how they were grown and how many new kiwifruit plantations were being built. It was a sunny day and we had taken a very quiet, unsealed road up towards Rotorua lake with a very gradual incline through sheep and cattle fields. It was long and by the time we reached Okere falls where we wanted to camp, it was getting late and we were struggling to find somewhere to put the tent. This was the first night in NZ we had tried wild camping and it took a while until we finally found somewhere between a fence and a hill with just enough space for the tent amidst the vegetation. We would soon learn that wild camping in NZ is not easy at all or a normal, socially accepted thing to do.
We had a rainy morning the next day and cooked breakfast in a bus stop shelter next to Rotorua lake. Okere waterfall was quite something though and the sun came out after a few hours as we routed around the west side of Rotorua lake to avoid the highway on the east side. The roads were perfect and we eventually hooked up with a cycle path which took us all the way into the centre of Rotorua. As we came into the city we were greeted by the smell of rotting eggs in the air as a result of the geothermal activity. Rotorua is full of bubbling pools and steam vents, some coming out of the drains on the street. We cycled passed a house which had its own home made thermal bath in the front garden! We had a gap in the rain to dry our sodden clothes and tent out in the sun before stocking up on several days of food and heading south along the thermal-by-bike trail.
The first part of the trail was through some sulfur fields but soon became quite dull along the main road and forest.It did eventually veer off the road and onto some quieter roads through farmland. There was of course nowhere to camp and we ended up asking at a house if we could put our tent on his land. He was more than happy for us to, but he said there was a campsite about 5 km down the hill at a lake where he said there were toilets and water facilities. So we carried on and reached the campsite, but there was no toilets or water as they were closed for whatever reason. There were just a few portoloos which were full of waste up to the brim and some rubbish bins which were overflowing rubbish all over the campsite. It rained all evening and we were pretty wet and cold by the time we got into our tent. The miserable evening was made better by a friendly German family cycling with their 2 kids under the age of 5.
The next morning we planned a relaxed day visiting several natural thermal rivers along the cycle trail. The day started off well but we were soon on some very steep mountain bike trails which required lots of bike pushing through wet muddy forest. Josephine actually ended up coming off her bike and fell down a ravine into some ferns with the bike flipping upside down and landing on top of her. Her emotions were already on thin ice and she broke down in tears like I have never seen before. It was uncontrollable. All I could do was comfort her and tell her everything was okay. Shes a trooper though and cracked on pushing her bike through the tough track until we reached a gravel road and made it to a thermal river called Kerosene Creek. The good thing about this thermal river was that it had no built-up infrastructure or entrance fees. It was literally a hidden river in a forest with a small gravel road leading to it. There was only a handful of people there and when Josephine got into the water she felt instantly in a better mood. The Māori believe these thermal springs have healing powers and after seeing the instant change in Josephine’s mood it’s easy to believe that. It later transpired that her emotional breakdown was due in part to it being a certain time of the month.
We continued slowly along the trail to another thermal pool which had a hot river and a cold river flowing into it meaning you could position yourself along the temperature gradient where you were most comfortable. We took the Te Kopia road towards Taupo which winded through some nice valleys, eventually turning into a poor quality gravel track over rolling hills through timber plantations. Forestry makes up a large part of NZ’s natural exports and the conditions in NZ (I was told) make the growth rates of these temperate tree species some of the fastest in the world. There was no farmers to ask about camping so we jumped a fence and put the tent up in a timber forest, it was actually a pretty nice camp spot. We hadn’t passed a person or vehicle for several hours so we assumed we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone all evening. However, after dinner and seemingly out of nowhere, 6 dogs turned up with radio tags on their collars. They were followed by several guys on bikes who hopped the same fence we did, looked in our direction, but then turned back and left. I am sure they noticed us but they didn’t seem to care. As often happens, after telling this story a few days later we were informed they were probably hunters looking for wild pig and not actually the land owners of the timber forest we were in. Most people told us it is almost certainly fine to camp in the timber forests and the owners wouldn’t mind. Unless we made a fire in which case we would likely be shot.
The next day was a hilly one into the town of Taupo. We very low on water in the morning and tried filling up at a cattle trough which was absolutely filthy and couldn’t even be filtered. The streams passing under the road were inaccessible due to an overgrowth of thorny brambles. It was one of the first times in our trip that we were actually running out of water. We eventually resorted to asking at a house if we could fill our bottles from their hose, which they were more than happy to help with. Every time in NZ we’ve been in a situation where we need help, people are always happy to assist. After some big hills and another broken powerbank (3rd of our tour) we arrived into Taupo and bumped into an English lad cycling in the same direction as us. He was crossing NZ too, but with a much lighter weight setup (he wasn’t camping and only travelling for 3 weeks). He had planned his entire route on his Garmin and booked all his accommodation in advance but ended up falling behind schedule due to the gravelly and steep roads and was on his way to rent a car to make up for lost time. For us this defeats the entire purpose of cycle touring, the freedom of going when and where you want and sleeping where you want. We never book anything ahead of time, nor do we plan which roads we will cycle until a few days before, and often these still change on the day.
The heavens opened up big time, so we hid in a cafe waiting for it to pass (and had a very average veggie burger for like NZ$ 19) but it just kept getting worse and worse. We had found a campsite just north of the town which we were planning to spend the night at, but our enthusiasm was drifting away as the rain continued. Unfortunately for us, paying for a hotel or guesthouse is out of the question. Rooms start at around NZ$80 a night which is almost 2 days of our budget. We decided to send a very late message to a couple on Warmshowers who thankfully, responded immediately saying we were more than welcome to stay with them, score! Trevor and Rose had done some long cycle tours themselves and now lived a quiet live on the lake spending their time mountain biking or travelling around NZ in their camper van. It actually worked out really well for us because our plan over the following days would take us pretty wild for 4-5 days with nowhere to stop for food. This gave us a chance to wash our things and check the bikes over as well as prepare and plan for what food we were to buy and how on earth we would carry it all now that half our bags had been posted on to Wellington. But as always, when there’s a will there’s a way. Things got even better when they were handing out free cake outside the super market. No idea what it was for, but I ended up eating way too much of it.