Where’s North From Here?: Bikepacking Northern New Zealand

The Vitals

Dates: February 13 – February 20, 2019

Location: Kaitaia to Cape Reinga to Auckland, New Zealand

Distance: 525 km

Photos by Brittany

Total Route

Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.

The Trip

Brittany and I landed in Auckland on February 9th after an 11th hour purchase of onward airfare from New Zealand in order to be allowed on our Qantas flight. This feat was achieved through the magic of wireless internet at the gate just before the doors were closed. The gate agent had to keep refreshing his computer to see our confirmation in the system before he would let us onto the jetway. That should be a lesson to us to read the rules of entry to countries more closely, whether or not they are commonwealth. Less than 24 hours later, we cancelled the tickets for a full refund once we were safely through immigration.

Our first look at 90 Mile Beach

New Zealand is serious about bio-contamination and our bicycles were inspected for mud and our tent was taken behind closed doors for a secondary inspection. I was glad when we were finally out of the door with all of our gear in hand.

Our first few days in Auckland we cycled all over the city attempting to take care of our numerous gear issues. In brief:

  • New stove pump assembly
  • Setting up our new tires tubeless at the gas station air compressor
  • Buying various sealants, bike parts, patches, sunglasses, sandals
  • Picking up our winter clothing which had been shipped to a WarmShowers host from China
  • Sending a new package back home of unneeded items (backpack, extra camera lens)
  • Attempting to dispose of old tires
  • Attempting to fix Brittany’s creaky bike

Not everything was successful but we were out of time. On our fourth day we awoke at 5:00 a.m. to ride 18 km to the downtown bus terminal for a 7:30 a.m. bus to Kaitaia; a town near the northern tip of the North Island. Many people shuttle from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga, the meeting place of the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. We balked at the cost and opted to ride 90 Mile Beach, a sand road at low tide only, instead.

Sunset on the first night at Utea Park

Aided by tailwind and an abundance of time, we rode north up the beach in two days and made an unladen out-and-back trip to the cape to tag the true start point of the Tour Aotearoa bikepacking route. Our return from the cape was slowed when we reentered the beach at high tide. First there was a short section of riding literally down a creek (Te Paki creek). Then, with the sand not supportive enough to ride above the high tide line, we had to push our bikes for 10 km back to camp. During this stint we stayed for two nights at a primitive campsite called Bluff where another cyclist taught us how to collect and cook Pipi (collection limit 50 a day, we took less than half that). This campsite is a stunning resource but most cyclists skip it in favour of riding the entire beach in one day. This is a huge mistake. Having the incorrect tide table is another huge mistake.

Feral horses at Bluff campground
Sunset at Bluff

After lounging on the endless sand and swimming in the Tasman Sea for three nights, we now needed to turn our attention to actually riding in order to meet the chartered ferry from Pouto Point to Helensville through Kaipara harbour. There is no regularly scheduled ferry but groups between 10 and 50 can get a prearranged lift. One group of cyclists had gotten the ball rolling and then 1’s and 2’s like us globbed on.

Our first crack at putting the beach behind us ended prematurely when very high winds from the south brought us to a crawl. I decreed that the progress wasn’t worth the effort and we quit after two and a half hours and 30 km. We camped one more night along the beach (at Utea Park) with lighter winds forecasted for the next day.

Stars at Bluff
Great sand dunes near Cape Reinga

In the morning, the winds had indeed abated considerably and we waited patiently until 10:30 a.m. while the tides receded so that we could ride the final 35 km to Ahipara and the exit onto paved road. At Ahipara we washed the salt and sand from our bikes and grabbed some food from the superette. Having spent an extra day on the beach, provisions were just about out.

Our first experience riding paved roads in rural New Zealand was tough. Dark skies and wind felt a bit ominous and a few drops of rain found us, but a downpour never materialized. The riding was marked by constant steep hills of only a few dozen meters but the accumulated fatigue set in quickly.

At the cape looking at the tramping route
Photo Control Point 1
Lighthouse at Cape Reinga

Towards the end of the day we exited the paved road to a gravel surface where we climbed higher into the hills and were afforded expansive views of sheep and cattle grazing lands and a few plots of managed forest. We made no attempt to find proper camping and instead hopped a fence into a forest which we shared with at least one wild pig. It’s snorting and snuffling was a little too humanlike as we tried to sleep.

The wakeup call was early again, 5:30 a.m. and still black. The short government ferry to Rawene had broken down and a local boat was picking up the slack at 7:30 a.m. but seemed to realize their clientele was captive. The previous day cyclists were charged $20 each for the 10 minute crossing. The regular ferry is $2 but is also heavily subsidized. When it came time for us to pay, the price was $30 but we disagreed and paid the prior day’s rate. Later we met cyclists who followed us who were charged $40 each which just strikes as profiteering.

Pushing near high tide. Photo Control Point 2.
Views above Opononi. This climb was powered by plums from a kind local cyclist.

From Rawene we embarked on arguably the most difficult day of riding in the last six months. Nearly 2000 meters of elevation gained but without ever cracking 400 meters. Endless short hills brought us to the Waipoua Forest, home of Tāne Mahuta. This is a Kauri tree that is roughly 2000 years old and is the largest known specimen still alive. These trees were logged extensively at one time but are currently more threatened by disease. Before visiting the tree you must brush and disinfect your shoes and stay on boardwalks to prevent the spread of Kauri Dieback disease. The tree itself is immense and just cannot be done justice with a photo.

The giant kauri tree. Photo Control Point 3.

After nearly 120 km, we reached Dargaville and only had 70 km to the end of Pouto Point and until 5:00 p.m. the next day to do it. We were pretty tired though. We had gotten up at 5:30 a.m., rode much of the day, and didn’t finish making dinner until 9:00 p.m. I fell into the tent after eating and slept until 7:30. When I awoke, all of the other cyclists had either departed the campsite or were doing their final pack. Brittany and I weren’t in such a rush and spent more than two hours making breakfast and going to the grocery store. After five hours of leisurely riding on the rolling hills of Pouto Point (last 25 km are gravel), we arrived at the beach where the ferry would land with two hours to spare but behind 40 other cyclists. We were in no danger of missing the boat but the rest of the pack was overly eager. I think only one cyclist arrived later.

Sneaky camping in the forest.
A bit of rain, a bit of sun through the trees. And a pig (not pictured).

I was eagerly awaiting the ferry arrival because there was no wharf to land at and I wanted to see how it was done. The boat instead just drove right up to the beach (the bottom drops fast) and put down a gangplank. They were also well-practiced with cyclists and had a system of six volunteers to grab bikes from shore and pass them from the first deck to the second. A three hour sailing with hot dogs from the galley brought everyone to the end of Kaipara harbour just as the full moon was rising.

New Zealand’s smallest church.

Some small-town charm was on display as the fish and chips shop in Helensville was called by the boat crew and asked to stay open late for the cyclists. You could even phone in your order ahead of time so when we arrived we grabbed our packet and ate in the parking lot at a folding table borrowed from the shop with some new friends. The camping was also arranged through the ferry as the local cruising club opened up their clubhouse and lawn for people to camp on. About 20 people took them up on the offer and we again got to bed well after dark.

A familiar scene greeted us in the morning as most other cyclists were in the process of leaving when we got out of the tent shortly before 8:00. Brittany and I were the last to leave about two hours later after a breakfast made up of the usual fare in the clubhouse. Luckily for us, we were only 40 km from Auckland and another stint at the home of some friends where we have had the welcome opportunity to do laundry and sleep indoors with a hot shower.

The best thing I’ve seen in New Zealand is the proliferation of old microwaves as mailboxes. These suckers are everywhere in the rural areas and I’ve seen them in the city of Auckland as well. It’s a kind of whimsical trend that I think is endearing. Soon we will check if they continue in the south as we follow the route over the Timber Trail and towards Wellington.

Pouto Point and someone’s butt. Photo Control Point 4.

GPS Tracks

8 Days

Lots of hills and wind on a very straightforward route.