Then Draw the Rest of the Owl: Bikepacking Auckland to Wellington
Dates: February 21 – March 17, 2019
Location: Auckland to Wellington, New Zealand
Distance: 1265 km cycled, ~ 11,500 m climbed
Photos by Brittany
Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.
Oh boy, we’ve done a lot of riding since I last wrote something and there’s no way to review like I normally like to. We rode 20 days with only one rest day and that explains my inability to update. It’s not as though we’ve been riding bell-to-bell, flopping down in an exhausted heap at the end of the day under a hedge. In reality, we’ve been riding comfortable days on all surfaces but camping nearly every night and sometimes days out of cell coverage, let alone an open wifi network. Even at a pace half that of even the slowest racers that compete on this route, the accumulated fatigue is still real. We have long needed a physical break, let alone a mental break after spending nearly all of our time in each other’s personal bubble.
One of the many things I like about New Zealand is the Health Star Rating system. In a nutshell, this voluntary program allows packaged food manufacturers to plug dietary information about their product in a calculator and then advertise the rating on their packaging. I don’t think the health star rating is a comprehensive approach to healthy eating, but I do like searching for the lowest rating in the store and ragging on the 3.5 star peanut butter stocked next to its 5 star brethren.
With star ratings in mind and the insurmountable task of summarizing three weeks of riding in 2000 words or less, here are some rateable categories I’ve invented. I hope they give some sense of how our experience of treating the Tour Aotearoa as a slow tour is going.
It’s my opinion that a lot of Kiwis live their lives out loud. In general they approach and are approachable, speak their minds, and have many opinions on what we’re doing. Some opinions are divided, like the use of 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) a poison used to control invasive mammals. New Zealand uses 80% of all 1080 poison and the government contends it is the most effective tool to control the destructive tendencies of possums, stoats, rats, and other undesirables. On the other hand, everyone seems to agree that, “The South Island is beautiful, you’re going to love it!”.
While we mostly follow the Tour Aotearoa route, we needed to make a detour to Rotorua when Brittany’s freehub started to slip more and more frequently. She found many recommendations for Bike Culture, which became our first stop as we rolled into downtown Rotorua. The tech immediately cleaned out her freehub to see if that would do the trick. While this freehub was beyond resurrection, the guys at the shop were already in contact with the distributor to get a new one. When I saw that they carried my favourite oil but in a big bottle, I asked if they had a smaller container of it. They didn’t have one to sell me but they gave me the half full bottle they had in the shop area. We asked what we owed for the oil and cleaning and they said nothing. We asked for the tip jar, they said no. When we returned two days later to get the new part installed, they gave Brittany a small discount and wrote out turn-by-turn instructions through the countryside to get us back to our route without following the highway. Altogether, the best bike shop experience I’ve ever had.
Here is also the right place to mention the addition of Attractivo Alex to our crew. He’s a German cycle tourist on his first tour. He arrived in New Zealand without a bike, bought one in Auckland, and just started riding. We met him on March 7th and have been riding with him since. He’s been gamely taking on the offroad sections of the route with only minor damage so far and we plan to bike together for another 400 km until he has to drop off for a family visit.
The loss of one star is due to the aggressive nature of many drivers once they step into a car. While they did start to give more space as we got further away from Auckland, they continue to hold the throttle steady and buzz us if there is someone in the oncoming lane. They just can’t seem to ease off the gas for a moment in order to keep our stress levels low.
Warm Showers 5/5
We’ve used Warm Showers a little on this trip (twice in China, once in Thailand) but hadn’t attempted yet in New Zealand. Our first try was in Rotorua where we slept for two nights in the treehouse in the yard of an adorable family. Just big enough for a double mattress and wired up for electricity, the treehouse was a unique experience in and of itself. In the next two weeks we also spent a rainy afternoon making chili and drying out our clothes in a woman’s Whanganui home and an evening in Palmerston North eating massive amounts of Domino’s pizza with three flatmates.
While not exactly Warm Showers per se, there was also the conclusion to our note delivery task we signed up for in China at the end of October. Our host in Kunming had given us a note to deliver to her friends in Featherston which we had carried for about 5500 km, three flights, three buses, and countless ferries before we could finally make the handoff. Vera’s friends also have two children so we spent the evening with the family before sleeping in their home office in a small separate building in the yard.
In the morning we had an appointment to keep. Our host for the next two nights in Wellington had offered to take the train to Featherston and guide us back to the city and the end of our route on the North Island. He brought us to the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston to learn more about the former rail line we were about to follow through the hills. This rail line used sets of horizontal wheels to squeeze a third rail in order to make it up a steep (for a train) grade of 1 in 15. On the descent, brake cars gripped the same central rail and blew through a set of brake blocks every run. Once in Wellington we took a commuter train up into the hills to his house where we spent two nights camping in the yard with the chickens. They also had a bathtub in the yard with an external hot water tap so we could take a bath the first night under the stars with a view over Wellington.
The relatively low score in this category is obviously experience-dependent. We left Auckland in the cold and grey and spent a rainy night in the tent but that storm soon cleared up and gave us beautiful sunny skies for about a week. Unfortunately that was followed by more than a week of storms, grey, and wind with shortlived (think 10-minute long) patches of sun. While we were only thoroughly soaked once, the cool temperatures and drizzle kept our tents and sleeping bags damp for the duration of the North Island.
Birding has been largely successful with lots of Tuis, Kerkerus (New Zealand pigeons that live in the forest), Kingfishers, Blue Ducks (only about 3000 in the wild), and red-crowned parakeets. We’ve also heard kiwis calling which isn’t so rare (Whanganui National Park, for example) but our nighttime searches with red lights have been fruitless when it comes to seeing one. It wasn’t all for nought, though, since on one forest walk in the dark we caught a faint blue glow. We investigated more closely and found glowworms under the boardwalk and in the damp embankments of the forest. These guys are the larval stage of the fungus gnat but we didn’t know about them before we saw them for the first time.
The biggest black mark on the Wildlife file is the proliferation of sandflies. These tiny black pests swarm the thin skin of the ankles, get inside your shirt, and exist everywhere we’ve camped. Luckily they are thwarted by clothing for the most part so I wear socks over long johns and tuck my shirt into the same.
It’s been a treat to be in a country with expansive grocery stores with limitless food options that I recognize or can at least read the labels. We’ve reverted to nearly full-time camping so it has been great to inject some variety into our one-pot meals after the monotony of Central Asia. The best discovery is a brand of vacuum packed curry with paneer. It tastes amazing, is dripping with calories (i.e. oil) and not too bulky to keep on hand. We also buy butter 500 g at a time, cheese 1 kg at a time, and wine one bottle at a time.
Another treat is the abundance of fruit trees. At the Piro Piro campsite on the Timber Trail we camped under one of several apple trees which I attacked with gusto. It was a short day so I had lots of time to gorge myself while reading. In the morning I took six or so to add zest to our breakfasts over the next few days. Just as they ran out, we were camped at Johnson’s campsite in Whanganui National Park where a large pear tree offered to pick up where the apples left off. There are also invasive blackberry bushes that, while not as prolific as the bushes at home, yield a handful of berries at a time.
The only thing I find a bit strange is the Kiwi infatuation with fish and chips. We’ve had it a few times (including at a campsite when a nice family sent over their leftovers) but it’s not special – just the usual salty and oily, bland fish. The demand is so high that I’ve seen a Thai restaurant with a sign in the window apologizing for their lack of fish and chips on the menu.
The camping situation improved greatly south of Auckland. Barely 60 km from the city a nice family was offering us space to camp in their yard and use their shower. We didn’t take them up on it because we already had made a plan to camp in a different person’s yard. Typically Brittany uses an app called Wiki Camps NZ to find something on or near the route that is anywhere between 60 and 80 km down the road. For the most part we can find sanctioned sites for free, though they might have limited facilities (just a pit toilet, no water). Occasionally we have paid a nominal fee ($8 each) but the majority of the nights have been free. It’s much easier to find official and inexpensive camping than in Canada and we haven’t had to set up shop hidden in a bush which greatly eases my mind for more restful sleeps.
Something that can be considered a complement to the camping situation is how common public toilets and showers are. Extremely nice facilities exist in the small parks that are a feature of every small town. There are also often hot showers for a small fee at tourist information sites or campervan parking areas. I don’t know how to get a publicly available shower in Canada except maybe to go to a community center but I don’t know how they would charge just for use of the shower.
Tour Aotearoa Route 4/5
The architects of the route have done well to stitch together a route linking some amazing off-pavement riding with a bare minimum of riding on busy highway. Highlights include the Timber Trail (80 km of single track), a portion of the Mountains to Sea Trail (more single track and a great double track climb and descent) and lots of country roads. The turn-by-turn pdf guide is mostly accurate and combined with the gps tracks, it’s pretty easy to follow. Occasionally there are fair warnings about more difficult sections that we brace ourselves to face, but have found that the hardest sections of the Tour Aotearoa are still much easier than the Tian Shan Traverse in Kyrgyzstan or the Bar Tang Valley in Tajikistan.
The route also hits historical significant points like the “centre of the north island” and the Mangapurua valley in the Whanganui National Park. The ride through the valley passes plot after abandoned plot of land that had been given to soldiers returning from WWI. Each plot is signed with the name of the farmer who had originally tried to settle there. The trail culminates in the endlessly fascinating Bridge to Nowhere – a bridge with no road on either side. Built to service the farms of the Mangapurua valley, only three families remained in the valley six years after completion. Soon there were none and the valley has had decades to revert to its wild state.
The loss of a star is from the inevitable highway sections and occasional detours that take you around three sides of a square just to avoid a short obstacle.
Finger Numbness 0.5/5
Pressure on the ulnar nerve in my hands has resulted in a gradually worsening case of numb pinky and ring fingers on both hands. It began in Cambodia and at its worst would persist even through two rest days (Auckland, for example). I’ve been trying to pad my handlebars better with foam and that has improved the situation. Originally I was riding with cycling gloves but they were the victim of a too-hot dryer in Kyrgyzstan. At the ferry terminal on the way to the South Island I rewrapped my bars with a double layer of foam and hope that’s the nail in the coffin. I’m not looking for the biggest souvenir of this trip to be a permanent tingling sensation in my fingertips.
20 Riding Days
A mix of absolutely everything: paved road, gravel road, double track, single track, ferries.