Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The Northland Part 1 - Auckland to Paihia

Over 366Km, 4238m of climbing is quite a lot.  A tough start.
It is been a super-interesting trip so far, and this is the main reason why I am doing a blog after just a week or so in. The cycling is tough going, constantly up and down, but the scenery is more than making up for the effort expended.  I've also had lots to do, and enjoying shorter days on the bike.

The first challenge was getting through Auckland.  I arrived from Cairns at an awkward time.  I knew there was a possible campsite about 8Km from the airport, but by the time I had put my bike together - at a very handy bike assembly area at Auckland airport - it was already 10pm.  After cycling to the camping area and pitching my tent it was nearly 12.30am.  I needed to get away very early so I would be able to catch a boat, so that meant only about 4 hours sleep.

Awesome cycle path on the way into Auckland.
The next morning I had to pick my way through the centre of Auckland.  Fortunately, it was a Sunday, so the roads were quiet and there were plenty of bike paths, one in particular being very flash.  I made it to the ferry terminal with time to spare.

I planned to take a ferry to get myself out of the main busy centre of Auckland, as it is not much fun cycling a heavily-loaded bike through city traffic.  It wasn't a long ferry ride, about 50 minutes to a place called Gulf Harbour about 30-40Km north of the city.  At about $15, it wasn't too expensive and was a nice way to get myself to a good starting point.

Almost immediately after getting-off the boat, I was confronted by some stiff hills.  This was exactly what I was expecting, but it was still a bit of a shock to the system after all the flat riding in Australia, not to mention the lack of sleep.

A cloudy day 1 on the bike, but at least it didn't rain.
I felt pretty tired that first day, but I managed to find a regional park to pitch the tent that night.  The park was also quite a nice place for a bit of walking and trail running, so I plucked-up the strength to hit the trails.  It was a very well-maintained park, with excellent trails that were perfect for running.  Despite a slightly dodgy campsite, I managed 9 hours sleep pretty easily after about 50km on the bike and 10Km of trail running.

The next day, and I was hoping to be able to make it to Waipu caves, not so much because of the caves, but because they also had a free campsite there.  The roads were hard work, though, and the state highway 1 was very busy and not much fun to cycle on.  It was going to be a stretch to make the 100Km I needed to get to the caves.  Luckily, once off the highway, a chap with a little truck offered me a lift.  In times gone by, I would have refused, but I saw no problem in letting him help me.  He was going to the next town, about 20Km away, which was a nice little boost for me and put the caves back into play for the end of the day.

Tough dirt road section into Waipu caves.
He introduced himself as, "Col", short for Colin obviously.  After a bit of chit-chat, he asked me where I was from and I said Colchester in England.  He turned to me and said, "no way!", puzzled I replied and asked if he had been there.  He said no, but then told me his surname, which was Chester, so his name was "Col Chester", an amusing little coincidence.

I still had work to do, though, so after a little bit of sushi in the small town of Manghawai Heads, I had some more climbing to get to the campground at the caves.  The last 5Km were hard, as the road became unsealed with some steep climbs.  That last 5Km seemed to go on forever, but finally I made it, with some time to explore the caves as well.

Camping between the limestone casts near the caves.
It was a very basic camping area, a toilet being the only real facilities, but the limestone casts around my tent served me very well.  I had bent most of my tent pegs trying to get them into the hard, sun-baked ground in Australia, and one of the casts had a tiny hole that each peg would just fit through.  I fed the pegs through the hole and bent each and every one of them back straight.  Extremely useful, as those pegs were becoming a bit of a pain in the neck.

I was about 35Km away from my first stop of the tour in Whangarei, where I had planned to do some work for a couple of days.  I managed to find a hostel right next to Whangarei Falls, just a little out of the centre of town.  After settling-in, I wandered down to see the falls.  Much to my surprise, especially being so close to town, the falls were spectacular.

The walk down to the falls was about all I could manage for the rest of the day, as I was truly spent.  The first 3 days or so of bike tours are always some of the toughest because your body is fighting the extreme demands you are placing on it.  Things usually start get progressively easier, physically, after that (although it is always very hard).  Back in 2016, it took about a month for my legs to really get to grips with all the hills and mountains, but once they had, I felt incredibly strong on the bike and my legs were like tree trunks.

It rained heavily overnight, so I was pretty glad to be inside and not camping.  I once had a discussion online with a fellow bicycle-tourer who said New Zealand was one of her worst tours; the reason being she had camped almost every single night.  To me, camping can be a miserable business if you are in a country where it rains regularly.  New Zealand is best done on about 50% camping, in my opinion, trying to avoid the regular soaking if possible, and especially if you like to go out of season at times when the weather is more unpredictable.  No one likes being constantly cold and wet.

Running alongside the river.
Despite the heavy rain overnight, the clouds cleared very early, which meant that I had to do a bit of trail running.  The hostel was not only close to the falls, but also to a network of trails which linked to another waterfall, and to a track going up the mountain alongside the town.  I wasn't sure how I'd feel, so I had originally planned just a 6Km round-trip to the other falls and back, but the weather was so nice that I did the complete circuit up to the lookout on the mountain and back along the river to the hostel, about 17Km in all.  A great run; waterfalls, great views, and lush forest, all on a well-maintained track, superb for running.

At the top.  An enjoyable trail run with Whangarei in the background.
The next day I did what my body was telling me to do, and that was have a good rest.  The following day I had to be up extremely early so I could cycle the 23Km to Tutukaka by 7.30am.  I had to be there early because I had arranged a day of scuba diving at Poor Knights Islands, considered one of the finest sub-tropical dives in the world.

I got there with plenty of time to spare, and even stumbled across a cool lookout just as the sun was coming up, with superb views of the coast around Tutukaka..

It was about 50 minutes to the Islands, on a much smaller boat than I was accustomed to in Cairns.  The islands we so-named because, approaching them from the south, Captain Cook saw their shape and thought they resembled the position a knight is put into upon his death.  Poor knights weren't buried, but they were laid to rest on their backs with their sword and shield on their chest.  Have a look at the picture below and see what you think.

A dead knight lying on his back?
There were only 4 of us diving; one Kiwi from Auckland, the dive instructor and his friend from England (who was also a dive instructor, living in the Cayman Islands), and me.  They were all really nice guys, actually, so it was an enjoyable day-out.  The other two with us were the skipper and a photographer just doing his own thing.  He apparently does a lot of work for National Geographic and dived separately from us taking pictures with a very fancy camera, similar to the one they used to take the fantastic photos underwater on the Great Barrier Reef.

At the Great Barrier Reef, the water temperature was about 25 degrees, warm enough for just a thin, legless and sleeveless wetsuit, but here it was about 10 degrees cooler at a very nippy 15 degrees, so a thick 7mm wetsuit with hood was needed.  Indeed, the dive intstructor and the cameraman even dived in dry-suits to combat the cold.  It was quite a shock when entering the water, but the wetsuit did its job and I wasn't too cold.

It was an interesting couple of dives, and very different to diving on coral reefs, but just as colourful.  Instead of coral, there were sponges, rocks, and kelp.  Tucked between it all was life everywhere; large stingrays, scorpion fish, an incredible variety of eels, lots of nudibranchs, sea urchins, and huge shoals of fish.

At one point, we found our way into a cave, which we then ascended up into.  I ascended right through the middle of a big shoal of fish then promptly bumped my head on the roof of the cave in an air pocket that was actually 8 metres below the surface.  We all surfaced in there and had a chat before moving on.

The next dive was more challenging, with plenty of current and surge, which meant being pushed and pulled around underwater.  After all the diving I had done just a couple of weeks previously, however, I felt really comfortable underwater, despite the foreign surroundings and tricky conditions.

A massive shoal of trevally having a feeding frenzy causing the white water.
It was a top day out, and the skipper took us through some of the caves and arches on the way back.  Shoals of fish were feeding on the surface of the water, gannets were dive-bombing into the water after the fish, and seals were relaxing on the rocks.  Good company, great diving, and loads of wildlife, what more could I have asked for?

Despite feeling a little weary, I did manage a quick walk out to the lighthouse before setting-off for my campsite.  Another scenic walk highlighted just how much I had fit in over the first few days of the trip.  It sometimes amazes me just how much there is to do here in New Zealand for someone who loves the great outdoors.  There is surely no better place in the world for outdoor adventure activities.

I was enjoying the shorter days on the bike.  The time spent on the bike was still very hard, with very steep climbs around almost every corner.  Since Auckland, I have hardly cycled on a flat bit of road.  I have either been in the granny gears or just freewheeling, not pedaling at all.  Because of all the climbing, even 40-60Km certainly registers with my body at the end of the day.  It is wonderful not having to push too hard into misery territory though, as I did so much in Australia.

About 20 or so houses in this quaint little bay.
The next day was more of the same on the bike; up and down, dropping into, what seemed like smaller and smaller towns. I stopped at one of these little communities for lunch, a place called Helena Bay. It was a picture-perfect tiny town in a gorgeous bay.

I had set-off earlier that day hoping I'd find somewhere to camp by the end of the day. Freedom camping can be a tricky business in New Zealand with so much private land fenced-off, and everywhere else often too densely forested. Eventually, I stumbled upon a farm offering tent sites for $15. Included were warm showers, wifi, a kitchen, and a comfortable sofa to chill-out on. That was good enough for me.

The next day, I had only about 45Km to cycle to get to Paihia and a few days rest.  Looking at the profile of the road on Google, it didn't look too bad, as there were no climbs higher than about 70m.  I didn't however, factor-in just how frequently these climbs occurred and just how steep they were (have a look at the profile below).  The problem of very steep climbs is that they push your body to it's lactate threshold; have this happen again and again, and it causes quite a lot of fatigue, more so than very long, steady climbs that might look harder on paper.  This is the kind of road that really takes it out of you physically, and mentally it is hard too, as you are confronted with climb after climb after climb, wondering when the torture will finally stop.

I made it to Paihia and checked-in to a very cheap hostel, an absolute bargain at just $20 a night.  Paihia is the launching pad for a lot of tourist experiences in the Bay of Islands. However, it really is a summer destination with lots of bays, swimming, and other water activities.  For this reason, it was extremely quiet at the hostel and in the town itself.  I had a room to myself and pretty much every trail in the area as well.  This is one of the reasons I enjoy coming to New Zealand out of season.  Yes, I have to put up with some inclement weather sometimes, but my reward is that I can rock-up to places and know there is a bed for me, and when I go out, I have the majesty of the surroundings to myself (plus I can be a bit unsociable sometimes).

The Paihia shoreline.

Trail Running

One of my goals on this tour was to get back into trail running.  I find I get extremely bored of road running and it also seems to aggravate my ankles.  On the trails, though, I get no pain whatsoever; all the changing angles and strides is much better for my joints, I think, which I need to watch as I come worryingly close to 40.  I also find I run better than I walk (hear me out).  The heel striking I do when I walk means that sometimes I feel my right hip after a long day of walking, and hip problems not only run in my family, but are also common in the main sport I have played most of my life, squash.  After trail running, on the other hand, my body feels fantastic with no complaints at all.

Running through the mangroves.
So far on tour, I have managed trail runs of 10Km (Wenderholm Regional Park), 17Km (Whangarei), and 20Km (Paihia) over about a ten-day period.  In the temperatures at the current time of year, 20Km is about the maximum distance I can go without bringing any water with me, and I am not sure I really want to go much further than that anyway (I would also start needing to carry some food if I went much further).

A nice street on a short road section between trails.
Trail running is a great way to get into nature and cover some ground at the same time, plus it makes you super-strong and fit.  I take my phone with me also and end up taking some great pictures.

The view through the trees at the end of the Oromahoe Traverse track.
The big 20Km run in Paihia saw me take the trail up into the mountains and run along the ridge on a trail called the Oromahoe Traverse, then along a dirt road that eventually led down to the walk from Opua back to Paihia along the bay.  A fantastic run on a beautiful morning.  The mornings have mostly been sunny thus far here in the Northland.

The dock at Opua, just after taking the ferry across from Okiato.
On one of the walks I did along the river in Paihia to Haruru Falls, I saw something very interesting.  I noticed a girl walking towards me on the track and saw her jump, letting-out a mini-scream.  I then saw what looked like a squirrel running-away from a rabbit carcass.  She asked me what is was, but I wasn't sure.  As I was talking to her, I figured-out that is must have been a stoat and that we had disturbed it in the middle of taking its kill to its burrow.

Stoats and rabbits are pests in New Zealand.  Rabbits were introduced by Europeans in the 1870s as a source of meat and for hunting, then the stoats were introduced to control the rabbits, so I guess this stoat I came across was doing its job.  However, stoats don't just stop at rabbits, they will kill native birds, especially the ones that don't fly and nest on the ground.  They are a real threat to native species, so attempts to control them often make headline news in New Zealand - as New Zealand is also very bereft of the usual bad news topics of other countries.

I wasn't 100% sure it was a stoat, though, so after the girl left, I figured the stoat would come back after its kill, so I quietly hid and waited to see if it returned.  Sure enough, it only took about one minute and it came back.  It was definitely a stoat, and it was probably about 5 or 6 times smaller than the rabbit it killed.  What really amazed me was how easily it carried the rabbit away and up a the bank next to the trail, it was as if it was running without the rabbit in its mouth, it wasn't struggling at all.  Strong little guys, and pretty cute too, despite being exceptionally efficient hunters.  What a nuisance they are in New Zealand, a kiwi wouldn't stand a chance.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs about New Zealand, it always exceeds my expectations.  I think nature has a way of doing this anyway.  I am always struck by the beauty of my surroundings when I am on tour, and New Zealand especially, it never disappoints and I never get tired of it.  The Northland wasn't even an area of New Zealand I was particularly looking-forward to, but seeing as I had the time and I hadn't been there, I thought I should do.  Well, I'm glad I did so far, it's been a great start to this 4 month long tour.

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