Sunday, 7 October 2018

Gisborne to Wellington Via Te Urewera and the Desert Road

On this trip to New Zealand so far, the weather has been much kinder to me than before.  While I was taking a few days rest in Gisborne, the winds blew, which would have been horrible on the bike, and then when I left I had a week of good weather as I was riding through some of the most interesting parts of the North Island.

I made my original plan to tour New Zealand while I was still in Australia, and at the time I wasn't interested in long days on the bike and I wasn't that confident with my bike due to my broken spoke problems in Australia.  All this meant that I decided not to go through Te Urewera National Park because the road through this region, going around Lake Waikeremoana, is unsealed.  I had some really rough experiences on unsealed roads in Australia, so at the time of planning, I couldn't bare the thought of going through this again with my unreliable back wheel.

New Zealand, however, is a different beast to Australia.  On the bike, Australia breaks you down mentally; hours and hours of cycling (in my case into the wind all the time) through nothing, with flies surrounding you every time you stop, and huge distances between towns and therefore resources like food and water.  

When I finished the cycling in Australia in Broome, I gave serious consideration to selling my bike and walking through New Zealand, such was the state of despair I was in when it came to the cycling.  This was all the more strange because I was at the same time loving the experiences I was having when I stopped in Australia, I just grew a strong loathing for being on the bike.

Unsealed road climbing through the mountains.
In New Zealand, being on the bike is the fun bit.  Any problems I have on the bike, like the physical challenges of the hills and mountains, or mechanical issues like broken spokes I just accept and get through much easier because I am in such a positive mental state.  There is regular reward for the effort here.  In Australia, I had to wait a few days, a week, even a month for my target - say, diving with sharks, for example.  In New Zealand, the target is the top of that next climb and the beautiful view, the sense of achievement for making it, and the physical endorphin rush of smashing your legs and lungs to get there.  Targets are achieved on an hourly basis and that makes a big difference.

Love early morning mist on clear days.
This is precisely why, for me at least, ups and downs are better than the flat, at least the windy, desolate flat of Australia anyway.  It's funny, because everyone I meet assumes Australia must be okay on the bike because it is largely flat, and New Zealand must be a nightmare because of the climbing.  The opposite is true.

So, with this much improved state of mind, I was ready for a bit of New Zealand wilderness on a difficult road, with a still slightly unreliable bike.  I was psyched and really looking forward to the challenge because this section of road also had some severe climbing to be done.  One problem, though.  As I checked Google Maps, I noticed that sections of the road were closed due to multiple land slips.  Luckily, though, I checked at the i-site in Wairoa, and the very positive (and pretty) American girl working there said it was open to local traffic and that they'd probably let me through on the bike (usually people in information offices are very conservative and careful about advice, and often tell you not to do things, she was a refreshing change).

The kind of roads I had to deal with through Te Urewera.
Before leaving Wairoa, I had to do the daily chore of drying-out my tent, which gets wet overnight from either rain, dew, or condensation.  The skies looked ominous, so I needed to dry it out undercover.  I took it into what looked like an old shopping area where most of the shops had shut down, bar one, a sushi shop.

The owner popped-out of the shop for a smoke and I asked whether it was okay to hang my tent out for a while.  He didn't look especially happy about it and also didn't speak English very well, so I'm not sure if he understood me.  I did recognise his accent though, definitely Korean.  In Australia and New Zealand, there are so many Koreans who own Japanese sushi shops, I guess they think sushi is more popular and they can do better business than with Korean food.

Anyway, he seemed reluctant to let me dry my tent out there and I couldn't understand him, so I started speaking in Korean to him - it always amazes me how much I actually remember and how naturally simple Korean sentences come out of me when I need to use it.  His manner changed immediately; all of a sudden he was smiling, chatty and helping me hang the tent up.  We had a bit of a longer chat in Korean about where he lived in Korea and when and why he was in New Zealand, then he went back into his shop for a while.

As I sat on a bench outside planning where I'd stop that night, I wondered whether he'd come out of his shop with some food for me.  I lived in Korea for over 4 years, so I know Koreans pretty well and I just had a hunch that he would; Koreans are often very kind to strangers, especially if you can speak a little Korean.  Sure enough, about 2 minutes after I thought of it, he came out with a plate full of sushi and then asked me to sit down inside his shop.  What a top bloke, and it reminded me of the random acts of kindness of Koreans.  They are a bit of an enigma sometimes, Koreans; extremely distrustful of non-Koreans, yet at the same time, if you are in need, friendly to them, or show an interest in their culture, they are extremely generous.

As you can see, over a relatively short distance, there was a lot of climbing, but this is a route worth coming to New Zealand for just on its own.

What a great afternoon, free sushi and I could cycle the road through Te Urewera, and it would be extra quiet.  And so it turned-out to be, with so few cars it was like my own wide bicycle path for at least half of the trip - and even after the closures it still wasn't at all busy.

The guy who took this photo for me looked like he had never seen a smartphone in his life.  Miraculously, after about 2 minutes of me holding this pose, he managed to take this photo (37 times).
The cycling was brutal, but the area was something special.  Not just scenic, but really wild and the only communities there were Maori, and they were so isolated that many of them couldn't even speak English.  It did feel like a very ancient and untouched land, except for the narrow unsealed road running through it.

Maori Marae in the Mountains.
I managed a few short walks, although I would have loved to do some longer ones, but that can be difficult with the bike.  The camping was also excellent, with the added plus of it being okay to build a fire, a luxury that is often not afforded in National Parks in Australia and New Zealand.  I could only source water from the lakes, streams, and rivers also, since there were no facilities anywhere other than the odd long-drop toilet.  It did feel like a very wild experience.

Epic vistas, waterfalls, and sights were around every corner and the road, although rough, was very picturesque, weaving through the mountains.

A large waterfall actually passing under the road you can see cut above it.
The climbs were long and difficult, then the road went steeply down and then rose sharply again for probably about 140-150Km.  It was really hard-going, but now over a month into the tour, my body was starting to adjust and things couldn't get that much harder than this couple of days of cycling. Mentally I was up for it, so once I had finished with the main hardship, things started to feel more manageable.

Even a broken spoke, right in the middle of the wilderness couldn't slow me down.  This time the spoke broke on the non-drive side, meaning I could fix it myself without taking the wheel apart.  I did a pretty crappy job of it on the road, and the wheel wasn't exactly running the truest it had ever run, but it was good enough to get me through all the way to Taupo.

Because of the nice weather, I was making good time, and with the combination of this and the feeling of greater strength on the bike, I decided to push forward and forget about rest days.  Starting to have that feeling of invincibility on the bike, I made it to Taupo and tried to assess when the best time would be to go up the Desert Road on to the volcanic plateau past the volcanoes.

Looking on to the distant snowcapped volcanoes from Lake Taupo.
I really wanted to get a good look at Mount Ngauruhoe (used as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings) and Mount Ruapehu from the road.  Two years previously, I had an amazing hike through this region, but I never saw the volcanoes from the road riding in because the weather was so bad at the time I had to get the bus up to Whakapapa village and wait around for 2 days for it to clear.  This time my route through the area was on the other side on the Desert Road, but the weather had to be just right to get a view of the peaks.

I only ended-up staying one night in Taupo because the weather looked good for the Desert Road the next day afternoon and the following morning.  In the half a day I had in Taupo, I had some work to do, though.  The broken spoke in Te Urewera was the fourth on that wheel, so this problem was just going to keep on happening, I had to do something about it.  Nowhere in town stocked new wheels, despite there being several bike shops, but I did find a wheel builder and seeing as my rims were in good condition and it was just the spokes that were weak - possibly from not being originally tensioned properly - he offered to put a whole new set of spokes in a tension them up properly for me that afternoon.  I had to do several runs to different bike shops, though, as they didn't have the correct kind of spokes or size of spokes that I needed.

With the bike fixed then, I set-off the following day, trying to time it so I hit the highest point of the Desert Road in the early evening and camp overnight somewhere.  I timed things pretty well, although in the evening the skies were not nearly as clear as the weather forecast promised them to be, so I couldn't see the volcanoes very well.  Fortunately, though, the next morning the skies were clearer than they were forecast to be and the views were amazing.  

I managed to pitch my tent overnight a few hundred metres down and just off an unused, unsealed side road, almost exactly at the summit of the desert road.  It was cold, as the temperature got below freezing overnight, but there was no wind and I found a nice flat, comfortable spot.  I layered-up and actually had a very peaceful and pleasant night's sleep.

I woke up early and the clouds slowly disappeared, as I got ready, to reveal the volcanoes in all their glory.  It made for a very special early morning cycle.  I even managed to meet the happiest man in New Zealand on the side of the road who took my picture for me.

Very handy that I found this side road that I could camp off the side of, right near the top of the Desert road.
The rest of that day was harder than I expected.  I had psyched myself up for the ascent to the top of the Desert Road, which topped 1000m, but it was actually pretty easy after my trip through Te Urewera.  It was a very slow and steady ascent, but even though the road was more downhill than up the next day, it also included a few quite sharp climbs, so with all the riding behind me I started to suffer a bit.  It actually meant that the day with significantly more downhill was actually much harder on the bike, go figure.

Mount Ruapehu in the early morning light from my camp spot.
I had a bit of a target in mind to reach Wellington by the end of the following day to drop-in on my buddy Alex again, and worked-out that I'd have about 120Km to do on each day to get there (again, my plans of doing no more than 100Km a day completely out of the window).

I was exhausted and wanted to stop at about 6pm on the penultimate day into Wellington, but I ran into the usual problem, there was absolutely nowhere to camp.  All farmland, all fenced-off.  I cycled on until 7.30pm all the way to the silly town of Bulls (the pun capital of the world), where I could at least find a campsite.  I called a holiday park in the town and asked the price, but on the way I managed to find a huge area for wild camping so settled-down there for the night instead.

Just the view off the main road.
Because of the extra time put in, it meant that, although pretty tired, I had only 91Km to go the next day on a flat boring, busy road into Wellington - actually a place called Waikenae, where I hopped on the train for the last 40-50Km or so into the city, avoiding the busy roads.

The highlight of this section was meeting a guy travelling in a truck who had fixed up the back section into a tiny house.  It was amazingly well done, the best I had seen, and I have seen a lot of people travelling in campervans, caravans, and trucks over the past few years.  He had solar panels on the roof, an unbelievable 500 litre water tank, a wood burning stove for cooking and warmth, and an amazingly spacious living area, making great use of the space in the back.  He even had cages underneath the back portion of the vehicle to hold firewood.  He had apparently just come from Wellington to give a talk at a university about building truck houses, which he seemed pretty proud of as a self-confessed, "simple man", but so he should of been, his truck was a work of art, and a highly practical one at that.

I never saw snowcapped mountains on the North Island on previous trips (except for the volcanoes), so I am guessing that the feeling that it had been colder this Spring was probably true.
It is always good to see Alex, and I'm glad I arrived earlier than expected as he was off with his girlfriend for the weekend to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (I had done the Tongariro Northern Circuit 2 years previously, a longer hike which included most of the crossing), so I had a couple of days catching-up with him before he left.

I needed a few days rest in Wellington, and I had some work to do, so apart from a few morning runs up into the hills, I didn't do much - this was also, incredibly, my fourth time in Wellington, so I had seen quite a bit of it before.  Legs rested, ferry tickets bought, and I'm ready for the South Island.

My rough route through the North Island this time around, about 2000Km total.

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