Cycling NZ’s Tour Aotearoa: The best New Zealand cycle trail and Great Ride

Cycling NZ’s Tour Aotearoa: The best New Zealand cycle trail and Great Ride

It’s sobering, the deals which are struck over a bottle of wine.

I found myself agreeing, a year ago, to ride the Tour of Aotearoa (TA) in March this year. My cloudy vision was of pedalling past bucolic pastures and crops, skirting around undulating hills and admiring distant maunga.

I didn’t think about rain and punctures, and the fact that I’d need to be scaling not skirting.

Thankfully there was no camping involved, but it would be unassisted (no electric bikes), and the target was Cape Reinga to Bluff in 30 days – 3000km.

We began as a hard core of four.

A couple from the UK (Fran and George), my old mate Aaron (Captain Fantastic) and me.

On day one at the Cape, we met Paul from Oz who we decided was such a good bloke we made him our fifth member.

All but one of us were 59, and about to turn the big 6 0. That inner voice that tells all of us to “get on your bike” had been a loud one, and the proof was to be in the pedalling. Could I still do this?

You can ride the TA any time and any way: north-south, south-north, you can drift off to the east coast too, even though the formal trail veers west down both motu. It incorporates our best cycle trail rides, heartland rides, and makes use of quiet country roads.

Some TA-ers do camp along the way, some use the credit card – staying in pubs, motels, hotels, and the occasional dodgy dive. You can ride the tour in 15 days if you’re mad keen, other people take months to do it.

To nail it in 30 days, which we intended, takes planning. You have to think hard about accommodation, tides, food supplies and the navigation of four bodies of water: Pouto Point to Helensville; a stretch of the Whanganui River; Cook Strait; and getting across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Walter Peak.

Captain Fantastic produced the mother of all spread sheets with distances, timings, locations, and accommodation laid out for us. But he’d made no contingency plans for bad weather, mechanical maladies, and unforeseen sickness. His is a Type-A relentless approach, he’d keep riding, whatever obstacle presented itself.

We began with high hopes, rotating our legs and crossing our fingers. The route was loaded into our Garmins, our GPS trackers were on and in our paniers were copies of the Tour of Aotearoa Official Guide Handbook (written by the doyens of bikepacking, the Kennett brothers). We were as good to go as we could be.

Day one was diabolical. Ninety Mile Beach (it’s 72km actually but it feels like 720) was arduous, windy and hot. It’s hard riding on sand, which tends to dispel any joy you feel being beside the big blue ocean. We had a head wind and we averaged not much more than 14km/h. You can do the maths on how long it took us to struggle into Ahipara.

We went straight to the dairy for the most comforting, calorie-laden thick shake of my life. I decided then to make this ‘Mary’s milkshake tour of NZ’, but as it turns out surprisingly few dairies now offer milkshakes. The other downside to beach riding is that the sand and salt water are disastrous for bikes: chains start rusting, sand clogs essential functions, and that requires more than a simple hosing down to clean and sort.

With the beach behind us, and in baking conditions, we rode through to Opononi the next day, and overnighted at the four-star Sands hotel before heading for Dargaville. Seven kilometres out from this (let’s be honest) underwhelming destination, three “Trail Angels” greeted us by their farm gate offering chilled water and watermelon.

They were siblings who had been tracking us on the GPS. They knew precisely when we would be passing. What a delight it was, and how wonderful they were. They told us stories of riders in front of us in varying states of disrepair. Some were thinking about going home already, others had mechanical problems. It didn’t seem to bode well, but the memory of the meeting was such a happy one.

By day four we had hit Auckland. I had to take a couple of days off the tour at this point because of pressing work commitments. Normal stresses do disappear on a bike, but they re-appear when texts arrive on the phone.

The section I missed I had done previously anyway, so I knew what my mates were in for: the flat Hauraki Rail Trail, the remote roads at the back of Mangakino, the glorious 80km Timber Trail and the muddy, gnarly single track alongside the Whanganui River. They sent me photos of mud which they were scraping thick inches off from their wheels every 50m or so. I became grateful for the pressing work commitments.

I reconnected with them a few days later in Ashhurst, the nice small town just north of Palmerston North. There’s a bit of climbing involved getting out of the Manawatū but the gigantic wind turbines are a welcome distraction from the grind, and then it’s pretty much plain sailing from Eketāhuna (great pub and food) through to Masterton.

We had a Top 10 sleepover in Martinborough, and then a very early start on day 16 to get over the Rimutaka rail trail summit in time to make Wellington for the 3pm ferry to Picton.

I was happy to be on the mainland. They say if you’re born there it feels like a homecoming each time, and I think that’s true.

The Picton to Nelson ride (day 17) includes the option of tackling the infamous Maungatapu Saddle. I didn’t, because I am sensible. I rode the road through the Rai Valley and Whangamoa.

The others, gripped by a zealous insanity, mostly pushed their bikes to the top of the saddle, experienced no view whatsoever, and then pushed their bikes down the other side. It’s seriously rocky and steep, and it required more than six hours of stamina. They were fitter than me, and believe me they were sore, unhappy and tired when we met up in Nelson that evening.

The next couple of days took us into hop growing country, through the 1.4km Spooners Rail Tunnel, and eventually into Reefton – home to the best baking in the country at the Broadway Tearooms and Bakery on the main drag. We had solo riders Greg and Vaughan in tow by now, making us a caravan of seven.

On day 22 we hit the mighty West Coast Wilderness Trail – arguably the best-maintained and accessible track of them all – which runs from Greymouth through to Ross (where it rained, rained a bit more, and then resumed raining). I got ticked off at ‘Cowboy Paradise’ by Mike, the unhospitable proprietor, for sheltering under an awning – to be fair he was under some stress having just been found guilty of a major underground bunker drug operation.

On the 24th day we pedalled from Harihari (so nice they named it twice, and surprisingly it has a school roll of 140) through to Franz Josef, crawling up two large peaks, and finally dropped down into Fox Glacier.

We had to share the road with large logging trucks and impatient drivers, and people in that brand of camper van with ‘Adventure before Dementia’ on the side. We had no choice. And the further south we went, the more road kill there was on the road, in varying stages of decay. Sad and gross.

With a week to go we were on the home stretch, and wear and tear on the bikes was starting to show. Greg’s ongoing gearing issues were taking a toll (he was down to two gears held together with number 8 wire), Vaughan kept getting punctures, Paul had spoke problems and Captain Fantastic’s bike was making weird noises. He ignored them. We were all relieved to reach Wānaka and have the bikes properly repaired.

Day 28 (Wānaka to Queenstown) required surmounting the 1100m Crown Range, the highest point on the entire tour. The final couple of kilometres before the top saw me cycle so slowly I really felt like I was going backwards.

A pre-dawn boat trip the next morning took us across Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station, ahead of 70km of harsh gravel and through the Mavora Lakes (which was one of the many film locations for The Lord of the Rings). Then it was a smooth ride from Mossburn to Lumsden.

We opted for an ungodly start time on our last day to make the finish by early afternoon, but it’s a very easy 120km, on pretty much sealed roads, through to Bluff, and its totemic AA sign indicating distances to places on the planet I’d never heard of, like Kumagaya and Suqian.

We had made it.

Yes, it’s hard, but also much better fun in retrospect than a big 60th birthday party with people making the usual remarks about how many years we have left. We have plenty.

If you can ride a bike, I seriously recommend you give it a go.

Don’t worry about how long you take.

As they say, it’s all about the journey, and you meet great people doing it.