In search of a warmer winter

One of the things I loved about New Zealand was the fact it could feel at the same time both so familiar but also so different. Heather-strewn landscapes on the Tongariro crossing. The scent of tea tree on the air, evoking memories of teenage shopping trips. Millionaires shortbread in the form of huge gooey slabs in every cafe. A whole month of daylight, sunshine and adventures with friends was exactly what I needed.

I didn’t have a single cake or ice cream disappointment the entire trip. So if there's one thing I've learnt is that NZ does amazing coffee and cake - crucial matters for anyone planning some bikepacking.

I arrived in Rotorua at lunchtime to meet John for a bike-packing trip. We planned to do the Geyserland gravel grind loop but had to be back by Friday lunchtime so knew it might be a bit challenging timewise. Rosie had very kindly lent me her bike so it was my first time bike-packing on rigid forks and fat tyres. I was pretty impressed at her homemade frame bag. She’d warned me that her saddle wasn’t too comfortable but I couldn’t get mine off my bike at home so decided just to go with it. After nearly four months of not biking due to my collarbone and finger surgery I wasn’t really expecting 14hr days in the saddle to be amazingly comfortable but hoped my body would just remember quickly that this is what it does!

So we set off on cycle paths and minor roads out of Rotorua, reaching the Waikato river trail just a bit before nightfall. The tight switchbacks felt a bit alien after so long away from mountain biking and a strange bike on top of that. Not helped by the fact that I’d put all my heavy stuff in my bar bag, causing the bike to feel very front-heavy on the steep descents. But it was a pretty cool place to get back into it, with the river coming in and out of view as we followed alongside.

It turns out the bugs come out in force after dark (though they are benign compared to midgies) and when we decided to camp we were pretty quick to set up a trail side tent and bivvy. Having not seen anyone for hours I was pretty surprised to wake in the night to the sound of a bike, quietly gliding by. But this is part of the Tour Aotereao route so I suppose there could be people going through there at all hours. Like John would be a few months later.I ate the remains of last night's takeaway noodles before setting off, stopping a couple of hours later at Mangakino for second breakfast (proving that even small towns here value real coffee). We resupplied at the Foursquare and pedalled over some rather large hills (>1000m) to reach the start of the Timbertrail by late afternoon. It seemed to stay hot much later than I expected and between the heat and jet lag I found the climb up to the highest point a bit of a challenge. Lots of stops gave me the opportunity to investigate the array of kiwi snacks I’d picked up earlier.

Always good to get the measure of the local snacks

And I definitely appreciated the downhill when it came, as well as the numerous suspension bridges which offered photo opportunities! The Timber Trail was probably one of the highlights of the trip and, aside from a couple of groups of hikers on the second day, it felt like we mostly had it to ourselves.

We camped at the official midway campsite at Piripiro. We’d hoped the lodge might sell us dinner but they were busy with a private function so instead we stocked up on some giant bags of crisps, which did us for dinner, breakfast and lunch the next day.

I’m not sure bikepacking is always the healthiest of sports but the luxury muesli I’d had planned for breakfast was looking pretty unappealing. I’d awoken in the night to the sound of scuffling round my head. I blearily assumed that it was outside the tent but the sound of panicked scuffles down my side made me suspect that wasn’t the case. Switching on my headtorch confirmed a large hole in the door, where something sharp toothed. Rat? Mouse? had chewed its way in to help itself to my breakfast. I patched up the hole as best I could with elastoplasts and tried not to think too much about it. The next morning I was slightly dreading what might have happened to my bike bags and was relieved to find that, although something with big teeth (possum?) had had a good go at my stem cell bag, it hadn’t made it all the way through to my scroggin (kiwi for trail mix).

Fixing a worryingly large hole in my tent after a night-time visitor

HUGE teeth marks on my Stem Cell pack

So after a 14hr day in the saddle and two nights of not much sleep, I was definitely going quite slowly. Turns out my body wasn’t keen to remember about bikepacking quite so quickly, at least, not without a proper meal!

We decided the full geyserland ride was going to be too far for our timescale and detoured onto another route with some roads and gravel tracks to head back to Rotorua. We had a fantastic stop at the wooden heart cafe in Bennydale where I had no shame in ordering two toasties and a giant slab of carrot cake, before heading to the dairy (corner shop) to restock on food.

Nothing I love more than filling up on snacks!
Our trip took a slightly more relaxed tone after that with a couple of long stops at campsites, detours to a beautiful beach, the longest suspension bridge in the Southern Hemisphere at Arapuni and the crystal clear blue springs on the way back to the sulforous pools and parklands of stinky Rotorua.

The Blue Springs outside of Rotorua. A perfect, peaceful campspot to end the trip 

The trip ended with a great feed in an aptly named Cafe (‘be rude not too’) and a much appreciated shower at the hostel. No bit of this country is flat so, despite the fact that we didn’t seem to go much more than a 10km an hour average, it felt like we’d worked pretty hard. Maybe next time I would have a helmet with more vents for the heat.
The Tongariro Crossing. Glad not to have a bike after 5 days in the saddle.

Attacked by a giant kiwi. 


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