New Zealand: South in Northland

“The mud was thigh deep, couldn’t do better than one kilometer an hour,” says the Canadian thru-hiker. We’re camped in the woods with a cluster of Te Araroa hikers, a couple of tui birds are bleeping and chiming to each other (they sound like R2D2).

The Te Araroa is New Zealand’s long trail, like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest. But unlike those two, it’s not closed to bikes. So I figured we’d try to ride some of it. After the concrete-hard sand on 90 Mile Beach, the trail goes into three forest sections.

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After some blog reading I decided that the first two forests weren’t worth trying. The Canadian pulls out his phone to show pictures of the trail, close to vertical scrambles up big tree roots, legs sunk in mud past the knee. Definitely glad we didn’t try to drag bikes through there.

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The next morning, we start the third and most ridable section of forest. Some nice rough doubletrack out of camp, the onto the singletrack- straight down. I stop at one especially steep muddy section.

“Should we try it?” I ask Colleen.

“Yeah, I guess so. We’re already half way down the hill, ” she says.

Back on my bike, finish the descent, the bottom is so steep I can hardly ride it. Then the trail disappears into a stream. I check my GPS. Yep, that’s it- stream walking for the next 15 kilometers.

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We drag our bikes downstream for about 20 minutes.

“This probably isn’t worth it huh?”

“No.”

Back up the hill.

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We decided that’d be it for our Te Araroa thru-ride attempt. The website says the trail isn’t suitable for bikes (it also says unicorns will be considered on a case by case basis)- I didn’t believe the part about bikes, because I’ve enjoyed taking my bike lots of places that supposedly aren’t suitable (like pushing it to the top of a 14er in Colorado). But in this case, the official literature isn’t lying.

You could be the first person to drag a bike along the singletrack, but it’d be an accomplishment about as pointless as being the first person to play a tuba on the floor of Lake Michigan.

The singletrack is too steep and too muddy for wheels. Overall, it’s a kind of a weird trail. It’s not continuous singletrack like the AT, PCT, Colorado Trail, or Arizona Trail. There are tons of pavement sections, open farm fields, stream walking, and cliff-side beach scrambling parts. Lots of thru-hikers hitchhike around the road sections, which makes it seem to me like they aren’t thru-hikers anymore.

But anyway, I’d been wondering for a few years if it was possible to bikepack the Te Araroa. It’s not. Curiosity is satisfied.

A few wrong turns, then we get on the path of the green wieners, which leads us to great riding.
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Outside of Whangarei, we have to leave town on Highway 1, which is the main artery of the North Island. The road is chip seal, a six-inch-wide shoulder. Logging truck after logging truck. When they pass, the vortex behind the truck sucks my bike toward the road.
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One rips by, kicks up a windshield-breaker stone, nails me in the cheek right below my eye, son of a dick-licking cunt bitch fuck that bastard-

“Jesus, why are you yelling like that?” Colleen says behind me.

“Sorry, got hit by a rock.” Stream of consciousness cursing makes me feel better. Colleen always seems to worry that I’m actually angry. 

Every kilometer, the shoulder disappears as the road crosses a stream, and we’re forced out into the 100kph traffic, sprint across the bridge and pray. 

A few days later, we make it back to Auckland, hang out for a day, then take a ferry to Beachlands, about 30 miles south of the city. I love a good boat ride- way better than pedaling through Auckland traffic again. 

We get on the Tour Aotearoa route, which unfortunately is still all pavement. Then some rail trail. At this point, I’m starting to lose my patience with road riding. Except for a few short dirt sections, I’ve been spinning three-inch tires on a 34×22 gear, at 12 miles-an-hour down the highway, all day every day for two months. I’m not trying to be a complainer, but riding an under-geared singlespeed in humid, sticky weather for that long makes a man’s ass hurt.

I really want to ride some trails, or at least some interesting gravel. But so far there just hasn’t been anything. And Colleen is having fun, because she loves being in New Zealand. So I’m trying really hard not to be annoyed by the riding. But still, I’d like to go mountain biking.

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Fortunately we’re close to Rotorua- where I’m there has to be good singletrack, and we know a couple friends from home that moved there to raft guide.

The internet comes to New Zealand via a little fiberoptic cable that runs across the floor of the Pacific from California. The connection is slow, places rarely have free wifi (even hostels make guests pay extra for data), and communicating via Facebook messenger isn’t real efficient.

We know that our friends live somewhere around Rotorua, and they know that we’re coming sometime around Christmas. But that’s as far as we got. Since we can’t get ahold of them, we ride up to Okere Falls, where our friend guides on the Kaituna River. The town is tiny- one combination organic food store and bar, only a couple dozen houses. This shouldn’t be too hard. I ask a girl at the first rafting company I see.

“Excuse me. I’m looking for Josh Dickey, any idea where I might find him?”

“Who?” she says.

“Frodo!” somebody else chimes in. Fits, Dickey is pretty small and hairy.

“Oh, yees. Frodo. Go up the hill, ask at the houses with all the boats outside. They’ll know.”

Up the hill ridiculously steep hill, same question.

“Oh yeah bru. Go past the airport, make a right,” says one guy, then gives me the address.

“Sweet, thanks a ton,” I say, and we start coasting down the hill.

“No worries,” he yells after us. “See you at home.”

Must be their roommate. Little river towns are the best (aside from the mould smell).

Bike leaning on big stuff:

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Notes:

If we could do it again, I think we’d take a bus up to the top of the island, and ride through Northland once instead of doing a 600 mile loop there.

It’s fine and pretty, and the huge trees made it worth it, but it’s not my favorite kind of place to tour- lots of pavement spinning is unavoidable, and not many quiet campsites. It felt a lot like riding around the rural Northeast US.

Everything is either a private farm or a protected Kauri forest, so we had to pay to stay in a campground almost every night. Those are nice once in a while- there’s always have a hot shower and a kitchen to use, but at 15 to 20 NZD per-person, per-night, they were stretching the budget.

Hostels are usually around 30 NZD per-person, and always full of European (mostly German) teenagers- boys with their chests puffed up and sun glasses on after sunset, girls giggling in high-waisted shorts and flouncy shirts, all drunk and happy and free in the world. Makes us feel old. And annoyed. We’ve been avoiding those places.

New Zealand towns usually allow free camping- but frustratingly, you have to be in a van with a self-containment certification. No tents allowed.

The ferries are a great way to skip riding out of Auckland. There’s one that goes over to the Coromandel, which would probably be the best way to start a trip from the city.

We’re in Rotorua now, waiting for a fresh set of tires to come in. Rotorua is a good place to be waiting. They’ve got gnar for days. It’s real rad.

4 thoughts on “New Zealand: South in Northland

    1. I’m sure it’ll be sweet, we’re gonna make a beeline there as soon as our new tires get in. Rotorua this week has been awesome, the trails here make all that pavement crap worth it

  1. I hear you on the pavement and endless farm roads. Not my cup of tea, and I only had a few days here and there of it. I also had gears…. just low enough to only spin out in a tailwind. And I make a point of never complaining when there are tailwinds involved.

    The Otago area seems one of the only spots you can link ‘heaps’ of good stuff without highways or farmy roads. We could have spent a lot more time there. You will, I’m sure. The GSB route is a good core route, it seemed, though difficult at times.

    Some funny stuff here. Kiwis love to understate, so when they tell you not to take a bike on it, they seem to mean it. I had enough people tell me not to bother with the TA that I guess I believed it. Having run into it many times on the South Island, wasn’t all that inspired to hike it, let alone ride it. Lots of walking through farms with no track, climbing fences, or wandering along rivers with no trail, etc. As you know…

    LOL on the Germans and hostels. Some areas are good for free camping in the S. Island, but sometimes holiday parks are the only way….

    1. I think up north was particularly bad for riding (and extra full of German teenagers). Camping, hostels, trails, and all that south of Rotorua have been a lot better. Thanks for the tip on Otago, we’ll be headed to the other island in a few days. Lookin forward to it

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