Waipapakauri to Waikiki Landing
My boss had warned me that the road to Cape Reinga was ‘quite hilly’.
‘the whole country is “quite hilly” I’m sure I will be fine.’
I had said, laughing, stroking my ego like a bond villain. My false bravado sounding sincere enough to my ears.
I wanted to start small to begin with, a casual 70km from Waipapakauri to Waikiki Landing. The route was following the ‘highway’ a deserted two-lane road that weaved its way up and over the crumpled landscape to Cape Reinga, the most northerly point of New Zealand.
That first day I was overcome with worry. My body felt rusty and creaky, like I had been off the training for two weeks and then stuffed into a plane and a bus for a day. Every twinge in my knee felt ominous, was that the start of a new injury? Would it end in me having to quit the ride? I felt bad for doubting my body. I had put in 6 months of solid training and was the fittest I had ever been. That being said it had let me down before (in Canada) and left me hobbling for months. I prayed they were just niggles and would disappear once I warmed up.
Thankfully warming up was happening at record speed. At 9am it was already 24C with maximum humidity and the sun was still rising. Steam rose off the tarmac like a fog, it whirled around me, as I passed, breaking the sullen silence with my panting and creaking joints. The scenery reminded me of rural England, long fields carved neatly into sections with scattered farm equipment rusting in the salty air. A major difference from the English countryside however was the bamboo trees used as windbreaks and scattered Cabbage trees that bordered the road.
I couldn’t see the ocean but I could smell it all around me. The air felt dense; with rich earthy smells, heat like a heavy blanket and humidity that was palpable. The heavy rains of the last few weeks were being burned off all around, leaving that sweet fruity compost smell, mixed with the ocean air and the occasional whiff of pine from the forest it was an assault to the senses.
I found the highway without using my GPS (a good omen) and turned North. This was a part of the trip I hadn’t planned too much for. I thought it was possible to get a bus right to the very top of Cape Reinga and then ride solidly south to Bluff. As it turned out Kaitaia was a far north as I could get and the rest was to be by pedal power. What is an extra 200km in a 3000km ride?
As Adam had warned it was a hilly ride. The road basically undulated from sea level to about 150m, on paper I had dismissed it as ‘the easy warm up section’. Compared to cycling over the mountain passes, 150m was nothing. I didn’t take into account however the amount of times the road jumped up to that 150m mark At the end of the first day I had accumulated over 1200m in elevation!
I also hadn’t considered the stifling heat of the far North! Stopping at a cafe to fill up my water bottles that were already gurgling empty, I saw I had clocked up 40km! I was making great time. 20km/h was the average I was aiming towards and to be hitting it straight off the bat was a huge relief, as was the ice-cold ginger beer I got from the cafe.
Setting off again I faced the sun and got my head down to put in some distance, I wanted to ride as far as possible before taking a ‘siesta’ to avoid riding in the hottest part of the day. My original plan was to start the ride in February (end of summer in NZ) but now I was glad of the delay until early March. The early spring weather in Northland was plenty hot enough for me.
Sweat dripped, from everywhere. It ran down my arms and poured off my fingers falling onto the sizzling hot tarmac. The bag on my top tube was sodden with the trickle from my nose and chin. I could see little white halos where the water had already evaporated away leaving just the salt. My heavily applied sun cream streamed into my eyes leaving them stinging.
At around 1 o’clock I started to have stomach cramps. I worried about the fish and chips from last night or the change in drinking water. Looking back now it was the early stages of overhydration. When the levels of salt in the blood are too low compared to the amount of water. I had drunk close to 5 litres of water but hadn’t been replacing my salts. Far from life threatening at that point it was more uncomfortable than anything.
I continued riding into the heavy sun, arriving in Waikiki Landings around 3pm. I hadn’t stopped during the hottest part of the day which had been my original plan. Now I was starting to feel the strain and the effects of the heat. My legs weren’t aching and I wasn’t out of breath but I was riding slower and slower. I was running out of energy at just 70km and was relieved to pull into the dairy (a New Zealand corner shop). For those of you who are looking to make the ride yourselves this is the last shop up to Cape Reinga. They also have accommodation.
The fast pace in the morning had stirred secret ambitions of smashing big days right off the bat These hasty notions had been scorched in the heat. My 100km day which had seemed so possible at 10am had been shrivelled down to 70km, like cheap bacon in the oven, something I could relate to at that point. I sat in the shade eating salty crisps and drinking Powerade. Being out of the sun and getting my salt levels back in line, l could see what had happened. I took a mental note to eat plenty of salt in the future.
As I sat there, I wrestled with the idea of riding on. If I rode further today, just another 10km I could make it to Cape Reinga and back to Erin’s house tomorrow and still be under 100km. If I stayed where I was it would be quite the haul to get up to the Cape and back in one day. Added to that was the unknown of riding 90 Mile Beach.
I had ridden a little on sand on my practise rides and it was painfully slow. Wheels churned and dragged. Momentum was bought at the extortionate price of energy with a high tax on mileage. According to my guidebook the beach was ‘tough as concrete’ when the tide went out. Buses and cars drove up and down it every day. It is a fully mapped highway and used to be a main road, I was still filled with doubt however and prepared for the worst.
After a solid rest stop at the dairy I decided, halfheartedly, to push on a little further. I rode around the corner and was hit immediately with a strong head wind and a moderately steep climb. I happily turned back, explored what looked like a dirt road off to the side and made camp in the stubby coastal forest.
At 70km it wasn’t a big day and felt fit. My knees felt strong. My stomach cramps had receded after the crisps. This was looking more promising than TransCanada already!
Sitting in the fading light hidden from the road and the sun by the trees my body finally cooled. A slight breeze kept off the bugs and I sat outside my tent listening to crickets, they rejoiced along with the birds at the passing of the week’s storm. I could hear rushing water behind me, a stream pushed to breaking point was clearing the rainwater down towards the ocean.
Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach
Starting the morning with an uphill and a headwind sets a precedent for the morning. Clouds shoot across the sky, rushing away from some unknown menace up ahead. The wind is howling and I feel the invisible hand pushing me back. Cape Reinga is looking to be a tough place to get to. And I have only been riding a few hours. I see few cars but they all seem to be following the wind, the opposite way to me. Even the downhills I have to pedal. 7km/h downhill at one point!
The Island narrows to a point and I can see the South Pacific Ocean on my right. The road sidles through dark red sands that spill down the road embankments and wafts into drifts in the lee ward corners. I notice that it is a vastly different colour and texture than the dark gritty brown of the embankments nearer to Kaitaia. You have a lot of time to look at these things when you’re riding 7km/h.
The forest is reduced to a more stunted windblown version of itself. The runty yet hardwearing sibling of the lush undergrowth I experienced starting my ride. I wasn’t complaining though, leaving the cover of the trees I was at the full mercy of the wind. Gusts, occasionally filled with skin stinging sand and grit shoved me to and fro across the road. I weaved like a drunk right up to the end of the North Island.
The South Pacific on my right and the Tasman Sea on my left as I stood beneath the famous Cape Reinga lighthouse. The two mighty bodies of water collided in a churning string of whirlpools and eddies. Two distinct colours too which surprised me (knowing nothing of oceans) the Pacific a much darker duller hue to the Tasman. The sombre older brother to the optimistic naivety of the younger. Where they met looked like a maelstrom of currents and chaos. The lighthouse was a vital beacon to avoid being caught up in the tidal mess.
Cape Reinga has a strong cultural significance and I am glad it isn’t overly touristy. It still holds it’s epic natural beauty. The Cape is according to Maori mythology where the spirits of the dead travel through on their way home. Reinga actually means ‘underworld’ and the souls jump off the cliffs into the sea before pulling themselves up the roots of the 800-year-old Pohutukawa tree and joining the ‘spirits pathway’ and heading to Hawaiki the ‘Spiritual Homeland’.
I sat for a while, appreciating the view, all the more spectacular for the effort it took to obtain it, dwelling in the feeling of accomplishment at starting this challenge properly.
I took my obligatory photos next to ‘the signpost’ pointing to all the different cities in the world. Me and my fully laden bike, the ideal ‘before’ shot, all my gear shiny and new and myself, already bedraggled and sweaty after just a day and half. The sweat gleaming from my head and rolling down my wind burnt cheeks.
There is usually something very disheartening to ride back the way you have come. It highlights the pointlessness of the recreation. To put so much effort into something just for the act of doing it, to then turn around and undo all that hard work. I am a huge fan of at least riding in a loop but to ride back along the same road is the very essence of pointlessness. There is one exception that changes all that though. A raging tailwind!
What took me almost 2.5 hours to get to took just under an hour to ride back. The grinding uphill became an eye watering, wind rushing descent. Winding tight around each corner the weight of my bike pulling me faster and faster as the red sand walls turned back to brown with each blurring corner.
In no time at all I pulled off the ‘main’ road (next to no traffic single lane each direction) and headed along the back road to 90 Mile Beach. I had no expectations of what lay ahead, I had done no research or even looked at a picture, I had only seen it on a map (and discovered it isn’t actually 90 miles). In person, it was like nothing I had ever seen. The green grass and trees stopped suddenly not even petering out just stopping dead at the edge of a desert. Sandstone coloured sand dunes rose up ahead, blocking off the view of the ocean, maybe 200m high.
The road abruptly finished at the foot of the dunes with a non-descript carpark. There were less than half a dozen cars parked there. Half collapsed walking tracks weaved along the sandy ridges up to the san peaks. The footprints parallel to a sporadic notch in the sand where the ‘sandboards’ had rested the walkers as they fought their way up the unstable path. Every step only gaining half its height as the sand shifted. The ‘sandboards’ themselves were nothing more than boogie boards with waxed bases hired from one of the entrepreneurial local farmers.
Since the road had ended I followed a path that skirted around the dunes and headed roughly toward the ocean. My first tentative voyage into the sand didn’t fill me with confidence. It was waterlogged and soft and I was soon riding along a shallow but wide stream running out to the ocean. This surprisingly was the ‘official’ entrance to 90 Mile Beach. The stark contrast of what this would be like in the UK. There would be signs everywhere with warnings, tide times, an emergency phone, a paved road. I loved New Zealand for it and a smile stuck firmly to my sweat plastered face, this was getting adventurous, touring no more, I was adventure cycling!
Following the stream was tricky on the bike. I frequently bogged into the sand and had to carry it to a shallower section. I had to weave and guess the best route to maintain forward motion, at the same time my eyes drawn to the great dunes and the happy scream of people sandboarding down them. Luckily it was only a short diversion.
My first glimpse up close of the ocean. The beach was maybe 50-100m wide. The crashing waves on my right and the dunes on my left. The dunes disappeared shortly after. Receding into a sandy foothill then into a shallow embankment of the high tide mark. Stubby grasses and windblown trees sheltered as best they could hidden amongst the sands. I rode closer to the water’s edge and found the ground to indeed be very hard packed!
‘pick a gear and stay in it,’
I had been advised, the sand and salt make a mockery of bike mechanics. I chose high and got my pedal on.
The first hour or so was fun. The weirdness of riding on a beach at all was compacted by being over taken by normal cars and even better the giant all-terrain buses that shot past. All smiles and waves and camera flashes. Sometimes slowing down to keep pace with me, honking their horn in appreciation of my efforts in the hot weather. No doubt the driver commenting on the number of mad cyclists they see riding up and down this beach. One of the buses stopped up ahead and I was greeted with a round of applause as I rode past.
I was making great time and great speed. My GPS showed I was holding 30km/h. I felt really strong. My mind started to whirl with calculations as to how long it would take to get back to Erin’s house at this speed, perhaps I could make it in one day after all? If I could hold 30km/h on a fully loaded bike I could do anything. It’s only when I stopped to put more sun cream on that I realised the reason for my fast pace. I was still blessed with a mighty tail wind!
I rode on for a few hours before the monotony and the heat started to get to me. The view was unchanging the temperature too was holding at a solid 30C without a hint of cover. To make the time go faster. I tried riding no handed, eyes closed to see how far I could go. The ‘road’ had widened by this point, the tide retreating to about 200m. The heat again was an issue. My training rides were no where near as hot. Pouring water over my head was only a mild respite. I even got my long-sleeve lightweight hoody out and dipped it in a stream. It evaporated dry in about 30 minutes.
After some anxious searching and a few false turns, I finally pulled off the beach to Erin’s house in Waipapakauri. I was sun kissed and salt stained. My legs were caked in sand and sweat, a filthy ‘tan’ line between my socks and shorts.There was a bad smell coming from my T-shirt that looked tie-dyed with rings of sweat. My face was flushed with sun and exhaustion and my eyes were deeply bloodshot from the sun cream and sweat combination. No doubt I was a sight to behold.
My bike wasn’t looking to great either. The chain had rusted orange from the salt spray and was making noises I had never heard from a bike before. Sand and salt had worked its way into the derailleur and now I was basically riding with one gear. The one thing I had already realised I had left in Queenstown was my mini bottle of chain lube. I would have to source something en-route. I had ridden 116km and burned 5300 calories. This was the furthest I had ever gone on this bike and it was only my second day! I hoped the rest of the trip would be full of tailwinds!