I feel the chill in the air as soon as I wake up. It’s the brisk clear air of autumn’s steady approach. My first cool morning of the trip and I don’t think it’s just the elevation, although last night’s camp was at 900m.
This is a definite indicator of the seasons rolling gently over from summer towards autumn. A nudge to remind me that I have a timeline and that it isn’t just my outward flight. I don’t want to be crossing mountain passes when the weather is turning to the full bluster of winter. But these are worries for another day. Right now, my issue is uncurling myself from my snug little cocoon and to embrace this fresh new day.
Shaking the dew from my tent I hear the quiet murmurs from the forest, sound is stifled and the leaves still. The predawn light falls flat and with a bluish tinge, the sun is rising on the other side of the hill. If I want to warm up, it’s down to me. A few early rising birds jump the queue on the dawn chorus and are keen to begin their day. A few solo songs break out before the full concert begins.
To Top of the Hill
It’s not long before thick golden beams slash horizontally through trees, bold blocks of light strobe as I power to the highest point of the hill, my breath hangs thick in the still air. I’m riding fast. Chasing towards the sun and the glorious warmth. My back and arms feel stiff and knotted after my battle through the forest yesterday.
When I reach the top, I don’t stop for long. The track is deserted so I make the most of it and ride fast and carefree. The trail flows beautifully, twisting and turning through dense forest, each corner a surprise hidden by deep ferns and thick bush. I glimpse brief windows through the trees onto epic vistas over the valleys.
The sky is overcast but a fierce bright compared to the shadows of the forest. The views are spectacular, a true birds eye perspective over the top of the canopy, rogue trees punch up from the masses and stand, proud and clear, a head above the rest. The high achievers sway in the breeze but on the trail the air is gentle and passive.
The whistle in my ears is from the gentle but constant downhill and my legs pushing hard to get the blood pumping through my aching body, this trail is a truly a work of art from the riding perspective, seemingly downhill all the way and tight and twisted. My smile shines out through an increasingly scruffy beard.
The trail widens in sections to resemble more forest road than forest trail. Signs offer advice on how best to ride it, I decline the advice and fly down at a nerve jangling, bike rattling pace. I am having so much fun taking pictures goes out of the window. This is childlike exuberance in pure bike form, downhill path plus empty trails plus bicycle equals a very happy Lewis.
Skidding around a corner at a confidence-shaking speed I spot a cyclist just ahead. Excited to meet another fellow adventurer I chase after him for a bit and we stop for a chat. He has a nest of scraggly grey hair bursting out from his helmet, wiry arms peak out from under layers of merino wool. There is a lot of mud, spread generously all over him. This is man I could see myself getting along with.
It took about ten minutes to find I have been misled by his outward appearance. Whilst telling me how he had fallen off his bike a little earlier (apparently his wheel fell off?!) I discovered he was extremely boring. His lacklustre storytelling and monotone voice made what should have been a great story, painfully tedious. It was quite a skill he had, to turn an epic bike crash in the middle of a forest in New Zealand into a dull recount.
He had a slightly tarnished view on this trail and was quite negative about the bike touring idea as a whole. This made me wonder about his motivation? If you don’t like it, why would you put yourself through it? It’s a very easy thing to avoid. Most people go their whole lives without going on a solo, unsupported bike ride. It’s not exactly something you do by accident, is it?
In contrast, I was practically bouncing with anticipation to carry on riding. So far this was the best days riding yet. The trail was amazing, the weather was holding out and the scenery was sublime. I brushed off his negativity with ease and pedalled up a slight rise with even more beautiful downhill to come.
Not too far ahead I came across some other cyclists, their names unfortunately completely forgotten as I stared at their fully laden bags. They were riding The Timber Trail, first one way then turning around and riding back. Three nights of camping at the most. However, their bikes were practically straining with the weight of bulging panniers. Both riders had double panniers on front and back. On top of the stuffed panniers were drybags containing yet more crumpled items. I couldn’t believe the load they had for just three nights of camping.
My initial thoughts were that they were new to cycle touring and had packed everything AND the kitchen sink. As we chatted they absolutely shattered my misconceptions. Here were two absolute legends! This old couple, with their grey hair and sun-wrinkled faces were true adventure junkies. For decades, they had been chasing the high, the buzz of experience and the thrill of the unknown.
They had ridden Alaska to Patagonia and then back up to Mexico through the desert. Ridden across America a few times. Rode a full circuit of Australia and then into the centre to Uluru. They had cycled the length of New Zealand a bunch of times as well. They had even travelled with their dog in a trailer on the back of the bike. Their longest single trip was six years!
And, you know what? They had that spark in their eye still, the energy I had encountered in Ashwin back at Jones Landing. The electricity of people who are chasing adventure and getting their kicks out in nature. I wish I was riding the other way, I wanted to follow them and hear their stories. Between them they must have had enough campfire stories for weeks on end.
I was dying to ask why they were carrying so much but didn’t know how to word it politely. Thankfully they brought it up. They asked how far I was going and then were astonished by how light I was travelling for such a long period. I felt suddenly very naive and under prepared. If these seasoned travellers were surprised, what had I missed? After some kit list comparison, they asked if I had a bowl to wash myself in? Now it was my turn to be astonished. They were literally carrying a sink!
The difference they said was simply age. They wanted a bit more comfort and were happy to carry it. I however, wanted to travel as light as possible and not having a basin to wash my face in the morning was certainly a price worth paying. I left them filled with enthusiasm and motivation. What lovely inspiring people, I only wish I had gotten their names.
Downhill, so much downhill
With their brief stories echoing around my head I was absolutely bombing downhill. The trail was now following the old railway line. It was wide and flat and the corners gentle, the gradient was deceptive and the speed came easy. It was a matter of nerve, how fast was I willing to go on unknown tracks.
I got a fright a few times, when going through a puddle at top speed and it being far deeper than expected. The bike jolted, heavy under my hands and the wheels skittered, the front bounding into the air at the same time as the back was clunking into the hole. Mud splashing everywhere and my bike was briefly airborne before making a spectacularly ungraceful landing back onto the track. I was expecting a burst tyre but the wheels held and the bike rolled on.
Joe, Swing Bridge Enthusiast.
The epic downhills were broken by incredible views from spectacular swing bridges. These architectural marvels gave unprecedented views across deep, forested valleys. The raging river looking like a bubbling stream from high above the tree tops. Peering over the edge of these huge bridges and through the dappled leaves to the blue and white waters below was an awe-inspiring experience.
As I was wobbling my way across yet another bridge I notice another bikepacker waiting on the other side. Still buoyed from my conversation with the older couple I stop for another chat. Joe was the epitome of a bikepacker. His unkempt ginger beard was glowing in the sun and his face ruddy and sunburned. He looked slightly dirty (no wash basin probably) but entirely at home and comfortable with it. He was thin but looked strong. His eyes shone with wonder and excitement. A big welcoming smile followed a firm handshake.
‘God, I just love these swing bridges!’ he exclaimed.
This was the opening of our surprisingly long chat. He was travelling all over New Zealand but taking a much more indirect route. Taking in the best rides and trying to make the most of his short time. I have always loved New Zealand, but to see it from fresh eyes made me love it all over again. We made comparisons to the UK and other places we had travelled. It would have made a great commercial for New Zealand. Two ginger bearded cyclists harping on about how nice the scenery is and how friendly the people.
Joe was sponsored for his ride as well, by UK company Alpkit and wrote his own blog. We compared gear (a growing theme of the day) and I told him to hurry and try to catch up with the cycling couple.
The 1000km Mark
I finished The Timber Trail at around 4pm. I was out of nuts and chocolate. The jelly bears were missing presumed dead. My supplies were low and a craving for junk food was raging. I took a wrong turn on my way to Taumarunui so was on the main road as opposed to the quiet back roads.. It was exactly 25km on smooth road but with some big trucks.
I tucked in and put some fire in my legs. It had been a long day already an even longer week. But I had pizza on the mind and Taumarunui seemed like the kind of place to get it.
I got a good average speed for this small section. Bang on 25km in one-hour flat. Looking down to check my speed I saw the odometer hitting 1000km. I looked about to find some nice view to take a picture. Of all the breath-taking panoramas I had passed, the 1000km point was on the hard shoulder of a fairly busy road. But hey, 1000km was a third of the way and quite an achievement scenery or not.
At that point, I was 1000km in and I had just ridden the best track so far! Huge recommendation for The Timber Trail.