Unexpected Intrusions of Beauty – Cycling New Zealand’s North Island

“Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.”  — Saul Bellow, author

When it comes to bicycle touring, every day is different than the last.

With each new sunrise comes different weather, winds, and a multitude of unexpected obstacles — like a herd of sheep in the middle of the road or multiple magpies swooping at your head.

Whether it be a beautiful moment, a gorgeous mountain summit, or a kind stranger, each day brings something unexpected.

And that has become one of my favorite things about bicycle touring.

After the chaos of disassembling and boxing our bicycles for our flight, dealing with the San Francisco airport madness, and after almost 14 hours of flight time (I know, shame on us) — we finally arrived in Auckland, New Zealand.

Having visited Wellington just a year before, I felt confident that I knew what to expect when arriving and travelling through New Zealand. As it turns out, I had no idea what ridiculous, amazing, and crazy moments were in store for us.

With the technology of today and cycling guidebooks at our disposal, you would think that planning routes, checking weather, and finding places to stay would be easy, predictable even. But alas, no campsite is the same, trails are always changing from usage and weather, and even if you follow a guidebook day-by-day and town-by-town, every cyclist’s experience and tour is different.

After spending a few days, including my 28th birthday, in the city of Auckland — eating local cuisines and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee — we headed South to begin our tour of both the North and South islands.

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The view of Auckland from the Mount Eden lookout.

Since we had spent a few rest days in San Francisco previously, then spent 14 hours on a plane, followed by a few days vegging out in Auckland, we had a very slow (and surprisingly painful) few days getting back into the groove of cycling. Thankfully, after a short day of riding, we arrived at Miranda Hot Springs where we were able to soak our sore muscles in the thermally heated mineral pool. It was blissful.

I especially enjoyed the moment when our hostess referred to us as “silly buggers” for choosing to camp in the mud and rain instead of renting a cabin (we are on a budget after all).

After waiting for the rain to pass the next morning and packing up our rain-soaked tent, we got our first taste of New Zealand’s cycling trails with the Hauraki Rail Trail, the most popular cycling trail in the country.

It was on Hauraki that we also got our first taste of the New Zealand mud (literally — note to self, always check the mouth of your water bottle before drinking) and the wind. And New Zealand wind is no joke, especially in winter and early spring — which of course is exactly when we decided to arrive (oops). And it’s also when our cycling guidebook says not to bicycle the country (double oops).

In spite of rain and wind, we continued on the rail trail for a few days taking us all the way from Miranda Springs to the town of Te Aroha.

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The view from our campsite in Te Aroha.

We stopped for lunch — where I had the best Indian food I have ever had in my life — and then camped at another holiday park. This one was a little sketchy at first (they didn’t want to let us pitch a tent on the grass for some reason), but it’s the first example of finding beauty in the unexpected.

After pitching our tent and some bike maintenance, not only we were graced with a gorgeous sunset over nearby hills, but we were also graced by the presence of miniature ponies; both unexpected and adorable.

That night, I went to sleep smiling knowing that the next day we would be heading to Matamata — home of The Shire, aka Hobbiton, the movie set for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. For me, basically the equivalent of Disneyland.

Which is why on the following day, on the way to the location, I began to cry while cycling because the headwinds were so unexpectedly horrible that I was genuinely concerned we weren’t going to make our allotted tour.

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“No admittance, except on party business.”

In case it wasn’t obvious already from my previous posts, I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and the work of Tolkien — so much so that, in middle school, I used to act like I was Arwen living in Middle-Earth and that Aragorn was my boyfriend (because Viggo Mortensen was bae). My dad, also a LOTR fan, had even carved and polished a walking stick for me that I used as my weapon of choice.

Anyway, the point is, that my hopes for Hobbiton were high and having been in New Zealand the year before and unable to visit, I was intent on seeing it this time around.

Out of concern, I called to verify what time we had to check in (1:15 p.m.) and though we were just a few kilometers away, the wind was wicked and multiple hills still stood in our way.

By some miracle, I arrived, red faced and tear stricken, at the ticket booth at exactly 1:12 p.m. – with just 3 minutes to spare! I rejoiced when I was handed our tickets and I waved them proudly at Christopher as he arrived at the entrance, a few minutes behind me.

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“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”

Now, Hobbiton may be pricey and a total tourist trap, but it has to be the best tourist trap ever. After a delicious Hobbit feast — with an array of bread and potatoes, of course — we were given a full tour of the Shire and its collection of amazingly detailed and designed hobbit holes, followed by a nice cold pint at the Green Dragon Inn. It was magical and totally worth the money. It was middle-school-aged Erika’s dream come true.

But as all good things must come to an end, we had to leave and say goodbye to the Shire. So, after a near perfect day followed by a good night’s sleep at a nearby bed & breakfast, we continued on our journey — this time taking on the Waikato River Trail.

In truth, I wasn’t confident in our decision to take the trail since we carry a lot of gear and our guidebook explained that this mountain bike trail was, at times, too rough for heavily laden bicycles. In addition, there were multiple signs along the trail reminding us that the grading was “advanced.”

However, Christopher was itching to get off the roads and into the wilderness. And, as obvious by our choice to cycle in New Zealand winter, we like to live dangerously. So, we took on the trail anyway.

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Carrying the bikes down the stairs.

It was rough, and muddy, and we had to push our bicycles up some steep, slick sections. The trail boasts 37 switchbacks in total and one section even has multiple flights of stairs which involved us carrying our bicycles down, going back up the stairs, and then making three trips down again with all of our panniers.

While it may sound miserable, we were both still smiling (laughing at the ridiculousness of it really), and we were also excited to find multiple waterfalls along the rest of the trail.

 

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Our clean bicycles at the start of the Waikato River Trail.

So, after an exhausting but exhilarating few days on the trail and a pit stop in a weird town with the worst hamburgers we have both ever eaten, we headed towards our next adventure: the Timber Trail.

One thing that I have discovered while touring is that when the trails, terrain, and climbs are most difficult — the views and destinations seem to be the most amazing. And the Timber Trail was no exception.

Though it’s a short 84-kilometer route, it includes 35 bridges (8 of which are suspension bridges), a spiral tunnel, and a slow climb up to Mount Pureora with a summit of 940 meters (3,080 feet)!

In short, the trail was amazing. It was our first glimpse of the New Zealand bush and as we rode through Pureora Forest Park it felt like we were cycling through a jungle. We rode, and pushed, our bikes alongside giant native trees like the Totara and the Rimu, and above us native birds like the Kereru, Kaka, and the Tui soared. We camped next to flowing rivers and large ferns and every days ride brought new challenges, stellar views, and even a few wild hogs. I didn’t even mind that it rained every single day.

Once we finished the trail – and after getting chased down the road by goats – we had a much-needed shower and rest in the town of Taumarunui, where we also took a much-needed rest day at a beautiful restored convent. It had amazing hosts, three cats, free wine and snacks, and Netflix — what more could you ask for?

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Riding over a suspension bridge on the Timber Trail.

As stated before, every day on the road brings something unexpected and quite often, it’s a beautiful thing.

Sometimes it’s the people;

Like a lovely Kiwi couple named June and Geoff who run an inn at an old convent, or Jeffrey – an enthusiastic local who joined us for coffee at a pitstop in a small town, or the multiple farmers who stopped us along our route or sat with us at a tavern to simply say, “good on ya!” just for cycling the country.

Sometimes it’s the location;

Like sleeping under a blanket of stars and in the shadow of active stratovolcanoes, or it’s riding down a sketchy 100-year-old underground elevator, or it’s staying at a campsite where you’re suddenly surrounded by a random flock of roosters and a duck.

And sometimes it’s little moments;

Like being handed the keys to a local museum by a random man you met outside of a café, or stopping at a natural spring to try the “best water in New Zealand,”, or it’s an awkward cashier asking how your day has been (you say good) and he responds with, “that’s the stuff.”*

*Still not sure what that means.

Or sometimes it’s simply the taste of any food at the end of a long ride or discovering a delicious drink called the “jelly donut” and accidentally ordering three of them (it literally tasted like a jelly donut!).

Every day I wake up in a different location and gear up for the next one.

And while I think I know how the days ride will be, what our next campsite will look like, or what the weather will bring – I don’t.

Nothing is ever the same, nothing is predictable — and that is the beauty of it.

And while we have faced a variety of challenges and delays (particularly when it comes to wind and weather) we still made it to windy Wellington in just under a month, completing our time on the North Island and now, gearing up for the South.

Many locals have told us that the South Island is like being in a different country; it’s colder, more mountainous, less populated, and much more scenic.

Our tour of New Zealand has only just begun – and I can’t wait to see what unexpected intrusions of beauty the South Island has in store for us.

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The view from the Timber Trail on New Zealand’s North Island. Now it’s onward to the South.

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