North Island

I love the North Island. Its hills are green and steep, like Pennsylvania or West Virginia with novelty-sized ferns and beach access. Little maraes are around every corner, wood carved tikis with paua shell eyes gleaming. People speak gently and end every sentence with a question mark. The weather is mild and damp to help the kauri trees grow huge. Little towns with low-slung buildings are everywhere, and you can get a tasty pie every 50 kilometers if you want. 

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There’s not a lot of backcountry in the north - at least not much that you can access on a bike. We realized that a few days into our tour, when we tried to link up a ride with the Te Araroa - a tramping trail that runs the length of the country from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga to the seaside at Bluff. We’d heard from some hikers that there was some insane mud on one of the trails, so we figured we’d ride around the mud to the next section. We’d also heard that the Te Araroa wasn’t suitable for bikes, but that’s just what hikers say. On a gravel road leading into the forest, we passed a bunch of hikers and waved merrily. We were about to ride a trail in an hour that would take them all day to walk! Bikes are so fun. 

Two miles and a steep, muddy, 1000-foot descent later found us hauling our bikes through a river. 

“Is this the trail?” I yelled to Montana. He fiddled with his Garmin. 

“Says so. For like 3 more miles.” 

We turned around. Maybe New Zealand’s hiking trails really aren’t suitable for bikes. 

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From there, we rode through the thick, hilly bush till we hit the ocean. We visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Maori and the English signed an agreement to live more or less harmoniously under the crown. They have a huge ceremonial war canoe on the grounds, but we would’ve had to pay $80 to look at it. We settled on having a snack and a coffee at the Treaty Grounds café instead and watched seagulls peck the Grounds for loose french fries.

We rolled south, through more hilly bush and beachy places back to Auckland, where we crashed for the second time with Warmshowers hosts, Hamish and Ida. Hamish recently toured the California coast as well — on a longboard. In classic Kiwi fashion, he described his trip as “pretty good” and was hard-pressed to elaborate. Montana finally got him to talk in more detail about the trip. Hamish did 50 miles a day, poling along using a stick with a doggie chew toy on the end and carrying his gear in a backpack. Occasionally walking up hills through Big Sur. Insane. 

From there, we took a couple more days to explore Auckland before shoving off again. One street in the city has the most whimsical holiday light display I've ever seen. 

After a month riding the road on the California coast and two weeks of roads in New Zealand, Montana was getting itchy to do some mountain biking. We took a shortcut by taking the ferry around part of Auckland's suburbs, then beat it due south, along some rail trails and some roads, past Matamata (Hobbitton!) to Rotorua, home of Crankworkx and the Redwoods trails.

Two of our raft guide friends from Ohiopyle moved there in October to work on the Kaituna River, and we’d made plans to crash with them for a few days while we waited for fresh tires to ship from America. 

We went to the river and asked some raft guides about our friends. 

“Short guy? Long hair?” One lifejacketed, dreadlocked dude asked. Yep. “Oh yeah, Frodo lives in town!” 

We found Frodo’s house by peeking into his recycling bin. Full of beers? Must be a whitewater house! 

Since it was Christmas, New Zealand’s postal service was shut down. We ended up staying in Rotorua for two weeks while the country celebrated holidays, rested, then celebrated more holidays and rested again. That’s okay, because it was the first time we rode singletrack in about two months. And we got to celebrate Christmas with our friends, instead of spending a real holiday at a holiday park. We owe those hobbits a few six-packs sometime. 

When we had our new rubber (Montana got knobbier knobs and I got 2.8 Ikons that roll a lot faster than my 3.0 Trail Bosses), we headed into the meat of the North Island. A long, pretty day took us to Taupo and the famous Huka Falls (which our friends have floated over in plastic boats!) We camped next to the Huka River in a (free!) campsite full of loud, drunk college kids and hippies selling weed. 

We loaded up on food in Taupo to last a few days. The plan was to ride the Great Lake Trail, a long flowy piece of singletrack around the lake, then hop onto the road and ride into the Pureora Forest, where we’d pick up the 85-km Timber Trail to Taumarunui. 

Great Lake was awesome - flowing and non-technical like the Mohican trail system in Ohio. We got to camp in the Pureora a little wind-battered from the road ride, but in good spirits because there was a nice river to wash ourselves off. But the next day dawned craptastically, with rain and cold wind. We rode up to the beginning of the trail and wandered around, soaked to the bone, looking for somewhere to buy anything. Nothing but campsites, other wet cyclists and a closed DOC field office. Our plans were stupid. So we descended all the way down the mountain to Mangakino, where we restocked our food and ate ice cream at a free campsite by the lake. Sometimes quitters win. 

When the sun came out, we climbed back up to the trailhead and gave the Timber Trail another shot. Damn, that one is impressive. Two days of buff backcountry bike path with crazy trees, huge suspension bridges over deep chasms and a nice place to camp in the middle. It was sweet. 

Instead of trying to scout more impossible backcountry rides, we rode directly south to Tongariro National Park to see the biggest mountains in the North Island and hike past Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. When I was abroad in New Zealand, I did this hike in atrocious weather. We couldn’t see anything and nearly got blown off the side of the mountain. 

This time we got lucky. Incredibly lucky. Warm weather, no wind and views for days. 

After our walk, we took a day to recover (bike touring does nothing to condition you for an easy 12-mile walk), because National Park was socked in with rain and crazy wind. Then we reluctantly left the nice cozy hostel and booked it south south south to get to the South Island. We wanted to spend as much time as we could exploring the (hopefully drier) mountains down there. 

We rode some winding, rolling dirt roads past fields of fluffy white sheep before the winds north of Palmerston North nearly knocked us flat. Luckily another couple on Warmshowers opened up their home to us with fresh bread and lovely paella, or else we would’ve been feeling pretty downtrodden.  

The windy, cold, wet day of riding from Palmerston North finally squashed my desire to ride every inch of the tour. We got Indian takeaway in Levin and hopped on a bus, which magically deposited us in Wellington. And all we had to do was sit there! Our hosts on AirBnB graciously let us in their home a day early, and we cracked a cold bottle of wine to celebrate arriving in my favorite city of the North Island - windy, wet, weird Wellington. Montana couldn’t wait to get on the ferry south.