Colleen's Hills from Hell

"Guten tag!" The old man said.

He stooped under the branches of the tree by our picnic table.

"Sorry?"

"Oh, you're not German." He chuckled. "Seems like everyone's German around here, eh?" The man tottered off to talk to some other tourists, who probably were actually German.

We were eating at a bakery in Coromandel Town, resting after a few big days of steep gravel, beach camping and an accidental singletrack epic. So far, New Zealand was good. 

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We arrived in New Zealand on the first of December, pale and a bit out of shape from our long rainy Pennsylvania fall. While we waited for our flight at the airport, I put together a nice easy warmup loop to a few of the beaches around Auckland. It's the skinniest part of the North Island, so you can go from coast to coast in under 30 miles. Easy!

On our first day out, we rolled out of Auckland late and started riding after some shopping and good NZ takeaway for lunch.

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A decent bike lane network for the first 15 miles, then the road headed out to the country. Some suspicious looking hills on the horizon. Then the road turned up sharply and climbed up an down the jagged Waitakere Ranges for the last ten miles of the ride.

Hot, sweaty and mostly dead we made it to our first camp. Montana set up our brand new tent.

"Jesus Colleen, you couldn't have picked a steeper route for the first day?"

Oops. Montana's bike is quite a bit heavier this time around, with the extra rack, skateboard, Primus stove (an upgrade from our ultralight cat can stove), and basically all the food. Even after three years of bike touring, I still managed to overpack, leaving myself with no room for food or extra stuff. And ironically I forgot to bring a top-tube bag for snacks.

It was just Day 1 of Colleen's Hills from Hell loop! 

Tiredness aside, this campsite beat the hell out of everywhere we slept last year (ditches by scummy water holes and crappy motel rooms next to Waffle Houses). It was in the woods above a black sand beach, and there was a nice little fern-banked creek for a bath. We fell asleep to the trilling of tui birds and trickling water, happy to be far away from the snow.

We woke up to a record rainfall in the Auckland area. In between showers we rode back up the crazy steep road and back down the hill to the next beach, at a little surf town called Piha. Instead of camping out in our wet tent, we hunkered down in a little cabin at the campground. 

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For the next few days we adjusted my ambitious route a few times. The first of many overzealous plans on my part.

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Back in Auckland a week later, we met some other touring cyclists at the hostel. One guy from California and one from Germany. We chatted with them for a while, then went to town for town things- skateboarding, jogging, buying a top tube bag.

Later all the hostel boys and the two bike tourists shared a case of beer while we sat in the corner eating our salad. Do we look that un-fun?

The next day we took a boat ride around the annoying Auckland traffic snarl. Ferries are a delightful way to skip out on some bad road miles. Montana tried to tell the German cyclist about the ferry shortcut. Our boat left town at 11:00.

"Oh," he said. "Well I must leave at ten." Very schedule driven.

We rode around the Firth of Thames, the bay between Auckland and the Coromandel. Our beachside campsite was the best yet.

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It was a DOC site on an old farm property by the bay with calm, warm water for swimming and Pohutakawa trees blooming bright red. The 100-some-year-old farm house is still there. I peeked in the windows and tried to imagine 16 people living there all at once.

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I was worried that the road to Coromandel would be the campervan super highway, but it was mostly pleasant.

As we rode along, I noticed lots of cormorant corpses on the pavement. There were colonies of the sleek black and white birds all along the road. Some of them toddled across the pavement. So that's how they're getting smooshed.

Then a car zoomed past us and ran over the little bird, which flopped for a while on the road before it went still. My heart broke for the rest of the day. Poor bird. I tried to concentrate on the views instead of the reckless driving and birdicide.

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Last time we're toured in New Zealand, we skipped over the Coromandel because we were so eager to get to the South island. Now we're happy to see what we missed in the North. It has more settled weather and fewer sandflies than the South. And the mountains are still very impressive. Especially when you're not quite in shape for bike touring.

We took an extra day in Coromandel Town to let Montana's weird, itchy skin rash heal. Probably from something he laid down in and irritated by the white hot New Zealand sun. The sunshine is a lot different this time around - our last tour here we hardly noticed the much-publicized hole in the ozone layer because it rained almost every day. Now we were both scorching.

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The sealed road from Coro Town ends at Colville, which is the Kiwi hippie movement's last stand. Colville has a general store, cafes (two!), a Buddhist temple and lots of organic farming. We got lunch and carried on from there, taking a gloriously quiet gravel road to Port Jackson.

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This was a fancy DOC camp, with an electric kettle to boil water and even a credit card reader in the park manager's office.

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As I was paying, the manager told me that every camp site in the Coromandel would be booked in the next week. Five hundred campers at Port Jackson alone. Looks like we made it just in time.

A young Austrian bike tourist rolled over to the picnic tables as we were eating breakfast.

Montana and I were planning to ride the Coromandel Coastal Walkway around the top of the peninsula to the other side, and so was he. He was on a heavy touring bike with skinny gravel tires, but the trail was supposed to be a gentle rolling path along the ocean. So we rode out of camp together.

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But we gapped him at the beginning of the steep hills. Not surprising,as his bike probably weighed about twice as much as mine. He let us go on ahead. Hopefully we'd see him again.

The walkway started out with some bike pushing through grassy a cow field, then got steeper, and pitched up again. We were high over the water now.

At an intersection we followed a sign with a bike on it. Straight uphill. And up. Steeper than anything we've ever pushed a loaded bike up. Then we were on a cow-rutted track deep in manuka shrubs, 800 feet above the ocean. I hadn't download any GPX files for this route, so we had no idea where we were. We turned around and found the sign we missed. Straight up the next grassy cliff to 1600 feet. Holy crap. There's no way this could be the easy Coastal Walkway.

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At the top the grass thinned out and the trail turned into hard pack and rocks. Thank God. We dropped all our elevation in one juddery descent. It maybe took 15 minutes. We sat in the creek to cool off.

"My bad...." I said. Montana shook his head.

The plan had been to ride all the way down the coast, another 40 gravel miles to Coromandel. But we decided to go another way, 20 steep rolling miles to Colville. We made a bee line for the general store for beer and food, then camped in the yard of the motel and slept through a thunderstorm.

After a day of rest, back in Coromandel with Vic, a Warmshowers host and incredible carpenter who immigrated to New Zealand on a ship from England in the 1950s, we climbed up a gravel road to the other side of the peninsula.

We camped at a hostel in Tairua, a pleasant beach town. But all the ither tenants at the hostel were there long-term, staying to pick fruit at an orchard. We felt like we were camping out in there living room. So we took a ferry across the bay to the next little town, a Kiwi resort community with incredibly neat lawns called Pauanui.

Montana went straight to the skatepark, where he tried dropping in on a steep wall and took all the skin off his knee and hand. There was a good bit of blood and grit in the scrapes, but nothing worse. It would need a couple days to close up. We went to the mostly empty beach and hiked up the local hill to kill some time.

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From Pauanui we rode the death defying Highway 25 back toward Thames. On the steep, skinny two lane road winding up and through the mountains, three big trucks and one small red van ran me off the road and into the narrow ditch on the side. Some drivers here seem to have no sympathy for pedestrians. It's worse than riding in rural West Virginia.

We finally dropped down to the peaceful Hauraki Rail Trail, and a sweet tailwind pushed us on to Paeroa. This little town is home to the "World Famous in New Zealand" Lemon and Paeroa soda. It has at least two giant L&P soda bottles on display, as well as one giant lemon.

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The highlight of our ride on the Hauraki trail was camping next to a field of teeny tiny horses. I love a good pony.

My friend Jess, who I met on my study abroad trip to New Zealand in college (seven! years ago), had invited us to visit on our first bike tour here. We passed it up in our southward haste, and I've always felt bad about that. So we headed to Hamilton, where Jess and her husband Jacob live now.

We spent an excellent night with them in their cute little house, which is part of an old development built in the fifties for new immigrants. They treated us to vegetables from their garden and a fun new card game.

it's always nice to stay with friends. Especially when they have a good cat.

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