NZ Day 6: Waipu Wandering

We got a decent amount of sleep, and it was all downhill into central Whangarei to catch the shuttle directly to Waipu. This would mark our first diverging from the schedule we’d meticulously prepared over the previous two months. We would be skipping the Waipu caves and their dark ceilings, sparkling with glow-worms, but we would also be skipping another several thousand feet of hills, as steep as the ones that punished us on that first day of riding. Now we knew our limitations, and we knew this was a necessary change.

The bicycles fit sideways into the luggage compartment under the bus without any acrobatics, and we piled our bags around them, except for our backpacks which we were too paranoid to relinquish. My rough estimate is that we were carrying about $11000 worth of gear in those backpacks, mostly in the form of camera lenses. That’s pretty absurd, especially since we could have left half that gear at home and barely changed our enjoyment of the trip.

The green countryside scrolled by, and we found ourselves in Waipu before my stomach had a chance to notice it was on a bus and get upset – a childish behavior that it picked up years ago when I was riding commuter shuttles to work. We stepped off into an early autumn day with a fresh breeze and just a hint of ocean salt, and a few minutes later we had our gear reassembled and were riding back down the main street of Waipu, looking for our hotel, and for a place to get snacks.

Whoever's been shooting at that sign has had consistently bad aim...

The motel room was cheap, but dingy and cramped. The single-pane window opened directly onto a parking space. All the usual hardware was stacked in a corner – television on top of VCR on top of mini-fridge, unplugged and dusty. We stripped the bikes down, hauled the bags inside, then hauled the bikes in after. The room was now incredibly cramped, but we didn’t care – it was time to go out and get snacks!

The restaurant across from the hotel was excellent. Actually, it was as good as the hotel was bad! We ate burgers and salad, and drank cider at a spacious table. Encouraged by the weather, we decided to go out riding and see what else we could find. What we found was a pastoral paradise.

We rode out through a ragged patchwork of lush green fields, crisscrossed by slow rivers along soft banks of mud and sand, and threaded by dirt roads with deep ruts and high shoulders of tangled late-summer grass. Dark horses, cream-colored sheep, and speckled cows meandered their way along, nibbling on grass or lounging in the sun, between fences of rusty wire and wooden posts. Across all this blew a steady coastal breeze, fresh but not cold, weaving into the trees and carrying the scent of the sea, and higher up, carrying along an army of fleecy white clouds, sailing like galleons in the sky. It was like riding around inside everyone’s collective hallucination of the perfect day in the countryside. A living daydream, filling up every kind of sense.

It was a feeling like the one I felt in western Kansas, on a particular day when I was bicycling there three years ago. Not exactly the same; the Kansas air had been warmer, and pungent with the smell of old grass and wet soil. A Halloween smell. Waipu was bringing me a younger, lighter smell – something like Easter. Looking around, I would not have felt surprised to see little pastel eggs tucked into the hollows of trees, and peeking out from rabbit holes.

Savoring this vivid impression, I stopped by the side of the road and dug a chocolate bar out of my saddlebag. A hundred feet away, Kerry pedaled up to a horse behind a low fence, but it saw her coming and backed nervously away, intimidated by the combined size of bicycle and rider. Kerry chastised the horse for being a scaredy-cat, and giggled. “Silly horse,” I said, talking casually over our headsets. “Doesn’t it know that bicyclists always have snacks?”

Once again, all the effort of hauling these awkward bicycle contraptions around felt absolutely worth it. We were traveling within, not just passing through.

We pedaled around the area north of town, then came back and made a left turn, headed towards the sea. The road curved around and undulated over a few gentle hills. Nothing intimidating like what we saw the day before, thank goodness. We stopped in a random spot, peed behind some bushes, then flopped down in the grass and chomped through a bag full of bubble gum. This is how a day of cycling is supposed to go! Not a death march, but a long string of roadside picnics.

Industrious NZ spiders!

“I’m still getting used to the idea of spending an entire day riding a bike,” Kerry said. “I mean, not pedaling the whole time obviously, but… It’s strange being ‘in transit’ for so long, you know? I’m used to riding a bike to get somewhere. So I get this feeling of impatience, like, we should just never stop, and pedal hard, so we can hurry up and get to the next town, the next thing. But I know that’s not the right way to think about it, so I’m pushing back against that idea in my head. That’s taking effort, but I think I can get there. We’ll see. Still, it’s good that we’re doing other stuff too and not just bicycling day after day like some of the trips you’ve taken.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t expect you to like bicycling as much as I do. You’d have to be as crazy as I am; and that’s pretty crazy. But I’m really happy you’re here with me.”

“Awww,” she said, and gave me a hug.

We rode on, and about a half mile later we rolled around a corner and found the water – a long shallow inlet with pasture on either side, sweeping out to connect with the deeper ocean, kinked by a few bars of white sand, and with a thin crest of surf sketching out the interface between the incoming waves and the receding tide. Just up from the shore on our side of the inlet was an old graveyard, the headstones bleached and weather-beaten in some cases and sharp and shiny in others, all behind a fence with a single strand of electrified wire strung along it in plastic brackets, to keep the cows from crapping on the dead. We parked our bikes and went strolling around.

You can tell we're only out for the day because the bicycle is lacking about 55 pounds of extra gear. (It's back at the hotel.)

You can tell we’re only out for the day because the bicycle in the picture is lacking about 40 pounds of extra gear!

Seeing this coastal graveyard and this blue ocean and these huge clouds brought a lot of other associations to mind. Some musical, some literary. Sting’s “The Soul Cages” echoed through my ears. Fragments of poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson. Images etched into my imagination when I read “The Sea Wolf” in the 7th grade. I felt detached from my own era, but it wasn’t a disorienting feeling; it was a comfortable one. This graveyard by the sea was telling me something.

“Here is an environment, a source of sensations, that you cannot make your individual stamp upon, no matter what you try. Even solid stone, etched with descriptions of who you were and what you did, and placed here, will simply wear away into an anonymous blob in a thousand years, and it will be millions more years before this place even begins to look slightly different, from exactly how it looked a million years before you passed through. Maybe the shoreline will have a different shape but it will still be the same shore. All the poems written, all the ships built and launched, all the perfect picnic days and garbage left behind in human history compresses down to a thought … an afterthought, even … and I could be anyone standing here. Or no one.”

“But is that really true? Humans do have a collective impact, after all. In seven thousand years we managed to create the Sahara Desert from grassland, with help from domesticated animals. Some people say that 15000 years ago the Great Plains was forested and only became grass because humans kept setting fires. Others say the forest retreated naturally as the glaciers melted away. And, we’re certainly good at mass extinction…”

Abruptly I realized I’d been staring at the same distant sandbar for an entire minute. I walked back to my bike and stowed the camera. Time to ride out for snacks!

Kerry chatted with a few people sitting around in lawn chairs, dangling fishing poles down into the water. They told her that if we wanted to swim at a proper beach, we should cycle only “a kilometer or so” down the road and we’d find one, along with a general store. That sounded good.

Of course, “a kilometer or so” turned out to be four or five miles. We were both rapidly coming to the conclusion that New Zealanders could not be trusted to give accurate estimates of distance. It’s probably not Kiwis in particular, it’s probably just people who drive cars and don’t bicycle. Back home, most people have at least tried bicycling. In New Zealand, people ride mountain bikes on tracks, but touring seems to be strictly for tourists. The idea of using a bicycle to get from one town to another seems absurd to just about everyone we’ve talked to here…

Eventually we did find a nice beach, and a nice general store. Many snacks were snacked upon.

I've never seen such a perfect demonstration of a beach forming from billions of discarded shells.

I’ve never seen such a perfect demonstration of a beach forming from millions of discarded shells!

How's this for a beach!

The Waipu Cove beach was littered with whole shells. I collected a few for a photo, then left them behind for kids to play with.

We collected a bunch of them and took a few photos, then left them around for kids to find. No sense hauling them back to the hotel.

As the afternoon moved on to evening, the shadows got deeper and more lush. Even though we were riding back the way we came, along the same road, everything looked different.

Whenever the temptation came upon us to stop and eat a snack, or take a photograph, we just went with it. The landscape seemed to be taunting us to find the right collection of buttons and switches that would capture the perfect photograph. Vacation with gadgets! Fun stuff.

Even the clouds got in on the act!

That's a pretty bunched-up stand of trees!

When we got back to town, I felt hungry and Kerry felt tired, so she took a nap and I walked over to the same restaurant, and went though the day’s photographs.

Waipu locals watching the cricket game

Kerry’s nap didn’t last long, though: A bunch of Waipu locals gathered in the pub to watch the latest cricket game. Their shouts and laughter went straight through the thin walls of the hotel. Minus one star!

Lots of places to go from Waipu!

In the original schedule, Waipu was just a handy town to spend the night after exploring the Waipu Caves, but it turned out to be a fun place to explore in its own right, and very restorative. Kerry and I went to bed feeling a lot more refreshed than we’d been the previous night in Whangarei.

Good thing too, since the next day we’d be stuck in shuttles for six hours!

NZ Day 5: Snorkeling the Poor Knights

To get to the harbor we had to do an early morning ride, which was a lot more hassle than we expected due to the big hill between Matapouri to Tutukaka. A lot of tight curves, with no curb and almost no shoulder, and the two of us huffing and puffing at 3mph to climb our way up. On the positive side, the drivers were clearly doing their best to help. They would consistently slow down and give us most of the lane, swerving to the outside. It was nice to know they were allies.

Nevertheless, even the most polite driving can’t eliminate that terrible feeling a cyclist gets when a two-ton metal monster is rushing up behind their back!

Whoo! Ten dollar wetsuit rental!

Gettin' suited up for snorkeling!

But we made it safely, stowed our bikes at the storefront, and walked onto the boat, ready for adventure! Here’s a video of the journey out:

Whoo! Jumping into the water!

The Poor Knights Islands are pretty amazing, even if you’re only experiencing them from slightly off the coast, which is uniformly steep and rocky. This is just as well, since the island group is a protected habitat, and the Department Of Conservation will fine you hundreds of thousands of dollars for merely setting foot on it – and far more if they catch you removing any of its unique species for sale on the black market.

Our boat dropped anchor about 100 feet from the nearest rock wall, and we got a polite but firm lecture on what we were allowed to do: Scuba, snorkel, swim, and paddle, but don’t touch anything, and definitely don’t pick anything up. We could dig it! The only thing we planned to take was awesome video!

I hadn’t been snorkeling in many years, but it came back to me easily. Ever since splashing around in the pool as a child, I’ve always been more comfortable slightly under the water – pretending I was a submarine – than on top of it. And for ten bucks each, Kerry and I got wetsuits, making the water feel nice and comfy.

Handy tip: Cold wetsuit? Empty that bladder! Aaaaahhhh. It only feels unsanitary if you forget that most of our sewage ends up in the ocean anyway…

There were a few sea-caves within swimming distance. Dark, angular, foreboding holes in the rock, sucking in rivers of seawater and then spitting them out. I ventured inside one for a few minutes, swimming with the current and then bracing myself against a rock when the current reversed, so I could keep my progress. It was like being inside a slow-moving mosh pit: Every second you think you’re going to get slammed against something, but the current surges with you, up against the obstacle, turning the impact into something less dangerous.

I didn’t stay for long, since it was too dark to see much, but before I left I pointed my mask down and saw a group of scuba divers, creeping along the bottom of the cave with a flashlight. The water was much calmer down there – no current to jostle them around. Maybe I’ll learn to scuba some day, and do the same thing? I hear the Monterey Bay back home has some great stuff…

The sea critters were delightful. I wanted to follow every fish I saw and tickle it! But even more interesting was the vegetation. Since we were right up next to an island, the water would slosh back and forth in long, languid motions like the sway of a gigantic pendulum, causing me and everything else around me to move gently within it. It created a kind of optical illusion, where all the rocks of the sea floor and the wall were moving, but all the long tendrils of seaweed that drifted out from them were standing still, with the fish and myself suspended nearby. The entire world was weaving dangerously around, but this little bubble of space was perfectly calm.

The temptation to swim over the top of a big crusty rock and just hang there, undulating in perfect sync with a curious little cloud of fishes, was very strong. We only had a few hours to explore a wide area, but I couldn’t resist just hanging out for a while, at least a few times. Chillin’ with my fish, yo. What an amazing experience.

Back on the boat, with our wetsuits off and our regular clothes back on, our next amazing experience was a sea cave, called Rikoriko. The guide claimed it was the largest sea cave in the world, but I honestly have no idea how accurate that is. It was a spectacular sight in any case – weird stuff growing from the ceiling, flickering lights reflecting from the water and dancing across the walls, long reverberation trailing every sound…

Here’s a video of the tourguide putting more accurate numbers to the size of the cave.

And here’s what I saw when I took a glance at the ship’s console:

When we entered the big cave, the boat GPS went dead. Awesome!

When we entered the big cave, the GPS signal went dead. Awesome! WE’RE LOST!

After the cave, we spent some time motoring around and between the islands, while the guide gave a history lesson, including a few different versions of the story behind the name “Poor Knights”. My favorite version is that when Captain Cook first saw the islands in 1769, the native bushes were all in bloom, creating a reddish fringe all along the top that reminded him of a traditional seafaring meal called a Poor Knight’s Pie. He had been sailing for quite a while at that point, so he’d probably eaten one recently, because the main ingredient of a Poor Knight’s Pie was old moldy bread. The ship’s cook would fry it up and spread jam on it, creating a greenish-brown slab with a reddish fringe. It must have looked just like a little island on the captain’s plate.

Ah, the life of the sea! There wasn’t any Poor Knight’s Pie on our boat, but they did provide hot drinks, instant soup, and several big pyramids of pre-made sandwiches. I was feeling very hungry, and even though the sandwiches had wheat in them, I figured, “hey, it’s been a long time since I felt a reaction to wheat, maybe my body is past it now?” So I grabbed three or four of them at least – probably more – and devoured them.

Here’s a hyper-speed tour through an arch during our last few minutes at the Poor Knights islands:

After that we motored back to the harbor. Kerry and I were not looking forward to another round of cycling, and we were also feeling the subtle onset of “land sickness“, which is a kind of reverse sea-sickness that creeps up on you and makes you dizzy when you get off a boat. It made me think of all those old cartoons I’ve seen where sailors weave around on dry land as though they’re perpetually drunk. I wonder how much of that stereotype – of sailors as drunks – was established just from watching them try to deal with this unanticipated problem, or the more serious long-term version of it, a debilitating psychosomatic disorder known as “Mal de debarquement“?

Even though we weren’t feeling our best, we managed to get ahold of a shuttle driver who was between jobs, and convinced him to carry us and our huge awkward bicycles down the highway for half an hour to Whangarei. We had to stack the bicycles on top of the empty rows of seats, so it was a lucky coincidence that none of the seats were booked except for one, and that passenger graciously agreed to ride up front with the driver. It rained a little during the drive, making Kerry and I feel extra grateful we weren’t out there pedaling. We made sure to leave a generous tip.

We checked in and scattered our gear around the little detached cottage, and flopped down on the bed. It would have been nice to sleep the rest of the evening away, but we needed dinner. At least we had plenty of food choices nearby. I located a thai restaurant only a few miles from the hotel and we crept reluctantly back onto our bikes.

Just outside the hotel we stopped to admire the Whangarei Falls, and I got a nice shot of a parasitized tree. It was my first up-close look at one, and I found it fascinating – more so than the waterfall, which was crawling with tourists.

Half a mile later, the road went sharply downhill. Every foot of descent was another foot we would have to climb back up on the return journey, and as the bicycles plummeted, my stomach did too. I was exhausted. I knew Kerry was even more exhausted, and already stressed out from riding too much over the last three days. She was not enjoying the trip right now, and it was all my fault for underestimating the New Zealand hills, and she was going to be angry with me for accidentally leading us down yet another one. I just knew it. At the bottom of the hill I slowed to a crawl, and still it seemed like a very long time before Kerry caught up. We rode the rest of the way to the restaurant in bleary silence. I felt panicky, and depressed, and altogether much more upset than I could remember feeling in a long time.

There was a bus stop nearby, and I stared at the schedule with the faint hope that we could ride a bus back up the hill, but it was too late at night. We locked our bicycles and shambled into the restaurant. I ordered the food. Kerry excused herself to the bathroom, saying she needed some time alone, and was gone for so long I began to get worried. I stacked our luggage up underneath the table and went looking for her. Each bathroom was enclosed behind a lockable door, so I knocked on the one that was locked, and she let me in. We both sat on the floor for a while, arms around each other, nauseated and tired.

We talked, and I told her what seemed to be going on with me: I was having a wheat reaction. The first one I’d had in a year at least, and it was no coincidence that I was having it on the day I’d decided to believe I was “cured” of that problem, and eaten a huge amount of bread. I was obviously not “cured”. All the usual signs were there, chief among them the intense, sudden feelings of depression, plus the elevated heart rate, the double-rings under the eyes, and the total inability to calm down or think clearly. A kind of free-floating panic attack that doesn’t stop. When it’s especially intense, all you can do is lay on the ground and let time pass. Your rational mind knows that it’s possible to stand up, but the panic is like a hot coal, burning the line between your head and your legs.

Kerry was dealing with her own panic attack, brought on by land sickness, hunger, and fatigue. She was upset about the hill, but not upset with me. It had been her choice to let me set the pace, and her choice to continue on it, and she told me so. We were both in bad shape but we were also both more interested in reconciliation than in conflict, and that was a big help. Eventually we got to our feet together, and when we walked out of the bathroom we found our food waiting at the table, and we sat down and devoured it. It was delicious. We stuffed ourselves and slowly began to feel a bit better.

I hauled out my phone and poked at Google Earth and other mapping tools for a while, and found an alternate route back up to the hotel that made the ascent much more slowly than the huge, steep hill we’d gone barreling down. We packed up plenty of leftovers and set out feeling much calmer. The night air and the lack of traffic helped as well.

It took about an hour to get home, but we chatted on our headsets the whole way. I told Kerry an improvised story about a weasel and a beaver who learned about each other through a newsletter, and had to fight off a bunch of romantic rivals to track each other down. When we reached the hotel we were both in much better spirits.

While unloading the bikes, we saw a huge orange cat and had to take a few pictures, even though we were tired!

Dueling cameras! Sony versus Canon! Night-time NZ edition! GO!
Maurice the cat says: "I own all these things!"
Maurice the night-time prowler!
Kerry providing some supplemental grooming to the Whangarei Backpacker's Lodge cat. Mmmmm! Pffft pfffft hairball

I think we named him Maurice!

We had the most interesting transportation on the lot!

Here’s a shot of our bikes – the most interesting transportation on the lot, I’m sure – before we hauled them inside the cottage for the night.

NZ Day 4: Maxin’ and Relaxin’ in Matapouri

I’m not actually sure what “maxin” means in this context. But I’m a 30-something so the phrase is wedged into my brain.

Gotta multitask when you're on the move! Flossin' and a walkin'

The first thing Kerry and I did – after a long sleep of course – was to walk slowly to the general store. Kerry flossed at the same time, because we are true heroes of efficiency.

Along with the usual candy and soda, we found enough ingredients here to make a decent Indian dish for lunch and dinner.

Along with the usual candy and soda, we found enough ingredients here to make a decent Indian dish for lunch and dinner.

So far all the roads we've been on have been scrupulously well maintained. We told a couple of locals how impressed we were, and each of them laughed and said "Naaah".

So far all the roads we’ve been on have been scrupulously well maintained. We told a couple of locals how impressed we were, and each of them laughed and said “Naaah”. Maybe there was a recent push to improve the roads?

On the other hand, sidewalks and curbs are rare here, and the lanes are narrower, and most of the bridges are one-way.

Kerry’s leg was feeling cramped and sore, so we walked very slowly to the beach. There were only a few people around, and the weather was fantastic! Here’s a video of some of our antics, using the helmet-camera planted in the sand:

Whoooo bodysurfing! I almost lost my hat a few times.

Kerry went back to the beach house to rest some more, so I decided to walk to the Mermaid Pool formation in the meantime.

Go quail go!


I think this little kerchief is supposed to mark the beginning of the trail … But it might just be a lost swimsuit!

This is a STEEP trail. In some places you have to hold on to ropes to stay upright.

The trail, by the way, is steep. In some places you have to haul on ropes to stay upright.

At the top of the climb, you enter a lovely chunk of tropical forest. The cicadas get so loud they drown out the ocean, and the trail twists and curves so much that you can’t see it beyond the next 15 feet.

I wouldn’t want to carry a surfboard or a cooler through here! Of course, first I’d have to drag it up the hillside…

I can’t remember the last time I’ve wandered in a forest like this one. Perhaps this is the first time. I was fascinated by the texture and color of the trunks, and kept brushing my hands across them as I walked.

Eventually I emerged and saw the ocean again.

That's where we're going tomorrow!

In the distance I could spot the “Poor Knights Islands”. That’s where we’re going tomorrow! Sweeet! Then I looked down, and saw the pools…

First sight of the Mermaid Pools, from the top of the hill.

Quite lovely! And due to the lateness of the day and the season, I had them all to myself.

It's a very colorful place...
There are strange things growing in the Mermaid Pool. I suspect it's a mixture of salt-water and fresh-water organisms.
I didn't spot any mermaids, but I did spot quite a few snails!

The pools are filled up slowly by the high tide, then drained slowly by the low tide. The water is a bit warmer than the ocean, deep enough to swim in, and a lot less turbulent than the surf. And of course the colors are amazing, even on a less-than-perfect day like today…

This is an example of why modeling the physics of water is difficult.

Here’s a handy example of why modeling the physics of water is difficult!

The waves would constantly send water thundering up the rocks and just over the edge, causing a little bit to flow into the pool on the other side.

A classic Mermaid Pool shot. Farewell, pools. Gotta get back before nightfall.

I lingered for quite a while, enjoying the wind and the light, and the all-encompassing boom of the surf. Eventually the sun dropped below the horizon and I reluctantly started back. Here’s a little video I took while creeping through the forest:

Tromp tromp tromp!

Trekkin' back to the beach house...

Anyone know what this is? It's very light, like bleached bone.

Eventually I wandered back to home base, and had a lovely dinner with Kerry. This little critter spied on us for a while, until I tossed it out the door:

This tiny little fellow flew into our room, so we shooed it out.

First time I’ve ever had a praying mantis wander into the house!

All in all, our stay in Matapouri was very restful, which was just what we needed after the previous day’s ordeal. We weren’t looking forward to the early-morning bike ride that would take us to the snorkeling activity, but we couldn’t find any good alternatives to it. In retrospect we could have hired an independent shuttle operator to pick us up, and probably our bikes too, if only we’d known the contact number for one in advance. Oh well… Knowledge gained for the next trip!

NZ Day 3: We Fight The Hills And The Hills Win

The slow grind of plate tectonics separated New Zealand from Gondwanaland about 85 million years ago. A dramatization of the event would go like this:

“Dang, I feel like I have way too many hills. There’s got to be something I can do.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea! How about if you bundle a huge pile of us together, and shove us out to sea, and we can make our own island?”
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t that be kind of suspicious, having an island made completely of hills?”
“Tell you what – throw in one flat piece. And a few lakes. If anybody asks, you say it was an accident.”
“I’ll do it!”

And so, the South Island was created.

“That went really well, but I’ve still got a bunch of smaller hills to deal with.”
Smaller Hill:
“Hey no problem – just do it again! And since we’re smaller, you can pack even more of us closer together! We’ll enjoy it. We’ll have a hill party!”
“Hahaha! You little guys are crazy. But if that’s what you want, I’m totally doing it.”
Smaller Hill:
“Closer! Cram us even closer together! Yeah!”
“You got it! Have fun out there…”
Smaller Hills:

And so, the North Island was created.

Okay, so there’s a difference between historically accurate and dramatically accurate. But it’s still accurate. Kerry and I got direct verification of this New Zealand hill thing on day 3, when we attempted our first day of fully-loaded bike touring.

On paper it looked like a long, but manageable day, if we took our time and paced ourselves.

34 miles, which is just a little bit over my standard budget of 30 miles a day for touring. I figured it would be okay, since we had all day to ride, and the day after we would just be hanging out at the beach.

I WAS WRONG. I was so, so wrong!


Finishing touches to the bikes before setting out...

Kerry's good luck charm!

We started out in high spirits. We put the finishing touches on our bikes, including Kerry’s good-luck-charm leaf from Limestone Island.

Bike shipping boxes all wrapped up for sending to New Plymouth. We left them in the hotel lobby and the shipping company picked them up for us the next day. Very handy!

Then we spent a while taping up the bicycle shipping boxes for delivery to New Plymouth. We left them in the hotel lobby, and the shipping company picked them up for us the day after we left. One of the perks of cycling in a “first world” region!

Ready to go! Head-mounted camera activated!! DORK ALERT

Ready to go! Head-mounted camera activated!! DORK ALERT veep veeep vreeeep

It looked dorky, and the footage it recorded was very shaky, but after running it through Adobe Premiere’s stabilization routines (which took a very long time) I got a nice video of the first few minutes of our ride in fast-forward, as we crossed Whangarei to Mainfreight Transport (shipping out a few more items) and then made our way north out of town, towards the dreaded Highway 1:


The first thing you’ll notice about this video (aside from riding on the left) is that the road appears to be nice and flat most of the time. That’s New Zealand lulling us into a false sense of security. Oh, you evil, deceptive country…

Our first snack stop of the trip!

Our first snack stop of the trip!

We were late getting on the road, so it was lunch time when we reached the edge of Whangarei. We’d already experienced the hassle of roundabouts, and had to push the bikes up one really steep hill that was being used as a traffic detour, making is especially noisy and hazardous. But we were still in good spirits.

We chatted on our helmet intercoms the entire time, exchanging directions and making jokes, or just making fart sounds. Those intercoms completely altered the experience of riding together – suddenly it was extremely easy for us to hear each other, all the time, no matter what the traffic noise or the wind was like, or how much we drifted around on the road. We could just chat like we were sitting together at a restaurant.

It got to the point where, when we got off the bicycles and shut down the intercoms, we would have to say “what?” all the time, because we were so used to being heard loud and clear just by muttering. When the batteries died – which would only happen after 7 or 8 solid hours of riding, or when we forgot to charge them the previous night – we felt the lack of communication acutely. We were riding together, but we weren’t really together.

Long story short, those things kick ass.

I'm not sure what "Mother & Lift" is, but it's for sale here.

Anyway, we had snacks! I’m not sure what “Mother & Lift” is, but it’s for sale here. We bought the first of many fistfuls of candy, and ate some “fush and chups” spread out on greasy paper, on a tiny table by the roadside. Salty and delicious! A few birds landed nearby, including one who kept scaring the others by doing that same “RAAaaaaaaahhhh!” thing we saw yesterday. We tossed food scraps to the other birds, just to piss that one off. Hah!

Then we rode … And hit Highway 1 … and rode, and rode, and rode. The hills got really big, and the traffic got really dense. Often the trucks couldn’t move aside because some other driver was sitting in the adjacent lane, so they roared by us at close range, as we sweated our way up yet another hill on a shoulder that was so narrow it barely existed at all. We took frequent breaks but it was hard to keep morale up, since it was obvious how much danger we were putting ourselves in.

In the early evening we finally turned away from Highway 1 and drifted into the town of Hikurangi, and planted ourselves in front of a convenience store, considering our options, and eating snacks to try and brew up some more energy. Here’s a movie of me “enjoying” chunks of licorice that looked like pavement:


Hikurangi had a motel that looked alright, but if we spent the night there we would lose a day in our schedule, and lose our chance to hang around on the beach in Matapouri Bay. We’d booked a bunch of really cool stuff at the beginning of the trip, in a short span of days – kayaking, the beach, snorkeling, a waterfall, some caves – and it wasn’t flexible. That was a mistake.

An even bigger mistake was hauling so much gear around. We both overpacked, and that amplified the pain of climbing hills. If you can keep your momentum it doesn’t matter so much that your bike is heavy – but when you glide to a stop at the foot of every hill and then have to haul everything hundreds of feet up, then burn all that energy into your brake pads on the way down, it’s just punishing. The question “Why am I doing this to myself?” plays over and over in your head with every turn of the pedals.

Kerry very gamely agreed to push on towards Matapouri and our fancy reserved cottage, even though it was getting late and the route promised additional hills. I told her I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of the route so far, and if I’d known, I would have cut the day into thirds, and avoided Highway 1 at any cost.

“I know,” she said. “I can tell you really want me to like bicycle touring as much as you do. You wouldn’t have deliberately scheduled a first day like this, because this sucks. It’s a terrible first impression.”

She was right!

Of course, we pedaled out of Hikurangi and immediately hit this. Another crazy hill, followed by several more.

Exhausted with still many miles to go, but in good spirits! This first day of biking was murderous. Way more hills than I expected, and the Highway 1 traffic was brutal.

Miraculously, we both kept our spirits up, even though we cursed the hills and the traffic regularly. I think it helped that we were high on endorphins and could eat all the sugary snacks we could handle.

Dark, spooky forest. Elves in there, no doubt.

We took another long break at around 8:00pm. The sun was below the horizon but still coloring the sky with pastel rays, and the air was still warm. From the road we took this picture of some very dense and spooky woods. Back home, trees don’t usually grow this close together. We imagined small children wandering in there with baskets of goodies and vanishing forever. WooooOOOoo!

An after-sunset shot. We were taking a break partway up the last of the nasty hills, debating what to do.

When we took the next break, half an hour later, it was almost fully dark. (The shot above was a long exposure.) We were both quite exhausted and very worried about making it to the cottage without simply weaving our bikes into the ditch along the way – or worse, over a cliff. It didn’t help that I had to stop for quite a while and lay down in the road to try and fix my rear fender, which was making a very unpleasant grinding noise.

On the plus side, the cars had tapered almost completely away. Most of the time we had the road to ourselves, and we rode in two glowing pools of light, feeling the wind move softly around us. No engine noise, just our own voices and the occasional bleat of a sheep, the whinny of a horse, or the moo or a cow, and a crash in the bushes as some mammal or bird dove aside. It was like going on a night-hike while camping, but more comfortable. At one point we shut off our headlights and looked up, and saw a night sky crammed so full of stars that it was hard to pick out any of the usual constellations.

A dead possum on the road. For the health of New Zealand this is actually a good thing.

And of course, we found roadkill. This is dead possum. They look a bit different than the possums we’re used to back in California. Less rodent-like and scruffy. For the health of New Zealand, a dead possum is actually a good thing. You can read about it here on the Department Of Conservation website.

Finally we reached the seashore, close to 10pm, after eight hours of very hard riding. It would take another hour to get past the remaining hills to Matapouri, but we celebrated here anyway. Whooo!

Finally we reached the seashore, close to 10:00pm. Since Whangarei, we’d been riding hard for almost eight hours. We lounged on a bench, breathing the salt air and resting, while the surf crawled endlessly into the cove below. There was still more ground to cover.

The road turned south, following the coast along several more long, rolling hills. We moved slowly and it took another hour to reach Matapouri and find our little beachside cottage. We barely had enough energy to haul the bikes inside and creep into the bed.

In retrospect, I can say without a doubt that this was the hardest day of the trip, by far. Even the brutal Tonragiro Crossing in -8 degree wind chill was much easier than this, because we weren’t each hauling a hundred pounds of gear up multiple mountains – just snacks and water. The next day, on the beach, I thought for a while and made a short list of the toughest days of bicycling I’ve ever done in my whole career as a bicycle tourist, and this day came in second.

(In case you’re wondering, the day that came in first place was this one in Missouri.)

NZ Day 2: Kayaking Around Limestone Island

We flew in to Whangarei (actually pronounced more like “Phongaray” due to some interesting linguistic shenanigans) because there are a lot of different outdoorsy things to do in only a short distance. The closest among these is kayaking, and for that we made a reservation with Mark (pronounced more like “Mahk” due some cool kiwi accent shenanigans) of Pacific Coast Kayaks.

We were both pretty tired, but game for an adventure. Plus it would be a nice break from tinkering with bicycle parts.

He picked us up right from the hotel with all the gear we needed, and it was only a few minutes to the beach. Along the way we chatted about ourselves. “You’re a musician of some kind, aren’t you?” he asked. “I like to think I am,” I said. “Great! I thought so,” he said. “There’s something we’ll see during the tour that I think you’ll like a lot.” Intriguing!

Colorful beaches!

First find of the day!

The beach itself was quite colorful, and littered with many shells that would have been snatched up by curious kids in an instant if they’d been spotted back home in the Bay Area.

While we got ready, a few birds checked us out. They lingered next to a dead crab that washed ashore near the kayaks, until one bird in particular landed and scared the rest of them away, by ducking its head down, fluffing its wings up, and charging straight across the ground at the other birds, screaming “RAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!”

I could easily imagine a flightless dinosaur doing the same thing, millions of years ago. Coincidence?

Eventually, we were all ready to go. Look at those goofy excited grins!

Our first ride on the kayaks went directly across the bay towards the east side of Limestone Island to check out the ruins of the old lime refinery. The sea was a bit choppy, and we were too nervous to get our cameras out, but we made it to the shore without incident and went strolling around.

There were some handy signs around to tell us about the restoration efforts, and the geography of the island. They also warned us about the animal traps:

As a human you’d have to work pretty hard to injure yourself in that, but stoats can just walk right in…

The ruins were gorgeous, even on this overcast day. It was interesting to see the different styles of architecture and engineering used during the two phases of the refinery’s history, in the 1850’s and the 1880’s. Everything made of wood is of course long gone, but with some imagination you could almost see how the structures came together. Mark pointed out a barracks, and a cement foundation that was all that remained of a dance hall.

In fact, Mark knew a great deal about the island, from the Māori occupation all the way up to the present-day ecological efforts, and he told it to us while we hiked around taking pictures. In the above photo he’s explaining how that mound of dirt was deliberately shoved in front of the furnace opening to try and keep tourists from wandering inside and getting hit by loose masonry. Not a complete success, given how the plastic fence is bent out of shape. Hah!

One of the main attractions was the giant multi-chamber processing tank, built right next to a hillside with unrefined chunks of limestone practically spilling out of it. We looked at those for a while and then wandered inside, where we discovered the surprise that Mark told me about: Inside the high walls of the tank, you can play the exposed rebar like a xylophone!

So, of course, we jammed for a while.

The next attraction was even more amazing, I think. We left Limestone Island and set out on a hard route into the wind, east and then south, and eventually reached the entrance to a mangrove forest. The tide was rushing inward, and from there we mostly set our oars aside, and rode on the current all the way through the forest, from east to west. I took out my phone and made a time-lapse recording of part of the journey.

It was amazing. And as we went deeper into the forest, the weird mixing of ocean and sky intensified, until it was like drifting around inside an optical illusion.

You know that scene in Spirited Away where the main character travels across a water-drowned landscape while piano music plays? This was that, in real life.

You know that scene in Spirited Away where the main character travels across a water-drowned landscape while piano music plays? This was that, in real life.

I would have taken the kayak deeper, but the scrape and crunch of branches turned me away.

Eventually we emerged into an area about the size of a football field where the water was about 10 inches deep, clear, and dotted with tiny emerging mangrove shrubs. It was there I encountered my first piece of rare New Zealand litter (and compared to the Bay Area, it really is rare) – a large glass bottle, about the size of a wine bottle, filled with sand and plant debris. I reached down and pried it out, rinsed it a few times, and stowed it inside the kayak for recycling.

Just keeping things tidy for the next guy…

Our next stop was back on Limestone Island, for lunch. Mark made us some very tasty sandwiches. We also met the resident groundskeeper, and I spotted one of the ten zillion cicadas hiding in the foliage.

What the sheep won't eat, the tractor shaves down!

From there we went on, circling the rest of the island.

We checked out some cool rock formations …

We made it to Limestone island!

The island beach was a massive heap of colorful mussel shells.

… and landed at another beach so we could check out the remains of the foreman’s residence.

When all the walls were plastered and the windows were intact, it must have been quite lovely. Now instead it looks mysterious and gloomy. It makes me imagine that there’s some unsolved murder haunting the place, or a buried treasure somewhere on the island with half-destroyed clues still visible on the crumbling mantelpieces or sneakily encoded in the geometry of the rooms!

The inspiration for the halls or Erebor, no doubt.

The basement was especially spooky. And, the inspiration for the halls or Erebor, no doubt.

This car is a "Carry 4WD". Here's Kerry next to it!

Kerry also found a “Carry” car. Cute!

Kayaking victory!

After that, we headed for the mainland, and the spot where we launched. Then we spent the rest of the day lounging around in the pool, napping, and eating more food, trying to shake off the rest of the jet lag and prepare for our first bicycle ride.