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.)

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