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!

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