Fighting the wind; North Island tour



INTRODUCTION
I had a plan. It got changed a lot along the way, but at least I started with a plan! The idea was to leave Pukerua Bay and head over to the East coast, ride North, then follow the coast all round the East Cape. Then I would carry on to ride the Coromandel Penninsula loop, before scooting through Auckland on the train to get to Northland. There I would ride up the West coast, round the top and down the East side to the Bay of Islands, where I would meet up with my sister and brother-in-law. So I actually had a final destination to be at by a certain date, with the length of the North Island to cover in the meantime....

DAY 1: Pukerua Bay to Eketahuna
The week prior to leaving, the country had been hit by horrendous storms, to the extent of the roads and railways being closed due to slips, fallen trees and flooding. And there was more bad weather forecast for the coming days. So I had almost decided that it wouldn't be safe to head off. But when the Thursday morning (19th Feb) dawned relatively calm and bright, I decided to set off regardless and see what happened.... With panniers loaded I rolled out at 9:30am to start the adventure. It was only 16 degrees, but sunny at least. After about nine miles a roadie past me, so I hopped on for a tow. But he pulled off only a mile or so later, so not much shelter. I climbed over the hill to drop down to the Hutt valley to start the climb of the pass on SR2. This was a lovely climb, winding through green hills, with a gusty tailwind helping a little. I managed to stay out of the granny ring, and reached the summit at 555m. The descent was sketchy with the gusty wind pushing me all over the road, but I got down to the plains at the bottom and motored the flat 35km with a crosswind to Masterton. I rolled into town about 1:30, and stopped for lunch, preparing myself mentally for 42km directly into the wind. I later realised (after passing the Mount Bruce summit sign at 367m) that I was gradually climbing, but it was mainly the wind that had me struggling to do 10mph. The speed picked up a bit as I descended, as the wind swung to cross/tail. But it started raining, and with some very strong cross gusts I was often fighting to keep the bike on the left of the road.

Comedy animals along the way today: I had a whole herd of bulls running alongside me the length of their field (they could keep up since I was only doing 10mph), then I saw two almost-rams-lambs doing battle - major headbutting like rutting stags - looked (and sounded!) painful, but they kept backing up and going for it again. I didn't get too wet before I finally rolled into Eketahuna. The backpackers hostel/campground was another 1.5km into the driving rain, so I was considering my options and spotted the pub over the road had accomodation - I asked and at $20 that got my vote! With 120km/h winds and 25mm/h of rain forecast for tonight camping did not seem like a sensible option! A hot shower was very welcome.
87 miles in 5:42, 15.3mph av, 45.0mph max 1784m climbed

DAY 2: Eketahuna to Waipukurau
I woke up at 6:30, and when I looked out of the window a little later it actually appeared clear - but only briefly. Soon it was hammering down with rain. And not warm either - inside it was only 14 degrees! After getting up and dressed I got back into bed to keep warm whilst eating breakfast. Eventually it stopped raining, and mostly looked clear to the North, so at 8:15 I headed out, complete with overshoes and gore-tex jacket. The very strong crosswinds made for tough going, and my legs weren't feeling particularly up for it either, which didn't help. Still, amazingly I managed to avoid the rain, despite riding roads that had obviously been very recently rained on. The temperature hovered around 11 degrees, which at least meant I didn't overheat with the big jacket on. There was a nice section with a bit of a tailwind past Woodville, where I was starting to heat up, so paused to swap jacket for jersey before rolling into Danneville at 42 miles for the first stop of the day. I had an early lunch of sandwich and chips and a hot chocolate in a cafe, then was off again. Another hard slog with draggy roads and a side/head wind, until with about 18 miles to go to Waipukurau I turned due West and had a howling tailwind - at times I was freewheeling at 33mph! But at Waipukurau my route to Napier would turn NE again, so to the grim crosswinds; I decided I'd had enough, even though it was only 2pm, and after a snack at the supermarket, I found the campsite. Actually nice to finish early, and even beautiful and sunny now, lovely apart from the wind! I found a sheltered corner for the tent, showered, then strolled round town before buying food for dinner - a microwavable combination of oatmeal, rice pudding and hot chocolate. Later I went to collect my laundry from where it had been hanging up, and discovered a big rip in my shorts - over enthusiastic wringing I think, combined with the crash in Melbourne. So a quick walk back to the local Woolworths (open until 11pm, handy being in a reasonable size town) to buy a needle and thread, and I finished the day sewing my shorts up by headtorch in the tent.
78 miles in 4:42, 16.5mph av, 43.0mph max 1348m climbed

DAY 3: Waipukurau to Napier
I woke up at 6:30, and was feeling rested enough to get up soon after. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal, then packed up, only to discover a flat back tyre. No sign of what caused it, so I just installed a new tube and was finally ready to roll at 8:30 - after the TransAm last year it seems strange to me to be starting so late each day! The weather was bright and mostly clear, but with that strong gusty Northwesterly still present. I made it to Hastings at 30 miles - the legs felt pretty good, but my right knee was twinging a bit, so I bought some Ibuprofen before pressing onto Napier. The last few miles were directly North along the coast, with the mother of all cross/headwinds reducing me to 10mph as I wrestled to keep the bike going straight. A convoy of Citroen 2CVs passed me a couple of times, giving me something to look at; ten of then, complete with beret clad drivers! Once in Napier, a combination of a bad knee and the fact that my route would continue Northward with the wind showing no sign of abating meant I decided to stop there and chill out for the afternoon. It felt very odd to be calling it a day before 12:00! I found the campsite and put the tent up, had some lunch and read for a bit before strolling the 20 minutes into town. Napier is known as th 'Art Deco' town, and it turned out that they were celebrating that this weekend - lots of 1930s and '40s cars with the occupants in period dress, with matching era live music and other stuff going on. So interesting to wander about with an ice-cream, then I bought food for dinner and walked back to the campsite. Finally a warm evening! Happy wandering about in shorts and t-shirt, and it stayed warm so that I didn't need the sleeping bag until the early hours.
44 miles in 3:05, 14.3mph av, 44.0mph max 147m climbed

DAY 4: Napier to Taupo
Now the weather report said that the Westerly wind would ease off during the day (more on that later...), so I figured there wasn't any point in starting early. Nevertheless, I was up before 7, but then had a leisurely breakfast and took my time packing up, leaving at 8:50. The wind wasn't too bad heading out, with lovely clear sunny skies. And nice and warm too - already 20 degrees when I rolled out. Decisions decisions.... For most of yesterday and even up until the turning today I was trying to decide on a route. The original plan had been to go right out around the East Cape, but with the wind being so fierce, my daily mileage has been down on what I expected, and I really didn't want to go much further East, as that only means coming back into that wind for longer. So plan B was to go East a bit then cut across the middle of the Cape to pick up the coast road on the North side. Or plan C would have me do a hard day today into the wind Northwest to Taupo, and miss the Cape bit out all together. I was still uming and ering up until I got to the turning for Taupo, but finally decided to take the overall more cautious approach and went with plan C. My knee had been hurting a bit, but after some careful riding - not getting out of the saddle - it thankfully settled down. Big climbs on empty roads in the middle of nowhere, with long stretches in bottom gear at 5mph. Especially hard when the wind kicked in - it wasn't bad in the first 30 miles, but from then on it was fairly horrendous (so much for the weather report!). With good legs (which fortunately I had today), battling the wind isn't too bad physically, you just go slower.... but the wind noise drives me crazy! I had the walkman on for a while, but gave up eventually as it mostly gets drowned out. I was getting a bit worried out supplies - I had a few museli bars, but not enough for all day. I had thought and buying more food in Napier, but had hoped to find something en route. The first place just had a closed-looking motel. Then at 40 miles I saw a sign saying 'Summit Kiosk 1Km' - so serendipitous on two counts: the top of the hill and food! But would it be open (this was a Sunday)? Round the corner was a burnt out patch that could have been it formerly, but thankfully the next corner revealed the actual place, to much relief. I lunched on a toasted sandwich, cake and yogurt, then back on the road. The downhills were interesting with the gusty winds, but meant I didn't have to use the brakes. I reckon I would have hit 60mph otherwise! At the campsite turnoff at 50 miles I met two (German?) tourists, who admired Bike Friday, then after a quick chat (hard even to hold a conversation with the howling wind!) left me to push on into the gale. But I was getting very bad stomach cramps, which really doesn't help trying to pedal, so I had to stop and visit the bushes a couple of times. After the second stop I felt a bit more comfortable, and with 17 miles to go, got on the drops and hammered - helped by a bit of a drop down to Taupo. I was very happy to arrive and find the campsite, it had been a very tough day. After putting the tent up and showering, I walked into town in search of dinner, having decided to eat out. Found a fairly decent Pad Thai, followed by some delicious chocolate cake and ice-cream. Then I took myself off to the cinema for some relaxing; saw 'The last Samurai' for the second time. At the film I chatted to an English girl and her Kiwi friend whom she was visiting as part of a 7 month sebatical to explore New Zealand. I walked out with them before saying goodnight and calling into the supermarket (open until midnight!) for yogurt... also ended up buying chocolate - a 250g bar for $2 was too much of a bargin! And then to bed.
89 miles in 7:18, 12.2mph av, 46.0mph max 1942m climbed

DAY 5: Taupo to Okere Falls
I woke up surprisingly early, considering yesterday's hard day and late night. I was up before 7am, and, leaving the tent and gear at the site, rolled out about 8:20 to go see Huka Falls. I had thought I would get there before the tourists, but a coach load arrived just after me. The falls are pretty impressive, with a huge quantity of water and some amazing colours - most of the lakes and rivers in New Zealand seem to have these fantastic hues.
Then I followed the track downstream, only about four miles or so, but fun off-roading on Bike Friday! Then I headed back up to the main road and along to the 'Craters of the Moon'. This is a thermal park - amazing to walk round the craters and holes all steaming away, sounding like lots of kettles coming to the boil. I've never seen anything like it before. And it all smells like eggs from the sulphur. Having fulfilled my touristy quota for the day, I headed back to the campsite and packed up. After some lunch I phoned Andrea's friend Julia to see if I could stay the night - she said yes, so I headed off to Roturua and then onto Okere Falls, about 100km. I rattled the first 40km out at 17.5mph average, despite going slowly out of town because I was talking to an East African emigrant on a Chas Roberts road bike. I paused for an ice-cream, then after some hassles with my mini-disc player, pushed on. Three things now: Worsely the stomach cramps from yesterday came back, very uncomfortable and requiring one dash for the bushes, which only gave slight relief. Then there was the wind, which had gotten up from the morning into a headwind. And finally some long draggy climbs. Ah well. Roturua was heralded by the stink of rotten eggs, but I only skirted it to push on the last 20km. I was tired and very happy to find Julia and Ian's, although my stomach was still unhappy. But I felt a bit more normal after a shower and a rest, before a very pleasant meal with Julia, Ian and another couple.
82 miles in 5:43, 15.4mph av, 33.0mph max 503m climbed

DAY 6: Okere Falls to Whangamata
I've got to sort myself out and start starting earlier! I didn't roll out until 9am this morning. I did find the bike with a flat front tyre - tiny piece of glass in it, so mended the tube which took some time. But otherwise just general procrastination...... Anyway, patchy cloud but sunny, with Westerlies again. I felt pretty good rolling out, though it was a lot of downhill to Te Puke. Here I met an American lad from Washington state, pushing his touring bike in the other direction. He had blown his knee out six days into a ten week tour (which I reckon probably had a lot to do with his choice of bike, and the fact that he had only just bought it on his arrival), and was walking/coasting as best he could, waiting to call the hospital for x-ray results. I wished him luck and adviced him to hit the beach for a few days! On SR2 there was a lot of traffic, so I was happy to turn off through Welcome Bay on back roads for a few kilometres. I paused in the village for a snack of hot chocolate and a muffin, then pushed on through Turanga, which wasn't too pleasant on big, busy roads. Right into the wind now, but I put my head down and motored. A bit before my lunch stop at Katikati the road turned North, so I had a crosswind, and even occasionally the wind behind me, which helped. After lunch, there was some climbing and stiff headwind sections to Waihi, where I had my last stop for a muffin break, before heading into the Karangahake Gorge. This was beautiful, a lovely climb followed by a really fun twisty descent - I had to keep telling myself to keep off the brakes to rail the corners! An Audi TT passed me, stickered up as a demo car; definitely a great road for that! After the downhill it was just a last rolling section, with a bit of headwind, into Whangamata. Slim pickings at the supermarket - I fancied getting a pizza since the campsite had an oven, but no vegetarian ones, which was disappointing. A bike touring couple arrived at the campsite at the same time as me, hailing from Austria, so I had a good chat with them over dinner.
96 miles in 6:36, 14.4mph av, 46.0mph max 1342m climbed

DAY 7: Whangamata to Coromandel
I woke up and got up at 7. A bit cloudy overhead, but the sun was coming up bright on the horizon. It was still slightly chilly when I rolled out at 8:30, the thermometer showing 14 degrees. I ate a little too much museli for breakfast - it took a good hour or so before it felt digested! It was a fairly tough climb over to Tairua, accentuated with some sections into the wind. Just after turning off towards Hahei, I caught a German couple - complete with a child asleep in a trailer! The guy was towing that as well as hauling a totally loaded bike; that had to be hard work on the hills! I wished them well and skooted on down to the beach for a lunch break. Absolutely idillic beach, with white sands and turquiose sea, and hardly any people. After a pleaseant break it was back into the wind on more scenic roads to Ferry Landing. Here I caught the short ferry ride over to Whitanga, then pedalled on. Over a short, sharp climb I met another German, who was glad to have got to the top. I'm not surprised as he had four panniers and a very loaded rear rack - more than twice my load! He thought he would send some home.... I stopped for a bit on Bluff road on the coast for a snack and to enjoy the view, before the last leg into the wind and the final climb to the summit at 360m, followed by an exhilarating descent to Coromandel. The climb was lovely, 8-12% grade, and all nice new tarmac, after the guidebook said it was dirt. I was amazed at the scale of the tree felling here - I would see entire hillsides cleared as if by a tremendous storm, then up at the top would be a (from the distance) tiny digger on top of a huge pile of logs. Apparently they winch all the logs up the hill to the access point for the trucks to take them away. What seemed crazy to me though, was how often I would see loaded logging trucks going in both directions on the roads - surely someone could sort out the supply better! New Zealand is slowly realising that they need to harvest the trees sustainably - but too slowly, many of these big clearances are just that, and of forests that have taken centuries to grow, which is sad. Anyway, once in Coromandel, I rode a couple of laps of town before finding the campsite. I put the tent up and went shopping - went through three supermarkets and still no vegetarian pizza!
81 miles in 6:13, 12.9mph av, 44.0mph max 1537m climbed

DAY 8: Coromandel to Helensville
This morning I actually managed to get off early for once! I woke up just after 6, and despite it being dark and cold, I got myself up and breakfasted and packed away and on the road at 7:40. Only 9 degrees! But no wind, and a lovely coast road to Thames - three biggish climbs, steep too, then a pretty shoreline road, albeit into a rising headwind. Just road works with patches of deep chunky gravel to disrupt the flow! I was ready for a break at Thames, having done 34 miles in 2.5 hours. A quick snack of nutella and banana sandwiches, then on. More headwind for 5km, then I turned West, and (incredibly!) a tailwind! Only gentle, but still a bonus. Once I got to Miranda I was on the Lonely Planet route on little backroads, so had turn-by-turn directions and knew exactly how long each hill would be. Typical farm countryside, very pleasant, but it could have easily been England, or any number of places, very non-descript. A large line of brand new smallish cars passed several times - apparently journalists out blatting about for some launch or other. A second helping of sandwiches at 74 miles, then another cyclists joined me for a few kilometres, nice to have some company for a bit, though I think my loaded speed surprised him! At 93 miles I rolled into Papakura, and caught the 3:18 train into Auckland. My plan was to avoid the traffic laden streets of Auckland by going through the city on the train. At least they only charged me $1 for the bike here, as opposed to $4 in Wellington! Auckland central station has very funky coloured lighting, that even extends to the bathrooms! I just had time to take the bike up the escalator to use the facilities and fill my bottles up, before hurrying back down to catch the 4:15 train to Waitatere. We arrived there about an hour later, leaving me with 20 miles to ride. The first mile was all ripped up for re-surfacing; I had just got back to unbroken tarmac when I felt that sinking feeling from the back tyre. A pinch puncture, unsurprisingly. But the tyre was about to expire too, so I fitted the spare whilst I was at it. A chap in a truck pulled up behind to make sure I was alright, which was nice. I got going again, but hadn't got very far when there was a big noise when I tried to change gear, and at first I thought I'd broken another shifter, but realised it was just the cable. So another stop for a rapid cable replacement. Then after another mile or so I got onto SH16, and whaddayaknow, a tailwind again! Nice to be going fast, and I rattled out the last 14 miles to Helensville and rode through town, looking, and failing, to see any campsite signs..... so I asked a taxi driver, who told me to go out to Parakai, which was about another 3km. Which I did, but still no signs for camping. I was starting to despair (it was now 7:15), when I saw caravans through trees on the right, but no visible entrance. I eventually found my way in on a footpath round the back to discover a nice little campsite, the unmarked entrance being joined with the swimming pool/hot springs which I had previously passed. Bitey bugs got me a few times whilst I put the tent up, so I retreated to the showers before emerging with trousers and longsleeves! I dined on oatmeal and chocolate digestives, whilst chatting to a Canadian from BC, who was wintering in NZ for two months. And then to bed.
116 miles in 7:50, 14.8mph av, 40.0mph max 1346m climbed

DAY 9: Helensville to Wellsford
A short day today - for the first 20 miles or so I kept swinging between stopping at Wellsford or pushing on another 100km. But then the wind really kicked in, and it was a struggle just to get to Wellsford. I was up and off by 8:15, paused in town for a quick snack, then into the wind. There were several more sections of construction on SH16, whilst the weather was overcast and grey, but warm, at 19-20 degrees. Some heavy climbs along the way, but as the wind really started to blow the climbs got much more difficult and the descents pretty dangerous as I wrestled to keep the bike on the road with the fierce gusts. Fortunately there was very little traffic, so I could use the whole width of the road. It was with much relief that I rolled into Wellsford - but no campsite. The pub had backpackers accomodation though, and since I was the only occupant, it was like having a cheap kitchenette motel room to myself. I spent the afternoon resting up as the rain came down, and observed from the weather report that it wasn't looking too promising for the weekend either....
39 miles in 3:13, 12.0mph av, 38.0mph max 828m climbed

DAY 10: Wellsford to Dargaville
I woke to rain again, but it was still reasonably warm, so I set off at 8:30 regardless. The rain was very heavy to start with, which got me nicely soaked. My old friend the headwind once more, accompanied by some hills for the first 28km to Brindewyn. Then the rain eased off for a bit and I was able to take my jacket off. A nice bit of tailwind as I turned West for another 28km to the Kauri museum at Matakohe. This had been recommended to me by the Canadian at Helensville, and though I normally eschew museums and touristy stuff, I spent a very interesting hour in there. The Kauri trees grow very big - up to 6m in diameter! And they had some amazing examples of swamp preserved wood - perfectly useable timber which is up to 44,500 years old! It was raining again as I left, becoming heavier a few km down the road. And the last 14 miles were into the wind, so I put my head down and rode tempo - I actually managed to hold 18mph at times, so the wind can't have been that bad.... or maybe I was riding stronger than I expected? Either way, I was pretty spent when I reached Dargaville. Not good weather for camping, so I checked into the hostel, and had a hot shower before going back out in the rain to get food. I discovered that the lower support on one pannier had broken off and disappeared, but I was able to make a temporary repair with a toestrap. Also, the left sleeve of my jacket, which was already a bit torn, got ripped open all the way to the armpit in the wind. So out with the needle and thread again - it took a little while, but kept me amused in front of the tv for a while.
63 miles in 4:22, 14.3mph av, 41.0mph max 1024m climbed

DAY 11: Dargaville to Whangarei
I woke up at 7am, and crept out of the dorm to wash and cook up some oatmeal for breakfast. Then I snuck back in to grab my kit, before packing up in the lounge. It was STILL raining, and rather than use my dry riding clothes, I just put on the kit that was still wet from being washed last night, and headed out at 8:30. Heavy rain, but at least not too much wind. Lots of water, the road was flooded at one point. It was only 16 degrees, and I wasn't really quite warm enough. However, I was due to start climbing at 30km, so figured I would warm up then. But before that a van pulled up alongside and told me there was a massive slip up the road - a huge section of the hill had slid onto the road - apparently there was now a Kauri upright in the road! So it was pretty unlikely that I would be able to get through, even on the bike. Which was a bit of a bugger really, since I really wanted to go see the giant trees! Ah well. The guys in the van kindly offered me a ride back to Dargaville, which I accepted. So two hours later, I ended up back where I started! But at least the rain had stopped. So, decision time - take the alternate route to Kaikohe and on the the Bay of Islands (about 120km), or just go to Whangarei today (about 55km) and do the final 74km tomorrow to meet my sister? I stopped at the turning and had a sandwich whilst comtemplating. The wind look okay for either direction, and it was still dry... for the moment at least! Eventually I decided on Whangarei, on the basis that there would be more to do there, and I'll have two nights at the Bay of Islands anyway. Plus I could do with replacing the bike's gear cable outer, and Whangarei has bike shops. The ride was okay, got rained on a bit, but very little traffic. Once in the town I found the campsite - I'd had enough of hostels after two nights. I put the tent up, then went to cruise town while I still had my (damp) kit on. This being a Sunday, all three bike shops were predictably shut. But I found the supermarket and bought food. And the sun even came out - very welcome after not seeing any since Thursday!
60 miles in 4:03, 14.8mph av, 45.0mph max 881m climbed

DAY 12: Whangarei to Paihia
No hurry to get up this morning, having to wait for the bikeshop to open at 9am. So up about 7:20, breakfast of chocolate oatmeal and toast, then packed up and rode into town. The weather was a bit overcast, but warm enough. I found the bikeshop and got a new cable and outer sorted; not cheap, but a major improvement - finally gears that change smoothly! Then before heading out I phoned Wendy and arranged to meet her and Andi in Paihia. There was a slight headwind as I rode leisurely Northwards, but not too bothersome. I stopped for lunch at Kawakara, which left me just 16km to go, although that included some decent climbing. I arrived in Paihia about 2pm, had an ice-cream and chilled out waiting for Wendy and Andi to arrive, which they duly did about 5pm, complete with their HUGE campervan. We made our way to the campsite and cooked up some pasta for dinner.
46 miles in 3:40, 12.6mph av, 40.0mph max 1057m climbed

Over the next four days we drove back down to Wellington. I rode the bike a couple of times, but mostly relaxed and recovered - I wanted to be rested for the Karapoti mountain bike race at the weekend.

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