(Note – click on small photos to enlarge – depending on your device)
Riding the roads, gravel and trails of New Zealand was always going to be a bit special – and so it turned out to be. Tour Aotearoa follows the paths less well travelled and is one of the worlds great Bikepacking trips. Stunning landscapes, friendly communities, magical sunrises and sunsets greet you every day.
The TA route stretches 3000km from Cape Reinga at the northern tip of North Island to Bluff in the south of South Island. In between the route follows cycle trails, tracks and paths all connected by relatively quiet country roads. These are roughly one third sealed road, one third gravel road, and one third cycle trail (gravel usually) with some beach riding, serious single track and a few ferry crossings thrown in.
The Bike – Mason ISO
The most common bike used for the TA is a 29er mountain Bike. With the variety of terrain and surfaces my ideal was more than a gravel bike but not a full mountain bike. As luck would have it Dom Mason of Mason bikes had just designed a machine that hit the spot perfectly. The Mason ISO – In Search Of – was conceived for just such adventures. As Cycling Weekly put it “The Mason ISO will take you into territory where a dropped bar bike has no right to be”
I arrived in Auckland a week before the start and spent time with my brother and his lovely family and combined that with all the last minute preparation. I always find it virtually impossible to decide on what to pack. I have a habit of packing far too heavy – pack this – just in case – no not that – but then what if that happens? And so it goes on.
Its a fair journey from Auckland to Cape Reinga but luckily my sister in law had family living up north in Cable Bay and we headed up together a couple of days before the start and spent some relaxing time there.
Riders of the Tour start in blocks of 100 per day and each group start is timed to arrive at 90 mile beach on a falling tide. Towards high tide the firm sandy beach is under water and bikes would have to take to the soft sand and the dunes. Get the timing wrong or face a strong headwind will occasionally result in an overnight camp in the dunes.
Our start time on March 3rd was 0700 and I was booked into the organised camp at the remote Tapotupotu Bay the night before – a short ride to the Cape.
Luckily the afternoon before was clear and bright so we went to Cape Reinga to take some photographs. For Maori, Cape Reinga is the most spiritually significant place in New Zealand. It is here that after death, all Maori spirits travel up the coast and over the wind swept vista before travelling underwater to the Three King Islands where they climb to the highest point of the Islands and bid their last farewell before returning to the land of their ancestors.
I woke early after a restless night in the tent and scrambled around in the dark packing bags and grabbing some breakfast. A thick mist hung over the camp as I set out riding to the Cape. It was only a few kilometres but a steep climb to over 200m in the dark and mist coupled with clouds of gravel dust when the occasional truck passed made it a tough start to the day. I did wonder if this was some kind of omen!
Nervous anticipation was tangible among the eclectic group of riders milling around on Cape Reinga carpark. Ahead lay 3000km to Bluff as we set off at 7am, following the road for 15km before riding down the Te Paki Stream, the only access to 90 mile Beach.
Te Paki Stream and 90 mile beach had been weighing heavily on my mind having read about riders wading through flood water in the stream and battling prevailing headwinds on the exposed sand and getting caught by the rising tide. As it turned out we were a lucky group of riders that day. The stream was a bit sticky in parts and the beach benign with a developing breeze caressing our backs and pushing us along towards Ahipara. The actual ride on the hardpan sand is 55 miles. Stories suggest its misleading name resulted from early settlers relating it to three days of horse riding which on average was 30 miles a day.
Arriving in Ahipara at the end of the beach ride I was just in time for some much needed lunch after taking advantage of the bike wash station generously provided by the local holiday camp. Salt and sand don’t mix well with drivetrains!
The beach ride was special and I was happy to make the first 100km by lunchtime but started to think about the night stop and the 2 to 3 hour Kaipara Harbour crossing that lay 250km ahead. There was only one ferry a day leaving late morning. Tomorrow’s ferry had spaces but the day after was fully booked so if I didn’t make it tomorrow I would need to ride the tedious road alternative adding loads of km and missing out on one of the iconic experiences of Tour Aotearoa.
The day had warmed up and I pushed on riding sealed and gravel roads towards a short ferry crossing that got me to Rawene late afternoon and onto Opononi at the mouth of Hokianga Harbour arriving in the dark and found a bed for a brief sleep at the holiday park.
So Day one was 193km of beach, gravel and sealed road with 10 hours of riding and quite a few breaks and the short ferry. My dynamo power converter had packed up which was a worry because I used it to charge my Wahoo Element Roam for navigation and phone charging. Luckily I had a spare but it was at my brothers house in Auckland, a few km off the route, so if I made the Kaipara Ferry I could divert and stay tomorrow night in Auckland.
I got riding just after 0200hrs and had 150km to make the late morning ferry. About 50km was gravel roads and there were a few good looking climbs. The first task was to reach photo control point 3 in the Waipoua Kauri Forest. This was Tane Mahuta – Lord of the Forest and one of New Zealand’s tallest trees. Sadly it was night when I arrived.
There is always something magical riding through the night and slowly emerging into the dawn. I made good time, even on the gravel sections where the 2.4 WTB tyres gave me comfort and confidence. Five hours and 80km later I arrived in the small town of Dargaville as the residents were awaking for the day and found some good coffee and breakfast.
The ride to Pouto Point was another 70km with 25km of gravel which was slippery after some rain but little climbing and I arrived at the point in good time for the ferry and found another half dozen riders waiting.
Three hours on the Kaipara ferry was a good time to snatch a little sleep and recharge for the ride into Auckland for a night at my brother’s house to replace the power converter. Helensville was a good stop for food followed by easy riding south towards Auckland Harbour and Photo control point 5 at the top of Mt Eden overlooking the city. Its a steep climb to the top of the extinct Volcano and it was great to find a cardboard box at the top marked for TA riders and full of goodies including a cold beer!
A busy evening ride followed but thankfully Auckland has an impressive network of cycle paths so it felt pretty safe. I headed past the airport and in the failing light across the City to my brothers house in Howick after 20 hours plus on the road. It turned out to be my biggest day of the Tour with 246km and 3,300m of climbing. I slept well!
Seemed a little strange, but a nice bonus, to be at my brothers house so soon after he dropped me off up at the Cape. I sorted the replacement power converter and after a good breakfast set off at the relaxed hour of 0930. I made my way through the morning traffic to the TA route where I had left it the night before. I headed on the inland course option towards Miranda Hot Springs on the Firth of Thames. I had ridden the coastal route before but the inland route resulted in some good climbing and heavy localised rain showers so after an hour or so regretted my route decision! Progress was slow and my legs felt heavy and it took me to early afternoon to reach Miranda and the coast but found a great lunch stop a few km inland. The Stray Dog Cafe had great food and probably the best stained glass window made of bottles in an outdoor brick shit-house – anywhere in the world!
The rest of the day was really easy as I rode the beautiful Hauraki Rail trail along the bottom of the Firth of Thames to Kopu before re joining the trail turning south towards Paeroa where I had booked a B and B stop taking day 3 as a bit of a recovery day. I often find day three is the hardest of any long distance ride and this was no exception.
The day ended in a great pub after an easy 146km in 7 hours.
My lovely host offered a great cooked breakfast so although I wanted an early start it was too good to miss! I got away at 0830 and headed on down the rail trail to Te Aroha and on to Matamata where there was a photo control point at Hobbiton HQ!
After 25km of sealed road from my coffee stop in Matamata the route turned onto the Waikato River Trail and real fun began. One of the NZ classic rides which included a real mixture including some serious single track – well serious for me having limited MTB skills!
We all had to take a diversion onto sealed roads just after Arapuni and then rejoined the trail on the final section to Mangakino where I had booked a B and B – interesting set of rooms built in a shipping container!
Timber Trail day! I got going at 0500 in the dark and got a little lost following the local trails alongside the Waikato but soon found my way and steadily climbed with a mixture of gravel path, sealed and dirt roads for the next 50km.
At 35km the photo control point no 8 was a marker for the Centre of North Island.
Leaving the sealed road the Timber Trail climbs through cloud forest to Mt Pureora at nearly 1000m. One of the great NZ trails it has 73km of single track and 7km of old logging road and crosses many river gorges with spectacular swing bridges which sway and induce some dizzy unnerving moments when you are glad not to suffer vertigo.
The end of the Timber Trail at Ongarue was followed by a lovely evening ride along a gravel back road to Taumarunui.
Into Town after 153km and 2500m of climbing on a hot day I was glad to find a motel and more important a fabulous Thai restaurant.
A quiet Sunday morning and I got going just before 0600 hrs and rode along the main street alongside the rail tracks hoping for breakfast and hey ho – MacDonalds had just opened! A Mac breakfast is as good as it gets. Lucky because there was a tough day in prospect heading towards the famous ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and the Jet-boat ride down the Whanganui River.
The first few hours were gravel riding to Owhango and then the Oio Road to Whakahoro where I met up with Tony again at the Blue Duck Cafe for a second breakfast 67km into the morning.
Six km after the Blue Duck Cafe the single track begins – the Kaiwhakauka Track – described in the guidebook as a tough challenge – expect walking.
I had pre-booked the Jet Boat and made good time. I was lucky to have such a good day. The following day it rained and the papa mud on the stock road is notorious – a soft blue-grey sandstone turns to cement like sludge.
The Bridge to Nowhere across the Mangapurua Stream was built to serve the farming community but landslips and flooding saw the demise of the community in 1942.
A short winding path leads to Mangapurua Landing – the pick up point for the Jet Boat. The great Whanganui River is spectacular and made all the better for the 28km ride down to Pipiriki.
So a spectacular day finished at Pipiriki after 106 km of riding that took just short of eight hours in the warm but dry conditions. Riders had a murderous time in the mud the following day. I shared a hut with Tony at the local campsite and joined up with Andrew and Davide for supper and a couple of beers.
We had asked for an early breakfast and were well looked after before setting off at 0700 heading down the beautiful Whanganui river valley towards the ‘big city’ on the coast. A few rain showers came through but quickly cleared away.
I arrived in Whanganui around lunchtime and found some great food in a restaurant attached to the Tourist Information Centre on the riverfront. I had broken my only pair of reading glasses and asked the lady at the Information desk where I could find a shop to buy some. She asked how strong I needed them and said to “try these”. I hesitated, she insisted, and they were perfect – she said have them you are doing a great ride – I tried to pay – we had a polite argument but she insisted! So I won some glasses from a very kind lady.
A quirky exit from the city followed. Crossing the river the route takes a 200m tunnel to an ancient lift operated by a lift attendant. Rattling and banging it climbs 66 meters to Durie Hill. Thoughts now turned to catching the ferry to South Island in a couple of days time and that meant two 200km plus days were needed to set up a shortish run into Wellington.
Sixty km of sealed road got me to Hunterville by mid afternoon and a useful stop for food. By now I was sharing the road a lot with Andrew and Davide. Andrew had found a good night stop at a remote farmhouse a few kms after Apiti. I arrived at dusk and shared a good evening with great food with the friendly host and my two travelling pals. The day was 203km with 2700m climbing over 10.5 hours and so the first week of the adventure was complete with 1228km.
Up before 0600 and on the road by 0640 after a good breakfast. Ahead lay 35km of gravel riding and now we were heading due south towards Wellington. Two and a half hours into the day riding through remote cattle and sheep country and a few rain showers I arrived at Pohangina to be flagged down at the side of the road by a lovely lady Mary – a Trail Angel – offering coffee and muffins – oh what joy!
Next was Ashhurst and the large town of Palmerston North. Along the way Davide’s rear tyre got a bad puncture which the sealant couldn’t repair and he was forced to divert to the town to make repairs.
I pushed on and planned to stop at Martinborough for the night. The roads were fairly easy going with short gravel sections and late afternoon I diverted into Masterton and found a great self service Chinese Takeout. Bliss after 12 hours on the road.
I arrived in Martinborough late evening and found my way to the Holiday Park where they had left a chalet key for me taped to reception window. A long day of 238km and 12 hours in the saddle.
A good day in prospect with an early afternoon ferry booked to South Island but it needed an early start so I was up at 0400 and away by 0440. Andrew’s wife had kindly booked our ferries. To my surprise I found a bakery open and had a great breakfast – they open at 0300 in this small town – night owls rule!
After a few kms I joined the Remutaka Cycle Trail – a spectacular trail following much of the old rail track and rising to 340m.
After the rail summit tunnel it was pretty much down hill for 65km taking in the Hutt River Trail along the way and then full steam ahead for Wellington.
The run into Wellington was a little busy but I arrived in good time for the BlueBridge Ferry at Waterloo Quay. Andrew’s wife, who worked for the company, had booked tickets and it was special to get welcomed with some food and drinks – nice.
The crossing takes three and a half hours and was a great opportunity to get some rest so I got into a cabin and grabbed a shower and a couple of hours sleep. We docked in Picton early evening and I headed out to reach Havelock about 35km away.
Night fell before I reached Havelock but I found a small motel after a short riding day of 133 kms on the bike. Great to be in South Island.
I got riding at 0700 but not before finding a fabulous breakfast in Havelock that set me up well for tackling the Maungatapu Track and it turned out to be a tough old day.
Pelorus Bridge at 19km soon turned to a gravel road and then the challenging Maungatapu Track that climbs to 740m over 20km.
Out of the hills and into the city of Nelson and some easy riding on great cycle trails along the coast to Richmond and onto Wakefield. The rest of the day was pretty much gravel cycle trails and took in the interesting Spooners Tunnel.
I arrived at the small settlement of Tapawera just after 5pm and called it a day after 125km. I found a rustic campsite that had a spare cabin and a short walk for some good food and early to bed.
I was up just after 0300 and away by 0400 with 60km of mixed sealed and gravel road to Lake Rotoroa. I had seen photos of this beautiful lake and arriving at the beach was not disappointed.
The next 30km to Murchison took in the beautiful gravel Braeburn Track, a good climb of 650m to the Saddle and crossed by several fords – lucky it was dry!
Murchison to Springs Junction is 80km mostly gentle climbing on gravel up and over the Maruia Saddle.
Next was a 6km climb to the Rahu Saddle and then a 30km downhill that just kept on going all the way to Reefton my night stop after 215km and 12 hours in the saddle. I found a motel and joined Andrew and Davide for supper. We had a long conversation over supper about the following day where the Tour route took in the Big River trail. Mud and rock with up to 5km of bike pushing had been reported after heavy rain and we decided to opt for the easier road bypass. Difficult decision to miss one of the classic trails but I am not a good MTB rider and as the endgame played out a few days later it was a good decision.
Davide and Andrew were riding the Tour together and I bumped into them so often since way back on the Kaipara Ferry on day two that we decided to ride the last few days together. The three amigos – a Kiwi, an Italian and a Brit – got to be a joke there somewhere!
And so we headed out at 0600 along Highway 7 and headed towards the coast arriving at Greymouth late morning after 80km. We found a super little coffee shop on the seafront road and dived in to refuel and take a rest.
A gravel cycle trail took us 25km along the flat coast and inland to Kumara through sand dune country. This was the start of the West Coast Wilderness Trail and over 150km of trail riding lay ahead.
The trail heads inland, literally into the wilderness, and is great riding with a variety of off road surfaces. Bizarrely half way around the trail loup inland we came across Cowboy Paradise run by a crazy sort of guy (check out Trip Advisor reviews!) We took some refreshments but worried about his attitude and the pole dancing pole in the middle of the room! Seemed out of place!
We headed back towards the Tasman Sea with Hokitika our destination for the night. The clocktower was a photo control point and we found a good hotel with a busy restaurant and we went a bit overboard with the food! A great day of 176km and 9 hours in the saddle.
We were away by 0600 heading south along the beautiful West Coast and marvelling that we had not had a drop of rain in this notoriously wet part of NZ.
We arrived at Fox in the late afternoon and booked into a Motel and had a little trouble securing the bikes, locking them together around the back of the building. One of the few places that did not allow us to have the bike in the room. But before that we carried on a few kms and turned towards the mountains in the hope of seeing Fox Glacier. Sadly with global warming the glacier had retreated and we hardly got a glimpse!
Another magical day of 172km finished off in style with some good food and beer.
Another 0600 start and a beautiful day ahead but a bit brass monkey for a few hours until the sun arrived. Dawn’s early light is always special on these rides.
Leaving Haast Village we headed inland to climb the Haast Pass (564m). A steady gentle climb of 50km got us to the steeper section over the pass.
After Haast Pass there was an nice descent of 20km to Makarora where we found a chalet at the tourist centre after 200km and another day to remember.
Some surprising numbers came out of the day. I improved my FTP – functional threshold power – which is the maximum power you can ride for an hour. Not something you would expect to do on day 14 of an ultra ride but suggests I was not too knackered!
All change – Plan B
There was no phone signal at the Tourist Centre and only a very weak wifi in the building. We had been watching the development of Coronavirus for the last couple of weeks and late in the evening I suddenly read that Air New Zealand were going to stop all international flights at the weekend. Panic! How will I get back to the UK because I was booked on Air New Zealand to London via Los Angles in ten days time.
No phone signal but I managed to get an internet call into my brother, John, in Auckland. The hero – he stood on the phone calling Air New Zealand until the early hours and eventually got through and was able to book me on the penultimate Air New Zealand flight to London in two days time. I got the “good” news in the early hours trying to get an internet connection in the freezing cold outside the Tourist Centre – lucky it was not switched off!
Sadly there was now no prospect of finishing in Bluff so the plan was to get to Queenstown the next day and fly back to Auckland the day after to catch the flight home. It was an strange feeling – having to curtail the ride – but given everything that was happening it seemed irrelevant and of no importance or regret. I was happy to finishing in Queenstown – one hard days ride from Bluff. Still an amazing adventure.
Day 15 – Final Day
Up early and we were on the road by 0545 in some chilly conditions. We were soon riding alongside Lake Wanaka.
By the time we got to Albert Town after 65km we were in desperate need of coffee and food – it was so cold.
After Wanaka we faced a 40km climb to cross the Crown Range at 1076m – the highest point of the TA course. The famous Cardrona Hotel at 25km into the climb was a good stop to refuel at the cafe opposite.
The climb to the summit was pretty relentless at times with the heavy bike but the arrival was good because in the far distance we could see Queenstown.
Despite the fact we could see our destination we still had over 50km to go and it turned out to be an variable mix of tracks and trails after the quick descent off the Range to Arrowtown. It seemed to take an age – “are we nearly there yet?”
We called into the small Queenstown airport as Davide and I were flying back while Andrew was determined to crack on and finish the following day which he accomplished in style. We needed to get a couple of cardboard bike boxes and after a bit of hassle we got two and paid a taxi driver to deliver them to the hotel.
Arriving in Queenstown felt like a different world. Busy streets, bars and restaurants humming with the good, the bad and the ugly! We found a hotel and set about packing the bikes and kit ready for the flight to Auckland in the morning. We had a good supper together and Andrew got to bed early. For him there was a long day in prospect, water taxi across the lake and big ride to Bluff. Chapeau Andrew. He finished at 8pm.
A big thank you goes to my brother John, his wife Net, and their lovely family who met me on arrival, took me to Cape Reinga and had planned to pick me up in Bluff at the finish. He then ended up sorting my early flight home to UK to beat the lockdown – a close run thing – a couple of friends waited 8 weeks to get home when the flights stopped and it cost them a fortune. Love you guys.
The TA route has to be one of the best ultra distance rides anywhere in the world and great thanks go to the Kennett brothers who organise the ride, provide the route and the Spot Tracking system. They have developed the parcours since 2016 when 250 riders christened the route. Over 1000 riders signed up for TA 2020! Big thanks too to the New Zealand Cycle Trail Organisation for many of the spectacular trails. Chapeau the Kennett brothers.
Like most TA riders I experienced a lot of kindness and friendship along the way. Apart from the odd aggressive, impatient Kiwi driver there were numerous occasions when people went beyond the call of duty to help and it was lovely to see the ‘Welcome’ signs along the road side in towns and villages. Thank you Kiwis.
Mates along the way
I shared the road along the way with some good mates, especially Andrew and Davide. Andrew from Auckland and Davide from Italy were great company on the bike and generous mates – we enjoyed some good meals and beer together. Cheers to you amigos!
The bike is one thing but its still needs an engine and big thanks goes to Rob Wakefield of Propello Cycling. A great coach based in Barnstable, Devon who got me into good shape for the ride with a good plan and loads of encouragement. Thanks Rob.
The Bike and Kit
Of course us addicted cyclists always believe its about the bike. Well I reckon I had the perfect machine for the job. The Mason ISO – In Search Of – worked so well in all the conditions.
It was so well set up with Apidura Bags and a carbon Tailfin rear carry rack. The beautiful little front mudguard can carry a couple of kilos too. My tent sat on that and to my shame I never used it – there always seemed to be a B&B or motel that called louder! Well I am 71! Wimp I hear you say!
I ran with WTB Ranger 2.4 tyres on Hunt 29er wheels with a SON dynamo. Comfort was enhanced with a Cane Creek eeSilk seat post together with Redshift Sports Shockstop stem. The Aero-Bars were essential and were stacked 50mm high off the drops for comfort. I probably spent over 50% of the ride on those bars.
The 1x Deore XT Di2 with an Oval chainring worked perfectly and I was able to recharge the battery from the onboard power converter.
Navigation with a Wahoo Element Roam was flawless with downloaded (Ride with GPS) route maps on my phone for backup. My Spot Gen3 Satellite Tracker worked well and allowed friends and family to follow my ‘dot’. All the photos and video were taken with my iPhone 10 with a lanyard attached and kept for quick access in the top-tube bag.
There are three key elements to enjoyment and comfort on long multi day rides – feet, backside and hands – the three points of contact. I’ve tried many saddles and now ride the Selle SMP Lite 209. My feet always hurt until I found Lake wide-fit shoes. (thanks Richard from Salt Dog cycling) Perfect feet now! As for hands the Aero-bars have done the trick. Rest the hands, relax the shoulders, different position on the saddle and of course little more aero – whats not to like?
Finally, a special mention is needed and a big thank you to Dom Mason, Cal, Alex, Matt and the team at The Barn nestled in the Sussex Downs. They make some great bikes and have given me top support. Thank you guys.
Fifteen days averaging 183km per day. In the saddle moving averaging 11.6hrs a day. A total of 2,757kms and 39,300m of climbing.
A final thought
Not many long distance cyclists have managed to ride their big events in 2020. So many were cancelled. I was so lucky to get to New Zealand and ride the TA. Lucky to get home in the nick of time. Lucky to be able to ride locally here on the beautiful Isle of Wight and compared to the heartache of many in these Covid times a very fortunate man.
As Captain Sir Tom says – “Tomorrow will be a good day”
PEDAL ON – KIA KAHA