New Zealand: North Island Trails

02/01/19 - 13/01/19

Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au

After Grace had had a go on Jenny, we said a quick and efficient goodbye and then, like movie stars, Grace filmed us as we road off on to the State Highway. I missed Grace in the few days that followed. Grace is so optimistic, smiling and such easy company. It was nice to make some memories with her and also to have someone to team up with against Olly for a few days!

Whilst Grace was heading north and back to Auckland before she flew home to Christchurch, we were heading south towards The Waikato River Trail. "Wai" is the Maori word for "water" and "kato" means "flow" or "current". This trail, which winds alongside the beautiful, vast and fast-flowing river Waikato, was more challenging than the two previous trails we had taken, but a good warm up for The Timber Trail to come.

The predominantly off-road cycle trails in NZ enable you to experience backcountry, bush, flora and fauna that you would only otherwise have access to on foot. This was awesome! It was during this stint of our adventure that we met the most Te Araroa walkers: those walking from Cape Reinga to Bluff, 3000km from top to bottom (or vice versa) of Aotearoa often over the course of five or six months. The trails are not always plain sailing on a 40-50kg touring bike, however, and I often found myself getting quite forlorn. Progress would be slow and we would have to do a lot of "hike-a-biking" and I find it really tiring so frequently getting on and off the bike. Also, it is so much harder to push than to pedal, but with a spinning back wheel I preferred to have my feet on the ground.

Being on the trails always makes for great lunch spots, though, and on The Waikato River Trail we found a picnic bench which acted as a front row seat to a wonderful fantail performance. Two of these cute little birds bobbed from branch to branch, catching bugs on the wing and displaying their magnificent tails all while chirping a pretty tune.

The trail eventually led to Mangakino and a free campground by the lake. We arrived to a crowded park and a festival atmosphere. There were boats everywhere! We found a flat spot and started to pitch the tent when a local walked our way and welcomed us to "Mango". He told us there had been a community, musical festival that day. 

Tired, hot and thirsty for something that wasn't water, I went and bought a ginger beer from a caravan cum cafe and we sat and drank the refreshing fizz looking out at the lake and the children dive-bombing into it. I started to feel the effects of Type 2 fun: a contentedness tinged with regret for not having been more appreciative of the great, challenging ride that day. We decided to leap into some Type 1 fun and so joined those frolicking in the warm water as the sun started to set. After a two-dollar, four-minute shower in a trailer, we turned our attention to tea and chatted to two motorcyclists who set up camp next to us as the sun went down and the stars started their twinkly shift.

The next day we cycled to Pureora and the start of the famous Timber Trail. The Timber Trail is an epic, 85km off-road route through the bush that requires you to be wholly self-sufficient for its entirety. (It wasn't, therefore, the best start when we got to camp and realised the loaf of bread that I had strapped to the back of my bike had liberated itself somewhere along State Highway 30.)

Just setting off along The Timber Trail

We spent three nights and two days completing the trail. It usually takes walkers four and bike packers just one. An Australian couple whizzed by us as we struggled to the final campsite at Bennett Road. They looked fresh as daisies, moving easily across the rocky path with their suspension and light loads. We eyed them enviously as they set off ahead of us having started the trail just that morning whilst we, caked in two days' worth of sweat and grime, despite Olly's impressive efforts with our Ortlieb shower, hobbled along in comparison.

They also had a very cool teepee tent!  Tent views at Bennett Road.

I in no way regret doing The Timber Trail, but definitely think it looked more fun on a mountain bike. After getting quite low before lunch on Day 1 from Pureora to Piropiro, I resolved to have more snack breaks and to chat (sing) more. Rough riding requires a lot of concentration and often self-destructive thoughts would creep in concerning my suitability for the trip. I should be better, faster, stronger. I knocked myself down far more than the trail did (just once, near the end resulting in some pretty good bruising). Following hotly on the self-destructive forces' tails would be a dark cloud of doom and gloom. I hated everything and just wanted to go home. All that it took for the skies to clear though was to finish the ride, pitch the tent and think back on the day. The uneventuful days are not so colourfully remembered.

Day 1, then, from a DOC site at Pureora to Piropiro and a great, big free campsite there. As a result of the lack of bread, we had to get creative with our lunches and so in a scorching hot and dry forest, we lit up the stove to make the instant pumpkin soup that I'd been carrying since we were in the French Alps. Safe to say, it didn't quite hit the spot. Thank goodness for the jelly beans. 

We wound our way up and up, passing, and then being passed by, a Dutch trio who told us about the leaves with red spots that can be used in cooking like pepper. It was a real boost to reach the highest point of the trail at 981m asl and then descend a little before my brakes made an all too familiar clicking sound... Olly set to work changing my front brake pads that after another 3000km had worn thin. I helped by staying quiet and out of the way, gorging on jelly beans in an effort to keep the self-destructive forces at bay.

Happy (?!) to have reached the highest point

Day 2 was easier cycling and involved crossing two awesome suspension bridges, including the Maramataha bridge, the longest and highest on the trail at 140m long and some 60m above the ground. It was just before swaying across this bridge that I had the realisation that I had hoped embarking on this adventure would bring. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life! When I shared my thoughts with Olly, he said he'd quite like to join me. We then sat and consoled ourselves with a cereal bar (the best we had) as our dreams were dashed as quickly as they had materialised. The old saying does go, "your school days are the best days of your life".

Having completed the trail, that night we pitched up at a tiny campsite called Bennett Road. It was great to see the small patch of grass dotted only with tents. Just one motorhome sat in the carpark. After my efforts sat on the floor with the sink the night before, I decided to embrace Olly's enthusiasm for the Ortlieb shower and so stood in my bikini at the side of the road as cool, refreshing water dribbled down my body. I have to admit, it wasn't bad! That night we had such a feast knowing that we would be in Taumarunui, a town with a supermarket, the next day. What I didn't know at that time is how gruelling the 28km gravel road that led us there would be and I started to wish we hadn't eaten our emergency macaroni cheese rations.

I exaggerate. A little. 28km sounded like a very doable day, but the gravel and the heat that day were hard going. Something I find really challenging about cycling on the gravel roads here is how suddenly the gradient of the road changes: one minute it's nice and flat, the next it's a crazy angle that makes me feel like I'm in velodrome. This is something I talked to Darren about once we'd reached the Taumarunui campsite and I was reassured to find that Darren had noticed the same thing. Darren is walking the Te Araroa trail and his friend JC completed the North Island section of the route with him. When the guys walked into the Taumarunui campsite and proceeded collapsed into a heap on the floor, I knew they had had a similar day to us. I recognised Darren and JC from the Bennetts Road campground and we had passed them on the devilish, gravel road earlier in the day too. We soon got talking and sharing stories. 

Bikes on The Timber Trail

Something that all New Zealanders have something to say about is how there are only two native land mammals here, both bats.  The introduced species (particularly unpopular is the possom) are wreaking havoc and serious measures are being taken to stop them.

We finally found a silver fern.  When placed along the side of the road at night time, they can be used to guide you.

When we finally came off the gravel road en route to Taumaranui.
Darren and JC's tales from the road were epic and continue to be; we've kept in touch since that meeting. Darren told me that at Bennetts Road they actually had no gas for cooking and had lit a campfire the day before to boil the water for their ration packs. I wished we had chatted sooner given the feast (albeit of dried goods) we'd had at Bennetts Road. They completed the Tongariro Crossing not long after we parted ways and later kayaked down the Whanganui River as part of their journey. Darren bid farewell to JC recently and walks on on the South Island alone, Bluff is his goal.

Treats at Taumaranui

Marae in Taumaranui

I loved the campground at Taumarunui and we stayed there for two nights, pitched in the shade of a tree and next to a picnic bench. The campsite was big, but not too big to lose its friendly air. Across the grass and through a gate and you were stood looking at the Whanganui River. We went for a quick splash in its cool waters before our evening rituals began.

The rest in sunny Taumarunui was welcome and a couple of days later we set off with fresher legs in the direction of Raetihi. This was a two day journey for us as we stopped with Mark and Toni, Warm Showers hosts in Owhango. When we finally got off the gravel road as we had headed to Taumarunui, we followed a sealed road into the centre of town. Hoorah! I was so happy I really zipped along. As the heavenly smooth hill climbed to its small peak we were met with an incredible view: Mount Ruapehu. Snow-covered and standing majestically right in the middle of the horizon, North Island's highest mountain looked ... surreal! We were sticky (and stinky) with sweat and yet the mountain stood their coolly, calmly. We lost that view for a while down by the river at the campground in Taumarunui, but as we pitched our tent on Mark and Toni's lawn, it our tent door provided a perfect frame for it.

You never know what you're going to see along the way!

Mt Ruapehu

We spent a really nice evening with Mark and Toni and we chatted easily whilst sharing a box of their leftover Christmas chocolates. Mark had said for us to "make ourselves at home in the garden" as we were likely to arrive before him and Toni got back from work that day. He told us about the goats, the sheep and the cows and Mack, the dog, whose bark was worse than his bite and anyway, he couldn't sustain barking for very long. As I chatted with the goats, Olly walked towards the house and Mack ran around the side of it and started barking. Olly, calling Mack's name soon made a friend and I shuffled over with my bike to do the same. Then, as in was ruffling Mack's ears to really ingratiate myself, Olly came back from around the back of the house. "There's another dog", he said, "tied up". Mark hadn't told us about this dog... I crept around the house to where Olly had indicated and as I approached a fierce barking started. It wasn't what I was expecting from Olly's ominous report. I turned the corner and saw, tied to a post, a tiny little Jack Russell! When Mark returned not long after our first encounter with "the other dog", he introduced us to Phoebe, their neighbour's dog who was old and losing her senses. They kept her tied off because she was in the habit of wandering off and not being able to remember her way home.

With Mack
Waved off by Toni, we set off for a day of cycling watched over by Mt Ruapehu. We would cycle through the Tongariro National Park on our way to Raetihi, just as soon as we climbed a long, steep hill. Our cycling that day was all along State Highway 4 and it passed without too much bother. It was a welcome change to not have to cycle staring at the gravelly ground and instead be able to look up and admire the scenery. We arrived in Raetihi and went to the Four Square convenience store in the small, one-street-long town that I was starting to realise was typical of many Kiwi towns, regardless of how big and bold the name was printed on my map. We had an ice-cream and it tasted good!

At the top of the steep, steep hill.

Mt Ruapehu.  In the same range is Tongario, Mt Doom from LotR.

On paper the campsite at Raetihi sounded identical to the campsite that I had really loved at Taumarunui. It wasn't quite as charming or friendly, but it was home for the night and so we searched for our ideal pitch: flat, shaded, close to a picnic bench, view of the highest mountain on the island... We didn't do to badly! As we were about to zip up the tent for the night, a terrifying alarm cum siren sounded. Olly had carefully studied the tsunami evacuation safety posters on Megan and Kevin's fridge in Pauanui, and that on Maddie and Allan's fridge in Papamoa too. Megan and Kevin had waved their hands dismissively when we asked about it. They said not to worry and that they wouldn't leave us behind. Dave, when he was visiting, told us that this is precisely what his wife, Mary, had done! The tsunami siren had sounded and before Dave could register what was happening, Mary was out of the door and headed for the nearest highest point. When Dave arrived shortly after, he noticed that Mary was the only person stood in the hotel, the designated spot, in her dressing gown, everyone else had pulled on some clothes. I mean, I think I'm with Mary. So, in Raetihi, at 10 o'clock at night when an alarm started to sound, we panicked. Olly hadn't studied an evacuation map and there was no one to take us with them. As I poked my head out of the tent, reason caught up with me: we were no where near the coast, we were completely inland. Then a more terrifying thought firmly pushed reason aside: what if this was an earthquake? The ground wasn't shaking and outside of the tent all was calm, no one else seemed bothered by the wailing alarm at all. Add I think back inside the tent, the siren faded from alarming and out-of-tune, to nothingness. We lay very still for a moment. When nothing further happened, we went to sleep. In the morning, listening to other people's chatter, we learned that the siren was how the small, local fire station called its volunteers to arms.

On the way to Raetihi

From Raetihi to Pipiriki was only 20km and so we had a short day ahead of us before we embarked upon part of The Mountains to Sea cycle trail along the Whanganui River Road. In all fairness, we could have been putting in longer days and have gone further and faster. But, we didn't. I loved the short, scenic ride so much I remember catching myself singing aloud as we descended into Pipiriki. The Raetihi-Pipiriki road is one I'd just go for a nice bike ride along. It was undulating and so challenging, but with rewarding downhill sections and lots of lush forest all around to stare at in wonder. I loved it. The campsite manager made a comment about our clocking off early and at the time I felt a pang of guilt and a stab of self-doubt in my tummy: were we doing it wrong? This was our trip. We set the rules! It's something I continue to remind myself. The campsite had a big flat lawn and a lovely indoor area too and so we just enjoyed where we were.

At Pipiriki

The next day was "an Elbow day". One of my favourite of the trip so far, but not one without it's fair share of drama and difficulty. The 64km Whanganui River Road is steeped in history and legend and we had our fair share of it that day too. I always find it exciting to start an official trail as it feels likes you're joining ranks with those who have gone before and those who will come after. Our plan that day was to cycle half of the 90km trail and camp at The Flying Fox campsite, an incredibly special place only accessible by flying fox, aerial cable car, or boat.

We set off before it got too hot, but little bubbles of hot tarmac did pop and burst as we cycled over them that day causing bits of gravel and stone to stick to our wheels so that a puncture never felt far away. The tar-sealed road was a dream to cycle along otherwise. Winding along the river all the way the views were incredible.

The cycle was not a commuter cycle or a great bike ride cycle like the day before had been. It was an adventure cycle! We first hopped off the bikes at Hiruharama, or Jersualem. Here there is a convent and a church which are both over 100 years old which is pretty old by New Zealand's standards. The convent was once an orphanage overseen by Mother Mary Joseph, formerly Suzanne Aubert, a nun from Lyon in France who is so revered by the community that they campaigned for her sainthood. It is not far away. The convent is now a quiet and open place. We left our shoes at the front took a look around. Retreats take place at Hiruharama and you can stay there too. It reminded us of the pilgrim accommodation we had used in Italy. We walked through the garden to St Joseph's church, again leaving our shoes at the door which is customary in Maori tradition. It was so interesting to see wooden, Maori carvings in place of the ornate, golden ornaments we were used to finding in the old, European churches.

Maoris leave their shoes at the door.

Our next stop was Ranana, or London. This is the largest community along the river road, but signs asked that photos weren't taken of the beautiful marae, which is like a Maori community centre or hub. Maori have lived along the Whanganui River for 800 years, but their villages and settlements used to be on the other side of the river, where the morning sun offered warmth and the bush, protection from the wind. When the river road was completed in 1934, gradually almost everyone moved to the side of the river I was stood on, eating a cereal bar and contemplating what this incredible valley must have been like when its remote corners were solely accessible by boat. 

We next hopped off our bikes at the Kawana Flour Mill, an example of a mark made by European settlers. It was originally built in 1854 and I'm sure I read that it was moved to its current site by the local tramping club a lot more recently. Europeans first started visiting the area around this time as river boat cruises along the Whanganui, "the Rhine of New Zealand", became incredibly popular, establishing the region as a major tourist destination.

By this point, the midday sun was beating down on us and the road offered little respite from it. Also, Olly had reached a point where eating at the soonest possible moment was the only option. We continued to Matahiwi where a cafe and gallery is housed in the former school building. Always keen for a cafe stop, I suggested we got a cold drink. We tried L&P, a Kiwi lemonade made by mixing lemon juice (L) with carbonated mineral water from the town of Paeroa (P), and also a slice of homemade chocolate cake. Pre-lunch pudding strikes again! It felt nice to support this little, local business.

Whilst choosing a cake, we met the owners of The Flying Fox and I delighted in telling them that we were heading their way. They were expecting us as we had booked a camping spot, something they ask you to do more so as to give them a polite heads up than to commit to a binding agreement. Someone has to be in to control the flying fox after all! They said they had passed us the day before and wondered if we were "their cyclists". I beamed at this use of the possessive. Someone was expecting us, and even to belong to their camp clan for a night felt good. They said they'd time us, sure that it wouldn't take us too long to reach them...

After a quick lunch stop under a tree and just down the road from the cafe and the chocolate cake, we reemerged into the baking sun and pedalled on to Koriniti, or Corinth. Down the steep gravel hill we slid and stopped outside of marae. Visitors are welcomed here and so I paid a gold coin donation and wandered around in awe of the carvings and tukutuku panels which, traditionally, are latticeworks decorating meeting houses. Too hot and bothered, and probably prompting the steep, gravel hill that we had to get back up, Olly sat on a bench.

Once I'd taken in as much of the carvings as I could, we got back on the bikes and Olly, after a brief run-up, was at the top of the hill in no time. Needing to change gear, I too embarked on a run up. I didn't get very far though before I heard a terrible clunking sound. No bother, I thought, my chain has just come off. I jumped back off my bike and realised that my chain had indeed come off, but only because my back derailleur had bent, and was firmly lodged into my back wheel. I felt my legs turn to jelly as I ran up the hill yelling Olly's name. His diagnosis was, "not good". I'd managed to bend my frame in amongst the rest of the mess. in that moment, when Olly said "it's not good", I realised how much I wasnt ready to go home, despite missing it and despite protesting quite loudly whenever riding along gravel/into the wind/on Grade 3 mountain bike tracks.

Half of a traditional canoe

Ingeniously, Olly made the situation worse in order to make it a little better, at least in the short term. He made my bike a single-speed demon, which would be enough to get me the 2km to the campsite. I kept thinking, "but I've been having the best day". The tears streaming down my face dried quickly in the hot sun.

It was hard to stay sad as we arrived at The Flying Fox. A little sign led the way down to a shed where we would store our bikes after being radioed the code. Panniers unclipped and bikes locked away, we headed for the cable car. We piled everything inside and then clambered in ourselves. We were nervous that it wouldn't hold, but over the radio Kelly, one of the owners, told us it would be fine. Olly banged the gong to signal that we were ready and slowly we began our journey across the river. It was impossible not to smiles as we soared high above the river.

"You guys took your time", said Kelly as we ground to a halt on the other side of the river. My bottom lip trembled and my voice risked breaking as I choked back the tears to tell the tale of the bent bike and defunct derailleur. Kelly immediately offered to send me back over in the fox to get my bike so that he could take a look. I liked the idea of riding the fox again and so we said we would set up camp and then go to find him. Kelly and Jane grabbed a few bags each and together we went to find a camp spot.

The Flying Fox is a really special place, to the extent that you kind of want to keep it a secret. It is dream like and I delighted at every turn as we weaved our way along a stepping-stone footpath, passing under orange, lemon and avocado trees and dodging the free roaming chickens. We dropped our bags at the heart of the camp: the bush kitchen. Hand crafted benches, tables and chairs formed a circle around the kitchen, a hula hoop rested on the branch of a tree and I could see a badminton racket poking out of a box under the sink. It was like the very best bits from all of my childhood imaginings had clubbed together for my birthday. Or, indeed, for a "your bike just broke beyond Olly's repair in the middle of nowhere and miles from the nearest town and we're here to cheer you up" party. Kelly pointed us in the direction of the bush shower (with hot water), the dry toilets and the honesty box shop where there was homemade ice-cream in the freezer and beer in the fridge. Amazing. Once we were sorted, Kelly told us to go and see him about the bike.

After a shower, hula hooping and a few hits of the shuttlecock, I felt a lot better, but Olly said a professional needed to look at the bike if we weren't going to do it more damage than good. We told Kelly and he said he would call the post lady to see if she was passing this way the following day and whether she might be able to give us a lift into town if so. When Kelly returned to tell us she wasnt, my heart sank a little. I'd just started to really feel perky again. "So I'll drive you to town instead", said Kelly, and my eyes started to leak again. Kelly said he was going to go to town on Monday (it was Friday) and that he would just bring his trip forward if it meant helping us out and seeing us safely to town. He told us to "stop sweating the small stuff" and enjoy ourselves. We went and bought beer and ice cream and chilled out with a group of Te Araroa walkers, who were on the kayaking leg of their journey, for the rest of the evening.

Kayaks and driftwood on The Whanganui

We fell asleep to the sound of a possum's evil laughter and woke with the foster's wonky cry. We had promised to meet Kelly at the fox at 8 o'clock. I can confirm what the ancient Maori knew: the morning sun warms the banks to the true right of the river wonderfully.

Morning light and cloud looking back across towards the road.

After Jane had put us in touch with her cousin who has travelled extensively and may be able to offer some help for the upcoming stages of our adventure, we gushed our thanks and loaded our gear into the fox once more. The ride back across the river was just as fun as it had been the night before, but we were sad that our stay at one of the coolest campsites was over.

The fox went back to get Kelly and we filled his car (a ute!) with panniers. As we drove along the river road he told us that the people of the Whanganui are a helpful sort, they had to be given their relatively recent remoteness. I told Kelly that I had read about the cultural importance of the Whanganui River to the Maori and Kelly recited the poem that I had read:

E rere kau mai te Awa nui, mai i te Kahui Maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au.

The great river flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the river and the river is me.

This poem seemed ingrained in the minds of all those who live beside the river.

I can't explain why I became so enchanted by The Whanganui, but I did. I couldn't explain it, but I felt it and the Maori legend surrounding the origins of the river only increased its charm in my eyes.

Maui-tikitiki is a legendary figure of the South Pacific.  After stowing away on his brother's fishing expedition, Maui hauled a great, writhing landmass out of ocean which later became known as Te Ika-a-Maui, The Great Fish of Maui, or the North Island.  This fish had great mana (power) and could only be subdued by something of greater mana.  Ranginui, the Sky Father, place Matua de Mana, Mount Ruapehu, in the centre of the great fish which eased its struggling.

For a long while Mt Ruapehu stood alone and he became incredibly lonely.  Seeing his pain, Ranginui gifted him with two teardrops to flow from his feet, one being the Whanganui River.  But Ruapehu was still lonely and so Ranginui created four companions for Ruapehu of his own kind, placing Mounts Tongariro, Taranaki, Ngauruhoe and Pihanga, the mountain maiden, by his side.  Pihanga was given in marriage to Tongariro and from them came the remainder of the mountains on the North Island.  As a gift, Ruapehu gave Tongariro one of the teardrops, the Whanganui.  

However, Taranaki tempted Pihanga and this caused Tongariro distress.  Ruapehu, the grandfather of the clan, banished Taranki to prevent any futher trouble.

Taranaki left the mountain clan, following the teardrop flow of the Whanganui, widening the river as he went.  When he arrived at the coast, he sought a new home and so turned northward and settled on the plains where he now stands.  On a clear day, from up high, you can see Taranaki looking back towards the mountain clan he left behind. 

Kelly pulled over at the top of a long climb. He hopped out of the ute, bare foot, he was not the first Kiwi we had met who found shoes cumbersome, and encouraged us to do the same. We were at Aramoana, a point I hadn't wanted to miss. Ara means path and moana means sea. The "path to the sea" offered an incredible view of the entire Whanganui Valley presided over by My Ruapehu whose snowy Peak was just visible between the clouds on the horizon. It was magnificent.

We drove into Whanganui town and to The Bike Shed. Olly had been in touch with Doug, the owner and he got straight to work on my bike. Just a couple of hours later it was ready to collect, fully functional and complete with a new rear view mirror too. During that time we accompanied Kelly as he saw to the business he had brought forward from Monday: the purchasing of eight chooks. As the seller put them into the banana boxes that Kelly had brought over on the cable car, he told me each of their names. "Beatrice, Margaret, Rosemary, Ingrid..." The last chicken proved difficult to catch and she had a lot to say about it when she was. "What do you know," the seller said, "Lorna". After chatting to Doug, who tried to sell Olly his bike shop, we wheeled Jenny out of the shop and unloaded our stuff from Kelly's car. Although the friendships we're making are brief, it doesn't make them any less meaningful. It was hard to find the right words to thank Kelly for his kindness and so I gave him a big hug. Kelly said that if his kids were abroad and needed help, he hoped someone would do the same for them.  He reminded me to not sweat the small stuff, his mantra, and drove back towards the river.

Jenny back up and running

We had arrived in Whanganui on Saturday morning, much earlier than planned! We were fortunate to have a Warm Showers stay lined up in town for the next two nights, but we had told Ann and John that we'd likely arrive mid-afternoon and so we took a couple of hours to browse the market and sit in the park soaking up the atmosphere.

We arrived at Ann and John's and were once again greeted like family. Our stay with them remains very special to me. After pitching our tent on the lawn next to their wonderful vegetable garden, a pile of laundry went in the machine and we sat talking whilst nibbling on cheese on toast and sipping cool, lemon water. As Warm Showers stays usually last just one or two nights, after some initial chit chat about the ride and the weather, conversation can quickly becomes quite deep and meaningful. You get straight to the good stuff. Admittedly, this can sometimes feel a bit full on after a tough day in the saddle; you just want to inhale some food and get straight into bed. It's rare though. Warm Showers hosts often have the most incredible stories to tell and so we happily sit and listen in wonder as tales of all kinds are told. The tales told by John and Ann were no exception. Ann told us that John used to run marathons and John told us how he wandered around the stalls once at the Boston marathon, but dismissed all the fancy bars in favour of a spoonful of honey. John used to keep bees. We chatted a lot about the future of the planet too and John's mantra of "we all want plenty, but we don't need much" resonated profoundly after five months of carrying all I need in four panniers and a handlebar bag. Ann and John are not cycle tourists themselves, though have travelled all over and benefitted from the kindness of others. John said he is happy to host cyclists as they've opted for a greener way to travel.  On our final morning with Ann and John, John looked out from under his bushy brows and over the top of his vegemite on toast, and held my gaze with a piercing, Dumbledore-like stare as he simply asked, “what do you want to do?”.  I wish I was funny enough to have shrugged and said, “YouTuber”, but I’m not.  As I sat, unable to gather the thoughts suddenly rushing around in my head, John continued, “You’ve only got now”.  He then bit off some toast and his Dumbledore-like eyes twinkled with challenge.

In amongst the veges at Ann and John's

We had had two nights with Ann and John and Ann had given us a taste of Whanganui with gusto on the day we didn’t cycle.  We had an early breakfast of porridge made by John (“why would you have anything else?”) and then set off to the Collegiate School for a morning of opera!  Whanganui has a strong arts scene and each January hosts an opera week: pupils and staff from the New Zealand Opera School descend on Whanganui for workshops, masterclasses and concerts that are mostly free to attend.  We accompanied Ann and her friend Jan, one of New Zealand’s most influential watercolour artists, to a free concert in the school chapel and I got goosebumps at the end of the concert as the congregation joined their voices to the pupils’ to sing the New Zealand national anthem, first in Maori and then in English.  A picture of the back of our heads appeared in the local paper the next day!  Olly isn’t so hard to spot...!

The Collegiate School chapel

At the steam boat museum in Whanganui before the concert.  Reminders of the riverboat days.

The Waimarie steamboat

From the concert we drove to the Durie Hill underground elevator and admired the views from the top before heading back home for a delicious salad for lunch prepared by John using veges from the garden.  Ann then drove us out to Castlecliff Beach to meet two of her friends who have recently moved to New Zealand from Boston, America.  It was interesting to hear about their move and new beginnings.  Mary-Ellen’s talking about ‘trusting the process’ really struck a chord as I thought about our trials and tribulations and how things had always ‘turned out all right in the end’.  As the saying goes, ‘everything will be all right in the end, if it’s not all right, it’s not the end’.

The walk to the elevator 

Maori carvings adorned the path

To the sea.
From the mountains.

At Durie Hill.

We returned home to make dinner for Ann and John and I was pleased with how our garden-vegetable lasagne and mini strawberry cheesecakes turned out.  The following morning, just as we had clipped up our panniers, the heavens opened and we dashed back into Ann and John’s house to seek shelter from the pouring rain.  Ann put the kettle on and said we should sit tight until the rain passed.  It didn’t pass for a while and so to accompany the next round of tea Ann also made pikelets which she served with sour cream and her homemade, plum jam.  Cosy and warm in Whanganui with such wonderful company, it was hard to imagine getting back on the bikes.  Eventually, though, after a good long stare at the clock, we gave each other the nod and decided it was time to leave.  John gave us a knowing look and Ann hugged us hard.  Hoods up and eyes forward, we raised our hands to wave goodbye.

  • Lake Maraetai Camping Reserve, Mangakino (free camping for up to two nights)
  • Pureora DOC campsite ($8pp, water tap and long-drop loo at the start of The Timber Trail)
  • Piropiro DOC campsite (free, water tap and long-drop loo mid way through The Timber Trail - HUGE)
  • Bennett Road campsite (free, water and loo - a small site specially built with Te Araroa walkers in mind)
  • Taumaranui Holiday Park (lovely, friendly site with great facilities - would really recommend a stay here, $18pp non-powered)
  • Raetihi Holiday Park (not quite as lovely as Taumaranui, but good facilities and views of Mt Ruapehu, $15pp non-powered)
  • Pipiriki Camping Gound (a nice, big lawn to pitch up on and good facilities, friendly folk, $15pp - a free, very basic DOC site down the road)
  • The Flying Fox ($20pp for a non-powered site - amazing)