The next day I set out on what should be the longest leg of my journey round the three volcanoes - 27km to Waiouru and a further 60km along the Desert Road back to Turangi. It was another grey day, the clouds well down. I was on State Highway 49, which was reasonably quiet but there was the problem I had with New Zealand roads -the steep camber at the shoulder. Cyclists are happy to keep as far left as possible, but on the other side of the white line I had the distinct feeling of tipping sideways on corners and I would start drifting towards the middle of the road, annoying the occasional driver behind.
As I pedalled along, looking down to see I wasn't going too far on the wrong side of the cyclist's Pale, I noticed some white stuff on the road surface. It was ice! It had snowed last night on the mountains, and though it wasn't cold - it was summer ffs - there was the ice. I stopped to touch it. Yes, ice. There were signs warning "Slippery when frosty", but I thought they were for winter. I'd given up cycling at the beginning of December in the UK because of the icy patches on my route to work and had not really expected to see it again in a New Zealand summer. The road was gritty and it wasn't really dangerous, just disconcerting.
I was cycling through New Zealand farmland. From a hilltop you will get great panoramas of the land stretching ad sweeping away over hills and down valleys but close up it's barbed wire fences, grass, a few cattle here and there and shelter belts of pine trees, which I learned to dread, as they shaded the road and each time I saw them I knew there would be ice.
I plugged on through this dull landscape for 27km until I reached Waiouru, the famously drab army town. advertising itself an oasis in the desert as it sits at the edge of my real destination, the Desert Road. I stopped in a cafe for breakfast and watched two squaddies, male and female having a coffee together, i.e. both in camouflage and not speaking to each other, but communicating with their handheld devices. I told the waitresses that I planned to cycle along the Desert Road.
Kids' ride in a Waiouru cafe
"I've never seen anyone do that," said one.
"I have, once," said the other.
It was a basic cafe, and the food and coffee were, as usual, delicious. I sat and thought about it. 60km, in what looked like a strong wind that I could see bending the tussock, along a very busy State Highway One - the trucks were rumbling past - in an area notorious for sudden changes of weather, and with no shelter at all. It was looking like a bad idea. I went to the excellent army museum and among the musket and land wars displays rang the Tongariro River Motel and they said they would pick me up. They thought I had been sensible, and said so on their website.
Ross, the motel owner, turned up at about 1pm and we drove along the Desert Road. The clouds had lifted again and you could see the great volcanoes, as splendid as my memories of them. Ross told me about his own cycling - he and a group were doing the whole of the New Zealand trail, a proposed off-road route along the whole of the country, mostly going through tracks across farms ("races" we called them in my New Zealand farming childhood). I remembered them from our dairy farm and they were always covered with cow shit, and fairly muddy. He said one time the cyclists all became crook with terrible gastric problems and that was from getting covered with cow shit - the walkers and horse riders among them had been fine.
So we got talking about the mountain bike trails and he said "mountain biking is the new golf." And I heard that from other people, that golf was declining. I thought mountain biking a great improvement on golf for all sorts of reasons, for instance that you would no longer be setting aside a tract of land for a monoculture of alien grass but just making a simple track through the bush and farmland. Also, I love biking and have never seen the point of golf.
View up river from Pillar of Hercules Bridge, Kaimanawa Forest (Ross's photo)
Ross took me for a drive through the Kaimanawa Forest, a tract of beautiful black beech forest and river gorges on the eastern side of the Desert Road, 15km south of Turangi. There was quite a system of unsealed roads from constructing hydro-electric dams as well as some bush tracks and swing bridges, and he thought they should make a good mountain bike trail. But the different tracks are not joined up in an official trail nor are granted the government money set aside for developing the New Zealand cycleway, and there were political issues over land ownership. Ross, as well as being a cycling enthusiast, wanted to add a proper trail to the attractions round Turangi, since, he said, trout fishing, the main reason for going there, is declining.
Ross on swing bridge
I thoroughly appreciated being picked up and the tour of the Kaimanawa Forest. After this I was back in Turangi far earlier than I'd expected. In the UK if I got somewhere mid afternoon I'd go for an excursion to a church or castle or some such thing. In New Zealand I cycled a short way to Te Kaanau. Here I went for a stroll around the small geo-thermal area. It was the only one I visited in the whole of my journey, and it's very modest compared to those in Rotorua but I was glad to see the mud bubbling and spitting and the water steaming among the manuka. I then bathed in the hot springs pool. An elderly American woman in the changing rooms saw my cycling gear and enthused about how nice their cycling guide had been to her. She was referring to Taupo, with famous trails, and I could see why Ross wanted to offer the Turangi stall at the mountain biking market. Planted forests where they have trails make more money from the cyclists than the timber.
After my soak I cycled round Te Kaanau which is where the Tongariro River pours into the southern edge of Lake Taupo. On a wharf of silvered wood lads were fishing, another sitting on a seat reading a book, while some blokes, joking and laughing, tied up their fishing boat and hauled in their catch. Black swans and cygnets swam out in the water, which was as blue as could be, and dotted with little reedy islands where I assumed the swans must nest. What a beautiful country my homeland is.
Tongariro River flows into Lake Taupo, with black swans
I had a terrific meal of fillet steak and polenta at a motel bar and then that night I went to bed at 10 and slept through to 6am. I had arrived in New Zeaalnd on Monday and it was now Saturday morning. Jet lag was over, and I caught the bus to Wellington.