I arrived in Auckland after the usual cattle-truck journey (Edinburgh - Heathrow - Guangzhou - 26 hours of actual plane journey plus waiting in airports) and blinking like coming out of a cinema in daylight. My sister picked me up and I walked around her garden touching the growing things after the plastics of aeroplanes and airports. Then the usual terrible jet lag night's sleep and I caught a bus south to Turangi, at the edge of the central North Island plateau.
I left New Zealand when I was twenty-two and return infrequently. I was last in New Zealand in 2004. The changes I noticed this time on the bus journey down south along State Highway One were the cycleways that were marked where cyclists were allowed a space on the hard shoulder and the occasional alternative route was indicated.
New Zealand is a car-owning society. You get your driving licence as soon as you can. I was amazed when I first came to the UK that people my age with degrees couldn't drive. An adult drove. Public transport was poor, there are long distances between towns and cities, and with most people living in one-storeyed houses with gardens, the cities sprawl and you commute and shop and socialise by car.
So this provision for cyclists looked promising. Also, mountain biking trails have taken off. My sister L has done the Otago Rail Trail and a new trail on the West Coast for which I envy her, as the scenery there is spectacular.
This holiday I was sticking to the North Island where my family and friends live and I had searched on the net for what cycling was on offer. There were plenty of mountain bike trails around the geothermal areas of Taupo and Rotorua but I'm not a mountain biker. The tour organisations offered bike hire and transport to the beginning and end of trails. I wanted to cycle as I do in the UK, going off for a few days on roads and covering an area - Suffolk, the Yorkshire Dales or what have you. Of course UK cycling can't be templated on New Zealand. The UK has a dense network of minor roads, bridleways, cycle paths, and towns and villages every few miles, New Zealand has big state highways and thousands of no exit roads, dirt roads and walking tracks through the bush, with about 40 or 50 miles between settlements. Also it is far more mountainous than the UK.
Ngauruhoe and pylons
Desert Road, pylons. I took these photos later on the trip by car.
Fixed in my mind was the Desert Road that runs among tussock and beneath the biggest mountain in the North Island, Ruapehu, and the other two volcanoes, one, Ngaurahoe, usually spouting smoke. I had been to university in Wellington and had hitch-hiked along this road in the holidays to visit my family in the north, and I had always been overwhelmed by its danger and loneliness. The British have colonised New Zealand for less than two centuries, and what with the houses being made of wood and the farmland that looks raw and dishevelled, I would feel that I and my kind had just been dropped by parachute on this shaky ground. Looking at the distances of the map it seemed possible to take three days and cycle a loop round Tongariro National Park, with the last and longest day being along that road.
So I googled and found the Tongariro River Motel in Turangi, which would rent me a cycle, panniers and a helmet (compulsory in New Zealand). The owner, Ross, picked me up from the bus stop.
The Tongariro River is famous for trout fishing, and the motel caters mostly to fishermen. Ross rents out bicycles with special carriers for fishing rods so that the cycling fisherman can be the first one at a pool. He is a cyclist himself, and gave me advice about my route. He also said I was mad to do this, and gave me a cell phone in case of any problems. When I was trying out the bikes for size he told other people at the motel about my mad scheme. He wrote about it on the motel's website.
The day started bright, but then the clouds came down and when I'd turned off State Highway One to State Highway 46 the west wind was blowing straight into my face. The road, climbing through bushy, landscape, wasn't steep but unrelenting. My muscles were post Christmas, post Norovirus and post my gym closing for refurbishment. I was not fit, and this was hard work.
There's a prison farm up here, and the Poutu Canal, and a canal, which is something profoundly urban in the UK seemed very strange in this semi-wilderness- in fact, it's part of a hydro-electric system. On the other side is Lake Rotoaira. I had a snack and toilet stop at a campground beside it, and it looked vast, grey and melancholy, with one person fishing.
I had imagined an awesome view of the volcanoes sweeping up on one side of the road dripping with lava flows (there had been an eruption in November), but the cloud hid them. I toiled on and eventually in these clouds I could just see a vent from the side of Tongariro ejaculating stream. I stopped at the side road that takes you further up the slopes of Ngauruhoe, which was closed because of "high level of volcanic danger".
The state highway wasn't busy, and if I did stop hill starts were easy because the roads are so wide you can get moving across the road horizontally. So I slogged it to the end of State Highway 46, and turned south-west onto State Highway 47. On the corner was a cafe! No, closed. This is ski-ing country, and in the summer the visitor numbers fall to trampers, mountain bikers and tourists doing the Tongariro Crossing, which the bad weather had closed.
Manuka in flower
I'd been cycling for 3 hours, and had done about 25km. This was poor showing, and I set off again, besides typical New Zealand landscape - flax, toi toi, cabbage trees and manuka, which was in full flower, very white. About 20 more km of what was really a tiresome grind, then finally the turn off to Whakapapa Village, with another 8km to go. At that point the clouds lifted, and finally I could see Ruapehu, almost all 9000 feet of her. The road now was going through the Japanese looking alpine landscape, and I saw some rubbish in the ditch. - the first rubbish I'd seen. And thought, this country is so clean, and so beautiful, and so quiet, and except for natural forces like volcanoes, earthquakes and storms, so safe.
This last part of the journey had more up in it, or perhaps I was just extremely tired. I pushed on, got off and walked for a spell, pushed on, past waterfalls and streams and karimea forest and brown tussock grasses until I could see the Chateau Tongariro Hotel up ahead. (When I was a child we knew this whole area as "the Chateau" and at fifteen I got up at 4am with my bible class to take a bus to "the Chateau" in winter so we could touch snow). I went into the bar, ordered a cold drink and a cappucino, sat at a table and fell asleep for a few minutes, in a jet lag, cosh to the head narcoleptic fit.
I woke up again, left the bar and found that Whakapapa Village was about 100 meters away, got my accommodation - a backpackers, quiet at this time of the year so I could have a bunkroom to myself, which was fortunate in my jet-lagged state. I fell asleep at once, woke up at about 7:30pm and went and had a a delicious meal of lamb shank cooked with rosemary in the Skotel - all meals I had in NZ were delicious though a bit pricey. The food is fresh, and very well cooked, with a variety of influences - Mediterranean and French mostly. The overcooked and unflavoured British foods that held sway until the 1970s have now gone. Back to the bunk room, asleep at 10, awake at 1, reading until 5 and then asleep till 7:30am. I wasn't at all sore or stiff from the day's toilsome cycle. After December's dormancy my cycling muscles had woken up and were in reasonable order.