North Island Biking

Long overdue account of biking the length of the North Island of New Zealand, and the last leg of the trip proper.

After arriving in Wellington, I continued up the west coast of the North Island. My original plan was to end in Auckland, but shortly after starting the biking portion of the trip I decided to aim for Cape Reinga instead, the northernmost point in New Zealand (well, there’s a nearby cape that’s slightly farther north but is inaccessible).


View North Island Biking in a larger map

I’d been worried about traffic on the way out of Wellington, but the route I ended up taking was excellent. Instead of taking the main highway north (foolhardy), I followed bike paths for 15km east to Hutt, and then the quiet Akatarawa road winding its way back to the west coast. Nice feel to this place, the road reminded me more of Boulder Creek, the town where I live in California, than anywhere else in New Zealand.

Akatarawa

After hitting the coast, traffic got much more crowded and much faster. I was on highways 1 and 3, which make their way up the island’s west coast. To see this portion of the country, you have to take these highways, there are no side roads or other options. In retrospect, I should have gone through the interior and skipped this section of the coast. The traffic was not extreme (a moderately busy two lane and occasional four lane road), but on a bike it wears me down in pretty short order, I get stressed and somewhat unhinged and stop enjoying the trip as much. I’ll chalk this up to inexperience, and in the future will plan ahead more to avoid roads with significant traffic.

After a few days of biking in the traffic with not much of interest (a few nice side roads to the beach excepted) I made it to Stratford, about one third of the way up the west coast. Stratford is the main gateway to Taranaki, aka Mount Egmont, a striking volcano rising up by itself, symmetrical and beautiful (the ‘Mount Fuji of the southern hemisphere,’ I guess). Had great views of the mountain in the evening as I approached Stratford. Was hoping to do some hiking or backpacking the next day, but the clouds came in thick so settled on biking the nice forested road going up the mountain’s flank to a viewing area where I got to stare at the fog.

Taranaki

Continued up the coast to New Plymouth in the afternoon, where the clouds promptly cleared giving great views back towards the mountain (ah, well). New Plymouth was alright, pretty crowded but a nice waterfront, similar to California beach cities like Santa Cruz except with more volcanoes.

Taranaki

The beaches surrounding New Plymouth looked like great surfing, would love to check these out on another trip (hard to manage a surf board by bicycle). North of town the traffic continued on up to Awakino, about 90 km to the north. Just east of here I was able to turn onto a side road, which stayed closer to the coast and had almost no cars, which I was extraordinarily grateful for. This quiet route would continue pretty much to Raglan, and was my favorite biking of the whole trip. Mostly paved but with a couple long unsealed sections, lots of nice pastoral scenery (like most of New Zealand).

One standout spot on this route was the the beach at Waikawau. Taking an unsealed road west from a nearby hamlet for a few kilometers takes you to a five foot wide tunnel into a cliff. Going through drops you onto a gorgeous beach: nice bluffs, nice sand, nice waves, warm water, deserted. Body surfed here for a while, then was on my way.

Waikawau Beach

Continuing up the coast, the road started winding along the side of the large Kawhia harbor, before turning off onto an unsealed road. I had been pretty paranoid about this road, with no good information about its condition and worries it would be either a rutted mess or covered in loose gravel (lousy on a road bike). Despite some muddy sections, though, it turned out fine, and a nice ride winding up to Raglan.

Raglan is a pretty cool place. Right on the west coast a couple hours drive from Auckland and with some great beaches, it is I think the most popular surfing spot in New Zealand (though coming from California it’s still not that crowded). Right about a month earlier I had come through here while driving south with my brother, Sean. We stopped, rented boards and surfed in the late afternoon, though didn’t stay longer due to crowds from it being right after the new year (in New Zealand you get to go to the beach for the Christmas holiday, though California too I guess).

I was determined to spend some time here and get less incompetent at surfing. I started surfing last year in Santa Cruz but only went infrequently. At the newbie beach, Cowells, it’s been hard to pick up a pattern due to the high tide sensitivity, sheltered location and ridiculous crowding when there are good waves. Raglan was a great opportunity to break this and start to improve. I only surfed one day there, but was in the water a solid six hours and really did feel better afterwards. Surfing is tremendous fun and I still suck at it, but since coming back I’ve surfed more often (still only every couple weeks) and at new and better spots.

Late in the afternoon the day I went surfing, left all my bike’s gear behind and went for a 50km ride along the coat, rounding Mount Karioi to the south on deserted, mostly unsealed roads. Got back as the sky was getting dark, nice ride to cap off the day.

North of Raglan I stayed on a side route, which was quiet most of the way but started getting crowded as I approached Auckland. I was still paranoid about traffic after New Plymouth, and all along had not planned on biking through Auckland: it’s a good sized city on an isthmus between two bays, no way to avoid the traffic and the risk did not interest me. So when I got to Papakura on the city outskirts, I got on a suburban train and took that to the other side of the city, continuing on my way. The next few hundred kilometers alternated between quiet and busy roads (including some time on the main north/south highway, ugh), before getting to route 12 where things stayed fairly quiet to the north cape.

Route 12 is a splendid ride that splits from the main highway and heads along the west coast of the peninsula to the north of Auckland. The main attractions are the only largely intact Kauri forests on the island. The Kauri is a large native tree which was mostly wiped out by logging in the first half of the 20th century. They’re incredibly ancient and slow growing, and some of the largest living Kauri are a short walk from the road.

After a few hundred kilometers of nice biking, I finally got to the west coast proper, the town of Ahipara at the base of the 90 mile beach leading to the north cape. Bit of a misnomer, the beach is about 56 miles long, but it’s continuous and barely developed and something to behold. The beach is low angle and at low tide much of the sand is quite firm; tour buses and cars can drive on the beach its entire length. I couldn’t bike the whole thing in one tide, so opted instead to stay at a campground at the south end of the beach, get up early during a low tide and bike 20km or so before cutting inland at a one of the few access points. I ended up overshooting the exit by several kilometers and had to backtrack, for about 30km total on the sand.

Biking on beaches is fun! At least when conditions are appropriate for it. Pretty quiet and peaceful at this hour, could make good progress and yet riding on wet sand just has a feel all its own.

The morning I biked along the beach was the last full day of biking for the trip. After heading inland it was not too far to the cape: 80 placid km through pasture followed by 20 km of an agonizing rollercoaster of a road after entering the parkland at the island’s north end. Maybe it wasn’t *that* bad, but when you’re close enough to the end to smell it each hill seems twice as high. After camping at a beach right near the cape (big waves being generated by a tropical storm near Vanuatu, so didn’t stick around to explore), made it to the cape the next morning.

Bike at the Cape Reinga

Unwound at the cape for a few hours, then a day and a half of bus travel down to Auckland, where I stayed in a hostel and worked a few days at Mozilla’s office here. Also, a very nice day sightseeing the Auckland area with Rob O’Callahan, who works out of the Auckland office and is a great host, and a few other Mozilla folks visiting from abroad.

A good ending to a great trip. In retrospect, this was a scouting trip more than anything. Before too long I will come back for longer, and as nice as Auckland is (and it is a great city) what I really need to do is take my time and sink into the country, rather than sprint through it by bike.

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