291km Picton to Raetihi
It’s a cloudy morning when we reluctantly make the decision to leave the South Island. With only a month left in New Zealand, it’s time to head north. First though, we collect one last South Island treat – fresh mussels straight from the fish plant. A 1kg bag of the tasty molluscs costs just $1.50 so we pack them into Friedel’s back bag and hope they’ll make the trip to Wellington unscathed.
With fresh seafood in tow, we roll down to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket and follow some fading blue lines on the pavement to a spot in the car park where cyclists are supposed to wait. We’re surrounded by ferry workers, who are taking turns putting train carriages into the boat and driving a lot of new cars on board. They’re doing this in reverse and at high speed. “Has there ever been an accident?” we ask. “Oh yeah. Once we crushed an entire truck with a train,” one fellow says proudly. We stand back and let them do their work without any further distractions.
When we roll off the ferry on the other side, it’s clear we are not going to cycle out of the Kiwi capital. There’s traffic flying everywhere on roads that simply aren’t designed with cyclists in mind and we aren’t in any mood to take risks after a German tourer died on New Zealand’s roads a few weeks ago. Stephan had been on the road for 3 years and when he was hit by a logging truck. We didn’t know Stephan but we had several friends in common and it’s a bit too close to home.
Instead, it’s off to the train station for us and thankfully Wellington’s trains are significantly more cyclist-friendly than the roads. The tickets are a snip and the bikes go into a luggage compartment free. The guard even helps unload our bikes when we descend in the seaside settlement of Plimmerton. We’ve come here for the Moana Lodge – a friendly backpackers so close to the beach that the waves sing you to sleep. “Sometimes the guests complain the waves are too loud,” says the owner later in the kitchen, as he tells us all about the ups and downs of running a hostel.
We are happy with the waves and our comfy bed and the big kitchen (where we cook our mussel feast) and the relaxing lounge area. It feels like home and we’ve been away from home so long, we want to grow roots on the sofa and never move again. It’s a full three days before we push on, encouraged by beautiful sunshine and the lure of some friends just up the road. For the first 40km we avoid most of the traffic by taking a series of dreamy seaside backroads. Lots of weekend cyclists ask where we’re going. “As far as our little legs will take us,” is the current answer, which gets some strange looks, usually followed by a smile.
Unfortunately, it’s not long before we’re forced back on the main highway. It’s Good Friday and the Easter exodus is in full swing. For several hours we hear nothing but cars zooming by and smell little other than fumes. One woman leans out of a window to swear at us, even though we are on the generous shoulder and not holding her up at all. The shoulder is the only thing saving us from total insanity and we’re about to panic when it disappears just before a long, narrow bridge but then relief comes in the form of a bicycle path. Thank goodness for that. Later we learn a local cyclist campaigned for the path for years but it was only created after he was struck and killed on the very bridge he’d been telling everyone was so dangerous. The path still floods during a rain and becomes unusable, leaving cyclists to the road. When we hear this, as with Stephan’s death, it’s a real moment for reflection.
By the time we arrive in Foxton at the home of Jenny and Jim we’re a bit worn from the rigours of the road and so thankful for the mugs of tea and plates of chocolate cake that soon appear in front of us. Jenny and Jim turn out to be every bit as wonderful as two people could possibly be and over the next two days we’re totally spoiled by their hospitality. Jenny even turns out to be the Easter Bunny in disguise when she presents us with a handful of chocolate eggs for the road as we pack our bags on Easter Sunday. We are truly touched and the caramel-filled treats give us some much-needed energy as we carry on down the busy road to the mind-numbing sound of traffic. Once again, some angry person decides to scream at us as he’s going by.
There’s a quieter riverside route we’re aiming to reach but we’re still some distance away and there’s no way we can make it in one day so we stop at Dunnings Lake, a camping spot that the lady in the tourist bureau assured us was “really nice”. When we get there, we find out that “really nice” must be measured in decibels. The lake is filled to bursting with boats and jet skis, all going around in circles and making an almighty racket. And on the road that circles the lake, kids and teenagers are revving up pint-sized ATVs and dirt bikes and dune buggies. We are the only ones without a petrol-powered toy and the motors drone on for hours. Thankfully no one seems to have headlights so things finally quiet down around dark and we manage to get a good night’s sleep and then off early the next morning. Just as we roll out at 8am the first boat is already warming up for the day. We make a new resolution never to travel on a long weekend.
We’re quite relieved when we finally reach the Whanganui River Road the next day. It’s a twisty, narrow route that was first settled by Maori, then missionaries and some hardy settlers. There’s not much out here aside from a few villages and that’s the whole point. We can roll along in relative peace. It’s a tough road though so when we reach a free camping area about 2pm we’re bushed and ready to stop. We strike it lucky because a caravan club is also at the campsite and all the old folks take pity on us and feed us cakes and cookies and cups of tea around a roaring fire. They’re sweet and we feel like we’ve just gone to visit our grandparents.
All of those extra calories don’t go to waste because the next day takes every bit of our strength. It’s not so long in kilometres but the road climbs almost constantly and it’s unpaved and very rough in patches. “Do you think we’ll make it?” Andrew asks just a couple hours into the day. We’re both feeling our muscles already. Not long afterwards we meet two women coming the other way on a bicycle tour. They go on about the great muffins their guide baked, without offering us one. We aren’t impressed and try to suppress our muffin cravings for the rest of the day.
When we spot an unexpected coffee shop in the village of Pipiriki, we’re ecstatic and as we’re sipping our cappuccinos the Maori man who owns the place starts reminiscing about his childhood. He tells us how the family all slept in one room, on a floor of hardened ground covered in bracken fern and flax mats. And he tells us about how they had a bath once a week, on Saturdays, in the water grandma had used for washing the clothes. It was the only time the kids could bathe in hot water. “Now everyone wants to shower once or twice a day,” he says. “And I think, what a waste of the world’s resources.” Quite.
We aren’t so hardy and it’s only the thought of a hot shower (and perhaps a cold beer) that gets us over the hills and into the town of Raetihi. In our defence, we haven’t showered in two days and when you’re cycling, that’s quite a long time. By the time we finally get to Raetihi, the sun is low in the sky and we make a quick stop at the local store before finding the campsite. As we’re packing our purchases into our bags, a kid sitting on a nearby bench calls out. “Miss, Miss. Where are you going on that thing?” “Around the world,” Friedel says, in an unusual display of honesty. “But you can’t do that. That’s impossible,” he squawks. We just smile and pedal on.