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Tour Aotearoa

Photography: Jeremy Hooper - Words: Johnny Price

The Tour Aotearoa is one of the world's great bikepacking trips. Running 3,125km from the top of New Zealand’s North Island, it weaves its way down to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. Starting at the Cape Reinga lighthouse, it maximises the extensive trail and track network, taking in the best NZ has on offer.

Our trip began on March 8th, at 6am. We were alone to enjoy the sunrise and take in the moment. A surreal feeling, knowing what was in front of us. Rolling out with the mood higher than ever before, with our bikes packed and legs feeling good, we made our way toward the 88km stretch of Ninety Mile Beach. An infamous section for those who have done the TA before us – talk of wild headwinds, soft sand and average speeds of 12kph sparked a race against the incoming tide as we nervously checked the weather and hoped for the best.

Riding the creek outlet towards the shore was both a rush and a concern. Given what lay ahead over the next few weeks, is riding in rim-deep water the best way to start? Jeremy’s camera took the worst of it. Sand and water off the rear wheel had made their way up into the camera's insides, bringing us all back down to earth. Fortunately, some careful cleaning brought it slowly back to life. Wrapped in a rain gilet, we pushed on.

The conditions were favourable as we were encouraged down the beach by an ever so slight tailwind. Headphones in, we settled into the next few hours. The tide was encroaching upon us, leaving a diminishing section of hard sand. The first 60km flew by, while the last 20km dragged. The wind had changed to a cross/head making it hard going. We were ready to get off the beach.

Ahipara came, as did our first lunch of the trip. The recurring theme of something hot, something cold, a drink and a coffee. We restocked water, got some candy and left for our first accommodation of the trip at Kohukohu.

Waking the next morning before sunrise, we waited for the Hokianga ferry to take us over to Rawane. Breakfast was eaten knowing we had 200km and 3,000m of elevation in front of us. Legs still fresh, the body warming up and the sun coming out had us riding as though it was a race – having watched Pidcock win Strade Bianche in the days previous didn’t help. We pushed over the tailwind gravel sections as though a monumental trophy was waiting at the end. We visited Tāne Mahuta, the God of the Forest, said to be over 2,000 years old. A sight to behold was a welcomed break, followed by an amazing descent. We continued over the rolling gravel sections towards the day's end.

Arriving in Kaiwaka, we were exhausted. Speights and Whoop strain score comparisons were followed by Strava segment breakdowns and a run-through of what tomorrow’s route had in store for us. In this case, 255km and 3,100m. Pizza, laundry and bed to rest the bodies before what was to be the most challenging day of the trip.

A long day through our hometown of Auckland meant we needed to get away early. Easier said than done. Recovery scores processed, laughed at and ignored, we downed our Supreme instant coffees and pressed start on the route.

A cold and wet morning was a reality check – Mother Nature won’t always play nice. As we moved through the day, the gravel roads became familiar, a blessing and a curse. Having ridden them before, we could estimate where we were and how long it would take before we got to lunch, Auckland, and then our accommodation for the night in Miranda.

With joints inflamed and the body exhausted from two hard days, we stopped at home, dropped things we no longer wanted to carry and collected the extras we would need for the next week or so. With the time approaching 4pm and another 110km to go, it was clear that it was going to be a late night.

As became apparent throughout the TA, there’s truth in the saying that whether you’re having a good time or bad time, it won’t last. The mood was in constant motion, and dealing with that presented one of the biggest challenges. Arriving sore and tired in Auckland, it bottomed out. The familiarity of home is hard to leave behind. Another expression also proved its merit, being food improves mood. Amazing what a proper lunch can do for morale.

We finished ours and pushed off toward Miranda. Learning the pub, and our only dinner option, was closing at the same time we were due to arrive had us riding hard. With the light fading and 10 hours of riding under our belts, food once again became the ultimate motivator. We arrived, ate, drank and reflected on the epic nature of the day – what a feeling after hours in your head questioning whether you’d get there.

Day four’s itinerary was scrutinised with the decision to take a few extra hours of sleep. Leaving Miranda we headed to Mangakino, a small township close to Taupō, towards the middle of the North Island. A day that, in reflection, we would rather forget about. The wind, which had mostly been behind us, met us face on and the temperature was uncomfortable. A relatively flat day (still 200km/1,500m) incorporating the Rail Trail, had us on flat gravel passing forgettable farmland.

The best was saved for last as we approached Lake Maraetai and our accommodation at Mangakino. Following along the lake as the sun set, we again found ourselves with our heads down pushing to make the dinner cut off. Beers, Strava and fish and chips followed, with tiger balm, stretching and trying to aid the legs in recovering as best as we could before tomorrow's daunting MTB section, the Timber Trail.

An 85km single track section through the middle of the North Island, climbing to the highest point on the trip at 1,000m+. While the climb up, lined with moss-covered native trees, provided an experience unlike any other, the last 45km of mostly downhill and technical sections pushed the bodies and bikes to the limit.

Feeling like Nino Schurter ripping through the corners resulted in the first and only crash of the trip. Losing the front wheel and down I went – hip, shoulder and ego bruised. We fixed the bars and moved on. This time more conscious of the stakes of where we were and the ensuing consequences.

We kept moving past the kilometre markers – counting them down to when we would finally hit smooth tarmac again and be able to relax. A three-way shake concluded the Timber Trail – we managed to get through in one piece (mostly) and arrived at Taumarunui in the dark, ready for bed.

Waking to heavy rain resulted in a reroute – we missed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere and took the inland detour towards the night's accommodation in Pipiriki. Steve woke sick, and it was only going to get worse for him. We split up, Jeremy and I rode for Ohakune to get supplies while Steve cautiously made his way towards our accommodation. Pouring rain on a main highway with strong crosswinds had us in a situation where we didn’t want to be for long – probably the most dangerous moment of our TA. Stuck also with the feeling that the only way out of the situation was to keep riding.

The rain cleared and the sun came out as we arrived at Pipiriki, a small township on the edge of the Whanganui River. The three of us reunited and debriefed each other on the hardships the day had presented – not a long day, but exhausting nonetheless.

The next day had 210km on the agenda, which made us all nervous. Steve’s stomach issues had deteriorated, making for slow progress.

We rolled out along the river as the sun rose toward Whanganui for lunch. Arriving mid-morning, we found something suitable for lunch and made a plan. Steve was to leave us and make his way slowly toward Hunterville 70km away and reassess – if he felt up to it, he would ride the next 70km to meet us at our accommodation at Makoura Lodge. If not, he would stay and ride an alternative route down to meet us in Masterton the next evening.

Masterton it was. Sick, exhausted and needing to stop frequently to relieve himself meant Steve had to stop for the night. Jeremy and I made it to the Makoura Lodge after another nine-hour day on the bike. We ate, washed the kit and made for bed.

Day eight had 180km on the cards with accommodation booked in Masterton. At this stage of the trip, any distance starting with a ‘1’ was a win. A cold, but beautiful morning had us riding on amazing gravel farm roads as the sun rose. Towards Ashhurst, we encountered our first trail angel, Mary. She provided us with hot drinks and baked goods as we chatted – a nice respite from the hard days previous. We said our goodbyes and rolled towards our finish line for the day. Arriving in Masterton in the mid-afternoon was a win for us – more time to wash, relax and figure out a dinner plan.

Communication with Steve in the afternoon confirmed that he would be there a few hours later, and the group would be back together again. After another meal of pizza, beers and Strava, we waited for him to arrive. When he did, the toil of the last few days was evident – he looked broken. Knowing tomorrow meant arriving in Wellington was a huge psychological victory for us all – two rest days and time to recalibrate before tackling the South Island.

The mood was high leaving on day nine – 150km, mostly road, with the night's accommodation being Jeremy’s family home in Wellington. We sat down for breakfast in Masterton, enjoyed our coffee and pastries and discussed the plan for the day. Steve’s gut issue was still prevalent, but knowing a day’s rest in Wellington would do wonders, it was just about getting there as efficiently as possible.

The day's main challenge would be riding the Rimutaka hill as the weather deteriorated. We crested the top thinking that we had an easy downhill ride home; however, the Wellington wind left us having to pedal hard. The slow run in towards the capital had us ready to call it a day, making it even sweeter when we finally arrived at our home for the next few days. A home-cooked meal and a few beverages to celebrate with stories shared from the last nine days provided a strong feeling of satisfaction – we were halfway there.

From talking to those that had ridden the TA before us, the North Island was good, and the South Island was great.

Day 10 had us up at 4:30am in time to catch the first ferry across the Cook Straight towards Picton. The weather was perfect, the two days' rest had recharged the bodies and we were excited for what lay ahead.

We disembarked at 10:30am with 170km to ride, finishing in Tapawera for the evening. The day was almost perfect. Steve had bounced back and we were making good progress. A favourable wind had us pushing hard once again, much like at the start of the North Island. Stopping in Nelson for lunch, we were met by a friend of HereThere – also named Steve – who lived locally. He rode out with us, navigating Nelson’s bike paths and provided a fresh wheel to follow and a new person to chat with. He left us with about 30km to go, knowing that it would only take an hour or so, and dinner wouldn’t be far away.

The accommodation at Tapawera was a good example of how we stayed on our TA trip. A small, affordable room out the back of the local pub. A double bed, a bunk bed, a shower and a kitchenette. The decision of who would sleep on the double was an easy one – whoever had the highest Whoop strain score would get the first pick.

Day 11 presented another shorter day, around 150km, though mostly gravel. We woke to rain and cold – tough conditions knowing we would be in them for the next six hours or so. We made it to the beautiful Lake Rotoroa and up toward Murchison by noon. We stopped, refuelled and reapplied the sunblock.

A highlight was the Maruia saddle, something we knew very little about before. A 7km gravel climb through native trees and creek crossings reminded us why we were doing the trip in the first place. We summited, layered up and made our way down a fast road section to our accommodation. Arriving in the late afternoon provided more time to unwind, wash, eat and relax, meaning we could sleep earlier and be in better shape for the morning.

The weather once again was wet and cold when we left Maruia with only 150km on the cards for the day to get to our accommodation in Greymouth, though good progress was made.

Waking in Greymouth, the mornings became increasingly cold as we made our way further south. Day 13 had us tackling the West Coast Wilderness trail, a track that weaves between the rugged West Coast beaches and the native forests inland. We rolled cautiously toward Ross, knowing that we only had 140km on the menu for the day and some longer stints in the saddle still to come.

Days 14 and 15 started our last big push towards Bluff. We had two 250km days back to back to cover, including some of the longest climbs of the trip. We left promptly at 6am, riding out in the darkness aiming for the first coffee stop at 70km.

Gravel roads in the black of the early morning were something new for us, looking behind you and seeing nothing was surreal. We pushed hard, the wind was mostly favourable as the sun began to rise. Progress was steady, the kms were ticking down, and an eye was kept on the average speed as a motivator. We made it through Fox Glacier and over to Franz Josef, where lunch consisted of toasted sandwiches, cakes, coffees, and coke. We made it to Haast in time before the shop closed for the night and made our way to the pub.

Waking in Haast the bodies were sore and tired, a tough ask to get up and repeat what we had done the day previous. Today's destination was Queenstown, riding towards Wānaka and over the Crown Range towards our accommodation. A tough yet beautiful day, riding the valley roads surrounded by the Southern Alps. We arrived early in the evening after another almost nine-hour day riding, made our way to Domino’s and headed to our accommodation for bed.

Our morning consisted of a ferry ride across Lake Wakatipu, disembarking at Walter Peak. The 170km on the schedule consisted of a number of quick gravel sections through the valleys and a welcomed tailwind. Navigating a couple of river crossings and putting up with the odd shower kept us humble. It was our penultimate day and we wanted to get on with it. We arrived at the pub in Winton where we would post up for the evening, tuned into the rugby and enjoyed the last night of the trip.

Waking on the last morning was a good feeling. Much like the last day of a Grand Tour, today was more ceremonial than challenging with only 60km to the finish line in Bluff. We left the accommodation, ate at the local supermarket and prepared ourselves for the last few hours. The route down to Bluff is quite literally that – a gradient ever so slightly negative, which if nothing else encourages you to go fast. We rode through Invercargill, our accommodation for the night, and down towards Bluff – a further 25km down the road. Seeing the kilometres tick down, knowing it was soon to be over we began to race each other again, attacking and catching until we rode the last climb to the Sterling Point signpost, the finish line to the Tour Aotearoa.

We huddled around it, got our picture taken and made for the cafe right before the weather opened up. A beer at the end of the day had become a routine for the trip, but none was quite as sweet as the one at the finish line.

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