Leaving the city behind, I headed North out of Auckland on the East Coast Road, paralleling State Highway 1. There is only one section of motorway here of the type which forbids bicycle, and it runs through Auckland from Puhoi in the North to Bombay in the south. Winding back and forth between the coast and the inland hills, the landscape of Northland, the region that encompasses everything from Cape Reinga down to Auckland, began to show itself. Primarily, it must be said, in the form of incredibly steep gradients going up and over any elevation in its way. People had warned me of this - 'They didn't know how to build roads up here like they did in the South Island,' a local in Orewa told me, 'you won't see many switchbacks here, you'll just see the sky when you're going up and the ground when you're coming down.'
Clouds and wind roll in
He wasn't lying - there were many of the grades posted on the climbs, but I would imagine 15% was a reasonable average, with a select few intensifying it much further. The blessing was that they were all relatively short - I didn't climb for more than 2 or 3 kilometers before coming down again. It was just a new rhythm to get used to, as were many things in New Zealand - the weather being another. On the west coast of the USA I had become used to waking up and getting a good impression of the day's forecast from those few hours of daylight - if the sky was clear it was likely to remain that way, if there were clouds then they were probably going to hang around. Here I would no sooner haven broken a sweat from the sun than the heavens would open, dump as much rain as they could on me, and close up again. Clouds appeared into a clear sky from nowhere, and moved with stealth and speed. If I learned one thing, it is that in New Zealand it always pays to keep waterproofs close to hand.
A strong wind from the west left me struggling to keep up a decent pace, and I stopped for a breather in Wellsford. An English couple, also riding the two islands, were taking shelter in a coffee shop and had decided to call it a day. I was tempted to follow suit, but motivated myself with a fruit bun and pushed on. At Te Hana I finally got off State Highway 1, and life became enjoyable once more. I was now headed east so the wind swept me along obligingly, and I’d left the heavy traffic on the main road so now had the countryside to myself. Some short steep climbs punctuated the rolling nature of the landscape, and at Mangawhai Heads I decided enough was enough. It was a beautiful evening and I found a nice spot just outside the town where I could cook dinner and watch the sunset over the hills. I attempted a quick walk on the beach, but although beautiful it was also surprisingly cold considering the still-bright evening sun. Darkness came dramatically, around 8pm as if the sun which has been slowly making it way behind the mountains suddenly lost its grip and fell the last part of the way, robbing me of that stage of twilight in which to drink my coffee.
The following day was more of the same – a stop off at the picturesque Lang’s Beach gave me the best view yet of Little Barrier Island. This island is a protected nature reserve, but looks from the mainland every bit like Jurassic Park. I had become a little obsessed since first hearing about it. Unfortunately public visits are not allowed, so I would have to apply to the department of Conservation for passage over. Perhaps I will; it would make a great subject for my documentary. From Waipu I rejoined the highway and headed for Whangerai, the great city of the North. I was now firmly in Northland and everything felt significantly more isolated. Even the city began and ended relatively quickly, giving the impression of an oasis of commerce and civilization in a remote landscape. I was not here to see strip malls and retail centres, so I moved through quickly. A long inland stretch of SH1 led me, through wind, rain and hills, to Kawakawa. This town seemed famous for two things – the railway line that ran through the centre of the main street, and the HundertWasser Toilets. This bizarre structure apparently attracts a large amount of visitors each year, and although really quite fascinating, I do still find it odd that people travel to see a toilet. Still, there are stranger attractions around I suppose and an Art Deco outhouse also offers functional properties as well as artistic. In fact, it seems I was more impressed by them than I first though. Perhaps I’ll go back.
I slept that night in a field by a perfectly blue stream just a couple of kilometers out of the town. A local farmer offered me the spot and led me down some gravel roads, pointing down a track behind electric fencing. More peaceful surroundings I could not have dreamed of, and for the first time I felt ‘This is New Zealand." It’s odd what brings on these revelations, but lying beside my tent eating lentils and drinking water from the stream, I watched the birds above me hop from branch to branch in the native bush only feet away. I was at rest, contented and happy. Simple things, but when you find them it is worth savouring the moment. I relished the opportunity.
My time in Northland finished at the Bay of Islands. I rode through Opua to Paihia, the cultural centre of the area – at least as far as tourists are concerned. Even for the time of year it was quite busy and it took a while to get used to sharing the surrounding beauty with others. I guess this is one of the real attractions of New Zealand – it is easy to on one hand take part in adventure sports and highly organized tourist activities which offer a hassle-free experience, but on the other hand you never seem to be very far from escaping all of this and taking on the country yourself. This appeals to me greatly. Although I am a big fan of exploring seclusion and going off the beaten track, traveling alone can be a lonesome charge, and the chance to socialize cannot be underestimated. I rode leisurely around the bay counting the outcrops of rock I could see protruding from the water. The beaches curved delightfully to offer aesthetically perfect views wherever you looked. Taking my bike on the ferry, I arrived across the bay in Russell only 15 minutes away. Russell is connected to the mainland, but the land curves in such a way that it is a significant drive around, so the ferry provides a quick and picturesque alternative. The town was the original capital of New Zealand and as such is full of history. I spent a pleasant few hours wandering around, but avoided the museum for fear of having to pay a fee. It’s a sad side effect of my journey that I rarely venture into any attraction that will charge me, as I just can’t afford to factor that into my budget. However the way I see it is that this journey is not about those things per se – it is about interacting with the people and the land, going where my bike takes me and enjoying the natural elements that make up a place. Museums and events are great, and I love to visit and partake when the opportunity arises, but there is so much more to New Zealand than what you can find in a guidebook. I consider myself lucky to be in a situation where I’m forced to seek out these alternatives.
My trip up north finished in a rather low-key manner. I spent a fabulous night at Haruru Falls as a guest of Andre and Olga at the Waterfront Campground. Falling asleep to the sound of a waterfall may be one of my all time favourite things. The next day I headed west, and completed a loop that eventually led me back onto state Highway 1 which in turn I followed back to Auckland. Taking the opportunity to spend time with my good friends on the North Shore again was delightful, but I was wary of becoming too comfortable again so after a short delay to watch North Harbour take on Taranaki at the local rugby stadium, I made plans and pressed on for Cambridge and the new district of Waikato.