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Active Rooter Stephen Dunnett rides the Tour Aotearoa (New Zealand)
The temperature is pushing 30C and I have been riding along this beach beside the Tasman Sea for 40km. I have another 40km to go before I can leave the sand and I am down to my last 600ml of Active Root ginger sports drink. The sand will get softer as the tide comes in and there is a nagging head wind. How did I get into this? It is brilliant!!!
Flash back to 2016 when I was in New Zealand and there appeared to be a lot of weather-beaten cyclists on loaded MTB’s. It turned out that they were riding the first ever Tour Aotearoa; a 3000km bikepacking adventure from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the tip of the South Island. “Wow, that looks fun” said my son. ‘Fun’ to my son sees him as a veteran of the first ever World Cycle Race and several Trans Continental races as well as the 2014 UK solo 24hr MTB champion. ‘Fun’ to me is more modest and if it involves a pie and pint, so much the better!
It is now 20th February 2020, I am the wrong side of 60 and not being one to side step a challenge, here I am, along with my son, ready to set out. When I say with my son, what I mean is my wife drove us both to the start, we both got ready for the off together, we almost rode off the start line together, and that was it! He went on to complete the 3000km in 10 days and me in 25 days. But this is the beauty of the Tour Aotearoa; there are few rules and you don’t need to be an elite cyclist. Yes, you do need to be reasonably fit and able to ride consecutive long days over tough terrain but if this is you, this has to be one of the best bikepacking trips you could ever take part in.
So, 3000km on a set route to follow. No entry fee but I had to pay the carbon offset to get to the event (£158 from UK) and make a charitable donation of NZ$100 (£50). I had to have a SPOT tracker to record my route and for personal safety on remote stages and there are also 30 photo control points along the way. The time limit for a successful completion are set by cycling Brevet rules – 10 days minimum to 30 days maximum and the ‘average’ rider tends to be between 21 and 28 days with lots taking the full 30 days.
Back to my Active Root ginger sports drink on the beach. The 1st day is 105km, mainly along the iconic ‘90 Mile Beach’. It can only be ridden a few hours either side of low tide when the sand is good and firm and the difference between a strong tail wind and strong head wind is immense. Either way, it is a LONG ride with no options to top up drinks or food. Ginger never tasted so good and good hydration is essential.
I rode a KTM Myroon Master hard tail MTB with Apidura luggage for my minimalist kit including an ultra-light Terra Nova tent. I used a mix of camping, campsite cabins and a few motels – I found plenty of options on most stages. The route uses many of the New Zealand Cycle Trail routes and some of these have to be seen to be believed. The Timber Trail on the North Island has 35 bridges; 8 of these are massive suspension bridges (called swingbridges in NZ) and the longest is 141m long, 60m above the Maramataha gorge – WOW, just WOW as I ride over it. Another highlight was the Mangapurua Track which culminates at the iconic ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ built in 1936 in the middle of dense rainforest to try to open up land for settlers. Indeed, it is a bridge to nowhere because the only way out is by jetboat. Seeing a bunch of bikes hanging off the back of a jetboat as it bounces down rapids for 40 minutes until it is once again possible to cycle was unique!
The Mangapurua Track was unfortunately a reminder that any bikepacking trip needs to be respected and the Tour Aotearoa is no exception. A rider who 2 days previously, I had shared a room with and we had set off from the same campsite this day, had come to grief on a rocky section of very remote, rainforest trail. His ‘Red Button’ on his SPOT tracker had been used to summon the rescue services and the helicopter was hovering as I arrived. They don’t use full mountain rescue teams like we do in the UK and the protocol is that if you are there, you are part of the rescue. Not something I was expecting but this was not the only rescue during the Tour but fortunately all are well on the way to recovery.
Many of the small towns I passed though had gone out of their way to welcome the riders and in the most unexpected places, I frequently came across ‘Trail Angels’ who had set up water refill points, tins of biscuits, cakes and at one, a full fried breakfast! The ‘full fried breakfast angels’ were a lovely bunch; the men drinking God knows what from jam jars! A bit the worse for wear, one asked if I could help him move a couple of big boards that he needed to cut for the floor in a house across the road that he was renovating. This was no problem and I got an extra big breakfast (it was 2pm!) for my 5 minutes of help but it was somewhat regretted when I was faced with 2 hours of uphill directly afterwards. Some of the sound effects from my anatomy were interesting. I did also wonder how jam jar man got on with the circular saw he was waving at the wood as I left!
The scenery on the North Island and the South Island is very different and the two are linked by a lovely 3 hour ferry trip across the Cook Strait. There are some BIG hills on the South Island but the more technical riding is certainly on the North Island. For me, the highlight of the South Island was the West Coast Wilderness Trail. It is a trail I had ridden before and was the recipient of my charitable donation for my entry. A strange place on the trail and NOT the reason for my love of this trail, is ‘Cowboy Paradise’, a replica western town, miles away from anywhere and as I was told by other NZ riders, the scene of one of NZ’s largest drugs busts last year. Cannabis was being grown in huge quantities in shipping containers buried underground!!!
Covering in the region of 120 – 130km on most days, I found the riding reasonably easy really. I wanted time to stop for flat whites and muffins (NZ does both REALLY well), I wanted time to talk to people and take in the scenery and photographs. The time went quickly each day and although I was initially a bit worried by how I would cope with almost 4 weeks on my bike, it was all good and as my distances increased on the South Island, I finished 3 days ahead of my planned schedule. The final day was a 136km push down to Bluff across Southland. South Westerlies down there are equivalent to our cold Northerlies in the UK. No-one really wants to ride 136km into a cold, wet, UK northerly but yes, you guessed it, the final day was a very strong, wet, south westerly. Some riders agreed to meet and ride the stage as a group but as I had ridden the whole ride solo, I declined the offer and went on my jolly Billy-no-mates way. It was actually really good! The sun came out in time for the finish at Stirling Point, just beyond Bluff and I really felt I had earned that final day rather than a cruise with the wind. Anyway, by that point I was a super lean racing machine – in my dreams anyway.
The week after finishing was weird. New Zealand was increasingly talking about Coronavirus – there was little talk about it amongst the riders. I finished on Monday and by Friday, New Zealand had closed its borders and Qantas suspended all their flights. By the following Wednesday, New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown. It was VERY strict. The Tour had started in several waves during February and March to spread riders out – how lucky was I to have been in one of the earlier waves. Imagine having ridden 2800km with only 200km to go, to have to stop. These riders had no choice (not that they considered otherwise) but even if they could have found a way to avoid the final ferry trip, they would have been arrested at the end. It is a shame that Qantas still have my return fare and my bike now lives in NZ as the luggage allowance on my rearranged flights home, would not run to my bike. It is a good job my sons live in NZ.
So finally, what did I learn. 40400m is A LOT of up-hill. Active Root ginger sports drink tastes so good at the top of one of those hills after a 2pm ‘breakfast’! The sachets are easy to pack into little spaces in bike packs and don’t make a mess. They are also easier to explain to border officers than nice white powder from a tub measured into zip bags! The joy of finding a sachet hidden in the deepest recess of a bike pack long after I thought I had exhausted my supply was better than finding a long-lost puppy! A big challenge is only a little challenge repeated several times – it was taking 25 days that made this so special and I really enjoyed every day of it. And finally, in the light of the recent uncertain times, go on that big adventure you dream of as soon as you can – once you have done it, no-one can take that away from you but ‘if only’ lives forever. Pack your Active Root and go – NOW!