Tour Aotearoa: The South Island
The Tour Aotearoa South Island adventure begins once you arrive in Picton. It’s a 3-hour ferry crossing, across the Cook Straight. Make sure you book a cabin if you’re travelling on Bluebridge Ferries, and especially if you’re travelling overnight. Saying that, if you’re lucky enough to be sitting next to the restaurant, the spacious chairs will be more than comfortable for a kip.
You can check out the North Island blog articles here.
Today we were riding from Havelock to Tapawera. A relatively easy day on paper. A mere 125 km and no more than 1,500 metres elevation. A walk in the park. And that’s exactly what I ended up doing. The Maungatapu Saddle within the Bryant Range is an absolute brute. For those that are able to ride it all, hats off.
Anyway, we left Havelock after breakfast at the nearest café. And a good breakfast it was, too. Knowing what we had in store, we all ate well. I had my usual caffeine intake. It was going to be needed. A cold start to the day was a shock after the temperature we’d experienced on the North Island. We could also see Gillian, the rider we’d ridden with for a lot of the North Island. She was just ahead. We may even catch up to her in Nelson.
Riding along the highway to Pelorus Bridge is not for the faint-hearted. The trucks were bothersome again. Why do they feel the need to pass so close? Sure there’s no shoulder, but please don’t make this an excuse for punishment passes. It’s not the riders fault that there has been no provision for cyclists to ride safely. I’m a dad, husband, son, and would ideally like it to remain that way. And would love to remain alive.
Once off the highway, the fun begins. The road soon turns to gravel. Hardpacked and fast. It again turns gnarly further up the road. Manageable, but definitely gnarly. For those riding a gravel bike, it’s definitely a challenge. For those on a mountain bike, far easier. The surface turns from gravel to baby head rocks, scree, and mud. Now try riding that when it gets wet. It certainly tested my lack of off-road skills. I ended up walking for close to an hour and a half. Given it was dry, I’d hate to think of what point and for how long I’d had to walk. I eventually summited Maungatapu or sacred mountain in Te Reo. It lives up to its name. It’s a brute and an achievement for those that manage to ride all of it. The polka dot jersey was never going to grace my shoulders.
On seeing the others at the summit, was a sight for sore eyes. Neil and Craig had managed to find Gillian. I received lots of cheering once at the top. They’d been at the summit for a while. I managed to grab a pie and drink before the descent. The descent is a damn sight easier that the ascent. I did manage to ride all but 2 small sections of the downhill.
The road down to Nelson makes for great riding. Through the Maitai Valley, the surface is smooth and totally made up for the gruelling climb. There are times when riding that challenge your sense of purpose. Make you question your life choices. Climbing the Maungatapu Saddle was definitely was of those moments. But once in Nelson, that choice had become type 2 fun.
After we’d regrouped we rode out of town towards Spooner’s tunnel. One of New Zealand’s longest tunnels. It’s worth putting on your jacket, as not only is it damp, but gets pretty chilly in there. Making sure we put on our lights, we cruised through the tunnel. It’s a great piece of engineering. Knowing that it was all downhill from now until we reached Tapewera was a relief.
We reached Tapawere and headed straight for the pub, that also happened to be where we grabbed some food. It’s a ‘real NZ’ town. The locals were uber friendly. They chatted to 4 smelly and forlorn looking cyclists. Life was good, as was the food and beer. Whilst we sat around eating and drinking we searched for some accommodation. Covid has devastated parts of the TA. Areas that survive on tourism were like ghost towns. It had been suggested that the traffic on the South Island had dropped by as much as 96%. That’s just crazy. No town should rely that much on tourism. And while they do, at least put some money back into the community and make it forward thinking with climate friendly infrastructure. Rant over.
We managed to find a bed for the night. We rolled around the corner to the local campsite. There was a spare cabin. It slept 4, if you could sleep. It appeared not to have been touched for the last 40 years. But it was better than sleeping rough. The 4 of us, and our bikes, crammed into this tiny shed. The rumble of heavy trucks disturbed the little sleep I did manage to get.
I awoke early, who wouldn’t. Our plan was to ride around the corner to the local café. We did just that. Only to find that it was closed due to lack of coffee. So instead of walking up to the 4 Square and grabbing some coffee, they simply shut their doors. I’d left the cabin saying that I was never to return to Tapawera campsite again. I spoke too early. I had to ride back with my tail between my legs, making sure it didn’t get caught in the spokes, to have my porridge there.
It was at the campsite that we’d started chatting to a rider named Craig Pretty. We’d been watching his progress. He was riding some 30kg mountain bike. I asked him where he was aiming for that day. He said ” My goal is Murchison. My stretch goal is Springs Junction. And my stretchy stretch goal is Reefton. Although, I doubt I’ll get there today”. We joked with him about his three goals, and that we’d see him in Reefton. We parted ways as we headed for the café.
When we did manage to leave that god forsaken place, I noticed that my right knee was sore. I’d been questioning my saddle height, but did nothing about it. We rode towards Lake Rotoroa, still with a sore knee. I changed they height of my seat, and started to question myself as to whether or not I could continue this ride. I’d started to become a hinderance.
Today was to have some of the greatest ridings of the TA. Once we’d reach lake Rotoroa, and dodged the sandflies, we headed along the most scenic gravel road of the TA. From Lake Rotoroa to Muriua Saddle is stunning. Take your time to enjoy it. The beech forest and climb were breathtaking. The climb never gets above 7%, and even my knee played ball. I’d even managed to stay with Craig and Neil, both mountain goats. I didn’t manage to stay with them on the descent though, they’re way too competent for me.
Fortunately Craig and Neil waited for me at the bottom of the saddle. It was then a pace line to Springs junction. Once there, it was all about the food, and decision to carry on to Reefton. Neil booked the accommodation. We were definitely going there. So once Gillian Arrived, fed and watered, we were on our way. The first 15 km is either flat or up hill. Then there’s a 30km downhill fast rolling section all the way to Reefton. What a blast.
We finally rolled into town at 7:30. It took a while to find our place for the night, but when we did, it was luxury. We showered and didn’t shave. Threw our clothes into a pile, and headed for the laundromat, conveniently located on the main street. From there it was to the local pub for dinner.
Whilst eating, we met a group of guys who were taking their old military jeeps up and along the Big River Trail. That’s exactly where we were supposed to be riding. They talked of the rain that was due overnight. And right on cue, it started raining outside. Whilst we ate, we were trying to decide whether the rain would cancel our excursion to the big river part of the TA. We would wait until the morning to decide.
We all woke up early. I’d woken up during the night with the torrential rain. I headed for the closest café. The sign welcomed TA riders. That was me. I was a TA rider. And for the first time on this adventure, I felt like one. As I sat in the cafe drinking my first of 3 coffees, I saw the others riders I knew from Auckland, Charlie, Mark,, Tim and co. They looked as though they’d be attempting the big river route. I knew I wasn’t.
Neal soon joined me at the café for breakfast. We fuelled well. Over our last coffee we discussed not doing big river. I’d looked at the Facebook post that Jo Newburry posted every morning of our ride. She is a legend. I never met her, but she provided a detailed account of the state of the Big River trail every morning. This morning she’d mentioned that if you weren’t competent, don’t ride it. 30mm of rain had fallen overnight. That was my decision made. I was taking the road.
We left the café, and who should we bump into, but Craig Pretty, or Mr Orange as we called him. He’d made his stretchy stretch goal. He’d arrived on the outskirts of Reefton at 11:30. Pitched his tent in the torrential rain, thunder and lightning. What an absolute champion. His tenacity was a marvel to behold. It was his determination on a 30kg bike that would eventually drive me to continue when the knee pain became too much.
We bid Craig farewell and headed back to the house. Craig and Gillian were just getting ready. They’d already eaten and were packing their bags. Craig informed us that he was determined to do Big River. I totally understood why. It would be highly unlikely that we’d be back in this area again, and be able to or inclined to ride Big River again. We then bid farewell to Craig. Knowing that this was probably the last time we’d see him on the TA again. We’d continue to follow his progress on MapProgress.
The rest of us took to the road. We were heading to Ikamatua. A small village marking the end of Big River, and the right turn we would make to take the back road to Greymouth. Not far down the road we discovered a friend, Tim. He’d initially started along the Big River trail. Shortly afterwards he fell off, got back on his bike, and headed straight back to the road. He was heading to the café to wait for his friends. It would be a long wait.
I’d ridden the next section to Greymouth whilst doing the 5 Passes Tour, the best cycle event in New Zealand. Definitely worth doing if you’re a roadie. Even if you’re not, it’s still worth doing for the organisation and hospitality. Day 2’s first stage ends in Reefton, and the Team Time Trial starts close to Ikamatua and finishes at the Pike River Memorial site. A definite place to stop and pay respects.
We got to Greymouth, and in usual West Coast fashion, it pissed with rain. Pretty much the rest of the day was ridden wearing a rain jacket. We stopped for food in Greymouth and Kumara. We took the West Coast Trail. A fairly interesting trail, and then you get to Cowboy’s Paradise. Don’t believe the hype. It’s a shit hole, and the owner is an absolute dick. There’s no place for his rhetoric in New Zealand. The type you find in the deep south of the US. Where it should stay.
About 20km from Hokitika we could see the dark clouds rolling in. That wasn’t my black persona, but thunder and lightning. As we rolled down into the valley the heavens opened. And holy fuck, did they open. It’s the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced. I managed to find a hut to shelter in, only to find 3 other riders hiding from the storm, including Neil.
The thunder shook the hut. It was insane. The ground moved. The rain fell, and the roads flooded. This was the true west coast experience. If we’d have cycled to bluff without experiencing an event like this, I’d have felt cheated, almost inclined to do the TA again. Only almost! As soon as it eased up a fraction, Neil and I were off. We raced to Hokitika, and then onto our tiny house accommodation for the night. We texted Gillian as to where we were and headed off into town for food.