Cycling New Zealand | Part One: North Island

I was in my final year at university when I decided to go on my first solo cycle-tour; staring at maps of New Zealand and buying camping supplies online when I should have been concentrating on writing 3,000 word essays on Italian Cinema in the 1940s or translating literature from the Argentinian Dictatorship. I’d ridden bikes for as long as I could remember. I’d raced bikes, I’d ridden the velodrome, I’d been mountain biking in the Alps and on a week long training camp in Spain. But there was something about cycle-touring that lured me. It wasn’t an unbeknown concept to me; I’d grown up hearing stories of my parents world cycle-tour, which they completed from 1989-1991. I wanted to explore, I craved adventure and I loved my bike… the freedom of the open road, the thrill of the ride. And so it was decided, once graduated I would go on a cycle-tour. Solo.

My stomach flutters with nervous anticipation and my legs spin eagerly into the brutal headwind. Today is the first day of my solo cycle-tour of New Zealand and I am pedalling away from the city of Auckland. But like all great beginnings, mine does not run smoothly and I have to make my first stop after approximately 0.3 miles at the local bike shop. They gladly re-true my front wheel and tell me in no uncertain terms that my plan to cycle around Waiheke Island is completely ridiculous. “What… with all that?!”, he says eyeing up my heavy load. “It’s pretty steep there you know.” I leave the shop with around 20% doubt and 80% determination to prove him wrong. It takes two men to lift my bike onto the ferry to Waiheke, and I hold up half the boat’s passengers as I lug her up the steep boat-ramp once we arrive at the island. Then at last I am cyclingThat tense feeling runs out of my shoulders and down into my legs where it transforms into exhilaration for the journey ahead. Me, my bike and the open road in New Zealand.

I’ve almost forgotten about the heavy load behind me and my legs dance on the pedals, spinning faster and faster as I cycle away from the ferry and into the leafy wild of Waiheke. Then the road turns upwards and I am abruptly brought back to reality… That 20kg of tent and sleeping bag and one too many pairs of socks drags me down, but as I lift myself out of the saddle and I push my toes down into the pedals those first day butterflies in my legs carry me to the top. Waiheke is just as tropical as the name suggests and just as steep as that man in the bike shop had told me. It is isolated and beautiful; dotted with tall palms, sandy secluded coves, vineyards stretching towards the horizon and tropically-coloured flowers. At the crest of the hill my eyes are drawn to a sign that reads ‘London – 11,387 miles’. I am a long way from home, it doesn’t bother me though. As I soar down the hills that day I feel free and alive, completely independent and completely terrified.

After Waiheke I headed North into the wild region of Northland. It was my first experience of the ever-changing New Zealand landscape, where a typical day involved cycling past miles of fields of farmland and over rolling hills that reminded me so much of my home, Yorkshire, and then five miles later finding myself riding through what seemed more like a tropical rainforest. I made the obligatory tourist stop at Tane Mahuta, “Lord of the Forest”, the largest Kauri tree in New Zealand and was chased by cows almost everyday, adding sprint intervals with a 20kg load to my daily bike rides. I cycled up and down and up some of the most unforgiving climbs I would come across in New Zealand. The head-winds were relentless and I found myself checking the weather religiously, willing the wind to change direction. It did change, eventually — but by that point so had I, and I was heading back South through the Bay of Islands to Auckland.

Tolling up seemingly ceaseless hills through gritted teeth and shouting into howling headwinds; I make myself stop, unclip my pedals, look up from the stem of my bike and out into the expanse that surrounds me. What I see takes my breath away quicker than any of the the hills I have struggled up to get here. Crystal blue oceans framed by acres of tropical forests; the richest landscapes I have ever seen. At that moment a jumble of quotes spring to mind; something about rainbows, and rain, and dancing through storms. What is it they say? That “nothing worth having comes easy”? I understand it now. So I clip in my pedals and free-wheel gleefully down to the shore-line.

Those first few days were harder than I could have imagined, and almost every night I camped 10-15 miles short of where I’d initially planned. When it came to cycling, up until that point I believed that I could make my legs do whatever I told them to. But after finding myself exhausted from pushing 100km daily, I realised that I had definitely underestimated this magnificently wild country. But New Zealand was like an addiction and I was already obsessed with those everlasting horizons and greener-than-green views. When I passed back through Auckland the contrast between the vibrancy of nature I had lived in for the past 10 days and the hazy grey of city life was overwhelming and I was eager to get back out on the road. So instead of taking the direct route south, I decided to detour into the Coromandel Peninsula. I camped for two nights on a hill behind the beach and rolled out of my tent to watch the glow of the sun rise over a jagged rock in the ocean, leaving my footprints on the beach as the first trace of life that day. The next day I dug a hole in the black sand and sat in a natural bath-tub of hot steamy water at the famous Hot Water Beach. A couple of days later I hiked Mt Maunganui and looked out onto the endless Pacific Ocean; the intense Kiwi sun bouncing off the sparkling water and onto my rouged smiling face.

 At that moment it seems to me that, after Mother Nature had granted each country their beauty, she must have arrived at this little island in a far corner of the Pacific and emptied everything she had left there. In another 60 miles I would swap the lush green hills for something that seemed to resemble another planet. Rotorua, famous for its stinking, sulphuric, eggy smell and majestic thermal activity; with bubbling mud pools, chemical-green coloured ponds, 100ft geysers and steam erupting out of tiny crevices in the earth. The next day Taupo, perfect as a postcard; a sparkling deep-blue lake edged by snow-capped white mountains. New Zealand was indescribably epic, like nowhere I’d ever been before.

I’d been spoilt by nature, overloaded with views and blown away by landscapes, but when I left Taupo I had my sights on one thing only… The South Island. In my mind the name was in lights — green lights surrounded by mountains and stars and mystical creatures. I was impatient to get there, eager to see what more New Zealand could give me. So with a renewed zest for the adventure that awaited, I strapped on my panniers, clipped in my shoes and headed south.


Bike: I’ve been touring on a Condor Fratello (which I adore) with a Brooks C17s saddle, Shimano 105 5800 groupset, hand-built Mavic wheels, Shimano PD-M324 pedals and a Tubus Logo Evo rack.

Luggage: I have two Ortlieb Back Roller Classic Waterproof panniers, an Ortlieb dry bag on my rack and a small Carradice Bingley handlebar bag.

Tent: MSR Hubba Hubba HP (2-man)— light, easy to set up, very spacious for one person.

Flight: I flew from L.A. to Auckland with Air New Zealand. You have to pay extra for the bike but the airline is very good.

Maps: There’s no real need to buy maps for New Zealand as you can pick up free maps from any tourist information centre that give all the main tourist routes and roads!

Camping/Accommodation: I’d 100% recommend downloading the mobile app Campermate. It uses your location to find campsites and gives you details of price, facilities and reviews for each campsite. There are masses of campsites to choose from in New Zealand. Most privately owned ones cost between $15-25 NZD or the official DOC (government owned) campsites which are in general more basic but scenic cost between $5-15 NZD. There are also a lot of hostels and backpacker lodges which are pretty cheap (approx. $30 for a dorm room) and a nice option on a wet or windy night.

Coffee: You won’t struggle to find a decent cup of coffee in New Zealand. There are plenty of independent coffee shops in even the smallest of towns with excellent coffee, cake and lunch selections.

Other: A lot of the cycle paths and recommended bike routes in New Zealand feature gravel tracks so it may be worth getting slightly thicker tyres (cyclo-cross tyres would do the job). I had slick tyres so had to stick to the tarmac, which was never a real problem but did limit my options.

Traffic: At the time of year I was in New Zealand (October to December) the roads were in general a lot quieter than the UK. You will notice however a lot of large farming trucks – especially logging trucks – which I didn’t find to be particularly wary of giving space to cyclists or slowing down at all when they passed. I had no serious issues, but it is worth being aware and maybe fitting your bike with a small mirror so you can see them approaching.

Ferry: Once you get to Wellington you need to take a ferry over to Picton to get to the South Island. There are two ferry companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Both are roughly the same price and it only cost me $10 extra on Bluebridge for my bike. I booked a couple of days in advance, but you may need to book earlier at busier times of year.

Originally posted on Pannier CC.