Thursday, March 27, 2014

Great Adventure, Great Company, Great Barrier Island Cycle Touring

There's a lot to be said for sharing experiences with that special person in your life. For years, I have invariably resigned myself to the fact that my adventures would be done alone or with a group of friends, then played back in photo form to my loved one at the end of the weekend whilst they fell asleep from boredom on the couch next to me. I have no problem with being a loner... In fact, there is a certain charm to doing some stuff alone... The experience is a very different one with a partner in crime by your side, though... Not necessarily good or bad. But up until just recently, the opportunity to share my crazy adventures with that special person in my life had eluded me... And not for lack of want... Maybe I just hadn't found the person who was the right fit for me yet.


I started dating Lisa late last year in September. We share the same adventurous spirit, enjoy the same things, and both have a habit of packing our lives full of "stuff", booking out our weekends seemingly a year in advance. Arguably, Lisa isn't quite as crazy as me... She doesn't ride her bike during sleeping hours, or camp in the snow, or use TOPO50 maps to plan hideously long journeys which take 5 hours more than expected (although I'm working on it!), but she has a spark in her brilliant personality that makes me smile, and she is easily convinced to accompany me on adventures. I'd like to think that the adventures we enjoy together have introduced something new and exciting to her life, much the same way that the addition of her infectious enthusiasm, scintillating company and beaming smile to my otherwise lonely escapades has changed the way I experience things.


We'd been together a few months before I was brave enough to float the idea of a cycle tour, and soon enough, we were planning our three day, fully self-supported cycle tour around Great Barrier Island for the Auckland Anniversary long weekend. Taking a partner on a journey like that can really make or break the relationship and it can be hard to genuinely convince someone that your primary intention is to enjoy the scenery and spend some quality time with them in the great outdoors, as opposed to using it as a formula one testing ground to rip their legs off. The plan was that I would carry all our shared gear and anything heavy (tent, food, cooker) and Lisa would just carry the essentials, such as her clothes and sleeping bag. This way, I would be a bit slower and hopefully we would enjoy the trip riding at a similar pace to each other. I was nervous... I wanted nothing more than for Lisa to enjoy the ride, and I knew that she was nervous for her own reasons, and understandably so...


Friday afternoon we had our bikes loaded up with all our gear and rode to the ferry, where we boarded with a handful of other people looking to escape the rat race for the long weekend. The evening was beautiful and calm and we sat on the ferry with the sun warming our faces and a beer in hand. As the island loomed in front of us on the horizon, we marvelled at the greenery, rugged landscape and hilly terrain (actually, I'm not sure Lisa was so excited about the hills as what I was). After unloading from the ferry and battling the crowd, we made our way down the road to the Stray Possum where we would stay the night before embarking on our adventure the next day. That was the last we saw of any crowds for the weekend... It was like all the traffic from the ferry dispersed to various corners of the island, diluting any evidence of human presence.

I'd been to Great Barrier once before for a race and remembered it as an idyllic, rugged landscape, relatively untouched with quaint communities scattered across the island, and as we strolled along the road on dusk, I enjoyed breathing in the fresh air scented with native greenery, listening to the birds rustle and talk amongst the trees... Back at our accommodation, the lights ran off a generator (there is no electricity on the island), and the absence of city bustle made the night so dark that the stars punctuated the black sky with their brilliance. We really were a world away from where we had come from some 5 hours ago... and I couldn't think of a single person I would have preferred to share the experience with.

The following morning, we awoke to a brilliant day with blue skies. After conferring with some local advice on our route, we headed away from Tryphena and up Rosalie Bay Road. We found throughout our trip that the local residents were warm and generous with their information on the island. As it turned out, Rosalie Bay Road ended up being the biggest climb we would do in one hit for the entire trip. The loose, gravelly surface made for hard work, but the load on our bikes helped the tyres gain extra grip (that was a bit of a love-hate relationship!). We reached a dead end at the top of the climb and sought out the trail head for the track that descended straight down into the east end of the beautiful Medlands Beach. The last time I rode this trail, it was a rough, rutted piece of gnarly walking track. Since then, it has been rebuilt and resurfaced, so it is actually a very rideable piece of trail. In sections, the track was steep, and there were some rather sharp corners to negotiate. Lisa took to riding with a load on her bike exceptionally well whilst I fumbled awkwardly around corners with the dry bag slapping around on the rack. I knew it wouldn't take long to adjust to the load (it always took an hour or two), but it was frustrating nonetheless, and I felt like a bit of a goof.

Arriving at Medlands Beach, we parked our bikes up and went exploring around the rocks on the beach. The views were spectacular and we were quite stoked to come across a birds nest in amongst the rocks that had some babies nesting in there. The white sandy beach and clear blue water was inviting, but we had a relatively long day planned, so decided to save the swimming for the end of the day (both for reasons of time and chafe-avoidance!). The plan was to do a fairly long day the first day and get it out of the way so we could have a cruisier second and third day to enjoy the sights a bit. It also made sense to do our longest day on fresher legs.

We rode from Medlands over to Claris, where we stopped for a bite to eat at a cute little bakery by the side of the road called "The Lunch Box" (great food, by the way!)... Lunch was consumed, ice cream had, and hideously expensive suncream purchased and we continued on our way. The road from Claris through to Awana was relatively flat with the odd bump along the way, which made for quick travel and cruisy sight-seeing before we began the climb up Aotea Road towards Harataonga. It was a hot day and we could smell the bitumen melting whilst it stuck to our tyres as we climbed. We zig-zagged across the road to take advantage of every bit of shade that presented itself... It was of little comfort that the previous time I had ridden this road, it was unsealed. We had decided that instead of riding straight through to Okiwi, we would descend into Harataonga and ride through the coastal walkway... This served the double purpose of avoiding a huge climb up Aotea Road and also providing us with some more interesting riding and views.

The descent into Harataonga was a relief in the heat and we found ourselves back at the coast in a cute little bay before picking up the coastal walkway and climbing into the native bush. The coast ran directly parallel to the track, but was, for the most part, completely obscured by the trees. On occasion, though, the trail would burst through the trees and lay in front of us brilliant vistas of rugged bays full of turquoise blue water bordered by white sand beaches which, in turn, were bordered by brilliant green hillsides surrounding the coastline. It was truly stunning. The trail was undulating and sneakily chewed away at our energy stores as we rode on. It snaked it's way through the trees, providing us with some much-needed shade. Occasionally, we had to dismount and awkwardly manhandle our bikes over deep, rutted creek crossings. As we rode, the track deteriorated from a well-maintained gravel trail to rough singletrack, still very ridable, and great fun, but hard work, especially with a load on. It took a lot longer than expected, and each time we rounded a new bay, we expected the next to be the end of the track and it wasn't. We delayed stopping for a break in the hope that soon we would pop out onto the road and sit down for a break, but we started making silly mistakes while we were riding, and we started getting hangry (hungry angry). Finally, Lisa declared that she was stopping to eat something and I reluctantly agreed. In hindsight, we should have stopped sooner, but it is often the way when you want to keep moving.

As was often the case with my adventures, this particular part of the trip was taking longer than expected. I am a map geek, but regardless of how much I trawl over the map, it gives me no information on terrain, and the length of the track can be hard to judge when it is so windy. We sat in relative silence whilst we refueled. I was mega impressed at Lisa's resilience, but I felt guilty that there had been a requirement for her to be resilient because of my poor planning. As it so happened, as we crested the next hill, we began the insanely fun descent into Okiwi, negotiating sweeping bends through the forest, over rocks and down sections of red dirt trail that we aptly named "Mars" (I vaguely remember crashing in front of Lisa on one of these sections, but we shall never speak of this again). Occasionally, we would steal glimpses of the coastline as the trail flashed by until we were stopped dead in our tracks by the most stunning view we had seen all day (the fact that I had been riding behind Lisa apparently didn't count as "view of the day")... Sprawled out in front of us was a stretch of coastline that included the Whangapoua sand bar, which jutted out into the brilliant blue bay like a long white finger. Whangapoua Campground had been our "plan B" if we had run out of steam for the climb over to Port Fitzroy, but little consultation was needed to decide that we would continue on to our originally planned destination.

As we rode through Okiwi, we had a chance meeting with a couple of Lisa's friends, who had married the weekend before and were honeymooning on the island (what are the odds???), then just as we reached the climb out of Okiwi, we happened across a local fair, with music, food and crafts. We stopped by and chilled on the grass for a bit with a drink and some tasty BBQ treats, and used the opportunity to fill up our water bottles, then continued on our way, keen to arrive at our destination, pitch our tent and settle in for the night. The climb out of Okiwi towards Port Fitzroy wasn't as bad as we had expected. It was all tarseal and was an easy enough gradient for us to just spin our way up. As we descended into Port Fitzroy, we passed the general store (closed now, but would be useful to stock up on supplies tomorrow) and managed to score a free beer from a fisherman before we continued on to our campground for the evening.

It blew me away that we were pretty much the only people at the campground on a long weekend. We chose prime position, right in front of the water, and decided to go for a bit of a stroll to see if we could find a swimming spot. The western side of the island was very different to the eastern side and the coastline here was a rugged mix of rocks and oysters and the fact that the tide was out made it difficult to find a spot deep enough to take a dip in. We ventured to the waters edge with our shoes on and Lisa said something about taking off her shoes to go wading in the water. No sooner had I said "please don't cut your feet on the oysters", than she limped out of the water with her feet bleeding from a series of deep oyster cuts... I vehemently resisted the urge to say "I told you so" (such phrases rarely contribute positively to the mood on trips like this) and made my way back to the bikes to get my first aid kit out (hey, at least it got used and we didn't carry it unnecessarily, right???). Lisa tended to her cuts whilst I pitched the tent. The desire to go for a swim had waned by this point so we enjoyed a cold campground shower before wrapping up in our warm clothes and settling in on the grass to enjoy our free beer and cook dinner.

Our post-beer hot chocolate with powdered milk and marshmallows tasted ridiculously good and whilst we waited for our dinner to rehydrate for us to enjoy our feast, we chilled on the grass, enjoying the antics of the cheeky Brown Teal Pateke ducks that seemed intent on eating anything that we put on the ground (edible or not). We enjoyed our dinner then lay under the crisp evening sky to watch the sunset over the bay whilst we recounted the experiences of our day and had a good laugh. I was so impressed with Lisa's efforts. We had ended up clocking up 50km for our first day... And that was a hard 50km, as well, with singletrack, a good chunk of climbing AND a load. It was stoked that Lisa had enjoyed it, even if it did mean we were quite tired.

Throughout the evening, we were occasionally disturbed by the brisk wind that had whipped up over the hills, and by my annoyingly small bladder. I rarely sleep well in a tent... There are so many things happening in and around the tent to stimulate my mind and distract me from slumber. Lisa got up at one stage and could barely walk for the pain in her feet from the oyster cuts. I was quietly concerned. Firstly because I didn't want the cuts to get infected. Secondly because the only way we had to get back to Tryphena was on our bikes. I hoped that she would discover in the morning that riding a bike was actually less painful for her swollen feet than walking, but failing that, if worst came to worst, I could ride back to Tryphena and hire a car to come and pick her up. I felt reassured that we had options and a couple of plans and snuggled up in my sleeping bag for a good night's sleep.

When we woke the next morning, I boiled up a pot of water for a brew and mixed up some milk to have with our muesli... It was pretty much the ritual each morning and night while we were away on our little adventure. For some strange reason, I really enjoyed making breakfast and dinner for us both. I suppose in my travels, I have learned that the teams that are most successful are the teams who can use their collective strengths to counter their collective weaknesses. I'd done all this stuff before, and probably wasn't as tired as Lisa at the end of the day, so I guess it was kinda my way of taking some of the load off and redistributing that load where we as a team had the resources.

The sky had deteriorated from a brilliant blue the day before to a grey mass, and we packed the tent up straight away to avoid getting it wet. We could think of few things worse than having to pitch a soggy tent that evening. Lisa's feet were still sore, but seemed to respond better to riding shoes and pedals than they did to walking (YUSSS!). We moved all our gear into the communal cooking shelter to pack up and then I made the trip back up the hill to the general store to get some supplies. The Port Fitzroy General Store is a surprisingly comprehensive outfit and I salivated as I piled fresh fruit into my basket. Something I have always found on cycle tours is that you just get sick of carbs... Fruit can be so refreshing. The last thing I put in the basket was a tiny vial of betadine iodine antiseptic for Lisa's feet... Undoubtedly, it was the best investment I made that weekend (and for the record, Lisa's feet are fine now!).

I returned to the campground and we packed our gear back onto the bikes to head on our way. There had been a couple of solid downpours for the morning already but the rain mostly cleared for us for the rest of the day, asides from the occasional patches of drizzle and a pretty grey sky. Our second day wasn't planned as a big one... The plan was to ride the 15-17km through Forest Road, down into Whangaparapara campground, set up our tent and then head over to Kaitoke Hot Springs. From there, I would maybe go for a little scoot up to the summit of Mount Hobson and then we could turn in for the night. It became apparent to me by the end of the day that most people ride Forest Road from the South to the North (not the other direction, as we did)... There is one very obvious reason this happens and that is that the southern end of the track sits at a 170m high point on the road, which means that the North-South route contains more climbing than descending. I neglected to notice this fact as part of my planning. 

Our ride along Forest Road was lovely to begin with. The rain was holding off and the bush surrounding the road was just stunning. We checked out the suspension bridge and hut just across the first creek crossing, then continued meandering southward. The road is an old disused forestry road and has been designated as the main mountain biking track on the island (although not the most exciting of trails if you are up for some fun), so the surface was pleasant to ride along, and for the first few k's, we were making really good time. Upon inspection of the maps, from what I could tell, there were two major climbs along the track. Before long, the road pitched up steeply, and we began our first climb... Then our next climb... And our next climb. And they weren’t just your average climb… They were steep, granny ring material. As often happens with topo maps and forest roads, the track wasn't plotted very accurately against the contours on the map. By the third or fourth climb, Lisa had stopped talking much to me... It wasn't that she was specifically upset with me, but it was a hard slog (especially with gear on the bike), and it probably didn't help that I kept saying "this MUST be the last one" and it invariably wasn't. It got to the point where I chose to just shut my mouth for fear of further incriminating myself. I had failed dismally in my map-reading abilities for the day and any guarantee that I gave of this being "the last climb" were completely unfounded and untrue. The track also ended up being longer than the 15km that we thought it was and I found myself begging for it to end. I'd had enough of the seemingly endless conveyor belt of climbs, and I knew Lisa was now not having a good time, and that upset me...

In situations like this, there is a fine line between being encouraging and being seemingly condescending. It is of utmost importance that as your significant other crests the hill, you offer encouragement, but not in such an enthusiastic manner that it seems like you have been resting there for half an hour and have bucketloads of energy to expend. A little tip... Running down the hill and then running alongside your partner up the rest of the hill whooping and hollering will often not achieve symbiotic harmony. Sometimes feigning fatigue is the biggest favor you can do yourself. I also discovered that Lisa doesn't like having her photo taken at the top of a climb (and probably justifiably so). By the time we reached the end of Forest Road, there was no question about the fact that we were not descending one side of the hill to then climb up again and go to the hot springs... An executive decision was made to go straight to camp and settle in for the evening.

I continue to be impressed by how resilient Lisa is. She always tells me how unfit she is and I never believe it... She is far fitter than she gives herself credit for. I also admire her ability to let go of things once they pass. It was a tough couple of hours, but it didn't take her long to return to her usual bubbly self. I love that about her... She is also the only person I know who can get away with telling me "I told you so" and "would you please eat/drink something... You are getting grumpy". Our mood improved significantly with the descent towards Whangaparapara. The campground here was a little 15 spot piece of paradise only accessible via a walking track (which unfortunately meant lifting our fully loaded bikes over fences and stiles). It was totally worth it though. The track wound its way through a beautiful piece of native forest and then onto a well-built trail benched into the bluff around the edge of the coastline. I was stoked to hear Lisa's excitement when she realised we were right on the water's edge for our campsite again tonight.

Whangaparapara campsite ("The Green") was just stunning. The ocean crept right up on our doorstep and the coastline was decorated with trees shaped by the wind and massive root systems that jutted out from the eroded shore. Across the bay, we could see a couple of buildings that made up Whangaparapara. We were there alone and after sweeping up the rabbit poo using a makeshift broom made out of old dead gorse bush, we pitched our tent right in front of the water's edge before settling in on the picnic table next to us for a feed of ciabatta with ham, brie and tomato (YUM!). No sooner had we emptied our drybags onto the table than a group of about 20 school kids appeared at the entrance to the campsite and started pitching their tents... I was in two minds about the experience. I think it's great that they are out doing something, but I didn't think it was appropriate for them to show up at a 15 site campground and take over (there are plenty of 60-80 site campgrounds on the island). To be fair, they gave us as much space as they could and pitched their tents away from ours, but it was certainly far removed from the serene atmosphere we had encountered on our arrival... Thank God we arrived first!

After lunch, we decided to go exploring sans-load. It was so nice to cruise along on our bikes without the burden of gear. Lisa joked that she couldn't believe she was voluntarily getting on her bike for fun at this point. We rode back along the trail and around the other side of the bay to Whangaparapara, where we purchased some water and sat down to enjoy a fruit juice. I always find that the ability to appreciate the smallest things is what makes a trip like this worthwhile. Our return trip to the campground involved a detour to a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole that was so cold that I thought I was going to pass out when I got in (but so refreshing, and lovely to be clean!), and then we headed back to our tent for another freeze-dried feed. I must admit that freeze-dried food tastes better than it used to, but they still don't appear to have the technology to improve the part of the meal that makes me do stinky farts (sorry Lisa).

The weather forecast for the night wasn’t looking too favourable, so we decided to enjoy some time out of the tent and explore the shoreline whilst it was low tide and not raining. We clambered over rocks and oysters (with our shoes on this time!), got swooped by Kingfishers and ended up on a small beach populated with millions of smooth stones where we sat and talked until the rain forced us back to the tent, grey clouds blanketing the sky right down to the horizon. There is something magic about lying in a tent while it’s raining, much the same as listening to rain on a tin roof. Everything seems louder than it actually is and you feel like you are lying in the rain without actually getting wet. We lay in the tent holding hands with one headphone each in our ears, listening to Theivery Corporation and Goldfrapp dance around inside our heads with the sound of the rain. That was probably one of my favourite moments on that trip.

We awoke in the morning on our last day to a brilliant blue sky. The tent had stayed intact with no leaking and was now nearly completely dry from the winds that had passed through and blown the storm away… Perfect!!! We had a cruisy breakfast, savouring the view before packing our drybags onto our racks one last time and heading back along the walking track to Whangaparapara Road. The climb out of Whangaparapara was surprisingly quick (obviously by this third day, we both had legs of steel). We passed the entrance to Forest Road and headed down the other side, past the old battalion. There was the option to continue across the road from Forest Road and sidle along the ridge high above the trees. I have no doubt it would have been a beautiful and scenic ride, but we decided instead to head down the road and check out the Kaitoke Hotpools… At least it gave us something to come back and do next time!

The hotpools are situated down a fairly long walkway, which we rode down and are a gorgeous collection of small streams and rock pools which converge into the one larger pool. It is an undeniably beautiful place… The fact that you can sit in a hotpool and enjoy the view makes it even more amazing! Places like this that truly make you marvel at nature. The sun filters through the forest and warms your soul while the trees dangle lazily over the clear water. It was the perfect place to park up and relax for an hour before continuing to make our way back via Claris to Tryphena (this time on the road).

After stopping at a café for lunch, we continued along the road at a modest pace until Lisa called me back down the hill to point out her discovery of a wild grape vine in the culvert along the side of the road. It was quite obvious that people had ravaged the vine for all its reachable crops, but this was apparently no obstacle to Lisa obtaining grapes… I’m not sure if she actually wanted to eat grapes, or whether it was the challenge of getting to them that enticed her, but what I witnessed for the next ten minutes closely resembled what I would expect an intoxicated monkey may look like swinging through the forest, wielding a large stick which was firstly used delicately as a hook, and then progressively declined to an assault on the uncooperative vine until said large stick broke several times and became a very small stick… Oh, and this monkey was wearing a tight-fitting ensemble made out of lycra… Whatever it was that Lisa was doing, it eventually worked and we sat on the side of the road literally eating the fruits of her labour.

Back on the road, and before long, we were cresting our last big hill before descending back into Tryphena, where we parked up at a cute little café to while away the time until we got back on the ferry. The ferry trip home was, in itself, an adventure… The ocean had become very choppy and I reckon that if the captain had realised how huge the swell was coming through the Colville channel, he would have likely cancelled the sailing. In stark contrast to the calm trip over to the island, we now found ourselves in a boat rocking back and forth over an 8ft swell. There was a lot of sea sickness to be had and the trip took probably an extra two hours on what it had done to sail over in the first place. Needless to say, we were relieved to disembark from the vessel of doom and hop back on our bikes for the (uphill) ride home.

Our trip to Great Barrier Island was a beautiful journey… Not just in terms of the bike ride itself, but the experience of sharing it with Lisa and learning more about each other along the way. I’ve often told people that I prefer travelling on my own… I’m not so sure now… I think if someone were to ask me now, I would likely be inclined to choose some good company over my own company. Maybe I’ve learned all I can about myself by being alone and now it’s time to embark on a new era, maybe it was the moments strung together that made it so enjoyable, or maybe I have just stumbled across a person who brings out the best in me and makes my adventures come to life all over again in a unique way. Either way, I can't wait to share my next adventure with Lisa!