How (not) to Take a Vacation
Some people know how to take a vacation. They book a week or ten days in a resort or a hotel, spend some time on the beach, eat well and have a good time. Or they travel in style to Europe, hopping between ten cities in ten days, seeing all the important sights. For some reason we are not those people. Some years ago we became addicted to cycle touring, and having a kid hasn’t seemed to change it so far. There is something about travelling slow and into the unknown that just appeals to us.
So I guess when we chose New Zealand as our winter travel destination we didn’t really think that much – it was obvious without even saying it, that we’d be cycling there. We arrived to New Zealand with our usual plan of not having much of a plan. After talking to a few people, we realized that New Zealand may not have been the best choice for bringing bicycles along, and especially a wide and bulky trailer loaded with our most precious cargo.
We were told repeatedly how the roads are narrow, with no shoulder, there aren’t many back roads, it’s super hilly and the drivers are sometimes drunk and don’t respect cyclists. We started thinking what have we got ourselves into and what should we do now? After mulling it over and staring at the map for a while, we decided to go north of Auckland to an area called Northland and try it out. If it turned out to be a totally terrible idea, we could always come up with plan B, or so we hoped.
Like every other cycling trip, one of the most challenging things to do is to get ourselves and the bike boxes to the airport, and this trip was no different. We made sure to arrive with plenty of time since we were worried that the airport would be busy because of the holidays. Instead, we found a nearly deserted airport. It turned out that Christmas Eve was not the most popular time to fly… So after a few rounds on the balance bike around the terminal we finally boarded our plane. For some reason we were upgraded to the most fantastic seats, with lots of leg and play room and an extra seat for Neil. Since December was very cold in Vancouver we had to wait for the plane to be de-iced and Neil kept himself busy by sticking stickers all over our seat’s window. The flight attendants were dressed up as reindeer, and after take off Santa Claus even showed up to give out some chocolate. You gotta love Air New Zealand…
The best part of the flight was the timing though. Despite it being a rather long flight, the fact that it was a night flight made a huge difference. Neil slept for nearly 11 hours and when he was awake he was quite excited about the flight and his stickers. We left on Christmas Eve, and fast forward 14 hours of flight + 21 hours of time difference, and we had skipped Christmas altogether, and landed in Auckland very early on a sunny Monday, December 26th.
A Taste of Auckland
Not to repeat our mistake from our previous trip to France, we decided to take it easy in the first few days, acclimatize and rest. Luckily there was almost no issue with jet lag this time, because the time difference was really only three hours. So we stayed for three nights in Auckland with wonderful Warmshowers hosts Melissa and Joseph and their four kids. Neil loved it there, especially feeding the bunnies with Mika the only girl from the whole bunch.
We spent one day exploring downtown Auckland, mostly impressed by the fanciest and most expensive ice cream we’ve ever eaten at Giapo. Another day was spent riding to Te Atatu Peninsula, to get into the cycling routine. With all the things we heard about cycling in NZ, we were both a bit down. I (Maya) also felt really out of shape, coming from winter in Canada, and not spending too much time on my bike on the weeks before, and was worried I wouldn’t make it through one of the hilliest countries in the world.
A Bumpy Start
We had finally managed to leave the big city and start our cycling trip for real. That’s when the only mechanical trouble of the trip hit us: a broken spoke, a flat tire and a very wobbly trailer wheel. It would have been demoralizing to return to Auckland to find a bike shop, so we kept going, trusting we’d find a bike store along the way. But we never did find one – it turns out there were no bike stores on our route, so Maya rode four weeks with a broken spoke. Later that day, things took a turn to the positive and continued doing so.
We arrived to Muriwai Beach, where we intended to camp, down a steep incline and just as it was starting to drizzle. Just then a couple with a three year old girl pulled up in their car and told us the campground was closed. Hmmm, that was not good news we thought, but we were wrong. They immediately told us we were welcome to stay with them – they had actually driven behind us for a few kilometers just so they could invite us over.
While cycling back up the hill towards their place we had to remind ourselves not to complain… We ended up staying in their comfy garden suite for two nights. It was a great introduction to the warm Kiwi hospitality and from Neil’s viewpoint: to the land of trampolines. Yes, there seemed to be an endless supply of trampolines, at campgrounds, people’s homes and so on, and Neil got quite good at it.
Our first day of riding was in fact only 40 km long, however we already felt like we had gathered adventures of a whole trip – leaving the city, hills, mechanical problems, rain and a spontaneous invitation to stay the night. We could have done worse.
Cycling through the Waipoua Forest reminded us of cycling through the lush jungle of Costa Rica, minus the humidity. The road was windy and narrow and consisted of a series of blind corners, but luckily cars couldn’t go too fast either. Along the way, we stopped a few times for short hikes to see huge Kauri trees, thousands of years old. A long and fast descent took us from the lush forest to open agricultural land and then to the turquoise water and sand dunes of the Hokianga Harbour. We were again fascinated by all the changes we had experienced and seen in only one day, proving how cycle touring can make you feel so accomplished in such a short time.
Ninety Mile Beach
The road that led to Ninety Mile Beach was a cyclist’s paradise. We took a small ferry from Rawene in order to get there, which meant that traffic on that road was very light to non-existent. The were a few hills, but nothing too strenuous, and by that point we felt more in shape and on the ball with our cycling. Our cycling days in general were not very long, 30 to 40 km long, but it was plenty with all the hills and with wanting to give Neil enough time to play, ride, swim and explore.
The scenery on that road changed from round green hills with sheep, to forest and eventually ocean scenery once again. We camped in very rustic campgrounds along the way in people’s yards. Those people basically live off the grid, growing most of their food and collecting rain water off their roofs for drinking – every drop counts.
In Kaitaia we did two uncharacteristic things, first we booked an Airbnb for two nights. We had been camping every night for over a week and we felt we needed a bit of a change. The place turned out to be a real gem, and the host made a special effort to make Neil comfortable by bringing him a nice big truck and then a slide he had lying around for some unknown reason.
Then we booked an organized tour to Cape Reinga, at the northern tip of New Zealand. Normally we snobbishly shun the tourist traps and tours, but in this case we needed a rest, and we wouldn’t have made it up there without the tour. It was actually surprisingly fun, the highlight being hurtling down a sand dune on a boogie board, eventually slowing down by traversing the mudflats at the bottom. The drive back was special – the bus drove along Ninety Mile Beach the whole way back, a Kiwi oddity. That beach is so popular amongst drivers that road rules had to be instated to keep the craziness in check.
The Kiwis are very hospitable people. There were Melissa and Joseph and their four kids, our hosts in Auckland. Even with the considerable number of mouths to feed and a huge renovation project that left their living room full of construction material and tools, they still found time and energy to host us (twice!) very comfortably and even feed us. Then of course there was the nice family from Murawai Beach who hosted and fed us for two nights, and with whom we exchanged stories of travelling and parenthood. Then, we were chatting with a couple in Russell by the waterfront. As we started walking away, they came back with chocolates for us from their favourite boutique chocolate place.
Rod and Cheryl run fishing trips out from Helensville towards Pouto Point, and cyclists often catch a ride with them to avoid the nasty highway. They let us camp in their yard for free, while we waited for the next fishing trip. The boat was scheduled to leave at 4am, so it was a relief when they told us the sea would be too high, so they would drive us up instead. When we first arrived to their place, Rod insisted that Neil must go for a ride on the tractor with him. We were after a long day, and Neil was scared once the big loud tractor started and would not agree to get on. Rod, who would not hear no for an answer, immediately connected a trailer to the tractor, taking all three of us for a ride around the property. Once Neil was secure on Maya’s lap, he was much more comfortable with the idea and by the end of it had a blast and for days afterwards kept on talking about the man who took us for a ride on the tractor.
A fact which surprises most people when they hear it, is that there is a network of Israeli-lovers in New Zealand, mostly Christian evangelists. In fact, it’s such a popular concept that there are online websites to help connect the hosts and visitors, and many young Israelis rely on this hospitality during their after-military rite of passage trips.
We were curious, so we looked into it and managed to connect and stay with Simone and Dieter and their three kids. They took us in last minute despite the fact that they were already hosting another couple and fed us throughout the weekend. It was a fun and interesting visit to the middle of nowhere, finding out about this family’s religious journey that had led them away from Christianity to a belief based on following the Old Testament as closely as they could. We were lucky enough to spend Friday night there and take part in their special Friday night ceremony which included blowing the shofar (a ram’s horn). Neil had a great time with the three kids and the playground and trampoline in the backyard as well as all their animals (dogs, bunnies, chicken and goats).
The Twin Coast Trail
When we picked up a free cycling magazine and guide at the airport, we found out that there are quite a few cycling trails in New Zealand. But only one of them is in Northland, the area we explored on this trip, so we made it a point to make an effort to cycle it, and an effort sure was required. First, the start of the trail is in Horkene, a fairly obscure town. Luckily Dieter offered to drive us there with our bikes and mountain of gear, which involved driving over the Mangamuka Range. The road was extremely windy which caused Neil to puke in the car, for the second time on this trip. Then predictably he fell asleep five minutes before we arrived, and Maya moved him onto a mat on the side of the road, where he proceeded to sleep for a full two hours while we waited patiently.
The trail passed in ‘out of the way’ kind of towns. In Okaihau, a town in the middle of nowhere, we found the most delicious meat pies, a Kiwi specialty. Another town we passed through was Kawakawa. Too close to the Bay of Islands, but still not on the water to claim its fame, the town felt like it was missing something. It turned out that what they were missing was a toilet! An artist who lived in this town made it a life project to make the town’s public toilet into an artistic palace and making it into the only real tourist attraction in town. We actually ended up camping behind these toilets, in one of the only free camp sites we had on this trip, an area that is designated for “Freedom Camping”, as it is called in New Zealand.
The trail itself had some beautiful sections along streams and cow and sheep pastures, as well as some less nice sections where the trail followed a wide gravel road closely. The main challenge though was the gates, which had been installed to prevent motorized traffic from getting in. By the side of each gate, there was a small gap, theoretically allowing a bicycle to get through. In reality, even getting a loaded bike through was a bit of a struggle, and the trailer had to be dismantled and carried over dozens of such gates, often while Neil was sleeping. On our third day on the trail, it was very hot and we were on a section of trail exposed to the sun, and we were praying that the gates would stop, but alas, they just kept on coming.
Bay of Islands: Mission Accomplished?
After surviving the Twin Coast Trail and all its gates, we finally made it to the place we kept on hearing about for weeks – The Bay of Islands! We caught a small ferry and immediately headed down to the beach for a refreshing swim. Then we cycled into the small town of Russell where we’d planned to spend the next few days. It was hot and we were in need of an ice cream. It felt like our mission was accomplished, we had made it! Although we still had to cycle to Kerikeri and from there to catch the bus back to Auckland, this part of the journey was complete.
What we didn’t realize before we left for New Zealand was how expensive it was, especially camping, and in Russell, a very popular vacation destination, we ended up paying almost $50 for a camp spot! Nonetheless we enjoyed our stay very much, and Neil made sure to jump extra hard on the trampolines to make it worth it. We also spent a day on the magical island of Urupukapuka, where we swam, slept on the beach, played in the sand and hiked a bit on the hills overlooking the ocean, with many sheep around us. Back in Russell we had yet another fish & chips dinner, one of the most popular (and cheap) foods in NZ, as it turned out.
For the last two nights of the bike portion of the trip we booked another Airbnb, just outside of Kerikeri. Unlike our previous Airbnb near Kaitaia, that was amazing in every possible way, this one was quite a way out of town and not as great. We once again found ourselves cycling to the middle of nowhere, oddly finishing our trip (once again) by the ocean on a very windy beach. We wanted to share our excitement of finishing the trip with Neil only to find him sleeping in his trailer at 6pm…
The Cyclists’ Highway by the Highway
The five hour bus ride back to Auckland was surprisingly pleasant, with Neil sleeping for about two hours. Back in Auckland we did not feel like catching the train back to our hosts, so we decided to check out the bike path from downtown to the suburb where we’d be staying, Sunnyvale, 19 km away. The bike path mostly parallels the highway, but for the most part you don’t feel like you’re by the highway and definitely in rush hour, like the time when we cycled, being on a bike felt so much better than being stuck in traffic (as it always does!)
As we were getting closer to our hosts’ home the area started feeling familiar. It’s an amazing feeling – four weeks earlier, we’d arrived to this strange place, had no idea where we were or what to make of that suburb. Four weeks later it felt like we were returning home. We could finally finish our trip for the third time, arriving to our hosts’ place and completing 600 km of a challenging tour.
We had another day to spend in Auckland and we decided to go to the Aquarium. Neil was very excited about seeing the ocean animals that he now knew the names of, from up close. The most impressive were the penguins, followed by the sharks in the glass tunnel one passes through.
In general it felt like the whole trip was like a petting zoo for Neil. He got to pat, hold, feed, play and see so many different animals. From feeding the bunnies with Mika, to feeding chicken in a few places we stayed at, petting goats in one campground, and following sheep in another, mooing to the cows along the Twin Coast Trail, feeding horses along the way, and holding newborn puppies at a home campground we stayed at, and the list goes on.
When we got back to Vancouver a friend asked us if the goal of our trip was accomplished. Since our main goal was basically to spend time together and have fun while cycling and exploring a whole new place, then yes, the goal of the trip was definitely accomplished. Cycling in Northland turned out to be an amazing experience. We learned so much about people who live off the grid and are literally living from rain drop to rain drop.
We also got to once again see Neil changing up close, learning new words every day, improving his skills on the trampolines, riding his bike on the beach, ‘cooking’ on our camping stove, his favourite toy of the trip, swimming in the ocean in the middle of (our) winter and enjoying the long summer days and summer fruit. Life is all about choices, and there is no doubt that we made a good one by cycling in New Zealand.