Big country, small column. I revel in the first, and apologise for the second.
The odds on me writing a long column receded during the week as I cycled halfway across the North Island. The route got hillier, the weather worse, the time in the saddle lengthened and mobile and wifi became scarcer.
I’m on the Kōpiko Aotearoa, the latest inspired route from the Kennett Brothers, Wellington cycling advocates. As I did last year on their Tour Aotearoa route from Cape Reinga to Bluff, I’m getting a bike-speed view of the land and people on my travels. That produced some columns, as will this trip. But this year the riding and weather is harder, so I’m sorry this column about the trip is shorter.
Meanwhile, I have a few blog entries and photos of the ride so far on my website, NZ2050.nz. You’ll see a tab for Kōpiko 2021; and one for Tour Aotearoa. The latter is the full works; this year’s blog is already sketchy and four days behind because of the riding demands. But I’ll complete it once I get home.
We left Taranaki’s Cape Egmont last Saturday morning and all being well will arrive at East Cape next Monday, camping most nights along the way. I’m riding with my good friend and fellow journalist Kennedy Warne. He’s a wonderful guide to the land, its inhabitants – human and others – and their stories. He is also a sharp-eyed food forager. We have munched abundantly on the likes of hedgerow blackberries and pears from enormous trees in the now wild gardens of abandoned farmsteads.
Kopiko loosely translates as wandering back and forwards, as indeed the 1,060km route does. Riding across the grain of the land we have an “Everest” of a challenge – 16,000m of climbing, roughly 60 percent of the gain on the north-south Tour but in one-third the distance, which makes Kōpiko almost twice as demanding in climbing terms.
Along the way, rural and urban Taranaki are looking particularly prosperous; Whangamomona had just hosted a bikers’ night of music and partying; and all sorts of other life was sprouting along the Forgotten World Highway in places such as Ohura.
Ohura was once prosperous and well populated judging by the wide Main Street, the splendid hall and the number of empty shops and lots. When Michelle, our host on Sunday, had arrived six years ago lots of properties were for sale and the population was 120. Today its 160 with nothing for sale. Michelle has opened up a campsite, food truck and shop to accommodate tourists, which are coming in increasing numbers, particularly cyclists.
Likewise, the Timber Trail in the Pureora Forest was busy with riders, all locals with no foreign visitors given the very tight pandemic border control. It’s a mighty track, which the Kōpiko and Tour share. Its highest point is at 971m, just a 100m short of the Crown Range road between Arrowtown and Wanaka, the highest through road in the country.
In contrast, Murupara, where we were staying Wednesday night, seemed to have received only modest economic benefit from the vast forests surrounding it despite the long boom in logging activity and prices.
There are far more encouraging signs up in Te Urewera. Since Tūhoe’sTreaty settlement granted legal personhood to the land and guardianship to the iwi, Tūhoe have been thinking deeply about what it means to be Tūhoe in the 21st century. For example, it has built a number of tribal buildings such as its very beautiful Te Kura Whare in Taneatua which meet the very demanding international Living Building sustainability standard. The whare was the first NZ building to meet it.
On Thursday we lunched at the iwi’s new local centre at Ruatāhuna, where Kennedy caught up with one of the people who helped him with his book Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation published a few years ago. One topic was the iwi’s plans for ecological restoration. One of many factors they are wrestling with is rainfall is noticeably less these days because of the climate crisis.
But weather is not the same as climate. So Thursday the forecast was a bit challenging. The rain began as Kennedy and I set out after lunch to cycle the 47km up to Lake Waikaremoana. It quickly got heavier and the wind picked up. The first 15km of the road climbed 500m up into the mountains, with some distant thunder accompanying the pouring rain. I was riding some distance behind Kennedy and just as the road crested, a big flash of sheet lightning blazed across the valley right at my eye level, accompanied by an deafening clap and rumble of thunder.
Reckoning it was probably safer to keep riding to come down off the top, I pedalled on, albeit hugging the steep tree-clad bank on the right-had side of the road. Just down the road I noticed the map had shutdown on my bike computer. When I restarted it, a zoomed out map of the Pacific came up, with a marker pin in Taiwan, where the Garmin computer was made.
With about 15km to go to my destination, I got the first glorious view of the rain veiled lake stretching far into the distance. And still it kept pouring. The temperature had dropped to 10C so on the descent it got colder and wetter which only made it harder to concentrate on picking the best line down the gravel road.
With 5km to go the sun returned, well before the rain ended. By the time I reached the Waikaremoana Holiday Park, it was dry at last and the view over the lake stunning. Next to the campground the iwi have built a beautiful visitors centre to the Living Building standard, and in complete sympathy with its surroundings.
After a long, wet and cold day of cycling we opted for a cabin rather than tents. They’re all named after famous fishing flies. Ours is Hairy Dog. So, after a good shake and feed, I felt ready for more adventures.
Those began while we were sleeping. At 2.30am Friday, a good-sized earth tremor woke us up. As we all no know, the shaky isles were rock ‘n’ rolling.