Words: Philippa Friary
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

WhatsApp was a-buzz … “Gravel mission, two day bikepacking trip … who’s in?” “Sweet!!” “I’m in!” “Yup!” The posse gathered; Xabi, Charles, Kim, Kylee, Liam and I, and not to forget our super photographer, domestique, karma cola provider and all things handy – Mr Cam MacKenzie. This was my first big bike mission since my operation and nine months off the road. I was feeling pretty nervous but so keen to get out there again. Nine months of yoga and pilates had given me a rock solid core and impressive downward dog pose but I was in need of a dusty adventure.

In preparation for this excursion, I broke all the cardinal rules of cycling long. 1) Slowly build up your miles if you have been off the bike for a while (we ended up totalling 160km, mostly gravel roads, over two days!). 2) Never go long on a brand new bike (this was my first time riding the trusty steel frame Wilson). 3) Always make sure you know how to change your tyres especially if you have tubeless (whoops!). Do as I say and not as I do … isn’t that the mantra. Here’s how we got on…

Day One – the crew gathered at Allpress downtown Auckland. I must say, the gold detail bling on the new Wilson did turn a few heads. After the ‘Whose bike bag is bigger game?’ and ‘What have you packed?’ dialogue, we moved onto tyres and tyre pressure. After solving the cycling world’s debate on this issue and a filling up on brioche and coffee, we embarked on our transfer – Britomart to Pakapura via train – one way to escape the city quick smart. When did you last take your bike on a train to get to the start of your adventure that much quicker? My first challenge to you all, find a new ride route that includes a train transfer.

After more tyre pressure banter (35s with 50psi was the consensus), we rolled off the train to start our excursion – Papakura to Waikaretu and the Limestone Caves for a roast dinner. Nothing like the thought of a good home cooked dinner to keep you going. Day one was 100km with 30km of gravel. It took a few kms to get the feel of my new bike and the bike bag. I opted for one rear bag. This was the Apidura 9 litre bag that velcros onto your seat post. Others were riding with a combination of front and rear bags from Revelate Designs, Blackburn and Lezyne. No one had any bag issues to note yet it was pretty fair weather so I don’t think we put the bags through their paces fully. We had knarly cross winds on Day Two which did cause a bit of angst initially knowing that you have a bit more hanging out the rear than usual.

I have really fallen in love with bikepacking – having had a few more adventures since this excursion. Knowing that you have all your kit on you is a great feeling. Saying that, we didn’t need to pack a tent and sleeping equipment nor food and cooking equipment for the evening meal – so we were travelling light. I can hear the hard core cycle packers already – yes, I know we weren’t totally self-sufficient but what a great way to get newbies into it and you would totally stop for the night too if you tried Anne’s fruit crumble and custard from The Nikau Caves!

The convoy rolled on – Ramarama, Bombay, Tuakau. A quick BP steak and cheese pie before the venture into Onewhero. Tuakau has a stunning white bridge across the Waikato river. This town was originally a trading post for passing waka on the north bank of the Waikato. Cycling across the bridge I could imagine the majestic waka paddling below. At this point a figure caught my eye – Cam, our soigneur, had scaled the railings of the bridge to capture the adventurers as they rolled by below. I later found out that he had been a member of the junior NZ climbing team – tell me that now!

We rolled into Onewhero around midday to be greeted by some locals at the weekend farmers’ market. Time to restock the jersey pockets. A coin donation got you an instant coffee and a slice of your choice. I went for a huge hunk of fruit loaf. Onewhero translates to red soil and boasts nearly 4,000 residents. We traded stories about our trip ahead with their stories about the local residents and the local performing arts centre. With bidons refilled and farewell licks from the overzealous local farm dog, we rolled on. Sometimes you just have to look up, roll in and pull up.

Pukekawa greeted us with rolling hills and vast farm land. This area is well known for the story of Arthur Allan Thomas who was initially found guilty of shooting dead a couple only to be released from prison with a pardon after a commissioner enquiry. This story rattled through my head as we rattled along the gravel. Nothing like a fresh load of metal on dust to sort your head out and make you focus. The conversation around what the trip hashtag should be – #lookup or #bringbackthewave – quickly quietened as things got real. Gravel riding in New Zealand is so varied. From smooth hard packed dirt to hunks of metal and monster pot holes. We had a bit of everything. Thank goodness for the steel frame and 35s is all I can say. It really does give a more comfortable ride and allows you to relax a bit as you aren’t being beaten up so much.

As we rounded a corner we noticed a dirt bike, which had previously passed us, returning. Strange. We soon realised why. Klondyke Road, which is an old forestry road, had slipped and there were several large dump trucks blocking the entrance to this road. There was no way our support car was getting around, but could we? The consensus was to give it a go – we could always turn around and re-route. You definitely don’t get this level of excitement on the Airport Loop! The slip was massive yet there had been a good amount of work done already and the workers had fashioned a narrow path across the ravine. Bike on shoulder, calm the nerves, look confident – I’ve got this! One by one we tip toed across the ditch, ignoring taunts from those already across and buoyed with adrenalin ‘Don’t look down!’, ‘Now you wish you had packed lighter!’.

From Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings. We wove our way over some technical assents and descents into Port Waikato then through into Waikaretu. I felt like I was on the set for a scene from Jurrasic Park, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings all rolled into one. We were dwarfed by the mountainous limestone structures which looked like giants had stacked them up like pancakes. This is where they filmed Lord of the Rings – Weathertop Hollow. This is the real New Zealand. Not a car in sight, just the sound of rubber on dirt and the odd bleat of a random sheep. We could start to smell Anne’s roast dinner and the pace quickened. Stalagtites and stalagmites a blur as we big chained it over the rollers, leaned into the berms and went for the final sprint of the day into The Nikau Caves car park.

Rolling into the Nikau Caves was like coming home. Our salivary glands were taunted by the smells from the kitchen as we sipped on a cold one and recounted the day’s adventure. The puncture tally had moved up to 10, thus proving the debate – 32s at least, tubeless at 40-60 psi with a wide rim is the way to go on these roads. Nothing like a day of getting your hands and kit greasy to motivate a new bike purchase. With bellies full, we sat by the fire in our socks wondering what the roads ahead would hold for us.

We started the next day with a full cooked breakfast which was just as well considering most of the 60km ahead of us was gravel. Waikaretu, Wairamarama, Onewhero, Tuakau, Pukekohe, train, home – easy! Not so. With most of the ride being on a high ridge line above Port Waikato, my pilates core was put to the test as the wind gusts whipped the bike around below me, not to mention the slushy fresh gravel below. Light fingers on the brakes, back off the seat, the descents were well worth the hard graft. We finally found tarseal again, rolling into Pukekohe train station, I am sure every muscle was screaming at me. Gravel riding is such an all over body work out and a great way to hone your bike skills. It turns the simplest task into a challenge – like trying to wrestle a banana out of your pocket while not skidding out on a corner or snatching a sip of water between pot holes.

The train trip home allowed for a blow by blow account of the two day excursion and a ‘putting to bed’ of many old debates – salt and vinegar chips over ready salted, dark chocolate over milk and marmite over vegemite. Six tired and slightly crazed looking faces grinned at each other. We were relatively new friends only one day ago, now old friends planning our next dusty adventure together. Who’s keen?!