Day 50: Ngaherenga Campground to Ongarue, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 15, 2014

Day 50: Ngaherenga Campground to Ongarue, NZ

When we wake up around 7:00 we're confronted right away with a problem: it's cold outside, we're both very hungry, and all of the eating utensils that we carry — meaning one fork and one spoon — sit on the picnic table an entire thirty feet from the tent. After a few minutes of debating we do the only thing that makes logical sense: from the warm embrace of the sleeping bag, smear peanut butter and jam all over the tops of pikelets with our index fingers instead.

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The highway sends even less traffic past us this morning. We ride looking out on undulating hills with a cover of grass so flawless and green and without end, and with trees popping up in just the right proportions, that it looks like the world's largest golf course. Several times we get honks and waves from passing cars and trucks. And even though the road doesn't run flat at any point, its rises and falls never force us to work so hard that we sweat, even in gloves and rain jackets. When you combine all of this with the sun, and with the diversity and volume of the bird calls that rain down from all sides, it's hard to imagine there are many places in the world better for cycling.

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We stop for chicken and chips and an entire box of cookies in Bennydale, where we sit under the covered porch of a small store. The owner's cats wander in and out whenever they choose, and crowd up next to the cash register when we pay for our food. From the shade outside we look at the sheep and lambs as they wander around the hills across the street, and listen to the little ones cry out in distress for what seems like no reason at all. When an old man in a dirty station wagon rolls up, he pops right out and exclaims with great joy, "Cracker day isn't it?!" It's all so calm and beautiful and idyllic that it feels like we could stop riding and stay here forever and somehow everything would work itself out for the best.

The view of the hills from the store.
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Beyond town we head off the highway and on to back roads for the rest of the day. At the crest of an arduous climb we round a corner and both yell out in amazement as the snow-covered peak of Mount Taranaki appears in the distance between a break in the hills. From where we stand it looks like we'll make it there by dinner time, although we know from looking at the maps that we're at least three days of riding away. Still, it's an exciting look into what the future holds for us.

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During the first couple of days riding in this country we said over and over again, "This reminds me of Oregon," or "This looks like Western Virginia." But the farther we travel, the clearer it becomes that we've never seen any place like New Zealand. It's like we're stuck in a permanent state of awe. All afternoon long we pedal along the tight twists and turns of the road as it runs above the curves of half a dozen creeks. When it crosses them it does so only on one-lane bridges. And soon we find ourselves so deep into the folds of the hills that it's hard to tell which direction the road will take. Thick coats of pale green-colored lichens grow on the sides of almost every fence post and sometimes sneak their way out on to the pavement where the dark gray of the rock meets the softness of the roadside grass. From the hills hundreds of feet above us — which are steep enough that I'm not sure either of us could climb them — lamb cries come down and echo throughout the valley below. While all of this happens, the sun shines so bright and the breeze blows so faint that it feels like we've been dropped into the middle of summer.

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Of course we're still in New Zealand, which means that all of the beauty must be earned. In thirty-five miles we power through almost 2,500 feet of elevation gain, despite ending up 1,200 feet lower than when we began. Although some of the climbing involves long grades, it's mostly ups and downs that go on and on without end. But the countryside is so wonderful and inspiring that it's impossible for us to complain.

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Today's plan was to reach Taumarunui, but along the way we come across the town of Ongarue. It's a tiny place of maybe a hundred people. We don't see even one person walking the streets, and the dusty windows and broken stairs in front of what used to be the general store tells us that this isn't unusual. But when we ride half a block farther down what might be the town's only street we find an attractive little park along a railroad line with restrooms and a picnic table and shade. All of sudden it seems like a stupid idea to ride for another fifteen hilly miles, only to find ourselves in a city of 5,000 people while we wait around for darkness to come so that we can set up the tent on a rugby pitch at the edge of town.

And so we don't. Instead we pump up tires, clean chains, fix handlebar tape, air out the tent and the rain fly, and take care of half a dozen other little things that get lost on a long tour when the days fill themselves with so much awesomeness. Neko Case, The National Parks, and Laura Veirs spill out of the laptop speakers while we douse our legs in bug repellent and eat a gourmet dinner of rice and beans and an under-ripe avocado. We also recreate a road version of peanut butter and jelly fries, which are a legendary Portland food truck dish. In our version, a cold, leftover fry from the late morning is smeared with peanut butter held by a spoon, and then the fry is dunked into a near-full jar of boysenberry jam and eaten so quickly that it's kind of repulsive. I swear on my life, it's delicious.

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When I pop out of the tent in the dark to take a leak, I look up and see the sky packed with stars, with the whitish haze of the Milky Way shooting across it. The rain fly is already soaked with moisture and tiny slugs have emerged from the grass and started to crawl all over our panniers and sandals and everything else not stored inside the tent. As soon as we decide it's time to go to sleep, a series of trains begin to roll by, proving that this is a requirement of all small-town parks, not just in America but even on the other side of the world.

Today's ride: 35 miles (56 km)
Total: 1,722 miles (2,771 km)

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