Day 51: Ongarue, NZ to Taumarunui, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 16, 2014

Day 51: Ongarue, NZ to Taumarunui, NZ

Fog sticks to the tops of the trees all around town as we head south, past small rundown homes and little cemeteries surrounded by chain-link fencing, and under the cover of tree branches that have come together over the middle of the road to form a kind of tunnel. In the pastures, steam rises from the nose of every bull and cow.

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When we stop to rest, a couple of sheep farmers in an ATV heading up a hill above the road see us and right away turn around and roll down to say hello and chat.

"Heya," says the guy behind the wheel, who will end up doing most of the talking, "Where ya fellas come from?"

"Just up the way," I tell him. "We stayed in Ongarue last night."

"Ah, up in the village. And you're stoppin' already, eh?" he responds with a wink of his left eye and a sly half-smile. "But really, where ya headed today?"

"Down to Taumarunui today, not too far."

"Well why ya goin' this way? It's a lot flatter if ya go back the other way along the river, ya know?"

"Yeah, we know, but we like the back roads and we don't really mind the hills. I mean, we've got all this stuff, it's not like we ride very fast anyway."

He and his partner both laugh.

"Well you've got a lotta hills the way you're headed, that's for sure."

"Yeah, but we'll be alright. We love it out here in the countryside. It's so beautiful, it's all worth the effort."

"It's funny," he says, "We look out here and think, 'Eh, fields are lookin' a little shabby!' Ya gotta go to the South Island, ya know? See some of that Lord of the Rings stuff."

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Yet Kristen and I both agree that we could be content to spend two and a half months riding on the North Island alone, because so much of it to this point has been like this morning, where we ride on smooth gravel roads all by ourselves, looking up at jagged cliffs and skinny waterfalls on one side, while on the other steep lumpy hills tumble down toward quietly winding streams, with sheep calling out to us all along the way. It seems like it would be impossible for us to feel anything but sheer joy while riding through such a magnificent place. We have legitimate concerns that our heads will explode from overstimulation when we finally cross over to the south.

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By late morning a more immediate concern is that we don't know exactly where we are. After a substantial amount of climbing we think that we're just outside of Taumarunui, but then we descend down to a river and right away start climbing up and away from it, which seems strange because rivers generally head down toward valleys, and valleys are where towns tend to park themselves. A moment later we round a corner and see a sign pointing in the direction we're heading with a label reading Taumarunui 26 km. This means that instead of being four easy miles from town we're sixteen miles away, and those sixteen miles are probably filled with steep hills. It also means that I look up toward the sky, grumble out a long and arduous series of unrepeatable words and phrases, and then smack the right side of my handlebars with an open palm in frustration. So much for an easy day. The lesson here: when farmers charge down a hill and strike up a conversation with you, and then during that conversation repeatedly ask if you're sure you want to go the way you're headed, chances are very good that you're going the wrong direction.

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But New Zealand is such a delightful country that even horrible wrong turns end in a parade of cupcakes and sunshine, so to speak. After a short run of climbing we return to the pavement. Then the road starts heading down. Then we shoot out into a valley where a tailwind pushes us almost all the way into town. Throughout we're surrounded by hillsides so green, air so pure, and tiny lambs so adorable that it's hard to imagine we're not living within some hyper-realistic dream. You'd have to be some kind of heartless bastard to remain upset at any kind of misfortune for any longer than ten minutes out in such stunning country.

Best wrong turn ever.
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When we get to town there's pizza. Pizza! And against all odds and initial appearances, it's delicious pizza. Afterward we decide to take a break and rest for the next leg of the trip, so we head to the Hilton — the Hilton Motel — where we waste away the afternoon eating chocolate, drinking tea, and talking to our parents for the first time since we left Los Angeles.

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We take a walk around the streets of Taumarunui in the early evening, which are empty by a quarter to six because all of the shops except the grocery store and the garish twenty-four-hour McDonalds at the edge of town are closed. There's something about it that feels right, like people shouldn't be out buying workout pants or getting their hair cut at this hour, that they should instead be at home with their families eating dinner. And in this town it seems as if they are.

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Local color.
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We eat and drink a bunch of terrible but wonderful things throughout the evening and into the night, although it's hard to know exactly how terrible they are, because instead of calories everything here is measured in the exotic-sounding but mysterious unit of kilojoules. But it doesn't much matter what goes in, because all of the energy is sure to burn itself off in the next few days. The endless hills of the Forgotten World Highway lie in wait.

Today's ride: 26 miles (42 km)
Total: 1,748 miles (2,813 km)

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