Day 52: Taumarunui, NZ to near Tahora, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 17, 2014

Day 52: Taumarunui, NZ to near Tahora, NZ

One of the toughest adjustments I've had to make on this trip is incorporating work into the routine of bicycle touring. Even though I don't work anything close to full time, when placed on top of all the riding, eating, journaling, and putting together the stream of inane commentary that flies out of my mouth more or less all day long, it takes concerted effort to find both the time and focus I need to do my work and to do it well. With a comfortable bed, a bunch of power outlets, fast internet, and a deep supply of free tea, our motel room turns out to be the perfect place for both of us to work and to research the roads ahead. The morning disappears in no time at all.

We spend some time working at an information center ("That place is as useless as tits on a duck," says one woman on her way out); eat pizza at the same takeaways, at the same table, and at the same chairs as our last lunch ("It's a reenactment of yesterday!" says the server); and then come away with an armload of food from the grocery store for the long ride to Stratford ("You're biking for three days, eh? I'll say a prayer for ya," says a man smoking a cigarette in front of the the store).

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After that we're off. We first heard about the Forgotten World Highway back near Matamata when we stayed with Robyn and Henry, and what she told us was intriguing. It's a ninety-seven-mile route between Taumarunui in the east and Stratford in the west that includes almost 10,000 feet of climbing. Although it passes through a number of tiny towns along the way, only the one called Whangamomona (population thirty people) offers any kind of food or water. It's full of empty roads, one-lane bridges, a stretch of about ten miles that remains unsealed, and the kind of isolated country that we love so much.

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From the very start it's wonderful, but we're in New Zealand after all, so why wouldn't it be? As soon as we hit the edge of town traffic drops away altogether and we ride up into the green hills alone. Soon we round a corner and see above us the jagged striations of sandstone cliffs colored white and tan and copper that geologists believe are at least ten to fifteen million years old. Yet we imagine that if we came back even as soon as next year they would look subtly different, because every few seconds we hear the roll and crunch of pebbles and rocks and dirt breaking loose and tumbling down toward the road below.

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The rest of the time we crank hard up the front sides of small hills before bombing down the back of them, all while looking up at the greens and yellows and browns of the trees and down at the network of uneven fence lines that mark the dozens of paddocks that fill each separate section of the valley. Though the clouds don't give way to sunshine on this day, the intricate folds of the distant hills are no less beautiful. Short of torrential rain and the danger of large cities I'm not sure it's possible for us to dislike anything about this country.

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Our plan is to have a short day and ride to a campground on the river about ten miles out of town. But we end up leaving earlier than we thought we would, and we find ourselves there before 2:00. There's a lot of daylight left and the weather looks good, which we're almost certain won't be the case tomorrow, so instead of setting up the tent we debate about whether we should stay or keep going. I consider the pros and cons while eating an entire box of cookies, save for the last two, because what kind of slob eats an entire box of cookies in one five-minute sitting?

New Zealand countryside + chocolate fingers = happiness.
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Even though we have just a basic map to show us where we're going, no elevation profile, only a vague idea of where camping might be, and no clue about what weather might at this moment be headed our way, it only takes about five minutes for us to decide to push on. When confronted with two options while bicycle touring, my rule is to always pick the more adventurous choice, unless there's some obviously dangerous reason not to. All we risk today is getting wet and riding for an hour in the dark on a road with no traffic to speak of, so with smiles on our faces and a new-found reserve of determination we return to the highway and push on to the west.

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We ride through sweeping turns, hairpin turns, short cuts across valleys, gentle climbs over short hills, and several long and steep climbs over what feel like mountains. But we've ridden long enough and far enough that now it takes a monumentally steep hill to stop us, and that's something that the Forgotten World Highway can't muster today.

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Along the way, each passing driver gives us a wave by lifting their index and middle fingers about two inches off the curve of the steering wheel for no more than three quarters of a second. We stop along the fence line and feed chunks of apple to a horse that comes over to greet us. Every stream we pass over is marked with a yellow sign that lists its name, and soon Kristen makes the decision that if it were up to her to name one of them, she would choose to call it Kowpoopintha Stream. Later, in the middle of an important, academic, highly literate conversation I have to remind her that it's the one who smelt it that dealt it. She counters with the theory that the one who denied it supplied it. But then I pull out the trump card: the one who said the rhyme did the crime. Above and beyond us, a misting rain covers the tops of the distant hills with a line of haze. And as with almost everywhere else we've traveled in New Zealand, we hear the bleating of sheep and lambs from all directions. It all makes me wonder how you could feel anything but deliriously happy in a place like this.

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Moments after we see the sign for Tangarakau Gorge the earth crowds its way all around the road. We ride within arm's length of rock faces on our left, and forest and bush so thick on the right that we can't see more than twenty feet into it. It's so isolated that the only things we can hear are the rain falling onto the branches and ferns, the rush of a nearby but altogether hidden stream, and the call and response of so many birds.

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The surface turns to gravel farther on, but it does nothing to diminish the spectacular scene into which we've been dropped. There are no cars, no trucks, no RVs, no farms, no homes, and hardly even road signs. It's just the two of us, our bikes, and trees packed so tight next to each other that we have to assume they're rooted into hills, because it's impossible to see the shape or depth or texture that lies beyond them. And as evening begins turning to night, wisps of fog form and then travel along the contours of the gorge like barges floating down a canal. It's the kind of sensory overload that can only be experienced and appreciated in full at the slow speed afforded by walking or cycling.

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Beyond the gorge we return to pavement, where we find still more hills, travel through an unlit tunnel known as the Hobbit's Hole, and then scratch the heads and necks and backs of a couple of white goats grazing near the railroad line who hop down on to the road and trot toward us as we approach. But night sneaks up on us, and before we know it we're riding in darkness. This is right around the time that the flatness around the railway disappears and we start another long and steep hill climb. Tiny rain drops fly in all directions in front of our headlights, which are the only two points of lights that we can see anywhere. To keep our spirits up, I yell out in my very deepest voice to the nearby cows, "Cows, this is the devil! The devil comes on two wheels!" and we continue to inadvertently scare the shit out of every sheep we pass. We hear their cries echoing down into the valley as they tear ass going the other way whenever we approach.

Into the Hobbit's Hole.
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We're looking for a campground whose location we scribbled on a poor quality map back in Taumarunui. But around every corner we see nothing but pastures and livestock and darkness. We decide that if we ride another mile and don't find it we'll pull off into one of those pastures for the night. But just as we're about to give up, we see a sign advertising a place called Backcountry Accommodation that's located only a few hundreds meters ahead.

When we get there we find a closed gate, all of the lights turned off, and a large for-sale sign attached to the nearest section of fencing. It doesn't look promising. But even if it's closed, we decide that it's better to sleep on a patch of grass where we're sure not to wake up surrounded by a herd of sheep or cows than one where we probably will, so we unhook the chain that keeps the two halves of the gate closed and wheel our bikes up the hill. At the top we find a house, and a moment later a light comes on. As we reach the front an older man walks down the ramp to greet us.

"Getting in kinda late, aren't ya?" he says.

We agree. Then we ask the more important questions: if they're open for the year yet, and if it's possible for us to grab a spot for the night.

"Well, we change twelve per night for a tent spot," he answers, "But you probably don't want to do that on a night like tonight, so we could put you in that caravan down there for fifteen."

Sold.

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The caravan is old and doesn't have a heater, but it's dry, and there are lights and power and a plastic pot capable of bringing water to a boil in only two minutes. It's perfect. Within minutes our bags have barfed their contents all over the far corners and we set about stuffing ourselves on chocolate, cheese and crackers, pikelets with peanut butter and jelly, apples, tea, and a lone beer left over from last night.

Victory.
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It's an unexpected and satisfying ending to what was an unexpected and satisfying day throughout. We chose the more adventurous path, and despite stiff legs and tired bodies, both of us agree that we wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Today's ride: 49 miles (79 km)
Total: 1,797 miles (2,892 km)

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