Drop Down MenusCSS Drop Down MenuPure CSS Dropdown Menu

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tour Aotearoa at 200 km a day - Mark Hawkins

Tour Aotearoa: two mates in their 50’s averaging 200 km a day

by Mark Hawkins
May 2020

Everyone seems to have a different goal when taking up the challenge of the Cape Reinga to Bluff 3000km Tour of Aotearoa. For good mate Tim Burfoot and I, the plan was quite simple we wanted to average 200km per day. Both in our mid to late 50’s we weren’t sure how it would play out but were confident we would be able to give it a good crack. We have been riding consistently for 14 plus years on road and mountain bikes, often trying to win our age group in various events with success for both of us on the odd occasion. 

Bike packing was new to us both and an exciting new challenge. Our fully loaded bikes weighed around 22kgs which was a completely different experience to jumping on a 9kg road bike to head out for a long-fast ride. In general, we did an excellent job of not taking too much gear, for first timers we pretty much nailed it. We saw others who seemed to have so much more on their bikes especially when it came to water supply which must have added so much unnecessary weight. There are plenty of water stops along the way so topping up water was never an issue, you just needed to plan. Doing a 3 day tour prior to the event certainly helped sort out what you did and didn’t need.

Fully loaded bike - West Coast Wilderness Trail

I won’t go into a blow by blow of every day as the entire trip was a highlight however, I will gloss over a few highlights and low lights.

Part one of day one was the one part I can honestly say I didn’t enjoy.  88km down a sandy beach trying to find the firmest spot to ride into a head wind surrounded by fog was hardly what I would call fun, regardless of how fit you are. This may have been a more pleasant experience if you were happy to take your time however, we were on a mission from the get-go. I came off the beach feeling completely shattered. We refuelled, washed our bikes and pushed on after the beach ride clocking up 240km for the day sleeping on the side of the road that night. We nestled down late, and I got a grand total of 1.5 hours sleep. Between possums, hunters and being uncomfortable it was impossible to sleep. We were up at 4am on a mission to get to Pouto Point to catch the boat across the Kaipara harbour by 1pm; otherwise we would lose a day or have to bike the long way around. Mission accomplished, we made it with time to spare with the bonus of running into a few friends from Blenheim along the way.

If anybody told me falling asleep while sitting upright on a bumpy boat was possible, I would have disputed it as I am somebody who needs to go to bed to sleep. Surprisingly, I had no issue with my newfound sleeping position.

Helensville to Auckland.  Side tracking a little I believe John Keys legacy will be the development of cycle trails from one end of the country to the other. The cycle ways through Auckland are incredible. All the cycle trails throughout the ride (whether sealed or off road) keep you safe and have injected life back into smaller communities helping keep them alive all year around. Kudos to those involved for having this vision.

The next few days we were consistent, averaging around 200km per day and sleeping very little. Early one morning we took a wrong turn adding 45 unnecessary kms to our journey. So, my advice is to double check the route before heading out, no matter how tired you are on a dark and cold morning (we weren’t using a GPS device). At this point we were averaging about 19km per hour so a lot of time in the saddle. Stops chewed up time and we had plenty of them, mainly to eat and man could we eat! I didn’t need a tracker for my family to follow me they just needed to follow credit card café transactions. Small amounts of food on a regular basis definitely worked better for me rather than a large feed which often resulted in a lack of energy on the bike until the food was fully digested.
The Timber trail was always going to be a highlight, unfortunately we only got to do half of it and yes, the first half was amazing with a very scenic climb. Unfortunately, I split my tyre which was entirely my fault as my tyres were way too firm for the terrain.  We did a patch job with a piece of plastic milk bottle between the tyre and tube, then found a slightly longer (but not so rugged) alternative route to Taumarunui.

Rolling into Taumarunui I was excited at the thought of finding a bike shop and buying a tyre as we arrived just before 5pm - then it dawned on us both, it was a Sunday. Yes, you lose all track of what day it is. We wanted to kick on that night hoping to do another 70-80 km as we were keen to catch the 1pm jet boat ride the next day down the Wanganui river - staying focused on our 200km per day challenge.  Concerned my tyre wouldn’t cut the mustard, I tried twice to buy a tyre off a couple staying at a motel at an exorbitant price with no joy. Desperate for a tyre, I approached a young lady at a local tourist shop and bingo!!!  ex-boyfriend had left a bike at her house and she thought it may have been a 29er. It’s a long and funny story but I headed out of town that night laughing with the perfect new tyre on board.

We soon found that we both loved riding late into the night. Our initial plan was to start our days early around 4am, however, as time went on we naturally rode later - often past 10 pm and still getting back on our bikes before the sun was up to kick on, keeping an eye on the compulsory 6 hour stop per 24hours. The quietness at night, lack of vehicles, no wind and regular full moons made riding super enjoyable. We were extremely lucky with weather on our whole journey, although I don’t recall too many tail winds.

Something that took us both by surprise was the time involved at the end of the day or beginning. Whether we were tented or staying somewhere it pretty much took a good hour unpacking or packing, eating, pitching or pulling down tents or when staying at accommodation showering and doing washing. When tired this could often be a frustrating process as all we really wanted to do was sleep.   

The journey from the Blue Duck Café at Whakahoro to Mangapurua Landing was definitely one of the more challenging parts of the ride (Grade 4-5), especially as we were pushing hard to catch the Wanganui jet boat on time. Rocks, mud, drop offs etc all part of the journey. My advice is this: if in doubt get off and walk.  My understanding is many riders came to grief on this section trying to ride the unrideable. Most of the technical parts are early in the ride so don’t panic if you are on a mission to catch your boat as the tracks get wider and smoother the higher you get. The downhill over the Mangapurua trig was a definite highlight, one of the best I have ever done (fast and smooth).

Another major highlight along the way is the support you receive from others. Fellow cyclist, cafes, bars, garages, random people on the side of the road as you pass through smaller communities. Many people follow the tracking site and know who is coming through; we were offered a bed, food or just somewhere to rest on a regular basis. Tim was once ordered off his bike by a lady insisting he join her for a snack and something to drink. A big shout out to the people in the Apiti region as their community has fully embraced the event.

Our biggest day was day 7 from Wanganui to Eketahuna totalling 264km with an elevation gain of 3,806 metres. Some of the days seem like a blur and I can’t remember why we did such a big day, but my guess is we were slipping behind our 200km goal and wanted to make up time.

For the entire ride fitness was never an issue for either Tim or I, however, lack of sleep over the first 5 days was. We both had our moments when we nearly fell asleep while riding but as the days rolled over our bodies just got used to it. Yes, it’s true you get stronger as you go. One of our inspirations was good friend Craig Harper who has the 2100km road bike record for the length of NZ: four days, nine hours and 45 minutes on about 6 hours sleep. I have witnessed what he can put his body through on limited sleep hence his advice and tips along the way were invaluable.

Rolling off the ferry into Picton at 6 am being greeted by friends and family from Blenheim was a definite highlight which gave us both a massive boost. We were looking forward to the South Island as it was way more familiar to us both including what many call the dreaded Maungatapu hill between Pelorus and Havelock. For me, I had done it a few weeks prior so I knew what I was in for. Many bypass this part of the ride however (coming from somebody who is not a great technical rider) I would highly recommend doing it. The extra weight on your bike makes it difficult to descend so walking parts of it is a good option. In general, most of the Maungatapu is rideable. The scenery along the Pelorus river leading to Maungatapu is stunning hence why parts the Hobbit movie were filmed in that area.

Nelson is a great place to get your bike serviced. Tim and I give a big shout to Village Cycles in Richmond. They are a passionate team who did a great job of giving our bikes a good going over, with both bikes looking like new when starting our journey to Tapawera that night.

Nelson through to Reefton was another highlight. Nothing technical along the way, amazing bike trails with some stunning scenery especially through the back roads of lake Rotoroa, Murchison & Reefton. You can’t beat West Coast hospitality! If you have never experienced it you are missing out on something special. The people are incredible. We rocked into Reefton just after 8pm and the supermarket had just closed. The lady closing the shop saw the desperate look on our faces as we needed supplies for the next day. Next thing we are inside filling a basket while the till is being reopened so we could buy our supplies. Next we headed to the pub to find out the kitchen was closing and yes, we were instructed to go shower up (we must have smelt) and the chef was asked to stay late to cook our meal when we returned. Unbelievable!

By this stage my quad muscles were giving me grief. Grief being an understatement, I was in a lot of pain when peddling. I think the loaded bike (extra weight) and the amount of climbing we had been doing were contributing factors.  I have never been a great one for stretching and massage so next time it will be a top priority. We bi-passed big river the next day as the track was in very poor condition due to the amount of recent rain. Plus I was keen to get to Greymouth before the chemist closed on Saturday lunch time to find some Voltaren. I have done big river before. It’s a challenge and takes many 8 hours+ to cover 40km - so brace yourself, if you tackle it you are in for a treat.
The Wilderness trail from Greymouth to Ross is something I have now done 4 times. I enjoyed it as much this time as I did the first. If I was asked to tell people what ride you should put on your bucket list the Wilderness trail would be the one. It’s not overly technical so suitable for all (even E-bikes) weaving its way through native bush, swing bridges, following water ways and crossing lagoons. Its simply amazing. Many reviews tell you not to stop at Cowboy Paradise. However, I say it’s a must for the experience. Yes, it all seems a bit dodgy with a salon type bar and poles for pole dancing but everyone who visits leaves unscathed and with something interesting to talk about. Another must is a stop at the Ross Pub for a beer and one of the best pub meals you could ever find. I highly rate the award-winning seafood chowder.

The rest of the West Coast, over the Haast saddle to Wanaka then tackling the Crown Range to Queenstown, is predominantly on the road. Don’t be fooled that it is easier; there is a serious amount of climbing the whole way with amazing scenery to see along the way. This is when I felt a Gravel bike rather than a mountain bike would be a better bike option, definitely a bit quicker with the amount of sealed roads. If I could have swapped bikes (not that I have a gravel bike) I would have.

Classic West Coast scenery

Most of this part of the journey for me was pretty much going into survival mode as my Quads were killing me. I had to resort to sitting the whole time not getting out of my very comfortable Brooks B17 bike saddle which was my only saving grace. I didn’t get out of my seat for the last 5 days of the journey. Tim’s body was holding up well apart from wishing he had purchased a Brooks saddle as sitting for him was not a comfortable experience and he’d resorted to wearing 2 pairs of cycle pants at once. Yes, it works! We were still managing to maintain our 200km distance per day although at times for me this was tough as my quads were not good.

Sitting in Queenstown looking at the Earnslaw was the only time I ever questioned whether we could stick to the 200km per day plan. My legs were telling me they needed a day off or some serious treatment. It was very frustrating as in general I still felt fit and strong - I just wasn’t sure if I could handle riding with such discomfort for much longer. Tim and I didn’t really discuss it but I knew he was aware I was hurting. Tim was in good shape and the thought of letting him down played a major part in me getting on the Earnslaw and pushing on.

Leaving the jetty at Walter Peak I knew I only had one last 700 metre climb up Von hill and once that was out of the way from there to Bluff was predominantly flat or down hill. This gave me a new lease of life pushing through the discomfort determined to get to the top. A pat on the back from Timbo at the top was a great feeling - the climbing was over for us both. Be warned it gets cold (very cold) in the Mavora lakes district where you will be treated to some of the journey’s most amazing scenery.  We stopped just short of the Mavora lakes taking advantage of an empty cabin on the side of the road, where we settled down to sleep before the sun had gone down which was by far our earliest night. Tim getting great joy watching me rip strapping tape off my legs before bunking down.

We had only 200km to go and our journey would be complete! So we were up early on our bikes at 4.30 am heading for Mossburn which was about 50km away. It was dark and extremely cold; I would have to say it is the coldest I have ever been on a bike even though we both had the right warm clothes for biking. The breeze while moving would cut straight through you and anywhere exposed around your face went numb. We were excited to reach Mossburn to see the young lady inside the café only wearing shorts and a tee shirt so we knew it would be warm. This would be our longest café stop, family and friends who were tracking our progress had thought something had gone wrong. We ate heaps while defrosting, I am pretty sure we were there for a couple of hours. Tim had one of many power naps - he was now a master of falling asleep in cafes. The minute I would leave the table for anything he was lights out!  I have numerous photos of this along the way.

The 140km to Bluff was pretty straight forward. We cruised and took a mandatory stop for Tim to have a cream bun at the Winton Bakery which he had been talking about for a few days as it’s a family tradition when in the area. The wind was kind until we turned off the estuary in Invercargill to head to Bluff where we struck the worst head wind of the entire ride. We were punished for about 10km before turning again to head to the Stirling point.

I would have to say, the finish itself was somewhat of an anti-climax.  We rolled down to Stirling Point just after 5 pm to find a few random people standing around unaware of what we had just completed, no brass band or greeting party. Just Tim & I and the Stirling Point signpost for the final photo and a quick man hug. Yes, I did feel quite emotional - probably because my quads were desperate for a rest but I was also overwhelmed with a great sense of achievement. We managed to knock off our 200 km + a day goal, travelled 3000km in just under 15 days and climbed over 35,000 metres of elevation according to my Strava App which is over 4 times up Mount Everest. No wonder my legs were spent.

I could write a whole list of advice/tips for people thinking of tackling this event, however, I will limit it to two.

No 1: They say you get fitter as you go (which is very much true) so my guess is some people turn up slightly or very under prepared which I believe would be a big mistake. If you are wanting to tackle this cycle challenge as quick as you can you need to turn up at the start line super fit and jumping out of your skin ready to go. It is tough right from the get-go. Make sure you put the time in with your bike fully loaded. Thankfully, Tim and I ticked that box. We were both extremely fit at the start line and only slightly broken at the finish.

No 2. If you are planning on doing it with somebody else or others make sure they are of similar ability. If not, things could get very frustrating for the stronger rider over such a distance. Ensure you have the same level of fitness and most of all the same goals otherwise it just won’t work. This was another major box ticked for Tim and I.

Hawkie on the left,Timbo on the right

The Tour Aoteroa was an epic experience hopefully the first of many bike packing experiences.  If you are up for a challenge, I highly recommend it.

Many thanks to the Kennett Brothers.

Job done!

Mark Hawkins

No comments:

Post a Comment