Whitianga to Turangi: Beautiful Scenery, Stiff Legs & Confusing Pronunciations
After being completely drenched by rain the day before, we were happy to wake up to dry conditions in Whitianga, even though it was still awfully grey. We spent some time exploring town before pushing off, including visiting the surprisingly great little bike shop that we were completely not expecting. From Whitianga (that ‘wh’ is pronounced like an ‘f’), we hopped aboard a little passenger ferry across the bay to Cooks Beach. The trip was all of 7 minutes long and nobody batted an eye at us hauling our loaded bikes onboard. From Cooks beach, we rambled up and down through the hills, soaking up the beautiful scenery, and trying to kick-start our hill-climbing legs out of their hibernation. When we reached the small town of Tairua, we stopped for a picnic lunch at the beach, followed by coffee in a small cafe by the marina. One of the aspects of New Zealand life that we are thrilled about is the cafe culture, and the fact that you can find a really good cup of coffee in just about every little community! After a long rest, it was impossible to motivate ourselves to get moving again, so we opted to take another short little ferry across the bay to Pauanui, where we camped in a funny little Holiday Park. Holiday Parks seem to be what we would call a RV Park in the US – a place to park your camper, or possibly pitch a tent, sometimes with folks who live there year-round, often with some communal facilities (kitchen, laundry, etc). You may not get the most scenic camping experience, but you get a shower and decently safe place to sleep.
From Pauanui, we rambled up and over some more hills (this is definitely a trend!). We followed a small country road out of town and then connected up again with the highway. Most roads, we are discovering, have no shoulder, just a fog line that drivers expect you to hover over. It can be unnerving on a busy road, but isn’t so bad on a quiet back road. New Zealand also likes to chip-seal its roads, so the experience is a bit bumpy and slow (although, sometimes it’s better to endure a steady chip seal than dodge cracks and potholes on an otherwise nice road). Just north of Whangamata, we stopped at a small roadside farm stand and stocked up on a bike touring essential: an arm-full of fresh fruit and veggies (in this case, plums, avocados, zucchini, and broccoli)! In Whangamata, we stopped for coffee and lunch and pondered our plans for the rest of the day. We were tired, but we decided to push on to Waihi. Of course, if we had known about the huge hill we’d have to climb, we might have stayed put. But we were ignorant of the impending stressful hill and unbelievely windy road, so we went for it. We’ve heard a lot of talk about whether it’s safe to bike in New Zealand. For the most part, we’d say that it’s no less safe than anyplace we’ve been so far. The caveat, of course, is when you get to these narrow, winding hills. The curves are so tight that you have terrible sight lines, so you have to be constantly on your guard and careful to not hang out in the gutter, where you’ll be completely invisible to motorists. This particular hill felt as if it went on forever and we were ecstatic when we finally reached the top and were able to soar into town. Beers were definitely called for that evening and we enjoyed a happy hour round at a cute pub in town. For the night, we found our way to the Waihi Motor Camp. We weren’t expecting much, but it turned out to be a really lovely spt. It’s located on the edge of town, butted up against a hill, with a small creek running alongside the edge of the property. As a tenter, we were able to set up wherever we liked, so we pitched camp by the creek and went ot sleep to the sound of babbling water.
In the morning, we headed back into town to explore a bit of its history. Waihi has had active gold mining for the last 200 or so years, and has an enormous open pit mine just a block from the main shopping strip through town. It’s fascinating to stand at the edge and look over and watch it operate (especially for me, since I work with precious metals on a regular basis). From Waihi, we hopped on State Hwy 2 toward Tauranga. Unfortunately for us, it was the day that everyone started migrating for the holidays, so the traffic was incredibly heavy and loud. It was also quite a hot day (for a change!), so we chugged along rather slowly, stopping at every opportunity for coffee or ice cream. Eventually we rolled into Tauranga and found our way to a Backpackers for the night.
We were so charmed with Tauranga upon arrival that we decided to stay two nights. We discovered lots of bike lanes that criss-crossed the town and we wandered around the shops by the wasterfront. Given that it was only a few days before Christmas, we also witnessed a massive last-minute gift-buying spree, and we even got to meet Santa.
The following morning, we were up and out early, so we could hop the bus to Rotorua. After experiencing such awful holiday traffic, we decided it would be prudent to use transit to climb the hills to Rotorua, instead of jockeying for space on the narrow roads. I had to sweet talk the bus driver, however, to let us take the bikes, and he eventually relented because we had the Bromptons, which fold up so small and compact that they hid nicely in the back of the bus (although, we did still have to pay the bike bribe, which we’re pretty sure just padded the driver’s pocket). In Rotorua, we met up with jeff Anderson, who runs Kiwi Bikes and is the one remaining steel bike frame builder in New Zealand. He gave us a great tour of his work and we enjoyed chatting with him for awhile. He also tipped us off to a great craft beer pub, and we met up for beers and laughs and bike talk that evening.
While in Rotorua, we also met up with Damian, a fellow long-distance cyclist, who uses cycling to mitigate the effects of his nerve disorders. Talking with him was inspirational and a good reminder that we all have a choice, no matter what our circumstance might be. We spent the afternoon of Christmas Eve cycling around Rotorua and a few of the nearby lakes. Rotorus is a fascinating place with an enormous amount of geothermal activity. Sulfur smells hang in the air and thermal baths and tourist activities abound. We rode along the bike-ped path by the lake, and stopped often to marvel at the strange and bubbling formations. We also couldn’t help but think how odd it was the European colonists arrived in Rotorua in the 1800s and looked at these stinky, boiling pools, and thought that they must be healthful – whereas, I think that if I were to stumble onto stomething like that in a strange new world, I might just think that they seem rather dangerous and apocalyptic. At any rate, we certainly enjoyed looking at the natural oddities!
On Christmas morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, coffee, and chat with Damian at the Backpackers, before heading into town to catch the bus to Taupo. It was wonderful to ride through town and have everything be closed. No traffic, no people, no noise. We zigged and zagged all over the road – which felt overly huge without any cars! Our bus to Taupo was much more pleasant than the bus to Rotorua, because we had a very sweet and level-headed bus driver who adored the Bromptons and waived the bike fee since they fold up so small. A lovely Christmas gift! Even with buses criss-crossing the country and a steady stream of tourists utilizing them, we have discovered that the bike friendliness of transit in New Zealand is pretty much on par with transit in the US – it all comes down to the whims of the driver. In Taupo, we found similarly empty streets, and we wound our way to our homestay. The rest of our Christmas day was spent out on Lake Taupo, boating and swimming, followed by a bit of exploring, walking some local tracks, and a delicious ham dinner.
All told, we spent four nights in Taupo, enjoying the hospitality of two great families. We got out on the lake a couple times, wandered the town, and went out on our first-ever mountain bike rides.
From Taupo, we rode down to Turangi, at the southern end of the lake. The plan was for Russ to be able to fly fish the Tongariro River for a few days, and give us a quiet place to wait out the rest of the holiday traffic. Unfortunately, it has rained a lot here in Turangi, so the fishing isn’t so great, but it has proven to be a nice spot to relax for a few days. We’re staying at the Riverstone Backpackers, which is hands-down the nicest hostel-type accommodation we’ve ever experienced.
In New Zealand time, it’s New Year’s Eve, and we will be celebrating here in Turangi. On the 2nd, we’ll be headed west to Tamarunui, and then hopping on the Forgotten World Highway to New Plymouth, before making our way to Wellington. We can’t believe how quickly our time in New Zealand is passing, and we’re beginning to wonder if three months will be anywhere near enough time!
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