Touring report: June 2024

Tour Aotearoa: Pete Warwick’s Tour Down Under, January 2024

Back in January, Beacon member Pete Warwick rode the length of New Zealand. Here’s his write-up – it sounds like it was a lot of fun!

I was visiting friends in the Pyrenees when I first heard about Tour Aotearoa. My friend’s cousin (who just happens to be an Olympic sailor for New Zealand) started talking about a bike-packing route that travelled the length of New Zealand, and I knew straight away that I wanted to ride it. Created by the Kiwi Kennett brothers, Tour Aotearoa runs from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island, to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island, linking as many national cycle trails as possible. It’s run every year in February as an official brevet (kind of like an audax), but February didn’t work for me time-wise, so I decided to ride it solo in January instead.

Cape Reinga

I ordered the TA guidebooks as soon as I got home, and after a week or two of procrastination booked return flights to Auckland – I was committed. A pie chart on the second page of the guidebook showed that only 30% of the ride was on road, the remainder being a mix of cycle trail, gravel, tracks, and beach – this was going to be a very different experience to my previous bike-packing trips!

I booked a month off work (thanks, boss), and gave myself 25 days to ride the route, plus one ‘rest day’ which would be a 40 km easy ride to the ferry terminal in Wellington and the crossing to Picton in the South Island. I would be riding the TA on my Temple Adventure Disc 1 gravel bike, for which I bought a pair of Continental Terraspeed tyres, and a personal locator beacon which was strongly recommended in the guidebooks as the TA travels through some remote and technical terrain.

My gear would be carried in my tried-and-tested Ortlieb bike-packing bags, and I had a two-hour bike maintenance session with a mechanic from the Birmingham Bike Foundry, after which I added spokes, disc pads, a disc removal tool, and a cassette whip to my bag of spares.

Cape Reinga signpost – day one!

I decided from the outset not to take camping gear, both to minimise weight and because campsites in New Zealand are generally excellent with basic cabins that you can rent overnight. Given that I would be travelling through New Zealand in the height of summer, I pre-booked a total of 28 accommodations, plus two boat crossings and an internal flight back to Auckland. I was good to go!

Getting to the start of the TA can be tricky. Landing in Auckland, I was super grateful to the biosecurity officer who decided that he didn’t need to inspect my bike (it was pristine), checked into my hotel and fought off sleep. The following day I took two intercity buses north to Kaitaia, where I had a day and a half to build my bike, sort my kit and recover from jet lag. With my bike fully assembled, I took my bike box to a local courier and shipped it to a hotel in Invercargill in the South Island, where I would hopefully be reunited with it again in 25 days’ time.

To get a flavour of what the TA entails, this is part of the guidebook description for day one: “Cycle south on Highway One. Turn right at Te Paki stream road. It’s gravel followed by sandy tracks beside, and sometimes in, the stream. Turn left onto Ninety Mile Beach. The sand is hard 3 hours before low tide to 4 hours after low tide. At 103 km, ride off the beach at Ahipara onto Kaka St”. 50 miles of riding on hard sand would be a unique start to the tour!

Ninety Mile beach

Cape Reinga is a stunning place at the northernmost tip of New Zealand, and spiritually important to the Māori people, and after taking in the views I set off with Andy, a Kiwi from Queenstown who was also riding the TA. I’d spent a huge amount of time planning this trip, and arriving on 90-mile beach was a special moment, except for the headwind (which limited me to 7 mph for long stretches of the ride), and the 38 °C air temperature, for which I squeezed a bucket hat under my helmet to try and get some shade!

I turned left off the beach into Ahipara with 10 minutes of the ‘low-tide window’ to spare, and rode straight to the local chippy for fish and chips and an ice-cold chocolate milk, all of which would soon become part of my standard TA diet (along with One Square Meal (OSM) trail bars, pizza, and Bundaberg ginger beer).

I hit my first gravel road on day two, where my Wahoo told me it was 43 °C, and rode south through rainforest country, stopping off to walk amongst giant kauri trees, and onto Pouto Point where I took a three-hour boat crossing across Kaipara Harbour.

Kaipara Harbour crossing

I rolled through Auckland with the locals on superb urban bike paths, and cycled past the runway where I had landed just a few days before. At Miranda Springs I jumped onto the Hauraki Rail Trail, hugging the coastline before heading inland and blasting south to Te Aroha, stopping off for lunch at the awesome Cheese Barn (this place would get the Beacon seal of approval for a lunchtime café stop).

The Cheese Barn

From Mangakino I hit the Timber Trail, an epic trail that runs for 87 km through lush rainforest and crosses 30 bridges (the longest of which was 141 m long) over huge drops to valley floors.

Bog Inn Creek bridge, Timber Trail

The Timber Trail Lodge was one of two ‘splash-out’ accommodations that I had booked, and an awesome place to stay where the owners really look after you (freshly cooked pizza on arrival, an awesome decking area that looked out onto the surrounding rainforest, more awesome food, and a fantastic biking vibe). The following day was a big day out, riding the remainder of the Timber Trail, some road riding to Taumarunui, and a long section of baking-hot gravel to Whakahoro, jumping off point for the Mangapurua Track.

Mangapurua Track

I’d read plenty of scare stories about the Mangapurua, and the accidents that had befallen TA riders in the past, but I found it a total blast. Singletrack and fire-road climbs led to a superb descent, the breath-taking Bridge To Nowhere, and the end of the trail at the Whanganui River, where my bike was strapped onto the back of a jet boat for the trip down river to my campsite at Pipiriki.

Whanganui River jet boat

I rode into an electrical storm on day 12, which I waited out in a forest before riding into Ashhurst, where I stayed with a fantastic Kiwi couple on their homestead that included sheep, alpacas, and miniature horses. Leaving Martinborough, I had some ‘character-building’ headwinds, which at times made it almost impossible to keep the bike moving, before reaching the Remutaka trailhead and enjoying a stunning ride through pine forests, former railway tunnels, and across more bridges all the way into Upper Hutt.

Day 15 was rest day, an easy 40 km cruise into Wellington, stopping off at La Cloche bakery en route (another café that Beacon riders would approve of), before catching the afternoon ferry across the Cook Strait.

The scenery along the coast road from Picton takes your breath away, before the Maungatapu trail that follows it brings you back to reality with a steep and rocky climb, followed by a steep and rocky descent! An enormous pizza in Richmond took care of the calories, from where I rode onto Murchison and then Reefton, launchpad for the most technical part of the tour.

Lake Rotorua, Nelson Lakes

Big River and Waiuta tracks have a bit of a reputation in the TA community for their remoteness and technical challenge, and I had to shoulder my bike across two rivers on the way to Big River Hut. The Waiuta singletrack needed plenty of focus, as did negotiating two fallen trees that were blocking the trail, but it felt awesome to exit the trails and smash out the road miles to Greymouth.

At Greymouth, I picked up the awesome West Coast Wilderness trail which winds for miles through forests and Alpine valleys, and which gave me my first view of the Southern Alps. It was probably the highlight of my trip, and a truly special day in the saddle which finished at an amazing beach-side campsite in Ross, where I watched the sun go down, fresh pizza in hand.

The road to Ross

I continued riding south into glacier country, passing through Frank Josef and Fox Glacier townships, and stopped off at Bruce Bay where I watched Hector dolphins surfing the waves – another favourite moment of the trip.

Lake Ianthe

A big climb led me over the Haast Pass and onto awesome roads that hugged the edges of Lake Wānaka and Lake Hawea, before winding back into Wānaka itself, which is situated right on the lake and surrounded by huge mountains. It’s my kind of town!

Riding into Queenstown

I rode over the Crown Pass with Peter, a German roadie (sheltering from a hailstorm halfway up the climb) and onto Arrowtown and Queenstown, refueling at the excellent Fergburger and noticing that the weather seemed a little cooler now that I was in big mountain country.

I woke on the penultimate day of the tour to cooler air temperatures and a fresh dusting of snow on the mountain tops, and this at the height of summer! I took the TSS Earnslaw steamer across Lake Wakatipu (you can check out the engine room en route), and on the other side of the lake started the tough climb up Von Hill. Around half-way up the track I noticed a wall of iron grey heading towards me, and a few minutes later was sheltering under a bush as a torrential downpour hit. By now the temperature had dropped to around 5 °C, and with no sign of a break in the weather, and me starting to feel mildly hypothermic, I pulled my cold-weather gear on and headed out into the rain to try and generate some heat.

Von Hill

Around an hour later the clouds finally cleared, and I found myself riding across the Eyre Mountains plateau, a remote and exposed area that reminded me of the Cairngorms, and from where I watched snow falling high up in the mountain couloirs. A strong headwind made it a testing ride across the plateau, before easy trails led me to Mossburn and the end of a hard day’s riding.

Eyre Mountains plateau (after the storm)

Day 26, and I set off from Mossburn with a tailwind blasting me towards the finish line at Bluff. After a lunch stop in Winton, I rode into Stirling Point with a huge grin on my face, knowing that in just a few minutes I would reach the end of the tour. And then, around a corner, there was the signpost that marked the end of my journey. I rode up to it and gave it a big hug, savouring the moment, looking out at the Southern Ocean and thinking about where I had come from, and how wonderful it felt to have cycled the length of such an amazing country.

Bluff – end of the line!

Riding the Tour Aotearoa isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning, it isn’t cheap, and it’s a long way from home. But it’s worth every penny and offers so much in return – spectacular scenery, super-friendly locals, and some of the finest biking roads and trails you could wish for. And memories that will last a lifetime.

Pouto Point

My TA in numbers

Total distance: 3,000 km

Total climbing: 30,000 m

Bike + gear weight: 23 kg (not including food or water)

Temperature range: + 5 °C to + 43 °C

Number of rainy days: One

Mechanicals: 2 x punctures, 1 x broken bottle cage, 1 x destroyed pair of gloves

Soundtrack of the trip: The War On Drugs / Lost In The Dream

Enjoyed this post but looking to start touring with something shorter? Check out our previous report by Paul Balfe, about an overnight trip to Clearwell, on the edge of the Wye Valley.