Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Four wheels to two

Downsizing and moving on!

Paddling for a wave in Raglan
We were a little anxious as we arrived in Auckland- we had just under 2 weeks to sell our van and were immediately doing the rounds of hostel noticeboards, where we added our 'Nissan Serena 93' advert to a thick wad of other vehicles for sale. Had we given ourselves enough time? Not selling it was unthinkable, as it had been our biggest expense out here. We also didn't want to hang around Auckland for the rest of our trip, worrying about it and waiting for calls. It had been much more fun to spend a bit of time surfing in Raglan, so we were possibly leaving things a little last minute..

Handing the van over to Leonardo
As it happens, everything worked out perfectly. Half an hour after we put up our first adverts, 'Leonardo from Italy' texted us. The next day he saw the van, and made an offer. We were very relieved, and also really happy that our van was going to have such a nice new owner! Keen to get out of the city and start surfing, Leonardo also bought Karl's board, so it was smiles all around. We were sorted, and had the luxury of a couple of days with the van to get organised for the last bit of our trip.
Later that day we met another couple who had also just sold their identical Serena. It had taken them a month to sell and they'd lost a lot of money, so perhaps we were very lucky. We'd put some spending into the van, both kitting it up and having work done at garages, but a final tally revealed our transport and home for 4 months had ended up costing us about £50 a month! Bear in mind that a similar rental van here costs more than that a day, so it's well worth the risk of buying your own.

Cycling and the city
Leaving most of our stuff at a hostel, we downsized considerably for our last week's mode of transport, renting out 2 bicycles and panniers from 'Adventure Cycles' in Auckland. We bought ferry tickets over to Coramandel town and back via Waiheke Island in the Hairaki Gulf, and would be spending a week exploring both places by bike. These areas were new to us- we'd left them in reserve when we first though about ending our trip with some cycling. This week was something I was really looking forward to, as I've never done more than a couple of days cycling in a row and was very keen to try it. 7 days in the saddle should be enough to see if we were cut out for cycle touring!

Auckland harbour in the evening light
We set off from Auckland city centre on the Friday evening ferry, full of city dwellers going out to the islands or Coromandel for the weekend. One of the very appealing aspects of this city is the Gulf of Hairaki on which it sits, full of islands and beaches all within an easy ferry ride away. There can't be many cities where you can you leave the office, jump on a boat and be on a rural, unspoilt island within an hour!

The hilly north Coromandel peninsula
First to Coromandel. We'd already visited and loved the south of the peninsula, so it was time to see the quieter and more inaccessible north. The far north promised rugged beauty, but that comes at a very hilly price when you're cycling.
 We set out in 26 degree heat, with the blue skies we were accustomed to overhead. A swim in the sea was calling, but this week we would have to work for our beach time! Our lowest gears quickly became standard as we climbed some long, steep ascents over hills and headlands. These would be interspersed with beautiful coastal sections, and we quickly appreciated the joy of cycle touring- being able to really enjoy the views, and stop whenever we wanted to take them in.

Coromandel coast road
The Coromandel peninsula offers world class cycling and I would strongly recommend it- a spectacular route and with very little traffic. By the end of day one we'd left the tarmac behind and were travelling on an unsealed, gravel road. Mostly the surface was good, but there were some loose sections where our touring tyres would skid, and some very bumpy corrugated stretches. On the plus side, there were virtually no cars, and when the odd one did come by the road surface meant it was going almost as slowly as us.

The hills were a fair trade for scenery like this
The second day continued in a similar manner, sticking close to turquoise waters and stony coves on a road shaded by gnarled and twisted pohutakawa trees, but the vistas were even better. It really was beautiful. The hot and sweaty climbs were more than rewarded by the views we'd gain of cliffs dropping down to a bright blue sea, scattered with islets. Then we'd whizz downhill to the inevitable beach and cool off with a swim and a rest on the sand before the next climb.

Camping by the seaside
The coast road had enough campsites that there was no pressure to cover a certain distance. We would cycle only about 30 km most days, but this trip was just about enjoying the scenery, the bikes and each other's company for our last week travelling together. We had leisurely lunches on the beach, collecting our new favourite shellfish, tua tua, at low tide and cooking a seafood chowder with them on our stove. Then we'd finish early, relaxing for the evening at camp, playing cards, and happy to have no ability to sort out anything for the rest of our travels- no internet, no phone reception, no worries!

The vew back along the peninsula

Off roading
A big advantage of travelling this northern part of the peninsula by bike rather than car was the opportunity to make it a circular trip. There is no road joining the two coasts of northern Coromandel- but there is an 8km walkway and mountain bike track between the east and west sides.
A sign from the wild, black sand beach of Fletcher Bay warned that this mountain bike track around the top was not suitable for bicycles with panniers. It was right! On one very steep section we actually had to unload all our gear and do 2 trips up the hill- one pushing the bikes and another carrying the bags. It was really hard work! But this was followed by some great, single track cycling along a fantastic cliff side trail with surf smashing on the rocks below, then through dense green patches of nikau palms and tree ferns and across rocky little streams. It was really exhilarating mountain biking, and we ended the day tired but happy, and of course with another swim in the sea.

The sea was never far away
At this fairly leisurely pace, we took 4 ½ days to complete our northern circuit. The last day involved a massive, knee and soul destroying 2 hour climb, certainly the biggest ascent I've ever done by bike, followed by a long free-wheeling descent down a slightly scary, gravel road switch-backing down to Coromandel town.

Tough work on loose gravel
The adventure wasn't over yet, and the next day we were on a ferry across to Waiheke to traverse the island. People had warned us Waiheke was hilly, but it was ridiculous how true this was. There were NO flat sections- just constant ascent and descent. The first 20 kms were really tough, on a loose and steep gravel road where I kept skidding and falling off. Mountain bikes rather than tourers would have been great here! The views across the Hairaki gulf were amazing though, the glittering sea leading to the the distant ridges of Great Barrier Island. We remained incredibly lucky with the weather- 25 degrees and sunny the whole week.

Waiheke island scenery
Although only 40 minutes from the city centre by ferry, Waiheke is very rural and covered in a mixture of sheep fields and boutique vineyards. This is where some of the wealthiest of Auckland live, commuting to the city by water. There are a lot of architecturally impressive modern homes with big glass windows and panoramic coastal views. We were really quite jealous. There are also a lot of private signs though, and only one campsite at the opposite end of the island to us. We'd hoped to be able to get down to a beach to camp, but the people owning the land adjacent to the tantalising white sand bays we could glimpse had made pretty sure that wasn't possible.

Neighbours for our last camp
As darkness fell, and without decent lights to continue cycling, we had no choice but to trespass, guiltily pitching our tent in a sheep field just out of sight of the road. We don't really like to break rules, and had a restless night and a very early start! Our last day was more relaxed, cycling between the lovely (and accessible) beaches of Waiheke's north coast, enjoying our last swim in New Zealand, and then celebrating the completion of our first ever cycle tour with a beer on the ferry back to the city. I don't think it will be the last- we're ready to invest in some panniers and add it to the repertoire of weekend possibilities back home!

The last of many
beers together around the world

We could hardly believe it, but it was time to say goodbye- both to New Zealand and each other.
Although neither of us are returning to the UK until the end of April, this is the point where Karl and my plans diverge. I'm volunteering as a vet at the Esther Honey Foundation (estherhoney.org), a veterinary charity in the South Pacific Cook Islands, where I'll be working for a month.
Karl is travelling home by a very different route, taking the opportunity to grab some uninterrupted surfing in Costa Rica 'on the way', before we meet again in London.

It's hard to give up this life, but we also know it's time; to see friends and family, earn a bit of money, find ourselves somewhere to live (with, among other things, a duvet, bath, fridge and oven!) and reinstate our careers and cat.

But it's not over yet! Watch this space for news of gnarly waves in the Caribbean and Pacific island animal tales, as we begin our convoluted journeys home.

My next destination calling from an Auckland traffic jam


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