Opotiki to Tolaga Bay

New Zealand

On DAY 9, Feb. 17, Carrie and I were excited to leave Opotiki for the supposed deserted highway 35 that carries on all the way around the east cape down to Gisborne. Our goal was to reach the village of Te Kaha and the Te Kaha Lodge.

Well, the rumors were true. The cycling was unbelievable. Not only did the wind die off but the roads were nearly ours for the taking. We spent about 70km skirting the coast and its picturesque bays: Whituare, Whitianga, Omaio.

It was the first time on our trip that we almost passed our destination, we were having such an enjoyable ride. When we arrived at the Te Kaha Lodge, the place was vacant save for one English woman reading in the sun. I asked her where I could find the owner of the place and she said he was out fishing. Immediately after she spoke a rumbling in the driveway got my attention. A naked man towing a fishing boat with his tractor was yelling orders at a gaggle of people in the boat. I approached the man unsure if I really should. He greeted Carrie as he wedged his naked body from the tractor’s cockpit to reveal, whew, he was at least wearing a bikini.

He welcomed us heartily and then preceded to invite us to dinner. He and the gaggle had caught loads of fish. There’d be salad and potatoes, too. A few hours later, just before dinner, he asked us in to the dining room to listen to a Maori welcome song. He and his daughter then proceded to welcome Carrie and me and some of the other new guests in song. Then we ate.

We discovered that the gaggle of people we saw earlier in the boat were some of his children and some people doing a working holiday. They keep the lodge tidy, do some farming and fishing and cooking in return for a place to stay and some food. It’s a good way to extend one’s travels for free and is actually popular here in New Zealand.

We spent the next day (DAY 10) cycling about 30km to a hostel up the coast. It was a short jaunt with similar stunning scenery. We wanted to take it easy on this section to really relish the good weather, good location and good cycling.

The hostel at Whanarua Bay was literally right on the water. We pitched our tent in front of a beautiful view of exposed rocks in a low tide. It was nearly perfect, until bed time.

At about 8pm, the hostel’s owner turned on some classic rock music (Metallic, AC/DC, Creedence Clearwater Revival) and brought out some beers to share with the female guests from Holland. Carrie and I hopped in the tent at around 9pm. I didn’t get to sleep until about 3am. The Dutch girls were having such a good time talking, completely ignoring the fact that our tent was about 10 feet away from them. I asked them to please go to bed and they were all apologetic. Now I hate to be a wet blanket but I need my sleep. We slept until about 7am when the commotion started anew. Our little slice of heaven was a big slab of headache.

Things were better on DAY 11 though. We cycled a modest 30km to a motorcamp at Oruati Beach, where we pitched a tent far away from everyone else. We wanted quiet this time.

Now it’s time to talk about a nasty New Zealand critter called the sandfly. Carrie and I met the sandfly while pitching our tent. The sandfly is a diminutive flying insect, a cross between a regular fly a gnat and a vampire. The sandfly looks harmless, but make no mistake, the sandfly is pure evil. The sandfly I met bit my foot. It stung a bit but nothing serious. Carrie wasn’t so lucky. The sandfly brought his whole posse out to claim its territory on Carrie’s ankles. Three days later and she’s still scratching at her wounds. They itch like hell. We’ve also been warned that the real sandfly army is in the south island, waiting patiently to attack juicy cyclists.

DAY 12, Feb. 20, was a change of pace. We left the serene beaches and bays of the Bay of Plenty for more serene beaches and bays along the east cape. We stopped at the Te Araroa motorcamp about 60km later. As we dined on the porch outside the kitchen, we met a Maori man who lived in a one-bedroom shack attached to the common kitchen and bathrooms. Every motorcamp has its share of permanent residents but this man was different. He related to us some of the local history, how one of the cliffs off the bay is home to a rare species of plant that produces roots underground like potatoes that are fragrant and look like roses. Carrie asked how long he’d been living in the area and he said his family had been in Te Araroa for generations. In fact, most of the land in Te Araroa, including the motorcamp was his land. This man owned some of the most beautiful land I’d ever seen, acres of beachfront, arable soil surrounded by sheer cliffs, yet he was living in this tiny room attached to a common kitchen and bathroom for motorcamp guests. He said he didn’t understand how people could pack up and go on holiday. In his 65 years, he’d never been on holiday. He said every day he gets up and goes diving and fishing, works on the farm, freezing meat, tending to the pigs; that was his holiday. Every day was a holiday. For him there was no distinction between work and not work. Life can be that simple for some people. Is that why Carrie and I are here? For a taste of a simple life? Is it possible to bring that life with us when we return home? I guess we’ll see.

In the morning, we made sure to catch the sunrise. The east cape of New Zealand is one of the first places in the world to wake up to the new day. Carrie and I would be some of the first people to be awake on Feb. 21. We also needed the extra hours of daylight to make the 100km journey to our destination in Tokomaru Bay.

Although both sides of the east cape host amazing beaches and beautiful scenery, only the east side of the east cape is host to amazing stretches of hilly roads. We climbed up and over four hills from sea level to 200 meters on that ride (DAY 13). Near the end of the ride, I could barely pedal on the flats. But you should’ve seen Carrie that day. On the last hill up to Te Puia Springs before the descent to Tokomaru Bay, Carrie found some untapped wellspring of energy and nearly rocketed up the 5.5km climb. She was a little Rasmussen breezing up the grade leaving even the dust in the dust.

We rolled into Tokomaru and crashed at a nice hostel where the owner’s son was practicing his backflips on a trampoline. And speaking of trampolines, I’ve never seen so many trampolines in the yards of so many houses before. In the U.S., kids get into alternative sports like skateboarding or bmxing or drugs. In New Zealand, kids just trampoline.

After our long metric century ride, our bodies decided we should just take it easy on DAY 14. We set our sights on another beautiful village called Tolaga Bay just 36km south. The ride was nice enough, save for the increasing number of logging trucks and small stretches of road in dire need of repair. We paid our way into a motorcamp near the beach, pitched our tent and went about our daily routine of showering, washing clothes and preparing for dinner. Tolaga Bay is also home to an eroding wharf that was once a popular port in the early 1930s before the depression and the expansion of a road network. Ironically, the port received a lot of the materials necessary to build the roads in the area, thus helping itself become outdated. Now the wharf serves as a minor tourist attraction and a place for local kids to jump off into the ocean, performing all of those great acrobatics they probably learned on the trampoline.