Cycling the East Cape
Last week, I crossed off my bucket list, a cycle trip around the East Cape.
When planning this trip, I looked at a map of the North Island, and saw that the distance between Palmerston North and Wellington was about the same as the distance along one side of the East Cape. I used to comfortably knock off that sort of distance in a day. And, therefore, determined that five days would be sufficient. I imagined whizzing by idyllic beaches, and arriving at my destinations by mid-afternoon.
Before setting off on my cape circumnavigation. I wanted to visit the Eastwoodhill Arboretum, about 30 kms from Gisborne. This has now been designated, the National Arboretum of New Zealand.
The foundations for the arboretum were laid in 1910, when twenty-six year old Douglas Cook started farming, thirty-five kilometres north west of Gisborne.
With the outbreak of WWI, he volunteered for the army, and was sent to France. There he lost his sight in his right eye and was invalided with family in Scotland.
He was inspired by the gardens and parks of England and came into contact with future director of Kew Gardens, Arthur Hill.
Upon return to his farm, Cook started creating his legacy, planting thousands of Radiata Pines, but also other exotics such as Eucalyptus, Maples and Poplars. Through the 1930s, he spent up large on plants and in the 1940s sold 370 hectares to pay for more.
In 1965 he had a heart attack. The future of Eastwoodhill Arboretum lay in the balance, until Gisborne entrepreneur, Bill Williams, agree to purchase the property and gift it to a trust.
Cook died in 1967.
I arrived wet and spent at Eastwoodhill, in the early afternoon. I was booked into their accommodation and was the arboretums only visitor on that drizzly day in May. There was a café, but I didn’t expect it to be open. The chef was however, preparing food for an upcoming function. For a nominal fee she gave me pumpkin soup and my choice a range of other high calorie treats. It all tasted exquisite after my ride from Gisborne.
At 5:00pm, the staff left and I became the sole occupant of the facility, with its kitchen, library and crackling fire. Outside, the only sound was the drips from leaves wet from the most recent shower.
The next morning, I got up early to explore the arboretum before setting off on my Cape circumnavigation.
I left at 10:00am. Later in the day, I would pay for my delayed departure.
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It was dark when I arrived at Matawai, mid-way between Gisborne and Opotiki. It was dawning on me that I had not factored hills into my estimated travel times.
I knew that there was no accommodation at Matawai. It was time to shake out my tent, that had its last airing forty years earlier on another eastern cape, the Gaspe’ Peninsula in Quebec, Canada.
I tapped into local knowledge over dinner It became clear that I was being too ambitious. Imagine the Takaka hill times ten, and you’ll have some idea of the relentless hills I had to contend with. I had my flight from Gisborne to Nelson booked for Monday of the following week, so I either had to change my flight or, (as we used to say in my cycle racing days), ‘dig deep’.
My wee tent slopes downwards towards my feet so that the fabric rested on my sleeping bag. The nylon is water repellent, not water-proof. If touched, water comes through. I had a fitful nights sleep due to thoroughly wet feet.
The solution to wet sleeping bag syndrome was slipping a plastic rubbish bag over it’s foot. Fortunately, divine guidance had directed me to bring along two rubbish bags. The other one, I turned into a waterproof vest. Just cut a hole in the bottom and holes for each arm. That worked a treat.
The next day was reminiscent of a blissful Sunday many years ago freewheeling through the Waipoa Forest in Northland. On that occasion, as with this, there was hardly a car or truck on the road.
In order to protect Opotiki’s water catchment the the native bush in the Waioeka Gorge has been untouched or allowed to re-establish.
The gradient was gentle and trending downwards towards the coast. At points of interest, there were descriptive displays. If the rest of my journey was to be like that, it would be a breeze.
At Opotiki I rediscovered how inept I remain in my lifelong quest to be bilingual. On and off throughout my adult life, I have taken French lessons. The only people I encountered at the Opotiki campground, were French speaking horticultural workers. In the kitchen I was surrounded by their conversation, yet I could only recognise about one in fifty words, and that included ‘Qui’.
From Opotiki I struck off, up the capes west coast. It took me until 2pm to reach Te Kaha, a distance of 66 kilometres. I was making good about 13 kilometres per hour.
The settlements around the coast, must have grandiose aspirations. After passing a sign saying Welcome to such and such, there would be a lot of travelling past paddocks and rough ground before you come to something like a shop.
Further down the road, there might be something else which may or may not be open, and then you’re leaving. Most places have signs advising truck drivers not to use their engine breaks in an ‘Urban Area’.
On the door of the shop/café in Te Kaha, there was a sign notifying gang members that they were not permitted to enter if wearing gang regalia.
The potential presence of gangs encouraged me not to dally at Te Kaha. I pressed on to Waihau Bay, where much of the film ‘Boy’ was shot. Next to the shop is a hotel and accommodation where I treated myself to a room.
In the hotel. I fell straight into conversation with Tawha and Ronnie Te Moana. At the time, my lead concern was where I would next find a place to pitch a tent. Rather than flat, grassy areas, along-side the road there was either fences, hill-sides, cliffs or fences which were doing a poor job of containing wandering stock. Ronnie told me that I should enquire at the Tiki Tiki RSA, eighty kilometres up the road.
Waihau Bay Shop
I imagined a club rooms, and veterans sipping beer. Tikitiki was another settlement that was less than what it once was. The RSA was a pub/café run by a Danish lady who had been there for twenty years.
She said I could pitch my tent in the tiny paddock out back, but to be sure to close the gate, lest some wandering stock come to investigate. The next settlement down the line was Ruatoria, or ‘gang central’. I heard the occasional rumblings of motorbikes, but felt safe, hidden from view behind the RSA.
The next day I was on the road at 7:20am. My dinner of fish and chips, at the RSA, was nicely digested, and I didn’t feel the need for breakfast.
It was Saturday. My flight back to Nelson left Gisborne on Monday afternoon. I had one hundred and fifty kilometres of unknown terrain ahead of me.
Tikitiki at Dawn
I was now on the eastern side of the peninsula, and there was plenty of evidence of Cyclone Gabrielle. Streams had scoured out canyons. Maize fields were either buried or partially buried in silt. Fences were knocked down and roads were undermined.
I encountered plenty of places where the road was reduced to one lane.
Then came the big one, and a detour over farmland.
Oh no, I thought. Extra kilometres on a steep one-way track. I asked someone who looked official, if I might be able to slip through on a bicycle. The answer was no. He explained that the road wasn’t just damaged. It was gone. Later from a vantage point on the detour track, I saw a mangled mass of iron, and concrete where a once there had been a bridge.
Despite the detour and the up and down terrain, for the first time ever, I arrived somewhere before I expected to. At 3pm I rolled into Tolaga Bay, fifty-five kilometres before Gisborne.
There was a northerly (tail) breeze, and over two hours of daylight remaining. A farmer told me that rain was forecast for Sunday. He said “I don’t suppose giving you a ride would be the idea”. He was right.
He who hesitates is lost. I hastened to get back to the road to take advantage of the tail breeze.
I was making for a campground twelve kilometres from Gisborne, but well before there, the day closed in, and my red tail light failed.
I could hear waves breaking, and saw a stretch of grass. Having covered one hundred and forty kilometres, I pulled off and pitched my tent beneath a Pohutukawa tree.
My dinner in bed was a banana and a chocolate biscuit. After a bit of reading, I drifted off to sleep to the sound of crashing waves.
In the morning light I discovered that I had lucked upon the best camping spot imaginable. I wasn’t hungry, and was concerned about impending rain, so packed up and made my way to Gisborne.
Bikeys, bicycle shop in Gisborne is due a special mention. The bike they supplied was perfect and ran flawlessly.