Anticipation had been building within many of the regulars for more than a year. Of all the cycling tours organised by Bicycle Victoria (now known as Bicycle Network Victoria), those of New Zealand's South Island had received some of the most favourable post-ride feedback. There was no question that the hype -
a once in a lifetime bike riding holiday - had been coming fast and often, but would the ride live up to expectation? With some reservations, the answer for me was YES.
With an airport to service the early arrivers from Auckland, Gisborne was well suited to host the start of our week of cycling. Plenty of time for a wander and to hit the shops for a few essentials.
My mission was to seek out a camping pillow to replace the rough pile of clothes which would splay across the tent floor during the night and shrink in size each additional day I failed to wash. After a week of use I can highly recommend the Kathmandu inflatable pillow.
A dawn walk along a typically grey NZ beach was inticing, as we were in the first city in the world to see the sun each day - but a longer sleep in the tent was moreso. Still adjusting sleeping patterns to NZ time, a late start to the day and short ride to begin the week suited me well!
The Escapade started with a relatively easy loop ride. This was a day of fresh food highlights, starting with sweet, ripe blackberries plucked delicately from a tangled mess of thorns which edged the roadway. Towards the end of the day, approaching the pretty rest stop at Grays Bush Scenic Reserve, a few of us noticed the little shop at Teesdale Orchard. The peaches were of such exquisite flavour that I stopped again the next day to stock the pannier.
Sunday morning nearly 500 cyclists left Gisborne for Matawai, a quite small town noteable for its pub with walls impressively adorned with artifacts of the bushie life. Monday, and the route took us to Opokiti, 77km to the north on the Bay of Plenty. Some cyclists split from the pack for a bit of mountain biking, while the majority of riders set off early driven by the promise of "50kms of glorious downhill riding". But first there was a climb or two as the route passed through mountain valleys where sheep clung to hillsides like flies on a wall.
Waioeka Gorge - and our promised decent - was scenic, and offered frequent incentives to stop, like the historic Tauranga Bridge, ferns, waterfalls, and short river walks. However, rolling resistance was quite high due to the coarse road topping used through the gorge, and opportunities to sit back on the saddle and coast were few and far between.
At some point the next day, fairly early on I seem to recall, the rains came; driving, painful rain from which cycling glasses offered little protection. A shame really, as this leg of the ride had plenty to see along the way. However, the rain didn't deter many of us from stopping for a delicious feed of fish & chips, oysters, and smoked mussells at the Ohiwa Oyster Farm. Glorious smoked mussells indeed!
It is not unusual to find a bag of dirty clothing pushed into the furthest corner of my tent if conditions haven't been favourable for washing. What was unusual, however, after our rest day in Whakatane, was their odour. A strong hint of sulphur had permeated all apparel, a lingering reminder of our trip to the volcanic White Island, about two hours boat ride through a large swell.
Though the rough journey on the way across to the island forced many a head over the side of the boat, I doubt anyone regretted they made the trip. The island has an interesting history, and is starkly photogenic with barren earthy tones draped with yellow around vents of sulphurous steam.
Well rested from the layover at Whakatane, we set off for the Agrodome, and our campsite located in a sodden paddock. The wet and occasionally cold conditions again discouraged leisurely stops along the way, and to put it bluntly, the lunch spot was miserable (lovely, perhaps, on a sunny day).
It was not hard to find sufficient enthusiasm for a brief walk at Onepu Wetlands, and several quick stops during the slow climbs through beautiful fern forests for a photo or two, but not much more. Fly fisherman - about a dozen of them - could be seen through the rain plying their rods where the relatively warm water of a small creek entered Lake Rotorua.
The route for the next two days, to Whakamaru via Okoroire, took us through farmland and plantation pine forests. The campsite on the edge of Okoroire Golf Course was beautiful. It was a short walk to the hot springs for a soothing soak to rejuvenate tired muscles, while the pub at the top of the hill was well placed for those with a thirst or sufficient energy to dance the evening away.
Whakamaru is a small town, but the spectacular location beside the Waikato River more than accounted for the lack of activities. The river was quite wide at this point, broadened by a substantial dam wall built to supply water to the Whakamaru hydroelectric power station.
Had we stayed longer or I arrived earlier (not very likely!), it would have been pleasant to cycle part of The Waikato River Trails, which pass through Whakamaru Reserve on the opposite side of the river. The reserve was also part of the movie set for the 2010 release of Yogi Bear. Appropriately, the movie was our camp entertainment for the night; sadly, I just couldn't see it through to the end!
Speaking of entertainment, I thought the final evening was left to fade slowly into indifference, the lack of a celebratory mood not helped by a shortage of food. It was no better at ride's end in Taupo, though at least there was a range of cafes to share email addresses - and perhaps a beer or two between those of us not leaving early by bus.
I left this riding thinking that, while the scenery was not as spectacular as that on previous South Island events, it was consistently interesting. Overall, the Great Escapade NZ 2012 was a good event.