Imagine 3 brand new back country huts connecting 85 km of sweet single track in remote New Zealand bush and you are visualizing the Old Ghost Road . A long forgotten gold miners road that was revived by a group of dedicated volunteers and is truly a mountain bikers dream. Listed as a Grade 4 (advanced) MTB trail, the Old Ghost Road first opened December 2015. We heard about it while researching our trip to New Zealand but were not sure if we would have time to ride it, and if I am honest, I was not sure if I would be up for the challenge. Riding over 3300 km to Bluff with over 30,000 meters of climbing (along with Rob’s reassurances that I could do it) gave me the confidence to go for it. While we were in the area we decided we should ride the Heaphy Track as well, giving us 7 more days in the saddle and the opportunity to ride some of the best back country trails and single track New Zealand has to offer. Am I glad we added these trails? Hell yes, what an epic way to end our time in this amazing country and fate also provided a pretty cool story that I am excited to share with you as well. Read on….
Step one involved an email to Roy, our kayak guide in Abel Tasman who had mentioned he wanted to ride the Heaphy and Old Ghost when the kayak season ended. He enthusiastically responded that he was “in” and over the next week our plans slowly came together. While Roy’s enthusiasm was contagious we struggled with logistics while communicating via Whats App and travelling north in our big purple and green caravan. In the end it all came together. Like an exuberant pup, Roy’s energy and constant positive outlook (even when his makeshift kit and bike were a source of daily frustration) made for an entertaining and fun travel companion.
We met Roy and camped at the Seddonville Holiday Park, an old school turned campground with a large field to park our van. The next morning we drove to Lyell to start our journey.Originally we planned to ride the 85 km over 4 days but changed our plans to be out in 3 days in order to beat the bad weather that was predicted. This was a fortuitous decision which led to a chance meeting we would otherwise have missed had we stuck to our original plan.
Day one was a steady but manageable climb of 875m and 18km to the Lyell Saddle Hut. A big meal of canyon crostini (Thanks Aaron Cosbey) and salmon chowder helped lighted our load for the big ride ahead. See Trail and elevation map here .
After a beautiful sunrise and muesli breakfast we tried to get an early start on Day 2.
Today would take us over challenging terrain to the Stern Valley Hut 25km away. A 400m climb started our day with a short downhill section leading to the Ghost Lake Hut.A stunning location perched at the highest (almost) point of the ride.
We stopped for lunch and watched in awe as a helicopter zoomed in and landed next to us! Picking up the gear and food for a group ahead of us, he loaded 2 cases of empty beer bottles along with 4 big packs into the back of his little chopper and was off. No one told us we could fly in our food and supplies?
The elevation map looked promising from Ghost Lake hut to Stern Valley Hut but the terrain proved extremely challenging. Listed as a grade 5 trail in parts of this section and often unrideable for me but thankfully the epic views made up for any frustration.
We finally reached Skyline ridge followed by the Skyline Steps, a series of narrow and winding steps going down 60m. It is recommended you carry your bike down the steep stairs but I slowly “bumped” my bike down this section while griping my brakes and praying my back tire didn’t flip over the handle bars and take me down with it!
Following the Skyline steps the rest of the ride was ample reward for any previous challenges. Fun flowing single track all the way to Stern Hut and onward to Specimen Hut the next day made for an epic 2 days of flowy fun!
At the end of day 2 we arrived at Stern Hut at twilight and the candle light flickering through the cabin windows guided us into the little hut. The cabin was small and crowded with 2 groups of hikers. I plunked myself down on the bench between a family of 4 and a group of 3 older gentlemen and a man about our age. I was pretty exhausted. Rob poured me a glass of wine and we contemplated finding the energy to make supper. Around us the conversation flowed and out of the voices Rob heard one of the older gents mention he was a greeter on the Amazing Race. It took a few minutes to register and when it did Rob responded.
Rob: “What? Did you just say you were on the Amazing Race.”
John: “Yes I was but only on one episode.Phil here has been on every episode.”
In the dim light, we looked across the table and and realized we were sitting across from Phil Keoghan, host of the Amazing Race!
I have often joked to Rob about how we would totally “ROCK” the Amazing Race (well other than the fact that I cannot run. Seriously, ask my kids. I kinda make the motions of running but even at a stretch it is definitely NOT running). After spending 2 nights hanging out in back country cabins with Phil, his dad and 2 family friends we were told we were far to “boring” to be contestants. In hindsight, we should have staged some dramatic fights, temper tantrums and turned on the “crazy”.Damn, another missed opportunity!
I have no pictures to prove this actually happened so you will just have to take my word for it. And no, we did not talk ourselves onto a spot as contestants on my favourite reality TV show but then again we’ve kinda been having our own Amazing Race the last two years. Life is Good. Who needs a million dollars anyway? Right?
All good things must come to an end or so the saying goes and I have to admit it was with a heavy heart that I rode into Bluff on April 23.When we started our ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff, I truly wondered what I was thinking. Was my fitness level up to it? What if I couldn’t complete the ride? But as I rode on, it started to get easier, I slowly became stronger and as we peddled the last 30 km towards Bluff, I really wanted to keep riding. During the last week of our TA ride, we started adding new detours, ultimately delaying our arrival at Bluff. Subconsciously I think we both wanted to extend the journey.
Thinking back over the 10 weeks we spent travelling the TA (revised route) it was an incredible way to experience New Zealand and has left me dreaming about more cycling adventures in the years ahead. New Zealand really is all about the outdoors with absolutely stunning vistas around every corner and a huge amount of “goodness” packed into a small country. While travelling last year we met a young backpacker from the USA at a hostel in Bosnia. He had recently been to New Zealand and we excitedly asked about his experience. His response was pretty “meh” and something like “Well sure it has some amazing scenery but compared to the Rockies and what we have in North America, it’s not really that impressive”. Say what? I think you missed the point or perhaps riding a bicycle across this beautiful country leaves you with a different impression. Beauty aside, what really makes New Zealand a unique and special place is the people. Humble, kind, polite, down to earth and fun loving are adjectives that describe the many Kiwis we met during our journey. The people of New Zealand along with the many adventurous cyclists we befriended on our trip has made this trip unforgettable and filled with so many great memories. New Zealand hospitality has truly blown us away and we are flattered when our thanks is met with comments like “It was nothing. You Canadians are just like us. I am sure you’d do the same”.Would we? Would we take in a stranded stranger and give them a bed for the night? Would we say hello to a tourist at the local restaurant and invite them to eat with us? Would we offer to pick up and store a parcel for someone while they travelled through our province? I would like to think the answer is yes but if I am honest I am not so sure. Certainly my time in New Zealand has made me want to pay it forward and be more “Kiwi” when I return home.
Obviously a lot happened after the last blog.Our bedbug bites eventually healed (scratching lasted a week and scars are just now fading), we had to re-route and skip the West Coast Wilderness Trail, Franz Joseph/Fox Glacier and Haas when a huge storm hit the West Coast and we added in a few extra trails including the Alps to Ocean, Otago Rail and Lake to Lake trails. Blah, blah, blah.Rather than bore you with long winded details of our journey, lets try something different. Here is a map of our route and a photo blog of the last few weeks of our revised TA ride. We are currently heading north to ride the Old Ghost Road starting tomorrow and I have become a lazy blogger! So, enjoy the photos, then get off your butt and onto your bike.It’s always a great day for a ride and who knows what adventure is waiting around the next corner!
A lot has happened since my last blog. We finished riding the North Island, visited our niece, who lives in New Zealand, spent an amazing 3 days kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, survived a West Coast epic storm and experienced bedbugs… Yep, that happened! I know you’re dying to hear about bedbugs but let me back track a little to where the last blog left off.
I think we had just ridden the Timber Trail and continuing down the center of the North Island. Following the Timber Trail we decided to treat ourselves to a room and found the perfect “splurge” at the Inn at the Convent in Tamaranui. Once a nunnery, our hosts June and Jeff turned this historic building into a lovely bed and breakfast. After spending most nights camping, we really enjoyed the luxurious bed and cosy room with our own bathroom! The next day we did some bike maintenance and enjoyed a great home cooked meal and great conversation. June entertained us with stories of her former life as a women’s high fashion shoe designer and Jeff kept us in stitches with his frank and unfiltered comments. After a rest, it looked like the weather would cooperate and we headed off to ride to Whakahoro station and a remote Kaiwhakauka and Mangapurua tracks to the Bridge to Nowhere along the Whanganui river. Camping in the Department of Conservation sites at both Whakahoro and Hellawells, we split the ride into 2 days, ending with a jet boat ride down the river to Pipiriki. A bit of hike and bike on some sketchy sections but a great ride where we saw only a few folks over our two days in the forest and had the campgrounds pretty much to ourselves (oh and the wasps)!
From Pipiriki the next day we had a fun ride through rolling countryside with one big climb before riding Whanganui to meet our niece Roseanne who lives in New Plymouth.
Had a great time catching up with her and exploring Whanganui. After leaving Whanganui we were on the homestretch, headed to Wellington. Highlights included arriving at Apiti soaked and cold from the rain to find a warm fire blazing in the Apiti Tavern as well as free camping on the lawn behind the Tavern, nice cycle trails into North Palmerston, arriving early and chilling on the pub patio in lovely Martinborough while waiting for our Warm Showers host and finally the epic ride over the Rimutaka Pass into Wellington.
We spent two days in Wellington enjoying the Te Papa museum, cable car and botanical gardens as well as 2 days of great food and craft beer. On our way back from dinner we passed through City Park and walked by a small flying fox (zip line) in the children’s playground. I convinced Rob to join me for a zip and after climbing the wooden ramp, I sat down, pushed off and hooked my foot on the ramp, wrenching my right knee badly. Safe for 5 year olds but not 50 year olds apparently! I managed the morning ride to the ferry and we crossed Cook Straight to Picton, officially ending our time on the North Island.
We decided to bus to Nelson give my knee a rest and book a kayak trip into Abel Tasman National Park. Our 3 day trip with Abel Tasman Kayaks was truly special. Group tours are always a gamble but occasionally you get a winner. We had a blast with the other guests, Megan and Lee (a vet from Colorado – go figure), Alessandra from Italy, Pete and Amy from Toronto and Christine from Atlanta. Our guides were fun and relaxed and we were sad to say goodbye after 2 fun days.
Nelson is a great little city to hang out and we decided to treat ourselves to some craft beer (who am I kidding, we’ve been drinking beer since stepping off the plane, no wait, since getting on the plane!) and a real bed.
Leaving Nelson we headed south towards Tapawera and Murchison. It was about this time… 24 hours later, that we started to itch. Que the creepy music.. our one night at the hostel left us covered in bites! I reacted dramatically with easily 100 bites covering upper back arms, belly and legs. Given we had not stayed anywhere except our tent we were pretty sure where we got them, the appropriately named Bug backpackers! A day out from riding ensued to run everything we owned including tent, panniers and dry bags through the dryer! Big creepy YUCK!
Not everyday is a good day but everyday is an adventure. More to come on wet West Coast weather disasters and our new EA route (thanks two kiwi cyclists, Eileen and Andy, who gave us a new “blue line” to follow in Pocket Earth). Til then drink beer and peddle on!
Considering my training for the Tour Aotearoa involved floating in the Caribbean Sea drinking considerable amounts of rum, followed by baking all the favourite Christmas cookies with my daughter Hannah (and eating all said cookies) and then enjoying 3 weeks of delicious Mexican food washed down with large volumes of beer, at 800km into my journey I am doing okay. As we peddle, Rob wishes for bigger legs to carry him up New Zealand’s significant hills while I wish for a smaller ass to carry up those hills!
I guess I have always loved bicycles but my love affair with the bicycle was not the typical “love at first site” kind of romance. It started slowly, kind of like that guy who was just a friend. You know the one. The guy who your friends would ask you about and with a laugh, you’d say, “What, Bob? No, no we’re just pals.” A get a beer after work and have a few laughs kinda guy.A solid friend who was there when you needed him until suddenly you realized, he’d become something more. Bicycles for me were kinda like that guy. A way to release some teenage angst and sadness, a break from my studies in university, an escape to forget about the stress at work and then suddenly in my middle age the realization hit that being on my bicycle was one of my happy places.
Through the fog of time, I recall my first bicycle. A two wheeled beauty with a banana seat, high bars and (I think) tassels coming off the handle bars that fluttered in the wind. I recall my older sister and I using cardboard and clothespins on the spokes to make a our bicycles sound like a motorcycle. The faster you rode, the more impressive the sound. Growing up on the farm I also had a horse. A beautiful pinto quarter horse creatively named Patches. For a period I forgot my bicycle as my mother created elaborate matching outfits complete with embellished saddle pads for my sister and I to ride in the local summer parades. It was great fun, but I do recall being a little jealous of my cousins who decorated their bicycles and donned costumes to ride with the other town kids during those same parades.
Eventually I graduated to a big kid bike. A old school 10 speed, yellowish beige in colour with classic drop bars and skinny tires. I likely bought it with money saved from babysitting or raising pail hunters (dairy calves I would buy and feed until they were old enough to go on pasture). In my teenage years I rode it regularly, around the block, a 6 mile trip on the grid like gravel roads in rural Alberta. It was an escape, a place where no one could find me and where I had a good 30 minutes to work through all the “stuff” my teenage brain was dealing with. Occasionally I would make the 10 mile trek to town enjoying 4 miles of paved roads and a soft serve at the local creamery as a reward.
After my acceptance into veterinary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan I decided it was time for a new bike.This would be daily transportation to campus (until winter arrived) and needed to be a solid bike which could also transport me on regular escapes along the Saskatchewan river trails running through the city.The Trek Antelope 520 was my first steel frame, old school mountain bike. With state of the art Shimano shifters and high end caliber brakes, in 1987, it was a sweet ride and one that set me back $550. A huge purchase for a broke student but in the end supplied me with a cycle that travelled with me for 25 years!
As I cover the miles through New Zealand I daydream my days away. Passing the time thinking about a great number of meaningless things. It is a great way to travel. On a bicycle you slow down and are forced to not just see the country you travel through but to also experience it. You take the good with the bad.The first warm sun that hits your face as it rises over the hills on those early morning starts along with the brutal headwinds that slow your progress and cause you to curse. The delicious smells coming from the local bakery as you pass through a small town along with the nasty road kill odor that lingers long after you pass by. People talk to you when you are on a bicycle and are quick to offer help or to join you for a coffee. But perhaps best of all is the satisfaction that comes from propelling yourself by your own determination and with the strength of your legs.
Since my last blog Kiwis are Cool: Bikepacking New Zealand, we reached Dargaville and have made our way south passing back through Auckland, east through Hunua towards the Bay of Plenty, South along the Hauraki Rail trail, through Matamata, the Waikato River Trails and have just finished riding the Timber Trail arriving in Taumaruni last night.I think we have travelled about 800 Km of the Tour Aotearoa route as well as several hundred km of extra riding on the way to Cape Regina. Tomorrow we continue on to a challenging ride on some paved roads and gravel but mostly single track in a remote area that ends at the Whanganui River and involves an hour journey by boat to reach Pipiriki.Sounds challenging but super fun. Here is a map of our journey so far.
So far the Tour Aotearoa has been a great adventure and I am so grateful to be able to experience New Zealand by bicycle.Highlights (for me) from this portion of the journey include:
-sleeping in Dave’s old caravan (trailer) outside Auckland
-finding a handlebar riser to bring my bars up and back a little.I now look like I should carry a bottle of wine and baguette in a cute little basket on the front of my bike.Come to think of it that is a GREAT idea!
-Staying at the Bike Bunker in Hunua. A real bed, an ensuite shower and great conversation.
-Arriving at Miranda Hot Springs Holiday Park with no food and no groceries and having the park manager offer to drive us to town, over 20km away to pick up supplies.
-Morning coffee at the Bugger Cafe. So tasty after several days of instant coffee!
-Almost free camping at Brock’s Place (aka some farmers field).
-Hobbiton. Okay, call me a nerd but it was super cool.
-Arriving at Arapuni and finding an amazing backpackers with a warm, dry room to sit out the rain that night. Steve the host at Arapuni backpackers is a gem.
-The ride from Arapuni to Taumaruni.Waikato River Trails, Ride to Timber trail and Timber Trail. Good to be back on mountain biking trails, even with overloaded bikes.
-Scoring free camping at Piropiro DOC site but enjoying a delicious hot meal at the Timber Lodge.
-Sending 10 kg of crap we don’t need to our new friend Rod, (who we met on the street one day while looking lost). Rod lives in Auckland and we will pick it up when we exit New Zealand. Oh and Rod and his lovely wife Lynn (who we’ve never met) have offered us a bed the night before we leave New Zealand. These Kiwis are the BEST!
And finally what makes an adventure truly memorable is the people who join you on the journey. Hanging out with my partner in life and best friend has been pretty great too. He would probably travel faster and lighter if he ditched the wife, but thankfully it hasn’t come to that…yet.
News flash, and this should not come as a surprise, but maybe once you hit your 50’s the bottom bunk in a dorm of 20 something backpackers may not be the wisest choice. It is after midnight on a Wednesday and the young guests talk in whispers and quiet giggles as they get to know each other and make a new, and temporary family while they are far from home. It is clean and modern and is not a “party” hostel, at least not tonight but still I cannot sleep. Rob and I have taken the bottom bunks in our 4 person dorm as we are the most likely ones to need a middle of the night trip to the bathroom. Of course we were the first ones to head off for sleep and despite my ear plugs, the snores coming from the bunk above, the oppressive heat and the smell of 4 pairs of sweaty, backpacker shoes (my own included) has kept the sandman away. So here I sit writing.
I suspect these youngsters do not know what to make of us. “Mom and Dad” ruining the vibe. We ate lunch at a cafe today and the young waitress who served me noticed we were riding bicycles. She struck up a conversation, as these New Zealanders are likely to do, and the topic of my children came up. She asked how old they were and at my reply said, “No that is crazy, they are my age. That means you are the about the age of my mom… and she is very old”. Touché, my dear, touché. At times like tonight, sleeping in a dorm bed at a backpackers hostel, I feel very old and just a little out of place. I wonder what the hell we are doing, living like gypsies, sleeping with strangers? Tomorrow we will be back in the Hubba Hubba, our cosy tent as we continue our journey down the length of New Zealand and one thing is sure, these crazy Kiwi’s will keep surprising us with their hospitality.
We have been here about three weeks and have a growing list of contacts in our phones to use “in case you run into trouble, dear”. Random people see the bikes and strike up a conversation which usually ends something like this. “If you happen to find yourself in Gisborne, be sure to come by and stay with me”.And here’s the crazy thing, they really mean it. If two tired and stinky cyclists happen to turn up on Ruth from Gisborne’s door step, I am sure she would be pleased as punch and pick up the conversation where we last left off!
A few days ago we took a 6 hour boat charter in order to cross the Hokianga Harbour, part of the Tour Aotearoa route.We arrived rested and decided to ride into Auckland that night.A 5:30 start meant we would likely run out of daylight but we hoped to hit the cycle way into the city before dark, allowing us to avoid the morning rush hour traffic which is not a fun experience on New Zealand’s busy highways. The ride took longer than expected and before we knew it we were riding in the pitch black along a secondary highway. About 25 km outside the city limits, a car passed us, slowed down and then pulled over to wait for us to ride by. Despite our lights, we expected to get a good scolding for being out in the dark. The older man who greeted us, asked where we were going at this time of night and then questioned if we had a place to stay lined up in Auckland. After our non-committal response he suggested we follow him home and, if it was up to our “standards”, he had an old caravan in his yard that we were welcome to stay in for the night. Then tonight at dinner, the cafe owner came over and sat down with us and started chatting. The next thing we knew, we were invited to camp in his yard tomorrow night, “no worries mate, I have lots of space, a salt water pool and you can enjoy a beautiful sunset there”. I am not kidding, hasn’t anyone told these people about stranger danger? Why are they so doggone nice?
It makes me think of a time, not so long ago, in our own country where we were more likely to pick up a stranger by the side of the road, or open our door to a person in need. To take the time to sit and talk with someone and actually listen to them. What has happened to us? Are we too busy, too self involved or just too afraid?Afraid of them, the mass of humanity out there? Or are we afraid of ourselves and what that mass of humanity may think of us if we step outside our comfort zone and put ourselves out there ripe for rejection?
Food for thought.
Ear plugs in and now its off to try and find some good dreams. Good night.
I believe it is better not knowing what lies ahead. For one thing, knowing takes away the fun and makes the journey a long, predictable slog to the finish line. For another, if we knew how hard something was going to be our instinct for preservation would likely kick in, causing us to steer clear of anything to difficult or painful. Marriage, parenthood, building a small business are all examples from my own life of things I thought I understood until reality stepped up and slapped me in the face. Life is hard, let’s be honest. Life is effort and work but once you accept this, quit complaining about it and just get on with it, it suddenly becomes a little less hard.
So, while I am feeling philosophical about the struggle called living, let me just say this. What the flying f@#k was I thinking when I decided to it would be “fun” to bicycle the length of New Zealand. 3000km from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island plus additional side trips along the way. This land is not flat people! After grunting my way up one hill, I find another waiting to be scaled. I’ve been eating my way through the Caribbean, Christmas holidays and Mexico (oh Mexico, how I love all your delicious foods, especially your churros) for the last 3 months and am woefully out of shape. This is gonna be hard. But here I am, about 400km in and too stubborn to turn back. When I question whether I can do this, my patient husband reminds me to focus on today and then reassures me, we will get stronger. It is fun to have an adventure, it is rewarding to propel myself forward by my own power and it feels good to know I will survive and be (hopefully) more fit by the end. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up my philosophy on life. Don’t be afraid to try something new (have an adventure), how you choose to live and the life you build is up to you (you have to be the one to propel yourself forward) andwe need struggle to develop resiliency (you will survive and be stronger for it).
Back to the bicycle journey. We have always wanted to visit New Zealand but the long distance from Canada and limited holiday times in years past, made it a trip we kept putting off. Having enjoyed cycle touring in Cuba and Montenegro we started researching cycling in New Zealand. A trip into the google-o-sphere led us to so many great websites on bikepacking (essentially a combination of mountain biking, cycle touring and camping) in general and in New Zealand in particular. Check out bikepacking.com and bikepackingnewzealand.com. During this research we also came across the Tour Aotearoa (TA), one of the worlds great bikepacking trips stretching the entire length of both islands and linking together cycle trails, paths and lanes connected by the most enjoyable back roads availabe/ Jonathan Kennett, a cycle guidebook writer in New Zealand, originally organized the ride as a Brevet event in 2016. As the popularity of bikepacking grows within the cycle community, so does the popularity of this ride which continues to run as an organized event every 2 years in February/March. 2019 is an “off” year however like us, many people are riding the TA simply to experience New Zealand from the seat of a bicycle.
Arriving in Auckland January 27, 2019, we spent the first few days with a wonderful Warm Showers host building our bicycles, replacing a damaged rear derailleur and warming up our legs with a 40km ride around the city.
Having discovered the joys of mooching off complete strangers, we then hopped an Intercity bus north to Whangerei to stay with Mac and Jennifer Lawrence, the sister and brother-in-law of our good friends Mick and Michelle Skuce. After 2 days exploring the area with our wonderful hosts we remembered that “guests, like fish, start to smell after 3 days” and decided to start our journey North. Jennifer and Marc were kind enough to transport us to our starting point so we could avoid the busy SH1 and ride towards the Bay of Islands on quiet back roads. We wound our way along the East coast to arrive in Russel 2 days later.
Warm rain followed us from Russel, across the passenger ferry and most of the way to Kaikohe as we started our 3 day loop to Horeke and back to Kerikeri on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, one of the so called “Great Rides” of New Zealand.
After an amazing meal at the Mint, a restaurant in an old Bank in Kaikohe we set up camp first for our first night at the Cow Shed Campground. Pretty much an old Dairy farm outside Kaikohe which has converted a cow shed into a basic kitchen, toilet and makeshift lounge area. It was a peaceful spot with a level grassy field to pitch a tent.
Day two found us enjoying our first of many New Zealand pies for breakfast at Len’s Pies and cycling on towards Horeke. A little research over our breakfast pie suggested there were few camping options near Horeke so we called the Rail Stay, a B&B outside Okaihau to see if they might have a tent spot available that night. We were in luck and despite the owner being away in Auckland, she said she would return that afternoon.We were welcome to drop our bags and continue out to Horeke and back without our gear, lightening our bikes significantly and increasing our enjoyment of this more hilly portion of the trail ten-fold!
Following our return ride to the east coast we stayed in Waipapa just outside Kerikeri with another wonderful Warm Showers host before heading North to Kaitaia and finally on to start our ride from Cape Reinga. We were feeling anxious to get started on the TA route but were forced to determine our start date based on when we could get a transfer across Kaipara Harbour as well as the tide table for our ride down 90 mile beach.On February 8 we took a shuttle to Cape Reinga and after walking to the lighthouse decided to head to 90 mile beach and start that afternoon.
There is approximately a 6 hour window starting 3 hours before until 3 hours after low tide, where the sand is hard enough for easy cycling.Easy, however, is a relative term. Yes the beach is flat but…it is flat! No challenging climbs but no zippy downhills to rest our tired legs or butts. I am now intimately acquainted with Butt Butter (and in case you are wondering slathering your bottom in a greasy lube to prevent chaffing of your tender bits, isn’t as sexy as it might sound). Last year, on our ride around Cuba’s Orient, we would set off each morning into a headwind and so it felt like deja vu when we hit 90 mile beach beach and were buffeted by strong winds from the south east at 30 to 50km/hour. The wind slowed our already slow pace to a crawl, taking 2.5 days to ride the 103 km instead of our anticipated 1.5 days.
After our second night camping along the beach and fighting the wind, it was a relief to spot Aihapara in the distance.
After a big breakfast we headed off towards Broadwood and a camping area on our map.Beautiful rolling countryside, big climbs with long fun downhill rewards was a welcome change from the beach.
We arrived at our destination mid afternoon to discover everything in town closed due to it being Sunday. We decided to push on to Rawene and look for a camp spot there. Big hills, bigger hills and amazing landscapes kept us entertained as we worked our way deeper into Hokianga district, arriving at an amazing little hostel, The Treehouse.
Tomorrow it is off to the Waipou Forest and then Dargaville… to be continued.
Just read through this and realized it is quite a boring read. Apologies! To liven it up a bit, here are a few things I’ve learned about New Zealand:
-A cooler is a chilly bag.
-Your swim suit and towel is your togs.
-Sweet as means, ok good, cool.
-A Bach is a holiday house.
-A gravel road is a metal road.
-When I get bored riding the metal, I entertain myself counting the number of dead possums and hedgehogs I cycle by.
-A Dave is a dick.
-Kumara is a sweet potato and they make them into yummy fries.
-Motorists call cyclists Hoha’s (which I discovered pretty much means pain in the ass).
-Tramping is hiking.
-Kiwis (the birds) are little weirdos but pretty cool birds (no I have not seen one yet)! Kiwis lay one (or occasionally two) huge eggs compared to the size of the bird. When they hatch baby kiwis come out fully feathered and by 5 days are venturing out of the burrow and in some varieties leaving home by 6 weeks of age. This makes them very susceptible to predators. The Department of conservation (DOC) is working to reduce predators and will collect young kiwi and relocate them to predator free islands until they reach maturity at 4 or 5 years after which they are returned to the mainland.
-Kiwis (the humans) are generally fun loving, humble and kind. One host compared Canadians and Kiwis as being similar. Saying that having a big, brash brother living next door (Australia and America) has made us try harder to be friendly, polite and kind to make up for our brother’s behaviour.No offence to all my amazing American or Australian friends. I didn’t say it, just repeated it here …. but I will admit it made me smile and kinda made sense.
Every once in a while the universe steps up, slaps you in the face and reminds you what really matters in this life. It’s time to wake up, pay attention and ask yourself why are you here? This happened to me recently when I found myself in a little town in Mazunte Mexico to participate in a mass sterilization project with a group of veterinarians form the USA (see Viva Mexico, Viva Mazunte Project!). Connecting with people from different backgrounds and experiences over a common goal while making an impact on local pets, local people and also improving the survival of a threatened species was pretty amazing. But then again, I have been on a lot of amazing projects on my journey from successful practice owner to drop out veterinarian so why did this project make such an impression on me?
Graduating from veterinary school in 1991, I arrived on the scene as our profession was undergoing a rapid transition. My early years as a small town mixed animal doctor were marked by a collegiality between veterinarians and veterinary practices that is slowly disappearing from our profession. At conferences when I ran into my colleagues from the practice “down the road”, we would share a beer, a story and a laugh. We would sometimes disagree on the way to manage cases, clients and our practices but there was always an underlying current of support. A feeling like, we are all in this together. Over time I watched our profession become more competitive, my colleagues more guarded and the collegiality that once existed between veterinarians more rare. It feels we have become a profession of perfectionists, afraid to admit our human frailties and reach out to each other for support. And yet it is this humanity and humility that makes for a truly great veterinarian.
Meet Rich Rodger, a veterinarian, humanitarian and driving force behind the Mazunte Project. As I worked on the project and heard Rich’s story I felt compelled to share it. He leads with humility and integrity and is a “boots on the ground” kind of guy that inspires others to follow his example. To me, Rich embodies that spirit of collegiality our profession is at risk of losing and it is for this reason as well as the amazing work this group is doing, that I want to share his story of the Mazunte Project. In an effort to preserve Rich’s voice, I have edited his answers for clarity and brevity only. I hope you enjoy.
The first mass sterilization project in Mazunte was in 2001. Tell me about how the Mazunte Project came to be and the people involved in those early years.
Like you and Rob, I figured when I retired I would give back. That opportunity arose before I retired when Dr Bob Labdon decided in 1993 the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association needed an international group and asked who would be interested. In my usual fashion, I somehow missed the invitation. A friend of mine told me about it and said they were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic for 1994. I signed on and found that from the original group of 30+ volunteers, the only ones making the trip were Bob Labdon, Jay Merriam, Bob’s son, a former tech from Bob’s practice and myself.Bob was paying for three plane tickets plus most of the supplies. It was then I realized Bob’s dedication to making this group a reality. It became known as Project Samana. I was part of the Project for 7 years.
About 5 years into Project Samana I thought we should do something in Mexico, so with my good friend Dr David McCracken, we began making trips down here (Oaxaca coast).
I had called my Reproduction prof who I had played touch football with as a student as we had always gotten along real well. He put me in touch with Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja who was Professor Emeritus of Pathology at UNAM and was running an animal welfare program for Equids with funding from UNAM, IDT and an International Donkey Protection Agency. The provinces need more help than Mexico City. Oaxaca and Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico.
Editors Note: Rich attended veterinary school in Mexico City (curriculum in Spanish) graduating from UNAM with honours in 1978. Following graduation Rich was involved in research as well as general private practice in North Grafton, MA.
We decided we would travel with them to see if we could establish a small animal arm within their group. So for two years David and I traveled with them doing spays wherever they were doing large animal work. There are a lot of stories within those two years that I’ll pass on for now. After two years, I told them I wasn’t seeing a situation where I felt we could make an impact (on the small animal side). The wife of the head veterinarian in our group suggested Mazunte where she had done an internship and knew they needed help controlling the dog population. There were no phone lines to Mazunte at the time, so she and her husband (David Oseguera and Eliza Ruiz) personally traveled to Mazunte and spoke to the director to see if he was open to us coming down there. He was, so we started planning our initial trip for January 2001.
Full circle, Bob Labdon was part of that first trip, as were Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom, an intern from the MSPCA, Martha Smith, Peter Brewer (a vet whose family owned a zoo), Mark Smith, (an animal capture expert for zoos), Alan Borgal and Rigaud Lee from the Boston Animal Rescue League and myself.
The first day we set up in front of the San Agustinillo town hall to see if we could drum up any interest. We had a hard time because another group had preceded us, who were not as organized and lost a large number of their patients due to being hit by cars following surgery.
The following day we went out to Escobilla beach where we were darting the dogs and bringing them to surgery. There were four of us doing surgery (Bob, Hugh, Martha and I) while Nancy teched (term for a veterinary nurse or technician) with either Alan or Rigaud, and the one who wasn’t teching was out helping Mark and Peter dart dogs. While we were darting the dogs and doing the surgeries (we were already accustomed to operating on dogs with Ehrlichia from working in the Dominican Republic), a woman came up to me and said she could get the people to bring the dogs to us so we didn’t have to dart them. That helped a great deal, but we still had to dart the occasional dog to stay busy!
Editors note: Ehrlichia is a tick borne disease causing anemia and low platelet counts (amount other things) and making surgery more challenging.
We didn’t have a good site in Mazunte, so I think we spent 2 or 3 days in Escobilla on the beach, and 2 or 3 days in San Agustinillo at the Casa Municipal. I think all together we did 50+ dogs and less than 10 cats that first year. The second year we grew in numbers and sites. Pam joined us that year as did our daughter Becky, and David and Eliza, who were instrumental in starting the program.
Editors note: Compare this to 744 animals sterilized in 2019.
Porfirio Hernandez and Marcelino Lopez-Reyes were vets at the turtle center at the time. Neither of them did surgery that year, but helped tech, register patients and assisted in recovery. They both became more involved with the surgeries in subsequent years. Alan Borgal of the Boston Animal Rescue League tells a story about Marcelino that year. He relates that the first year we came, Marcelino ignored him or paid little attention to his/our efforts. The second year when we came back, he greeted Alan with a big abrazo that caught him completely off guard, since the year before he wouldn’t give him the time of day. We asked him about the change of heart, and he said “you came back”.
Why did you decide to start this initiative and/or what was the driving force behind it?
The decision to start the project goes back to vet school. Having gone to vet school here (Mexico), and seeing the needs back then has always been in my consciousness. Figuring out how to help crystallized with the success of Project Samana. The fact that we named it the Mazunte Project is to show they are sister projects. To Bob, Jay and I they always will be. There are a few others who have done both projects, Liz is one of them, Linda and our son and daughter (John and Becky) are others. As the years go by, each project takes on its own personality and connections are lost.
Committing to one project and place, helps me understand the nuances of the problems better and helps our focus and understanding of where we have to concentrate our efforts. Hopefully it will also help us encourage other groups to help on all three fronts: humans, pets and wildlife. Already our daughter wants to help on the human end, Pam does too. Even though those projects aren’t in action, they’re being conceptualized, which is one of the most important steps.
Describe how the campaign has changed and grown from those early days.
The growth has been incremental over the years, we grew from one team to two teams, then three, four and this year we went to five. Having Spanish speakers has been key to growth. For many years we stayed as two teams until we were able to get someone bilingual to allow us to expand.
Our numbers of animals sterilized has increased each year, due to both the growth in participants and increased responses of townspeople bringing their pets to be spayed, the latter being key.
The mission hasn’t really changed, since it has always been to help the turtles, other wildlife, dogs and cats and by extension, the people. We have always maintained a One Health attitude, with the emphasis on spay/neuter. Since 2012 we have tried to help him (Marcelino) out with Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, forming a 501c3 in November of 2016 to more effectively fund raise for this group.
For you personally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being involved with this initiative over the years?
I continue because I love being part of the enthusiasm this project engenders. I’m ready to turn over the leadership to others any time someone else wants to step in and would continue to participate even if it meant just being a translator.
I think I continue to bring new aspects to the project just because of my contacts down here. Today I was in a meeting at the Turtle Center discussing the feral dog problem on Morro Ayuta beach, and what role(s) we, could play in addressing it. We’ll see how it plays out. We are already planning for next year and will be adding two new towns down the road.
I think the other things that keep me involved are the constant changes and moving targets that need to be addressed. Once it’s on cruise control (if that ever happens), I’ll be glad to step aside knowing it’s (the Mazunte Project) in good hands. I know it would be in good hands now, if something happened to me, the “morphing” would just take place more slowly.
What are your hopes or aspirations for the Mazunte Project, moving into the next decade?
My hopes and aspirations for the project are multiple. More participation by Oaxaca vets would be nice. Marcelino needs a successor. Where do you find someone as selfless as he has been to run not only Palmarito (Sea Turtle Rescue), but the Iguanario and our efforts as well. I’m looking, but it would have to be a paid position, and I can’t foresee anyone bringing the energy and dedication he has brought to the position he created! Some of the biggest advances could be political if they ever take place. After that, I would like to see the cultural changes take place. If the market (for turtles and turtle eggs) goes, so does the poaching.
If people want to support the Mazunte Project and sea turtle conservation along the Oaxaca coast, how can they help?
There are a number of ways to help. First by participating in the Mazunte Project (becoming involved in the sterilization project each January), patrolling the beach (you would have to be able to identify the species of turtle by its tracks, and also be able to locate the nest), digging nests, acting as a guide for people in their native language, educating the public, (wherever you may be), spreading the word about what we do, and as always, financial support.
Education is a big one. It can simply be telling what we do, or even better, being able to describe the biology and plight of sea turtles and what measures need to be taken to reverse the Leatherback and Green turtles current decline in the Pacific. (Note: the Olive Ridley population is currently considered stable)
The best way to make a donation rests with the donor. Sustaining monthly donations are great! Donations can be made at www.palmaritoseaturtlerescue.org through PayPal (who takes a small percentage). If someone is going to make a one time donation, they can mail a cheque to:
Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue
6 Mahlert Ct.
Auburn, MA 01501
This insures that 100% of the donation will go directly to helping the sea turtles, I pay all the administrative costs.
People can also donate through our facebook page. Bottom line is every donation goes directly to helping the sea turtles.
Finally, is there anything else you would like people to know about the Mazunte Project or Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue?
Yes, if people shop Amazon, they can choose Amazon Smiles and list us (Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue) as their charity. If that occurred nationwide it would be a huge help! Ask everyone you know to sign us up as your charity on Amazon. Right now, I am guessing we have 30 or 40 people signed up which amounts to about $150 to $200 annually. If we had 300 or 400 people, the donations would increase by a factor of 10. Just imagine if we had 3000 or 4000 people.Just $1500 to $2000 would buy a lot of gasoline or pay an employee for 5 months!
Editors note:Marcelino and his employees use ATVs to patrol the beaches, collect turtle eggs and protect hatchlings. This year has been especially difficult with old ATV’s in need of repair or replacement.
Well, as Rich would say “that about sums it up”. I also asked Rich about the key players over the years and he responded by saying that the project has “been very fortunate with the talented and passionate people it has attracted”.He went on to list the many dedicated volunteers who return year after year to lend their skills as well as the many people who work behind the scenes and often go unrecognized but are equally important in the projects’ success. Given my fear of leaving someone out, I have decided not to list the many key players and volunteers who are instrumental in the success of the Mazunte Project. Please know you are appreciated, your efforts have not gone unnoticed and most importantly, you are making a difference.
If one more turtle makes it back to lay eggs on the beach from where it was born, does anyone care? I do and so should you.