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 sight” 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. An old school 10 speed, yellowish-beige in color with classic drop bars and skinny tires. I likely bought it with money saved from babysitting or raising pail bunters (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 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 traveled 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 traveled 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.
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.
Time for an update from Vets without Boundaries, aka Rob and Elaine. We arrived in Grenada to start our next volunteer project with Carriacou Animal Hospital on March 25, 2018. You may be wondering, where the heck is Carriacou and I am still deciding if I want to tell the world about this sweet little spot. It’s kind of like our home in Rossland, BC where our community needs the tourists and jobs but we really don’t want to see things change too much and destroy what makes it so special. Before I tell you more about Carriacou, I need to backtrack and fill you in on what has happened since my last blog.
After volunteering with the Spanky Project in Havana we headed off on our bicycles to see more of Cuba. Our first day back on the road took us approximately 80 km to Los Terrazas, a small community located in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. After making a wrong turn on the way out of Havana, we eventually got ourselves “un-lost” and then made good time along the Autopista heading West. After traveling this road 5 years ago we were quite surprised by the increased amount of traffic and were happy to turn off the highway towards Los Terrazas. The final 7 km was a mountainous uphill push, but we were rewarded with a beautiful setting for our first night outside of Havana.
The village was designated as a Biosphere Nature Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and the 5000 hectare nature reserve was replanted using terraces to prevent erosion after deforestation. With a population of approximately 1000 residents, it caters primarily to tourists. There was was a large eco hotel but no licensed casa particulares, at least none that we could find.After a long, hot day we ended up splurging on the hotel as the thought of another 25 km, uphill to Soroa, was not going to happen for this old lady! The following day we packed our panniers and decided to check out the San Juan Pools, a 6 km detour out of town.We are so glad we did as it was a beautiful little spot with hiking paths along the river and numerous fresh water swimming holes.
We discovered little camping cabins, basic but clean, beside the pools, for a reasonable $25 CUC per night. It was such a lovely spot, we wished we had discovered it the night before and avoided the expensive “eco” hotel! After a swim and some relaxation, we decided to delay our departure and stay overnight.
The next morning we enjoyed the second worst breakfast in Cuba (the winner for worst breakfast was the dry ham bun at La Mula Campismo) and headed west towards Soroa. The ride was beautiful with pavement in excellent condition, little traffic and lots of hills to keep things interesting.The last uphill stretch prior to the Soroa junction was long and relentless.After walking up the last half km, I was cranky and my attitude was likely not improved but the minimal breakfast provided at the San Jan Pools restaurant. It was obvious Rob wanted to press on towards Vinales and I grumpily agreed! In the end, I was glad we did, as the road was in great condition, the breeze kept me from overheating and the scenery was spectacular.
We were a little unsure about the availability of casas along this northern route and watched for a good option as we road through small farming and fishing communities.We did end up finding a great casa, a warm welcome and delicious food at Villa Jose Otano.
The next day we pressed on to Vinales, to find the sleepy country village of 5 years ago, completely transformed. Vinales is definitely on the tourist radar these days and the once quiet main street was lined with restaurants, shops and the sidewalks crowded with tourists.We ended up riding out to a cheesy cave tour the next day and decided to leave early in search of a more authentic Cuban experience. The Viazul bus to Jaguey Grande was full so we were directed to a fellow booking a mini bus for the next morning.After leaving a $20 CUC deposit advised that we needed to be at the bus station at 8 am. I was assured the mini bus would be a direct route to Cienfuegos and we would be dropped off on the highway at Jaguey Grande with no stops along the way. The next morning we arrived early and were again reminded that in Cuba, it is best to leave your assumptions and expectations at home. When someone says “mini bus” I picture a small, bus or van shaped motor vehicle. I joked with Rob as each old “van like” vehicle passed by us by saying, “there goes our mini bus”. But I was not far off when an old run down car with a large roof rack backed up to us (we had been advised to stand at the top a street which had a slight incline) and started loading our panniers and threw the bikes on top of the load. The driver managed to find some rope, really it was more of a string, to tie on the bikes and then motioned for me to get inside and for Rob to push!With a bump he popped the car into gear and the engine started. Rob quickly hopped in as we rolled down the hill and off to pick up several more tourists headed the same direction. We noticed at each stop, the driver was careful to either leave the engine running or park on an incline in order to bump start his car again!
About 2 hours into our journey we arrived at a junction along the highway. Turning in and stopping, the driver motioned for us to get out, removed our bikes and told us to wait there for another car. 90 minutes later another car arrived, reloaded our gear and delivered us to our destination; the side of the highway, outside Jaguey Grande and about 30 km from Playa Larga.
If you are looking for a beautiful beach, few tourists and great snorkelling, head to Playa Larga. At the top of the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs and just over 30 km from Playa Giron it is an important site in Cuban history. On April 16, 1961 cuban exiles, financed and directed by the US Government assembled in Guatemala and Nicaragua then set out by boat to Cuba, in an attempt to overthrown Fidel’s revolutionary government.They landed at Playa Giron, on the Bay of Pigs and were defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, within 3 days, under the direct command of Fidel Castro. Now the Bay of Pigs is a quiet area, catering to tourists who come for the amazing diving or just to relax.
We found a small, family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.
We found a small family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.
After leaving Playa Larga we spent one night in Playa Giron and then got an early start for the long ride to Cienfuegos. We were up at 6 am and started packing our bikes in the dark.Expecting the usual sunrise at 6:30 am, we finally figured out daylight savings time was in effect when the sun was not coming up! We decided to leave in the dark, using our headlamps in order to beat the tropical heat. Rob stepped off our deck in the dark and sprained his ankle very badly. After hearing it “crunch”, we delayed long enough to decide it wasn’t broken and Rob decided he could still ride to Cienfuegos. It was a beautiful morning ride, watching the sun come up along an empty road with no traffic. As the day progressed the heat wore us down and on arrival at the outskirts of Cienfuegos, I stopped to wait for Rob and look at our map. My exhaustion was apparent, when in slow, cartoon motion, I tipped over and fell onto the street! Coming up behind me, Rob saw the whole thing and after I stood up, unharmed, we had a good laugh and he admitted to feeling equally exhausted. We headed for the main plaza to find shade and a cold drink. As we rolled our bikes off the street we heard someone call out, “Hey Canadians, bicycles over here”.We were thrilled to find Frankie and Nick two cyclists from Germany that we visited with while snorkeling outside Playa Larga. They introduced us to Pierre, a cyclist from Quebec, and then directed us to a good casa nearby.We agreed to meet again that evening and enjoy dinner together.We had a wonderful evening, sharing stories from the road and getting to know each other. It is always amazing how quickly you make friends and bond with complete strangers when traveling! The following day we said goodbye as they were leaving for Trinidad and we planned to spend 3 nights in Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos is a great city, with few tourists, a lovely plaza, great music and friendly locals. There were far fewer jinteros trying to take advantage of us, as compared to places like Vinales, and food, beer and accommodations were reasonably priced. We spent our first day finding a tensor bandage for Rob’s ankle (now officially a “canckle” and triple its normal size), finding internet to FaceTime the kids and eating ice cream.
The next day, Rob felt his ankle was up for a 20 km ride to Rancho Luna and a quiet day at the beach. We decided to return via the local ferry and enjoyed seeing Cienfuegos from the water.
The ferry to Cienfuegos
Little cutie on the ferry
In 2005, UNESCO placed the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list. With six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the historic centres sewer system is not up to 21st century expectations. The only downside to our time in this old colonial city was the smell.Our casa was situated right on the bay and throughout our stay, the sewer gas and septic smells would occasionally waft in. On our second night, a huge rainstorm blew in, filling the storm sewers to capacity and resulting in the most putrid odor.I really try not to be a “princess” when I travel but it was BAD.Nauseatingly bad.Rub tea tree oil soap inside your nose bad. I guess the take home lesson is be grateful we only had one night of rain and remember if you want to travel cheap, there are going to be some uncomfortable experiences!
Following Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana to meet friends who were coming to Cuba for Spring break.A trip organized in anticipation of Jackie O’Reilly’s 50th birthday but also coinciding with Mike Kent’s 48th year of being on this earth. Double the fun!What can I say about the last 2 weeks in Havana Vieja and Varadero. Perhaps it would be better to describe our experience in a series of verbs:clubbing, laughing, swimming, vomiting, diarrhea-ing, walking (looking for good restaurants), starving (for the vegetarians in the group) and stealing.I will elaborate as you’re probably wondering what happened BUT I do not want to focus on the negatives, as re-connecting with our Rossland family was really special after being on the road so much this year. We had a blast on Jackie’s birthday and after dinner out and enjoying some local music we ended up at a disco until the wee hours.
The next morning 3 members of the crew were hit with a severe case of travellers gut.No this was not from all the rum we consumed (although in Mike’s case I am not sure) as one of the ill members of our party was underage and not drinking.This “bug” ended up taking out 3 more members of the team (myself included) before the week was out. We were passing out our supply of azithromycin like it was candy! Thanks Dr. Andrea for making sure our first aid kit was so well stocked! We enjoyed the beach at Varadero but not the food. After eating delicious meals throughout Cuba, I have to say Varadero SUCKS when it comes to finding tasty, affordable and delicious food.I finally understand why people complain about the food in Cuba.My response is simple: avoid Varadero. This is NOT representative of the rest of the country. Step out of the government run restaurants and be a little adventurous and you will be rewarded. We did have 3 amazing meals at Club Waco a small privately run restaurant near our casa, which is really the only restaurant worth mentioning. The icing on the cake for our Varadero experience was the theft of Rob’s bicycle 2 nights prior to our ride back to Havana. We were fortunate to find a room available, right next door to our friends casa, in a nice neighbourhood and close to the public beach. From the start it had a bit of a weird vibe, compared to the many Cuban homes we had stayed in around the country and we dubbed it Casa Peculiar. The yard was fenced and they assured us the bikes were “secure”, as they had a security camera and locked the gates at night.However, one night someone climbed over the back wall and was caught on camera stealing Rob’s bike.True, we should have locked it up and we regret that decision. However I still say it is better to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be eternally suspicious. Initially we had thought we might leave our bikes in Cuba, but we had hoped to choose the person we would give them to. We returned our bike gear to Canada with our friends and will continue our journey with our backpacks only. On the plus side, we got to enjoy an extra 3 days with our good friends from Rossland.
So final thoughts on Cuba?I still love this country, its history, resiliency and the genuine, fun loving and kind people who are the real reason you should visit Cuba. However, in areas touched by tourism (Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad) things have changed when compared to our visit 5 years ago. Perhaps change is inevitable, but if you are thinking of going to Cuba, do it soon. Avoid the “tourist trail” and head to the East, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo. If you are looking for a beach vacation visit the Bay of Pigs and Playa Largo. Eat at your casa or a family run paladar. Sit in the park and talk to people when you have the chance. It is the people of Cuba that make it so special. Have an open mind, open heart and a big smile and chances are you will learn something new or make a new friend.And as for my friends in Cuba, may you find visionary leaders and new heroes of the people, with the ability to help you navigate the changes ahead. Finding ways for your country to prosper, while still retaining the values that make Cuba and its people so special.