Geyserland Gravel Grind: Day One

Some months ago, I noticed talk online of a bikepacking event around Rotorua. As the plans developed and a date was set, I was excited for this – and not only because it would be my first bikepacking for the 16/17 summer. Having grown up and spent much time around the area, I was keen to get back and explore it a bit more from the different vantage point of a bike. Also, many of the place names were familiar to me only because Dad used to mention them in passing as places he would visit farms in the course of his work. It was only some time later that I realised the similarities between the route and that taken on my first cycle-touring experiences (two week-long school holiday camps named “Rotorua Lakes Cycle Tour” that I did aged fourteen and fifteen).

Erik had worked diligently to compile what looked a very interesting route, starting in the centre of Rotorua before heading to the coast past many lakes, then returning to the many hills south of Rotorua. A key difference for this event was that the daily distances were set – this meant that we all camped in the same campgrounds. This sounded a good idea in two ways: it would be much more social in the evening compared with wildcamping alone and with the distance set, there was no obligation to try and ride as much as possible. Interest was stronger Erik expected; twenty-six of us assembled Saturday morning, keen to see what the long-weekend would bring. Erik had even gone to the trouble of organising three courses: two, three and four days. Somehow I’d persuaded Steve that stepping up from the brace of two-day trips I’d dragged him on previously (Waikaremoana and a local one) to the full four days was a good idea.

Waiting for the off; once again Steve, as the accomplished & strong triathlete, had the pleasure of carrying our tent. I travelled lighter than in Tour Aotearoa.

With a group photo taken and last minute details explained, we were off into the sun with a brisk southerly chasing us to the shores of Lake Rotorua.

For an event called the Geyserland Gravel Grind, appropriately our first bit of off-road trail was through thermal flats beside the lake. One of my favourite smells, the rotten-eggs of hydrogen sulphide, hung heavy in the air – we must be in Rotovegas!

With over forty kilometres of fun mountain-biking the previous day making their presence known in my legs, I was happy to dawdle at the back as we made our way south through the forest where I’d been riding but twenty hours before. This time the gravel roads and singletrack were there to be enjoyed by taking in the atmosphere, rather than by attacking them. I was surprised to catch up to Steve. It turned out he’d had quite a luggage malfunction resulting in some apparently superficial to the rack he was using. As we attempted to satisfactorily rearrange the constituent parts the situation became all rather hilarious; eventually I managed to stop laughing and a solution was found (those were independent events).

Past Green Lake we were next on the new-to-me highline trail around Blue Lake – that was cool & much better than the road option. Out of the forest and a bit of seal had us whizzing down to and around Lake Okareka.

I stopped to snap a different perspective of Mt Tarawera.

Said perspective, looking across Okareka.

Back onto gravel we soon found the start of the Western Okataina Walkway – which has been opened to bikes since I used to ride regularly around the area. Skirting the western edge of the lake, the seventeen kilometre trail through native bush fair owned us. It was fantastic, even if it took almost two and a half hours. Heavily rutted out in places, there was a fair bit of hike-a-bike and with the rough surface, a few stops were made to readjust Steve’s sleeping bag on the rack. Mercifully it was reasonably dry; the forest was lush and we stopped in a small clearing for a relaxed lunch and doze in the sun. Yet another trail discovered bikepacking that I’ve earmarked for returning to with an unladen (swallow) bike – such fun.

A nice smooth section of trail.

That done, we were on the shore of yet another lake – Rotoiti.

Passing many maraes, we joined a large contingent of GGG riders at the first store in ages – time to stock up on snacks and reapply sunscreen.  Refueled we followed the highway around the shore for a while, before turning off down Manawahe Rd – this road starts off between two more lakes, Rotoehu & Rotoma.  As we passed the top of Pongakawa Valley Rd I was really feeling close to growing up in Te Puke – I used to have classmates that lived up this way.  After having gravel crunching under the wheels for a while longer we were looking for unmarked track off the side of the road.  We managed to take a track fifty metres too early, quickly realising my mistake after a large puddle and a fun, but rough, descent.  Here we were joined by Colin, who I recognised from the Kiwi Brevet last year – I sure hope I’m still bikepacking while drawing a pension, what a guy.

It turns out that the turn was marked, somewhat; although the trail is not immediately apparent.

The two kilometres of overgrown and unmaintained paper road was much more rideable than expected. Soon we were at the top of Pikowai Rd, with three-hundred metres of elevation to lose to get to sea-level and twenty-five kilometres to get to the campsite at Matata. Needless to say, that quick blast downhill was most fun – even spooking a large deer along the way.

The buildings were about the only things watching us up here.

Looking west towards childhood homes – if you squint I’m sure you can see Te Puke there somewhere.

Snaking down to the coast between the cliffs that I was rather familiar with having driven past here many times when younger, we joined State Highway Two for the last ten kilometres of the day. As I had spent so much time on and around this highway growing up, it was weird to be riding along it – especially so as now I regularly ride to and from work on a completely different stretch of the same highway hundreds of kilometres away.

Naturally there was a fair crowd of us stopped outside a store scoffing food and ice creams, so we stopped in before making camp just behind the dunes.

We fair took over three or so sites (this being about half of our tents) – the campsite was busy with the long-weekend and the popularity of the spot.

Back on a Bay of Plenty beach with proper sand & all! There’s even Whale Island over there too.

Plenty of people out enjoying the late-afternoon sun and fishing.

While only a shade over a hundred kilometres, there was a fair bit of riding involved in a fantastic day. It was excellent that all the riders were in the same place at the end of the day sharing stories of the day, beers and copious amounts of fish and chips. But we’re hardly a rowdy bunch – I think most were tucked up in tents by half-eight.

Footnote: It is with some sadness that I know definitely that my uncle will not take this post with him on one of his regular visits to share with Granddad the cycling stories and pictures of his only grandson. Rather than writing stories of my own little rides, I should be preparing what I’m going to say at the funeral of the man whose cycling feats continually inspire and surpass my own. Cycling to Wales of a Friday night to escape the bleakness of London during WWII and then big tours of post-war Europe are some stories I’ll not hear firsthand again. Perhaps I got into this bikepacking/(off-road) cycle touring thing a little late – but hopefully he was able to appreciate and take a bit of pleasure in the fact that I was off seeing many places from the saddle of a bike.

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