Erik and Pete are the masterminds behind the Geyserland Gravel Grinds. The GGG was the only bikepacking event I did last year, and was full of relaxed days of riding followed by social evenings at shared campsites. Familiar with the calibre of route-planning, I was excited to learn this year that they had expanded their suite of events to three: an overnight Mini Grind, the GGG and the 800 km Mega Grind. As soon as it was announced, I signed up for the Mega Grind, as it was the longest and would take me to parts of the North Island I’d never been to.
Very much in a touring mindset, eager to see new places and spend some time biking, my preparation was suitably low-key. I figured I could finish in four and a half days, 160 km per day not being too much with my base level of fitness. Maybe I’d finish closer to four days if I pushed it. Up to Rotorua after work on Thursday it was a relaxed trip to the night-before gathering.
Close to fifty of us gathered Friday morning near the museum in fair weather; after a short briefing we were off through the early traffic – not much to deal with as we were soon on cycle paths and then heading up the Mamakus. I was familiar with the first few hours from the last day of last year’s GGG – up on to the Mamakus, lovely gravel riding along the ridge before descending to Tokoroa. There was plenty of group riding to be had as people chatted away and it was all very leisurely. Only stopping for a short pit stop and to grab a pie (the first of quite a few), I was soon on the road again leaving town.
Gravel roads and bunches of bikepackers atop the Mamakus.
Shortly after I was caught by a couple of riders. It was great to ride with Pete, whose brainchild this route was, and chat away; Pete had a fantastic top-ten finish in this year’s Tour Divide, so to chat as we rode a similar pace (I think he’s a fair bit faster than me, but was being nice) was most helpful. I’d planned to get to the start of the Timber Trail (~175 km) that day and sleep there; with Pete’s knowledge of the trail I was beginning to think I could maybe do a little more.
I was familiar with this section of the Waikato River Trail from last year’s Tour Aotearoa – so was not surprised by the relentless number of pinch climbs appearing each time we got close to the mighty river. It was warm, but not hot, as we made reasonable pace. There was a big group of riders in Mangakino, refuelling and restocking for the remote Timber Trail ahead – I stocked up for potentially more than 250 km between shops.
Six hundred metres of ascent was slowed on the road by the southerly we were riding into. There were a few riders around, just ahead or behind me. Back to the infamous wire swing bridge after the road petered out to an overgrown double track, there was a fair queue of riders waiting to get across. Somehow it was more manageable than on the TA and I was soon over and making slow process up the bush track before eventually joining gravel forest roads again. I passed a few people before Pete caught up to me, again, and it was about now I was easily convinced I’d have enough time to summit the Timber Trail (the highest point on the course, just under 1000 m) – unfortunately my dynamo light had showed itself to be faulty the previous week, so I had borrowed a headlight and was unsure just how much run-time I’d get out of it.
Pausing to eat at the historic Caterpillar tractor (which I slept next to the previous year), another group gathered. Some decided to call it a day while a fair few pressed. The climb is steady and my legs were still reasonably good, to my surprise, and it only took us an hour and we managed to descend a fair bit before it was finally too dark to go on without lights. Crossing a couple of the massive swing bridges (my photos were better last year on a misty morning) we were soon at the shelter Pete had told me about. Pleased with almost two hundred kilometres, I thought it sensible to get some rest and I bedded down for the night on a bench in the shelter. The rest carried on into the night, aiming to finish the trail that night (another sixty kilometres of slow-going bike trail).
Up at dawn, I’d slept OK – but not great as I had been in a constant state of peril of falling off the bench. The Timber Trail was as good as last time – I’m determined to return and ride it with a more fun bike (suspension please) in far more than six hours to appreciate the scenery, the forest, the native bird calls, and the extensive history. As it was, I loved it – especially the lovely chorus of native birds. The trail is in pretty ordinary condition from kilometres fifty to sixty and again around the seventy kilometre marker – I was not the only one to have a very sore back from the section just before the Ongarue Spiral.
Off the trail at the planned time of ten o’clock, I was now on completely new-to-me roads. Excited to say the least.
I think the Ongarue Rugby Club has seen better days – I like to imagine what those may have been like when riding through such places.
I spotted another rider! So I pulled in, slightly off route at the Flashpackers – and somehow ended up with fried eggs, toast and a big pot of tea. Luxury, I didn’t even have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper. Enough faffing (stops can really extend themselves easily) I said goodbye to Les, and that was the last I’ve seen of a Mega Grind rider.
Turning south off a short stretch of highway, I saw this sign and knew it to be a very good sign:
Gentle valley floor riding, overall descending, ensued surrounded by hills, hills and more hills. It was stunningly beautiful and I was loving it – also very happy at how I was getting along and wondering if I might make it past Mokau and 175 km that day. Suddenly, a railway line. I wasn’t expecting that; clearly disused I clearly hadn’t paid enough attention to where we were heading. Soon in Ohura, yet another place I’d not heard of, it was clear that this was the old line that used to go through Whangamomona (of this trip last year) to Taranaki. With a bit of refuelling to be had, from my own supplies as the Cossie Club was not open yet, I gave a couple of local youths on bikes a crash course in bikepacking before leaving town and straight into a big climb and wonderful gravel.
A bit of descent had us on a the farming plateau of Waitaanga before a huge plunge through a beautiful native-bush clad gorge of upper reaches of the Tongaporutu River, which we then followed out to the coast at a more gentle gradient. Thirty kilometres of highway was not too tedious as there was sometimes a shoulder and the wind was now, apparently, at my back – it did not always seem so.
Baches at Tongaporutu.
I made Mokau, my provisional goal for the day and almost halfway around the course, around five o’clock – still many hours of daylight left to get a bit further. So after a huge burger, I was fuelled up again and rolling into the evening. Leaving the highway behind it was a very pleasant, gentle, gravelled climb up one river valley before cresting the watershed and plunging down into the next catchment area. I hadn’t really come prepared for much night riding – my fingers getting the coldest (I had enough other layers) once the sun had gone.
The last two climbs were steeper, but surmountable – I still seemed to have energy left in my legs. Only four kilometres out of Marokopa, where I would sleep, there was another climb – hot work going up, cold whizzing down. Well over halfway now, I found a verandah to sleep under and laid my head for the night – pleased with my first 200 km+ day since the TA, and surprised with how “easy” it was (easy in inverted commas because obviously it was still a fair bit of work propelling a laden bike, but my body seemed far stronger than it should be, had been before; especially considering the amount of riding I’ve been doing recently – few long or hard rides). In part this was because I’d lost over six hundred metres of altitude that day, but there was still a fair bit of climbing – I went to sleep happy, and slept well.
For a change, actually managing to get riding before six o’clock, there was a fair bit of flat riding on Sunday deserted roads – this didn’t help in warming up any. But as the next two hundred kilometres showed plainly, you can’t go far around here without finding a hill. Climbing to the highest point of the day (a staggering 250 m!) there were still no more cars, but the hills were still stunning. Then, there’s Kawhia Harbour in the distance:
Riding around here, on the flat for a bit, was very pleasant as the day warmed.
Stopping for bacon & eggs after three and a half hours, I’d been feeling a little more sluggish than the previous day. Still I was nowhere near wanting to leave my bike on this fence.
Leaving Kawhia Harbour we headed for Raglan. If anything, the hills became more numerous – but not bigger. With more fuel in me and the day warming, I was getting my legs back to normal. By my estimate, I’d be in Raglan by three; as the route got near to Raglan it turned off west for the coast, a definite long-cut around Mt Karioi. Immediately the road turned to gravel and one could see why it was sign-posted as closed during the upcoming NZ Rally – it was utterly sublime. Full of twists and turns, snaking down valleys to sea level and then rising back up – this section was the highlight of the route for me. The sea crashing into the rugged coast, the trees long since succumbing to the prevailing wind and bending away from the coast and there were wonderful, large stands of native forest.
I stopped here a bit to take in the trees forming not merely a canopy, but a blanket of purest green. Mesmerising.
Closer to Raglan, the view opened up north and the traffic increased a little – which wasn’t hard, for an hour or so I’d seen next to none.
I did make Raglan by three o’clock, my plan was coming together as I tried to estimate just how far I’d get that night. I was bemused to see I’d, without getting more than 250 m above sea level, already climbed 2000 m that day – there were many, many little hills. Two pies devoured I hit the highway out of town.
It was awful. A sunny Sunday afternoon seemed to have brought most of Hamilton to town, and they were now leaving. Thankfully the course looped off the highway and onto a gravel back road for a bit. I was displeased to have to join it again, mercifully for less than two kilometres. Turning left at the T-junction, I watched in disbelief as a van just in front of me, at speed, locked up its wheels to avoid another car, started fishtailing, went out of control and barrel-rolled down the highway eventually coming to rest on its now crumpled roof.
There were plenty of people around the gas station rushing to the aid of the driver, so I turned around and did a spot of traffic management before deciding it was time to get off this mad road. Rather subdued when I realised that if I’d been a few seconds faster I’d have been occupying the same time & space that a crappy old Ford Econovan seemed intent on rolling through, I slowed a bit rather keen on messaging loved ones. I was surprised to see an ambulance already heading towards the scene from a back road. Then I came across a recently wrecked road bike (of the motorcycle kind) in a ditch and understood the ambulance’s apparent promptness. Suddenly, I wasn’t so keen on riding a bike on roads – especially remembering some of the tragedies in the international bikepacking community earlier in the year.
After that drama, the roads to Ngaruwahia turned out to be very pleasant and I soon got my head back in a good place and pedaled on. I was surprised to be informed by a sign that I got as close as seventy-five kilometres from my old home of Pukekohe – which is Auckland now. I’d come all this way to get so close to the big smoke?! Unimpressed. But at least I now know where Glen Massey is. We turned away from Auckland.
Stopping to snack as the route joined the cycle trail beside the Waikato River, I set off into the evening through Hamilton to Cambridge. I had been wondering why I’d not bothered to remove the bell from my bike – it turned out to be mighty useful along the busy pathway that evening. The section through the Hamilton Gardens was tedious and poorly signposted for all its twists and turns, but I was soon on back roads in the failing light.
I was having dinner in Cambridge at nine o’clock still rather keen on the plan I’d been formulating to all day to push on and finish this thing that night. It was just over a hundred kilometres and involved the decent climb over the Mamakus. I figured I could be in Rotorua around three in the morning. Just as I was about to leave, I witnessed yet another car crash – I’d recommend not going anywhere near a road in the Waikato!
Having already ridden two hundred and forty kilometres, getting to the finish would be by far my biggest day ever on a bike. Alas, in my effort to try to conserve what light I did have for the Mamakus, I made it too difficult for me to see and I just wore myself out more. I probably wasn’t mentally prepared for more hills near Arapuni Dam and for the first time in seven hundred kilometres I got really slow. It just wasn’t fun (Pete’s words of Friday ringing in my ear), so I realised a bit of sleep would be best and I gave up on my plan of finishing within three days. It was a little disappointing, but as I’d planned on a four day finish the pill wasn’t too bitter.
On back roads through dairy farms at that time, there was little night time traffic so when I saw a strange little (shorter than me) two and a half sided corrugated iron shed, I’d found my resting place for the night. Only after I’d set up my bed did I realise all the grass was making my eyes a little puffy & my nose run, and I had invaded a small bird’s home.
We stared at each other a lot; I slept well and woke to find I still had both my eyes. Success.
An earlier start (five-thirty) and I was off to Putaruru for breakfast. I wore extra layers as it was chilly and as it was relatively flat (compared to the previous morning anyway) I never really warmed up. I was feeling average, but with only seventy kilometres to go it was easy to keep on going. With a full English breakfast in me from the Crazy Cow Cafe (I was too tired to appreciate all the amoosing puns), I was away again and heading for the hills – well, the last hill. Ascending four hundred and fifty metres it’s pretty steady, with a few little pinches; Leslie Rd does seem to be one of those hills that just keeps on giving. Finally I was at the top riding into a stiff easterly and negotiating the huge puddles that form the end of the paper road.
All downhill from here! Or not, the wind was strong enough to necessitate pedaling down hill. Height of rudeness. Still, at least it had nothing on my Invercargill to Bluff TA experience. But that couldn’t come close to dampening my spirits as I turned the pedals around all the way to the finish.
Time to lie on the grass, too tired to ask the small guided tour group to move so I could get a better photo.
I was, and still am, so thrilled to have ridden far stronger and longer than I ever have, or imagined I might. At three days and three hours, that’s an average of 250 km/day – compare that with 180-odd/day I did on TA. I had the same bike and carried the same gear, and had done even less preparation this time around – not to mention entering this event with less of a deadline and firmly just wanting to have a look around a different part of NZ. (Admittedly, this was only three days in a row, not two weeks – and the weather was amazing too.)
So I’m a little taken aback, how did this suddenly happen with no plan or desire? In part, taking a bit more care of what I’ve been eating in the previous six weeks has meant that I am currently carrying significantly less weight on me than for the last ten or so years. As has been usefully pointed out – how much money would one pay to get fancy gear to lose so much mass from one’s bike and gear? The answer would be thousands and involve titanium and fancy composites. After mentally spending these thousands in my mind, sense prevailed remembering what some guru said a few years ago: “Ride what you have”. Another component of this step-change I guess is more in my mind – and that comes from talking to, reading about other people that perform absolutely amazing feats of endurance. Obviously, I’m nowhere near that – but it does open one’s eyes to what is possible, and maybe just rubs off a little, eventually.
Now I’m looking around for more events and routes I can challenge myself on. The cool thing is I can see many areas to improve and with a bit more discipline I should be able to push my boundaries far more (I did after all carry a tent the whole way around and not use it, oops – which is what I did for all but the first night of TA; I think I may be learning slowly!).
Thanks to Pete and Erik for such a great route and well organised event – the hours and days that go into planning such a thing are immense, and all for the love of it. I certainly got to see parts of this country that I’d not before, and probably wouldn’t have otherwise. More importantly, I’ve suddenly seen other things I did not see before.
Apologies for shortage of good photos, I was having too much fun riding my bike. But I suspect if you’ve managed to read this far, you might not mind so much.