10 years later

Ten years ago, a slightly naïve, skinny white guy with an overloaded bicycle set off from his house in London, aiming for New Zealand.

Look how shiny those panniers are! Back then they didn’t even leak!

I had been living in London, but wanted to go back to New Zealand. I’d travelled around Europe and the Middle East by bus, boat, train, but I’d had enough of that style of travel. I wanted to be able to go where I wanted, stop where I wanted, and see the world in a different way. So I went by bicycle.

I was at a stage in my life where I could do it. I was single, I had the money, and I had the time.

So I set off, thinking how hard could it be?

Yeah, well, there were a few tough times along the way, but it’s not as hard as you might think. In aggregate it seems a lot, but on a day to day basis it’s mostly about dealing with simple challenges: Where will I get food? Where will I sleep? Should I turn left or right at the intersection?

I’d done a lot of reading, I’d spent time getting my gear sorted out, I had maps for Central Asia and China…but once I actually got on the road in Europe I realized I still had a lot to learn. I had to figure out how to look at a map and identify good cycling routes, loading/unloading the bike, what sort of food I needed through the day, etc.

As much as anything, I needed to figure out my routines on the road. But the good thing is that I had plenty of chances to practice. You figure out your routines, and they become default. Next thing you’re taking it easy, eating your morning pastry beside yet another river-side bike path, and life is good:

I made it to Turkey, growing a nice beard along the way:

From Turkey I headed through Iran, this time with some company. I’d been alone across Europe, but now I would bump into other touring cyclists regularly.

On the advice of locals, I shaved my beard off in Iran:

Central Asia meant cheap vodka & beer, sometimes with rough consequences. But then THERE WAS A SUPERMARKET! You know your perspective on life has changed when you’re marveling at shopping trolleys, aisles, and air-conditioning.

Kyrgyzstan presented a new sort of challenge, having to replace my passport & visas. But I had time, I had money, I could work through the logistics. It was a little frustrating at time, but I kept calm about it.

I think that’s one of the things I learnt about myself along the way. I can just roll with the punches, dealing with situations as they arise, and not getting all worked up. When I was stuck between Iran & Turkmenistan, I sat down and went to sleep, rather than ranting and raving. A lot of patience is required when applying visas too.

My legs are my best feature??

Some of my best riding was in China, from the deserts in the West, to the crowded cities in the East. It felt like China was where I really hit my rhythm on the bike. I figured out how the cities worked, navigation was simple (follow the G312!), food was an adventure…it was a good time. Even when I did look like an extra from The Walking Dead:

…and my feet looked decidedly odd:

That’s what comes from only wearing sandals for 6+ months.

I spent four months riding across China, before heading south through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. I had some great company along the way, including my sister and her husband.


Remarkably, in Malaysia I caught up with my old drinking buddy Jan, having last seen him months before in Uzbekistan.

I put the bike on a plane from Singapore to Darwin, Australia, and rode through the center of Australia. The support crew for the first half made all the difference:

It was hard going for the last few weeks, knowing I’d come a long way, but still had a tough slog to go. I’d gotten used to the bustle of Asian cities, and the typical Australian roadhouse doesn’t offer quite the same level of excitement.

After months of cycling, I’ve realized that I’m not the fittest cyclist, and definitely not the fastest. There are many other cyclists who are much faster than me. But I can persevere, and just keep plodding along all day. Then the next day I get up and do it again, and again.

Anyone can ride 100km in a day. The difference is in whether you can get up the next day and do it again.

Finally, some 25,000km after starting, I made it home:

2008: Home…for a While

I tried to settle back down in New Zealand, working a regular job. But the first few months were hard. There’s a sense of dislocation, of not belonging. Even getting used to regularly sleeping in a soft bed was difficult. But I stuck with it, and settled down for a while…but I still had some unfinished business.

2009-2010: Closing the Loop

About 18 months after getting back to New Zealand, I went on the road again, this time to Patagonia. I spent several months in Southern Chile & Argentina, battling rough roads, wind, rain and snow…but with some amazing landscapes.

And then I closed the loop: I went back to the UK, on a sort of pub crawl from London to Scotland. All the countries I’ve visited, and the UK is one of my top destinations. It might not seem ‘adventurous’, but who cares? A great network of bike paths takes you along country lanes, through small villages, there’s always a pub that doubles as bed & breakfast, and English language media is always available.

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Lancaster Canal – typical English bike path
Entering Scotland

From there it was back to New Zealand, with one more encounter with bedbugs in Singapore along the way

2011-2015: Now Biking for Two

Life changed in 2011. I got married to Anna, and now our lives are a joint affair. It’s not just about me any more. We do things together: This started with the honeymoon, where we could have stayed in a resort for a week, or gone cycling for a month: Anna chose wisely

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Who buys this stuff?
Eating pho
Vietnamese Children

We were settled in Auckland, New Zealand for the next few years, going on a few bike trips around New Zealand. Not fully loaded touring – instead we’d go mountain biking, or checking out the new New Zealand Cycle Trails.

2016: USA, Land of the Free?

Six months ago we moved to San Francisco, where I’m working. We’re getting settled in here, and starting to explore the country (LINK NEEDED). There’s a lot more to learn about this place yet. I don’t know how long we will stay in the United States, given the upheaval at my current employer, and the current political climate. For now, we’re staying here, and we hope to stay longer.

What will the next 10 years hold?

I don’t know.  There will almost certainly be at least one more international move, and hopefully a TransAmerica bike ride. Maybe a chance to walk the length of New Zealand too?

Denver, Colorado

I don’t want you to think that we spend all our time hanging out in liberal enclaves in California, or hipster gin bars in Polk St. Sometimes we venture further afield. Earlier this month we got away to Denver, Colorado for a weekend.

Arriving late at night, the drive to the hotel was pretty dull…flat lands, freeways, and monstrous stores…Anna was not impressed. But then the sun came up to a clear but bloody cold day, we went out to explore, and pretty soon we said: “You know, this looks like the sort of place we could live.”

Interesting neighborhoods, nice old homes, the city feeling busy but not overwhelming. Plenty of options for physical activity too. Bike paths everywhere, trails along the river, and the mountains nearby, offering plenty of options for mountain biking, snowboarding, etc.

Cold though:

We didn’t plan it, but the annual Denver Parade of Lights was on while we were in town. So we stuck around to watch it:

You can’t see it all that well, but these are “lowrider” cars. Hilarious to watch, but maybe not the most practical. Note the angles some are on:

On Sunday morning we went out mountain biking with Nick from Front Range Ride Guides. This turned out to be a fantastic choice. We could have just hired bikes, but going with a local guide made it a much better experience.

We met Nick just outside Denver, and then travelled with him to the trailhead. He provided top-quality full-suspension bikes. No crappy rental fleet, these were good bikes, like I would like to own.

It was still clear and cold, starting off below freezing, warming up to maybe 45°F/7°C. The rivers were half-frozen, and you can see a little snow lying on the ground. We were super-lucky with the weather – a couple of days later and the temperature dropped a further 20°. We were able to have a great day out biking:

Nick was great company, easy to ride with, super-knowledgable about the area. He was clearly a very experienced rider, but he had the ability to work with different levels of riders, and make you feel at ease. We needed it too – you can see from these shots that we were up in the mountains. Something like 7,000 feet, and we’d only just arrived in the area.

Riding along flat to gentle inclines was fine, but as soon as we started climbing the lungs started burning. Later we’d stop, and my legs would be jelly-like, as if we’d climbed much further.

The ride was nicely paced, with great opportunities to stop and check the view, with a nice long downhill trail followed by a gentle ride back down the dirt road to the trailhead. Well-balanced, and perfectly finished with a couple of beers back at the parking lot, enjoying what was really a superb day, considering it was 3 weeks from Christmas.

We could have hired bikes ourselves, and spent time researching trails, consulting maps, getting lost, etc. I’ve done that sort of thing plenty of times in the past. But I’m glad we did it this way. No hassle, just turn up and bikes are ready to go, you don’t have to worry about navigation, someone can advise on trail choices, etc.

The best thing about this particular setup was that it was totally customised to us. No large group tour thing. This was set at our pace and ability, with no pressure to keep up, or waiting for slower riders. We got to do exactly the sort of riding we wanted to do, with someone who knew exactly what they were up to. Highly recommended, and we’ll catch up with Nick again when we return to Denver.

Goodbye Rain, Hello Fog

Anna and I have had enough of the high property prices in Auckland, and the frequent rain. So we’ve moved to a place with even more expensive real estate, and fog…but little or no rain.

That’s right, we’ve moved to San Francisco. My company has relocated me to the Bay Area, to work at HQ. Anna has worked very hard over the last few months to make it happen. Packing, selling stuff, giving it away, closing accounts, etc. Lots and lots of administrative work.

But now we’re here. We’re staying in an AirBnb for another week, then we’re moving to a furnished apartment in the SoMa district of San Francisco. We’ll stay there for a couple of months while we figure out where we want to live. We’re undecided if this will be in San Francisco, or maybe down the peninsula, closer to where I work.

It’s a new adventure for us. You’re all welcome to visit us, as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the couch or floor!

Flashpacking the Timber Trail

Let’s cut to the chase: Our weekend riding the Timber Trail & staying at Flashpackers Ongarue was the best experience we’ve had so far on the New Zealand Cycle Trails. The whole combination of riding, accommodation, transfer and meals was just fantastic.

The Timber Trail is a newish track through the Central North Island in New Zealand. It starts in Pureora and passes through 88km of native bush, regenerating forests, and a former bush tramway line, finishing in Ongarue.

Rem @ Flashpackers in Ongarue offers a range of services, from accommodation, meals, car transfers to bike rentals. You can put together whatever combination suits you. Our plans were:

  • Arrive Saturday night, after dinner
  • Have breakfast on Sunday, and get vehicle transfer to the starting point at Pureora
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp (about halfway along the track), pick up the car, and head back to Ongarue for dinner
  • Monday morning have breakfast, get dropped off at Piropiro, and ride back to Ongarue
  • Drive back to Auckland (about 3 hours).

That was no problem to organise. Even better, there’s no checkout time on the last day, so you can have a shower when you get back, before the drive home.

The Accommodation

Ongarue is only a shadow of its former self. It once had 3,000 people, but with the mill gone, there’s only a few people left. There’s still a few houses left, and Rem has renovated one of them, next to the old General Store. It is a beautiful old 3-bedroom house, with full kitchen, and spa pool. Anna immediately declared:

I’m in love with this house! This is the greatest place you’ve ever taken me!

This was about 2 minutes after arriving, long before we’d even looked around properly, or done any riding.

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The house is rented out on a per-room basis, but we were lucky enough to be on our own. So we had our choice of rooms, and the pianola all to ourselves!

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The spa pool’s just the ticket for after a day’s riding too:

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No need to light the coal range though. The 3 heat pumps kept the house warm & toasty:

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Day 1: Pureora to Piropiro

Strong riders can complete the whole trail in one long day, but it’s better split over two days. The problem is that it’s a point to point ride, and there’s not many entry/exit points along the way. You’ve got a few options:

  • Ride out partway, then turnaround and ride back over the same trail to the start
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp at the halfway point, and arrange a shuttle/pickup
  • Ride all the way through to Ongarue (and organise transport to the start or finish)

There are a few shuttle services available to drop you off, and pick you up, but Rem does something a little different. Using our car, we drive to the start, with Rem and his bike. He drops us off, then drives the car to the halfway point. He leaves the car there, and rides his bike home to Ongarue. We then have as long as we like to reach the halfway point, pick up the car, then drive ourselves back to Ongarue. The advantage of this approach is that we don’t have to get to Piropiro by a specific time – we just need to get there before dark!

The first section of the trail goes straight into native bush that wasn’t logged. Apparently they started by logging the sections further away from town, working their way back in. So then when the logging was stopped, they were left with a native bush section near town.

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From there it goes through some areas that have been logged more recently, before starting a climb into higher altitudes. The bike trail itself goes to around 1,000m. You can see a clear change in the trees. Look at the mosses that grow on them:

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The bike trail goes around Mt Pureora, but doesn’t go to the top. There are two marked walking tracks that divert off the main trail to the summit at 1165m. The second one is shorter, but the trail is rough going:

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It took at least half an hour to get to the top, but it was worth it. From here you can see all the surrounding countryside, and across to Lake Taupo:

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We had lunch at the top, then headed back down and picked up the bikes again. Not long after this we came across Bill, a DOC contractor working on the trails. Even though it was a Sunday he was out working on the tracks, grading a section. The weather was good, so he was out while he good. As he put it, he doesn’t like getting wet, so if it rains he stays home.

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We stopped to have a chat, and found out that he was the one that had put up the small signs on the track showing where some mobile phone coverage was available. Most of the track had no coverage. He’d also put up a small sign pointing out a view of Lake Taupo through the trees. It would have been easy to miss the small gap.

 

The day was getting on by this stage – it was around 2:30pm, and we’d done less than 20km of the 45km we had to cover. The good news was that things opened out from here. More gravel roads, less single track. More importantly, we were generally going downhill, a welcome break after the long steady climbing. So we made good progress over the last section. Much faster than the first.

We did have to stop and take a few photos of the first of the eight suspension bridges on the trail. Very cool, but be warned that these things to wobble about. Keep riding, don’t look down 🙂

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The last part of the trail dips in and out of a few gravel roads, finally winding up at Piropiro camp. Light was fading by the time we got there – I would not want to be any later. We spent about 7 hours on the trail, including the diversion up the walking track. Most people will be a little faster than us, and if you didn’t do the walk you’d have plenty of time.

As promised the car was there waiting for us. From the camp it’s a drive down a gravel road, back the main road. It’s a bit weird to drive the car out from a section you didn’t drive into. The signs weren’t obvious, so we just had to hope we were going down the ‘main’ gravel road. Eventually we hit the tarseal, and we knew we were on the right track.

We jumped in the spa at Ongarue, while Rem sorted out dinner. Long day on the trail, a beer in the spa, and a great dinner. What else could you want?

Day 2: Piropiro to Ongarue

This time Rem goes with us to Piropiro, drops us off, then drives our car back to Ongarue. He gets the day off riding.

I haven’t been out on the bike much recently, so hopping back on for the second day in a row is alway a little tender. We get back into the swing of it, but I spend more time then usual standing up, out of the saddle.

The trail is quite different today. Again, it starts with a climb, followed by mostly downhill. But this time the climb is only for around half an hour. We cross the longest suspension bridge on the trail, separating the two large forestry blocks:

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From there it’s uphill in the bush until we hit the bush tramway. In the early 20th century the timber company built a tramway from Ongarue up into the bush. It took years, and they had to spend vast sums of money before they were able to actually start logging.

The tramway was used until 1958 when flooding knocked out sections of it. Diesel trucks were then becoming viable, so it became a road, before being abandoned to the bush when logging finished.

It has now been cleared out, perfect for mountain biking. The cuttings through the countryside are very clear, making for a mostly level line. Steeper gradients than a regular railway, but better than going up & down every single hill.

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There are many deep cuttings, and fabulous views out over the valley:

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There’s also a few remnants of the old camps. Some camps had quite a few houses, but these have all gone now:

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The original track had a spiral section, where they needed to gain a large amount of elevation in a small space. The spiral was closed when the tramway was converted to road, but has been re-constructed:

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Huge long downhill sections are lots of fun. Kilometres fly by, but sadly the downhill doesn’t go all the way to the end. The trail levels out a few kilometres from the end, and follows a track alongside a small river. Very pleasant, but if you’re tired after a couple of days, it’s just a little bit more effort than you’d like.

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The trail itself ends about 2km from Ongarue. The last 2km is a mostly flat, quiet tarsealed road. We rolled into Ongarue, and took advantage of the late checkout to get cleaned up before heading home. Tired, but very satisfied.

Special Mention: The Food

You might think that if you’re doing a couple of days of mountain biking, you can eat whatever you like. No chance of gaining weight, right? Yeah, well…Rem feeds you well. Very well. You will not go hungry here. Rem cooked us breakfast both days, and provided a packed lunch for the trail. He also cooked a fabulous dinner. Ask for the recipe for the kumara & butternut recipe.

You’ll need the food on the trail, this is a long way from the Otago Rail Trail. There are no cafes here. We only saw one other person on the track in two days. Plan on taking all your food. You can drink from the streams if you’re low on water.

The kitchen at the house is fully equipped, and you could easily cook your own meals if you preferred.

Do It

Overall: Highly recommended. Both the ride, and staying at Flashpackers. If you can, get a group of 6 together and take over the whole house. I also recommend doing the vehicle transfers the way we did it. Much better than a shuttle.

Parihaka Mountain Bike Park

In the early days of mountain biking, when I was growing up in Whangarei, some trails were built on Parahaki, a 241m hill/mountain that overlooks the city. This is very close to town, making it viable to ride out to the trailhead. So much better than packing up the car to go biking.

Times have changed. I moved away from Whangarei, the trails were lost to logging, and now we call it Parihaka.

We were visiting over summer 2015-2016, and I’m pleased to see that the trails are being rebuilt – see this page, and the maps here.

The trails are the typical logging forest setup – a network of single-track built around a gravel road spine. We started from the Abbey Caves Rd entrance, and rode up some trails, before getting on the main road for the last leg up to the top.

From the top of the trails, you can head across the sealed carpark, and up the steps to the main lookout. You won’t want to do this every time you come up here, but it’s worth doing at least once.

I’ve walked up Parihaka many times, and I’ve ridden my bike up the road a few times, but it was the first time I’ve come up to the lookout via that angle.

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From there we went back down the trails, looping around a few times to cover almost all of the trails. Lots of fun, mostly good trails. Thankfully it was dry, so the clay soils were good riding. Probably a bit sticky in the wet.

Be warned: These trails do have some tricky bits: See the damage that Anna suffered:
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Note the bruises on one leg, and the bandage on the other ankle. To really rub salt into the wound, after the crash that caused this, the only way out along the trail was via a side track that was almost completely closed in with gorse. When you’re bruised and bleeding, the last thing you need is to get smacked in the face with a gorse bush.

Better hope that the husband has some sugary sweeties in the car to cheer you up when you finally reach the bottom, or things could go bad for both you and him…

Waihi-Waikino

Three years ago Anna I and rode our first part of the National Cycle Trail when we rode the Hauraki Rail Trail, from Paeroa to Waikino & return, and Paeroa to Te Aroha & return.

At the time the trail ended at Waikino, some distance short of Waihi. I’m pleased to report that they’ve finished the Waikino -> Waihi section. On a wet New Year’s Day, Anna & I parked at Waihi railway station, and rode to Waikino & return.

The riding was lovely, except for the rain – that’s why the photos are of us at Waikino station cafe, warming up & drinking hot coffee!

 

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Whangarei Quarry Gardens

The summer holidays weren’t just about mountain biking. We also took the time to visit the Whangarei Quarry Gardens. As the name suggests, this is a former quarry that has been turned into gardens over the last 15-20 years. Someone had the vision, and plenty of people put in years of hard work to turn it into reality.

I first visited here more than 10 years ago when it was just starting out. At the time it was a lot more bare, but now things have bedded themselves in. Well worth the trip if you’re in Whangarei.

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Twin Coast Cycle Trail

There’s only one part of the National Cycle Trail network north of Auckland, the Twin Coast Cycle Trail. As the name suggests, it runs from one coast to the other, from the Bay of Islands to the Hokianga Harbour.

Unfortunately it has taken a long time to get this trail constructed. Sections of it are open, other parts are due for completion this year, but the middle section has no planned construction date. Most of the trail follows an old railway line, so it should be easy to do, but maybe some key sections were sold off. Disappointing.

But anyway, some sections are open, and we were able to make it an afternoon ride of it. We parked at Okaihau, rode to Kaikohe, had a snack then rode back to Kaikohe.

Okaihau a small town these days – I think you could buy a place like this for a fair site cheaper than the typical overpriced Auckland villa:
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The trail follows an old railway line, so most of it is like this. Either open farmland, or old railway line cuttings, including a tunnel:
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There’s a few sections like this, where there’s a trail parallel to the main trail, with more mountain-bike style tracks, including a few obstacles.
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There’s also longer loop off the side of the track, 5km of tight twisty single track through the forest. Recommended for a diversion if you’re feeling like something more. Be warned though, after making easy miles along the rail trail, the forest is a lot slower going. Allow the time, food & water if you’re doing that diversion. It’s well sign-posted, and puts you back on the trail a few hundred metres from where you started.

Motu Trails

This summer, whilst visiting family & friends, Anna & I went on a mini-tour of upper North-Island bike trails. One of my uncles lives in Opotiki, so this seemed a good excuse to visit the Motu Trails.

We didn’t have time to complete the whole 90km of the trail, so we parked at the shop by Tirohanga Motor Camp, and rode East along the Dunes Trail, before heading inland up the Motu Road.

The Dunes Trail is all easy going, cruising along close to the ocean. The only annoying bit is the “cyclist-juicers” you have to squeeze through.

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Not quite no hands
Not quite no hands

After a bit of cruising along the Dunes, we headed inland, up one of those New Zealand roads that gets about 4 vehicles a day. There was a feeling of stepping back in time as we headed up the valley.
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After a few kilometres of quiet sealed road, it turns to gravel. New Zealand roads aren’t very good. But even this is bad by our standards – 48km of narrow, winding roads. You don’t want to go too fast around the blind corners.
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You’ve been warned:
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Not a posed shot, or some country club where rich kids ride ponies. Just locals going for a ride
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We meandered up the valley for a while, then stopped for lunch at a nice spot overlooking the river. Then a gentle cruise back down to where we started, for an ice-cream at the shop. Not a highly technical ride, just a nice gentle cruise through beautiful countryside. Perfect.
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We’re hoping to return soon, to ride the Pakihi Trail. This is a more technical, challenging, mostly downhill trail. We’ve got a local contact (Thanks Uncle Barry!) who can drive us to the top of the Pakihi Trail. Hopefully we’ll find a few others to join us. Looking forward to it.

Glenbervie: When Gorse Attacks

While up north this weekend, we took the bikes out to Glenbervie Forest, near Whangarei. I’ve been here many times over the years, but not recently. Turns out things have changed a little.

Arriving at the carpark, I wondered why there were no other bikers there. Normally there’s one or two. We headed out into the forest, noting the signs that showed some areas were closed due to logging. No problem though, we should be able to find some other trails, right?

Not so much. Signs pointed to trails, but they ended like this:

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This wasn’t just a one-off either. Everything was turning into dead-ends.

All my attempts of find good trails were going nowhere. We just seemed to have miles of uphill in the hot sun, with trails non-existent or overgrown. Well, maybe there’s one left – Bluff. That’s one of my favourite trails at Glenbervie. It’s been there a long time, and was always reliable. Let’s head down there.

It started beautifully, with a nice path through pine trees. Didn’t last though – we came up to this:Glenbervie - 11There is a trail through that gorse, if you look closely. The old trail is still underneath it all. There’s a smooth patch of dirt, and it’s a trail I know well from past rides. I thought that it might have just been a short patch of gorse, and we could push through it, but it got worse. Now we had cutty grass to contend with.

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I pushed on past Anna, trying to see if it ever opened up. I kept thinking we’d reach the older forest, and the path would open up. It just got worse.

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But after 150m of bashing downhill through it, I had to admit defeat. The problem is…there was only one way out. Back through the gorse. Uphill. Sigh.

I hauled my bike back up first, then came back and grabbed Anna’s bike. Eventually we made it back up to the forest road. Anna wouldn’t let me try going down any more tracks though. We had to head back down the main gravel road.

I guess the results were inevitable – we both ended up with shredded legs. Over the next few days I pulled at least 20 small thorns out of my fingers. Ouch. I’m not quite sure Ann’s forgiven me.

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