Tour Aotearoa -The land of the long white cloud

We recently spoke to Kalf ambassador William King upon his completion of Tour Aotearoa 2018.

At the beginning of February I packed my bike up and set out for my flight to Auckland, New Zealand, to take part in the 2018 Tour Aotearoa. A 3000 km off-road, self-supported bike packing event from the very top of New Zealand, Cape Reinga, to the very bottom, Bluff. This would be my second time riding the event and this time I wanted to finish ahead of the crowd of 600 entries.

After 30 hours and four flights I arrived at a friend’s house in Northland, where I had a day to try get over jet lag and build the bike.

I finished the last part of my journey travelling to the start line to begin the 3000 km ride South with two good friends, Mauro, another international rider from Italy, and Matt from Christchurch. It was an early and anxious start to the day. It was late summer in the Southern hemisphere and I had been looking forward to riding in short sleeves after training in the British winter. However, New Zealand being New Zealand it decided to rain on the very first day and this set the tone for what was going to be a tough ride.

 

 

We set off for the first part of the ride and the part I was looking forward to getting out of the way, a 90 mile beach. Riding in heavy rain and strong winds on hard sand wasn’t an ideal way to start the ride, let alone on the beach, but the bike was riding well and I felt strong, so I pushed on to get to the first of many ferries. Finally, making it off the beach I regrouped with a few other riders, ate my body weight in fish burgers, pushed on and crossed the river. We set out on gravel roads into the dark to find a dry place to stay and somewhere to get the sand out of my shorts. I finished the day riding 148 wet miles, and slept very well that evening, but knew day two was fast approaching.

Waking to the sound of heavy rain was not the most motivating of sounds at 5am. I finally changed in to my wet kit and set out for another big day in the saddle. I pushed hard to make a ferry at 4pm to cross Kaipara harbour, but soon learnt that the ferry had broken down and wouldn’t be running until 8am the next day. Wanting to keep ahead of the crowds, I decided to take the alternative prearranged route around the harbour, adding on quite a few kilometres to the ride – so I set off with riding buddy Matt. It turned into another big day in the saddle, but we were getting closer to Auckland and the rain eased up that afternoon, so things were going to plan.

 

 

Day three started with blue skies and killer heat which was a welcome change to riding in damp kit. I made really good progress riding through Auckland city centre and after a few days riding in the rural countryside it seemed almost alien to me.

All riders carry a SPOT tracker which meant people could see my location and I can see other riders. I had about nine riders ahead of me so rode straight through Auckland with a quick food stop to try and pass a few of them. I managed to ride into the night with four other riders which made the kilometres fly by, with stories being told and laughing at terrible jokes. Looking at the forecast for that night a huge electrical storm was due to hit around midnight so we arranged a motel room for the evening. Yet again waking up to extremely heavy rain made for a later start to the day and what turned out to be my shortest day riding with only 111 miles completed, but set myself up for a huge day riding the Waikato River Trail and Timber Trail with rumours of a cyclone passing through making headlines.

Day 5 was going to be a big day riding wet trails, so I set off at 5am and shot through the Waikato River Trail – a 100km fast, muddy and tree routed single track snaking down the Waikato valley, which lead to the trailhead of the Timber Trail, which is an 80km single track with a number of huge timber suspension bridges. After 1000m of climbing and 50km in, the rain returned but I was pleased with the progress I was making and was keen to keep pedalling into the early hours. At about midnight the rain still present, I snapped my chain which I quickly fixed with limited light, then snapped again and then a third time. I was having an issue with how dry and dirty my chain had gotten, despite the wet weather, so I made for a refuge hut for the night, about 20km short of the end of the trail.

Another pre-dawn start with a sunny 20km decent through lush native bush to the next town for breakfast and getting ready for the next trail, The Bridge to Nowhere. At this point my phone had decided to give up on me due to the constant use as a light to repair my chain in the rain the night before. I set out from town with food on the bike, and a happy man, having pretty much eaten everything from the McDonald’s menu and slowly made my way into the Whanganui National park. I manage to steer my bike through the thick mud and hard climbs to get to the next ferry, with minutes to spare, to take me a short journey down the Whanganui River via jet boat. I rode through the night to get to a big town for a bed, so I could strip the bike down clean it and get ready for the next few days of gravel riding. My biggest strength when riding long distances is how I manage my time off the bike and on this occasion, spending time cleaning for the next day made a huge difference.

 

 

At this point of the ride there were only a handful of riders ahead of me, so for the next few days I pushed the pace on fast gravel roads to try to make an earlier ferry from Wellington, on the North Island, to Picton on the South. With light winds and dry conditions I finished my day riding with current leader Nijat Imin. I spoke with a friend with regards to the impending cyclone and was advised to head as far south as possible before it hit, so we jumped on a 2.15am ferry the next morning.

Whilst boarding the boat, I had time to reflect upon the past week of riding and it felt great to be crossing for the next stage of the ride. Nigit and I soon became good friends, sharing stories and how we were both taken back by the amount of support we were receiving from “dot-watchers” and the public. So many people were taking the time to cheer us on, bring us snacks and offer words of encouragement along the way.

We landed on the South island at 6am and agreed to ride together to get as far south as possible to avoid the storm, due in a few days’ time. We set off riding the winding roads through the Marlbourgh Sounds to start our climb up over the Maungatapu saddle and roll into my old home of Nelson. The Maungatapu saddle was a tough trail to climb but with incredible views around every corner. Friends came out to ride with us in Nelson and took us for lunch, but before long we were heading off into the hills again but with full stomachs and fresh supplies, we just kept pedalling.

With only a brief rest in a sheep shed we kept riding up in to the hills, through stunning landscapes but feeling the kilometres in my legs. I knew if we got to the next town of Reefton we could find dinner and bed, and could plan our next move to avoid Cyclone Gita.

 

 

Rolling in Reefton it became apparent that the town was on lock down with the civil defence closing roads, boarding up windows and advising people to stay indoors for the next 24 hours. This was the worst news we could receive as we had hoped to carry on south to miss the storm.

Unsure what to do the next; I was up early speaking to locals to make my plan for the day. Nijat had left town at first light but only made it to the next town, and reported back to me “not to try as the wind was frightening”. Not knowing what to do, other than waiting for the cyclone to pass, I ate my way through town, chatting to locals and doing interviews for local and national newspapers. Riders were slowly trickling into town, which was incredibly frustrating but great to catch up and hear stories of their trips so far.

The Cyclone came through town that afternoon bringing lots of rain and strong winds. It had a huge impact on the landscape all over the South Island with huge landslides, flooding and a huge dumping of snow in the Alps. Having the whole day off gave me the chance to sort my gear and plan the days to come, riding the West coast which had long sections of sealed roads which I knew I could cover a lot of distance. I aimed for three big days in the saddle, so I could finish ahead of the riders currently arriving in Reefton, and having ridden the route before gave me an advantage. I set off at first light, watching the sunrise, and made good time as I just kept pedalling South.

 

 

I ended up at Fox Glacier just before midnight and everything was closed, it was freezing so I snuck into a campsite and squeezed into a shower cubicle, to sleep for the night, which was perfect. I woke to the sound of keen campers showering before sunrise so quickly packed up and set off with the idea of getting to Queenstown that evening.

Riding from Fox Glacier to Queenstown meant riding big climbs and another long day sat in the saddle.  Watching the sun creep through the wild west coast bush, I was off again and I just kept pedalling. After 90 miles I reached Haast for a late lunch of one pizza, four eggs on toast, milkshake, cake, ice cream and coffee. This was a standard lunch if I came across a café. Haast pass was a few kilometres ahead, a long steep climb but this meant I was rewarded with a long steep descent. I was soon riding alongside lake Wanaka, my next big town and food stop before ascending the Crown Range. I finally rolled into Wanaka in the early hours not sure if I should ride on or not, as it turned out, the Crown Range was closed due to snow so after a quick rest and heaps more junk food I slowly made my way up and over, knowing that I would be stopped by a local or the Police, if I did this in daylight and this would have meant a 200km detour! I was almost in tears out of pure exhaustion from riding over this climb and pulled over soon after the downhill and just slept on the edge of the trail.

 

 

The daylight woke me and I fell behind time knowing that I had 50 km to ride to Queenstown for another ferry, in a few hours’ time. I just caught the ferry and was feeling good on the bike, despite riding huge miles the day before and having a terrible night’s sleep on the gravel trail. But the thought of finishing the ride and currently being the leader kept me motivated and it was as if I had fresh legs again.

I set of from the ferry mid-morning and rode some of the best gravel roads in the country through Mavora Lakes, with amazing views. I was making good time and planned to push on to finish line that evening in Bluff. I was in the middle of nowhere when a guy flagged me down to wish me luck with the finally stage of my ride and to give me a beer to finish with, which was a massive motivation to get to the end for my first beer in weeks.  Shortly after this, it became apparent I had a slow puncture, so I pumped my tyre up and rode on, knowing I had less than 60 kilometres to the end.

 

 

I came into Invercargill, the last town before the straight to Bluff, and bumped into a couple cheering me on and who, in true Kiwi-style, offered me a place to stay that night, once I was finished. I then swung around the corner to be met by two guys and two kids chanting my Instagram name will.da.beast, in the pitch black, holding a jar of apricots for me to try. It was one of the most surreal moments of the ride but one of the best.

With less than 10 kilometres to the end my bike had started to give up. I snapped the chain yet again and the slow puncture was now deflating within minutes. I fixed the chain, pumped up the tyre, rode on and finally made it to Bluff.

It was a strange feeling knowing that this was the end and I didn’t have to get on my bike to ride on anywhere. For the past thirteen and a half days all I had to think about was wake up eat, sleep, ride, repeat. There were a few people at the end, in the dark, to see me in. I drank my beer jumped into a car and made my way to my new friends (trail angel) house to get clean and sleep.

 

 

I was the first rider into Bluff and completed the route in 13 days 22 hours, which isn’t the fastest of times but due to the conditions I couldn’t have done it any other way. New Zealand is one of the most stunning places to ride. Being able to watch the sunrise and sunset each day made riding 16 plus hours a day worth every pedal stroke and had to be the highlight of the ride.

Check out my Instagram profile for more pictures and feel free to ask any questions.