Tour Aotearoa: Highlights

The days blurred together as the ride went on, and even more so now that it’s done. Although each day had moments of joy, laughter, pain and frustration, some moments stood out more than others. Most of my highlights are from when we had the pleasure of getting on some dirt single track, surrounded by trees and birds. But extreme weather conditions, unexpected happenings and the generosity of people jump out as memorable moments on the month-long ride as well.

Highlight #1: Beginning the ride on 90 Mile Beach (Day 1)


Riding on the sandy 90 Mile Beach right next to the crashing waves for hours and hours was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Bikes are able to ride on the sand 3 hours before low tide and 4 hours after. We arrived at the Cape Reinga lighthouse at noon. Our shuttle driver, Joanna watched as we carefully unpacked the tetras puzzle of having to fit 4 people, 3 bikes and all our gear inside her mini van. With low tide being at 5:30pm that day, we had lots of time for lunch, and pictures, before heading off at 1:30pm to ride the 16km on the road before the beach access. We turned off the paved road onto gravel, then entered a stream of draining water and soft sand in order to actually reach the beach. Although it was challenging for me to stay on my bike as it kept sinking into unexpected soft spots, I was still able to ride because of my light bike and wide tyres. My dad did not have it so easy and ended up having to push his bike most of the way. He had skinny tyres, a heavier bike and heavy panniers on the back which kept his back tyre permanently sucked down by the sand. Once on the beach, it was so freeing to be the only people there for miles and miles. An occasional car would pass us; sometimes a seal would be sleeping on the beach and become startled at the hissing of our rolling tyres on the wet sand. Hundreds of Portuguese man-of-war jellies had washed up on the beach and their little purple-tinted, bubble-like bodies shone like glass. We started out with a good pace but it didn’t last long. My dad’s tyres kept sinking into the soft parts of the beach although we tried to aim for the higher and dryer points. I was ahead for most of it, telling him “follow me” or “don’t go this way”. The sun shone down and sparkled in the waves and sand. There were hardly any clouds in the sky. It was like summertime wanted to stay a little longer in New Zealand. My dad and I had smiles on our faces for most of the day, taking in the wonder. Darkness came round 6:30pm, and we brought out our headlights and continued on, as we thought the mid-way campsite, Utea, was close. The pace we were holding made time pass fast, and kilometers pass not fast enough. Due to my many long training rides which usually ended in the dark, I was comfortable enough and energetic enough to go ahead and scan the side of the beach for the small green flag that signified where the campsite was located behind the dunes. My dad kept trucking on behind me, but the sand was getting soft again as the tide came in. It was so hard to see as I only had a little camp light and the night sea fog was thick. We were about to give up and set up camp behind a random dune since it was now 8:30pm, but I finally found the flag just up ahead. I quickly set up my tarp and sleeping bag, and got dinner on the go. It was lentil soup and even though my dad said he wasn’t hungry, I basically said I would force-feed him if he didn’t eat. He needed energy and although I know how it feels to uncomfortably shove food down your throat at the end of a long day, we both needed it for the 100+kms the next day. Sleeping under the stars was magical, even though the moon was so bright it woke me up a few times. What a way to start the ride!

Highlight #2: A surprise dinner (Day 11)

We arrived at Ngaherenga campsite in Puraora, tired as usual. After paying our $6 each for camping and filling out the sign-in form under a tiny shelter at the camp area entrance, we wandered along the camp sites. Ideally we needed a site that was flat, sheltered from wind/rain, with trees/picnic table close by to tie the tarp and a good distance from other people and the toilet. We found our spot and started setting up. While pulling our gear off our bikes and out of their tightly packed bags, a mother, Isabelle, and her three kids approached us from the other side of the camp area (it was sort of like a big field surrounded by trees). “We’re your welcoming party!”, she said jokingly as she carried a young baby on her hip. “You two look tired, do you want some dinner? I just made a big batch of soup and don’t want any left overs.” Both my dad and I were blown away by her generosity. She cheerfully said she’d call us over when it was ready. We insisted that her family eat as much as they could first, then call us over to finish it off. The soup even turned out to be vegan and the recipe was called “Rockin’ Moroccan”. My dad and I had two bowls each as we tried to carry conversation between mouthfuls. Isabelle is a french Canadian from Montreal and turned out to know some people my dad used to work with in Eastern Canada…the world really is a small place, and people are full of surprises.

Highlight #3: The Timber Trail and Flashpackers accomodation (Day 12)


After full bellies of soup the night before, my dad and I set off on the Timber Trail in the rainy blusters. I’d missed actual single track - some twisty switchbacks, some rooty sections, the burn of pushing hard up a pinch then relaxing to coast for a bit. The only issue was…it was COOOLD. The wind was strong and vicious and although the rain was trying to be gentle, it still soaked us with every gust. As we climbed to 1000m, we tried to keep our layers thin so as not to get too sweaty and cold. At the top of the climb we took a break, and my dad had a look over his bike to try to find what had been making an awful noise for the last few kms. We found that a screw responsible for holding a part of his pannier to the bike had fallen out. After some head-scratching, I took off the bottle cage screw I had, and used that to re-attach his pannier arm. Back on the trail, winding through the NZ bush, our fingers froze in the wind. My dad grinned ear to ear as we went over the numerous swing bridges. At each one he would say, “Another one!” with glee. The bushy forest, and scattered pungas (tree ferns), covered the hills around us. It was stunning. The sun slowly came out and helped warm our numb hands and toes. At around km 70 out of 84, I turned back after a slippery, rutted section to watch my dad’s bike do a somersault over the side of the bank. In a heartbeat I ditched my bike and sprinted back to pull the bike off of him. Luckily he was already half way through getting back up the bank and quickly brushed himself off. He said he was trying to avoid the ruts and his handle bar clipped a tree, sending him off the edge. I did all my first aid checks in case of concussion or unnoticed injury but he was fine aside from a couple scrapes here and there. We took it easy for the rest of the ride into Ongaru where we stayed at an Airbnb-style house called “Flashpackers”. The owner’s name was Rim, and he was a dude. Classic kiwi, Rim was. He was very gracious of us staying there and even brought us a small basket of food for our stay since the nearest grocery store was a 20 min drive away.

The bushy forest, and scattered pungas (tree ferns), covered the hills around us.

The bushy forest, and scattered pungas (tree ferns), covered the hills around us.

Highlight #4: Picton to Nelson (Day 18)

My guts squirmed constantly during the 3-hour ferry ride from Wellington to Picton. We caught the 8am ferry from Wellington, arrived in Picton around 11am, had lunch and started our 110km road ride to Nelson. The ride out of Picton winds up and along the hills beside the sparkling bright blue ocean. The twisty road continues up the Whangamoa Saddle, then the Rai Saddle before descending onto the flat waterfront to Nelson. Dad and I whooped and hollered as we leaned into corner after corner once we finished the last climb and knew we only had downhill then flat to go. I’d driven that road quite a few times, but riding it was a whole different rush. We felt like kids on a rollercoaster. This day, and this ride was extremely special to me because I felt like I was heading home. At the time, I had lived in Nelson for almost 5 months and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest the closer we got to town. It was relief to get to my friend’s house and know that we had a well-earned rest the next day.

Highlight #5: A paddle on Lake Paringa (Day 26)

After riding 93km over the hilly saddles from Franz Josef to Fox Glacier, then quick and mellow spin on Highway 6 through huge Kahikatea trees, we arrived at Lake Paringa Lodge. The sandflies were so wicked, I bought some local bug repellent that was made on Stuart Island. We got chatting with the house keeper and she told us that we were welcome to use the kayaks for free to go for a little paddle around the lake. We eagerly accepted. It felt so good to use the arms and rest the legs after so many days of pedalling. The lake was beautiful although getting a little dark and windy as we headed out. My dad loves being on the water and has done many kayak and canoe trips. We had big cheeky grins as we enjoyed the water and expressed how grateful we were to be both healthy enough to ride over 90km, then go for a paddle. It didn’t last long, as the wind kept picking up, as did the dark. We ended the day with a Mexican couscous salad which I added the whole spice pack to and made it way too hot. Oops!

Highlight #6: Haast Pass in a storm (Day 28)

This was by far the most miserable, cold, soaking, painful day of the ride. We woke up to rain. Heavy rain. We stared out of our hostel window reluctantly at the grey skies, and the fat rain drops hitting the ground. The forecast showed that it would ease up around 10am, so we had a late breakfast and waited. It didn’t ease up. My dad even admitted that he didn’t want to go out in the weather, but we only had 78km to do that day, so I said “let’s just do it…”, with a sigh. Plus I wasn’t keen on spending another day night in Haast.

We quickly became one with the rain, shaking our heads at the ridiculousness of it all. We stopped at a raging waterfall for a picture. My feet went fully numb at km 43. I tried to focus on my breath and sing songs in my head for distraction. I pretending to be Wim Hof, the Ice Man, and use my mind and intention to circulate my blood around. It didn’t work. We stopped before the big 600m climb at Pleasant Flats, where there was a shelter and toilet, for a snack and to put on another layer. Poor dad’s hands were numb and it took him forever to put on another shirt. It was difficult to get moving again after the rest. The climb started steep and felt hard because of the numb legs and cold body. The worst part was the nasty headwind that literally left us at a standstill coming around some corners. Not cool, Mother Nature, not cool. I waited for dad a couple times when I found a sheltered area. Cars passed wide, which was nice, but no one gave us any encouragement that day. During the ride, I kept thinking back to an older man we had met coming out of Murchison. He had asked who was faster on the bike, and my dad pointed to me. The man said, “Do you know what the Maori would call you?”. I said no. “Wahine Toa. It means ‘Strong female warrior’”. I felt proud, and I hoped my dad did too. As I keep climbing, and fighting the wind and cold, I repeated in my head, “I am a Wahine Toa”.

We stopped at a raging waterfall for a picture on the way…

We stopped at a raging waterfall for a picture on the way…

We took a selfie at the pass summit, and quickly made our descent. 10 seconds into the downhill, my hands were completely numb. It was so cold, and so uncomfortable and just downright miserable that I started laughing. And I couldn’t stop. I giggled hysterically for probably 5 minutes straight in between shivers - I think it actually made me a little warmer. Once at the Makarora visitor centre and campsite, it was time to thaw our feet and hands, which was actually extremely painful and itchy. My feet went from white to a disturbing purple colour in my toenails, then a splotchy yellow and bright red, before returning to a normal skin colour. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be warm and dry and still, as I was that night.

Highlight #7: The Crown Range (Day 30)

This was the most intimidating elevation grid we had in our guide book during the trip. There was a steady climb up to 1,076m, then a quick descent back to 100m or so. I was excited because I like hills, but my dad, not so much. The climb wasn’t actually that bad. It took us over 20km to reach the 1000m point so it was quite mellow, yet a steady uphill. The higher we got, the more barren and sparse the hillsides got; alpine-like terrain, covered in yellow and brown grass. It reminded me of Peru. As per usual, it was very windy and cold at the summit. But it was beautiful to be amongst so many mountains and to see the twisty, windy road downhill ahead of us. After the traditional summit pictures, we were off. We had to be careful with our speed on the road as the traffic was fairly busy. We had a filling lunch at the bottom, and called mum to update her on our journey.


Highlight #8: Von Hill/Otago Southland mountains (Day 31)

From Queenstown, we took the historic ferry to Walter Peak, before continuing on a gravel road through the mountains on our way to Mossburn. I was so present that I don’t have many words to say about this day, except that I was beaming with joy being surrounded by those mountains.


Highlight #9: Bluff (Day 33)

The final push. Of course this was a highlight, even though my dad and I weren’t particularly on the best of terms during this ride. It’s very bittersweet to end something as big as this. I felt kind of empty and confused. There was, of course, a sense of relief, as we turned the last corner and saw the Bluff signpost, with a dozen different yellow signs pointing to cities all over the world. But there was also sadness. I am so grateful for my dad, his willingness to take on this challenge with me and his commitment to good health to be able to complete it. Not bad at all for a 64 year old. I’m wondering what his next adventure will be.

By the way, it was his idea to ride up Bluff Hill on our way back to Invercargill from the end point. Bluff hill is used by locals as a challenging hill climb - a steep 250m climb up to a beautiful 360 degree lookout. Good thing I like hills.

Highlight #10 - My faithful Santa Cruz Highball

Over the month of riding, my bike had virtually no issues. I adjusted the brake callipers once, put some extra air in my fork at the start, and that was it. It even had a once-over in the bike shop, Gravity Nelson, during our rest day in Nelson, and the mechanic said all it needed was a new chain. Every morning I’d do a bike-check to make sure everything was tight, well lubed, good air pressure in tyres and fork, but it never gave me any real problems during 3000km of riding. The 29er wheels and light-weight bike allowed for comfortable climbing, my sweepback bars were ideal for my wrists and to keep my back more upright, my tyres were fast rolling but still had traction on gravel and dirt, and my bag choice was a perfect fit too. Overall, I was stoked on the reliability of the Santa Cruz Highball and of the rest of my set-up. (More of a gear tour coming soon).


I still pinch myself sometimes when I think back to this mission. It almost feels like a dream now. These periodic reflections challenge my memory, as well as help me digest everything we went through, without being caught up in the whirlwind of it all. These top 10 highlights of our 2018 Father-Daughter Tour Aotearoa will stay with me forever.

Skye Irwin1 Comment