Auckland (Sandringham), NZ

Week 3

38.2 mi / 8.8 mph / 5497 ft. climbing
Home: Christine’s AirBNB townhouse

The big excursion this week was a bike ride over the Waitakere Ranges to Piha Beach. And even with our bikes unloaded and an assist from a train, it was still one of the toughest rides we’ve done, with over a mile of climbing! I mean, generally when we’re touring with our full loads we don’t cross a mountain range, turn around, and do it again all in one day, because that would be impossible. So it was nice(?) to have the ability to attempt such a thing from our Auckland home base.

We started with a ride of a mile and a half to the nearest Yellow Line light rail station. It was Rett’s first time taking her bike on public transit in any hemisphere (and my first time in forever), and it worked nicely. The train platform has painted areas indicating where bikes (and wheelchairs and strollers (er, “prams”!) should wait, and that’s where the train car whose floor is level with the platform stops, and although there was one other guy with a bike, there was still plenty of room on the outbound morning train.

We took it west to the end of the line at Swanson, bypassing a mess of (sub)urban riding, and almost immediately began climbing. 9% grades were normal, but we had spots up to 14%.

The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park is filled with “tracks” (NZ English for “trails”), but almost all of them are closed. The closures happened around 2018, in an attempt to stop an infectious disease killing the iconic kauri trees, one that humans can spread by walking near their roots. My interpretation is that some trails began reopening once they had time and money to install boardwalks and cleaning stations. But then in early 2023, Cyclone Gabrielle ripped through this area, causing slips (NZE for “rock/mudslides”) and washing away infrastructure, closing them once again.

But before we got to the top of the road on Scenic Drive, the Spragg Bush Track was open, so we parked the bikes and did the couple miles of walking. It probably wasn’t the most-spectacular hike for a native, but for two North Americans who have never seen any of this plant life, it was incredible!

This is a trail gate to help prevent Kauri Dieback, a disease affecting New Zealand’s great trees. First you clean your shoes on the red brush, then step on the blue box, which pumps two jets of disinfectant onto your soles from below. “Keep Left” is a nice “official” answer to whether walking follows the same rules as driving here.
A very tropical-jungle-looking environment, but not as hot!
Our first meeting of one of the great kauri trees. I can understand why they’re putting in all this effort to protect them!
A whole ecosystem is living on the trunk and branches of this giant kauri.
More plant forms unfamiliar to our northern American eyes.

The end of Scenic Drive brought us into a hard right turn onto Piha Road, where cars taking the direct route over the mountains to the beach increased significantly in both number and speed. The riding became much less-relaxed, but it was still doable.

Auckland to the right, Rangitoto volcano to the left (and the Coromandel peninsula behind them both).

Once we hit the final crest, we had a decision to make: dive down the 900 feet to the beach, or just take a view from the top and turn around to live another day. Rett was concerned about her ability to climb the 900 ft. at a 12% grade, but given what I’d seen her do so far on this ride, I knew she’d be able to rise to that challenge too. My concern was broader: would the total accumulation of climbing and distance exhaust us before we made it back home? Well, the view down to the beach made us throw caution to the wind, and we squeezed our brakes through the twisting curves that brought us to the sand.

Looking down onto Piha Beach.
Lion Rock, somewhat like Haystack Rock off the Oregon coast, but covered in green life, including large trees that tell you the rock is much bigger than your brain wants to assume. For scale, note the little C-shape down near the water on the right side…
…Here is that C-shape on Lion Rock zoomed in.
Rett exploring a tall narrow cave on the side of Lion Rock.
Rett looking at crabs in the tidepools.
Presumably there are rocks under these countless black shells.
Piha Beach, with the tide coming in.
The “black sands” weren’t quite as black as we expected, but still blacker (and warmer!) than most beaches we’re used to, and also very sparkly!

It didn’t seem like any of the businesses would be open on this weekend, but luckily there was a small food shop where we got some drinks and treats (since we’d underpacked calories for a ride this challenging), and then after eating our packed lunch on the beach, we stopped at a small ice cream stand. Definitely worth the effort!

Fresh-mixed fruit ice creams just on the other side of the Piha Beach dunes.

On the way back, the passenger in a car passing us near the end of our time on that busy Piha Road said “you guys are ruining it for everyone else”. Huh? It would have made some sense if we had been grinding up a 14% grade at 3.4 mph and he was stuck behind us in his curve-hugging sports car unable to pass, but it was in an easy passing spot and it wasn’t a recreational-driver’s car. Maybe it was some form of New Zealand humor, and he meant that we were “ruining” the drivers’ high opinions of their own skills by doing it on bicycles? Either way, we were glad to return to Scenic Drive, which in the late afternoon was down to nearly zero cars. Just a few blocks from the train station though, Rett nearly got hit by a car making a left turn onto our road from a side road (left turns being the type here that hug the curb around the corner). It didn’t even have anything to do with Rett being exhausted and forgetting the reversed roads; the guy just went around a right-turning car while that car was blocking us from his view, assuming no one was there.

The train conductor waited a couple seconds as we pulled into the station and hustled us on, and we rested up on the even-more-empty train for the final 1.4 miles back to our townhome. I rode back out to make an order at “Eat Love Repeat”, a food truck a couple blocks away (and a couple blocks from like 5 Indian grocery stores in Sandringham) that makes Indian-flavored hamburgers (and fries) and somehow had a 5.0 rating on Google with 100+ reviews. It lived up to that reputation and was a great reward for our record-setting day!


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