53.4 mi / 9.8 mph / 2176 ft. climbing
Home: Tasman Holiday Park
My original plan to get from Tauranga to Rotorua was the direct route, SH36. But the stress we faced with the traffic on yesterday’s “SH” (SH2), plus the big up-and-down shoulderless gorge on SH36, made me open to alternatives. Luckily, our host Barbara had some! She even called up her riding-group friend Cam to help talk me through a particular alternate. Rotorua is almost due south of Tauranga, and this new route swings far to the east of the straight-line SH36 route, so it adds 15 extra miles, but actually cuts the climbing by nearly 1000 feet. And it promises to be much more relaxed. Let’s do it!
Except…just before we went to bed last night, I found that last December there had been a devastating washout on the forest-bike-path section of the route. Funding had recently been approved to repair it, but the latest reports I could find were from July after seven more months of erosion, and while it was passable for people with lighter-loaded bikes than us, it required walking and lifting your bike up and down of 3-to-4-foot drop-offs, which would likely require us to remove and reattach all our bags at every transition. Ugh!
So I spent about an hour (when I should have been sleeping) trying to find alternatives to the alternative. A route that took us even further east had a section of unknown gravel, so that was a risk too. Maybe just go back to the original highway route? Argh! Eventually Rett said let’s just go for the washed-out road and hope the struggle to get through it isn’t as bad as I’m fearing.
Just yesterday I proposed the theory to Rett that maybe New Zealanders have trouble moving over for us because almost no multi-lane roads exist in New Zealand, so the idea of shifting laterally across the road width is completely foreign to most drivers. It’s honestly unbelievable that central Auckland is literally the only place we’ve seen with multi-lane roads, and even that was mostly on the small section of limited-access highways. Since then, every single road we’ve been on has had a single lane in each direction (and on some of the one-lane bridges, not even that!) The theory was inspired by the realization that SH2 connects the 1st- and 5th-largest cities in the country, but has no on/off-ramps, and just one lane in each direction! The concept of an “Interstate Highway” is simply not a thing here, for better or worse. Compare that to suburban Chicago, where surface roads with three lanes in each direction are quite common, and obviously the roads connecting even minor cities have multiple lanes! I guess it’s mostly a reflection of NZ’s low population density (more lanes simply aren’t needed), but could also be a reflection of the relative power of the road-building lobby in NZ vs. USA.
Anyway, Tauranga must have heard me, because it wanted to show off its multi-lane limited-access highways in the city center in an attempt to prove me wrong. (What, you’re trying to tell me that NZ drivers don’t move laterally simply because they’re jerks?) Our new route had us heading east out of Tauranga (rather than south), which meant that we needed to traverse the busiest part of the city and cross a couple of bays. Thankfully the city’s cycling infrastructure was pretty good, including a separated bike-path on the big SH2 bridge.
We even headed slightly north to pick up Oceanbeach Road, which would let us ride stop-free along the gently-curving Pacific coast for more than 7 miles through a still-extending eastern arm of Tauranga’s suburbia. Unfortunately brief peeks of the water was all we could manage to see through the dune wall, but the efficiency of the route (and occasional bits of brand-new bike path, useful mainly because the surface was faster than NZ’s terrible chip-seal roads) still made it worth it.
As the built-2-years-ago houses transitioned into the built-6-months-ago houses, and transitioned again to earth being moved for new subdivision streets enabling houses to be built along them in another 6 months, the empty-street bike lanes transitioned to a meandering gravel path through open fields, and then connected to a trail along a newly-built section of SH2. It’s evidence that NZ is doing a good job of creating cyclist accommodations when building new infrastructure, it’s just frustrating that little of the old infrastructure has been retrofitted.
At Paengaroa we turned off onto Old Coach Road and then Roydon Downs Road, leaving behind more and more traffic with each turn. Once again we were in gorgeous New Zealand farm country, with only the occasional fruit truck or rare car letting us know that we weren’t still on the bike bath.
By the time we hit gravel, traffic had essentially dwindled to zero. And while it was slow-going, both due to the surface and the uphill grade, the surface was quite good, never threatening to redirect our wheels, and not requiring us to reduce our tire pressure.
The key to this whole Kaikōkopu cycleway is a relatively-short section of a bike-only track through a forest, connecting two previously-unconnected gravel roads. To cars, they remain two separate dead end roads with no utility, which is exactly what makes the connected cyclists-only version so useful for us. Well, useful once we took off our rear panniers to slip our bikes through the extremely-restrictive entry gate (I guess it’s good that they’re working to keep anything but bikes off the path!)
Rett was able to ride a good amount of what essentially felt like a hiking trail through the forest, but we needed to walk sections where it got too steep or loose. But even at walking speed, every step we could do before we got stopped by the washout meant that the washout was that many steps shorter and would eat up that much less of our time.
Finally, there it was, the deep gouge in the orange soil that the flood had scoured out. And, to the left, a wide, smooth newly-built gravel “road”! I didn’t say anything for a while, not wanting to jinx it, but as we rode smoothly along, it became clear that the washout had been repaired! Well, not exactly “repaired”, they built a whole new path alongside it, leaving the washout channel to carry future floodwaters and continue to sacrifice itself to protect the new trail. We made it to the end and back to the (still gravel) vehicle road in short order, now ironically wishing that a flood would destroy the northern section of trail too, so that they would have an excuse to rebuild that part to a more-rideable standard as well!
That was a tremendous stroke of luck, as I had guessed that it would take us at least an hour, maybe two (on this already super-long day) to push through the washout. Instead, while still long and tiring, we got a super-relaxed ride that was surely far better than any alternative. Now just update your website, Council, to let everyone know the repair you spent so much money on is completed, and save the next guy an hour of sleep! [as of this writing, they finally have done so]
Unfortunately there was no way to get to Rotorua without riding an “SH”, so we still had 12 more miles of riding to do on SH33 along Lake Rotorua’s eastern shore. I think the peacefulness of the earlier sections made the return to traffic even more stressful to Rett. For our final fuel we stopped at a superette for ice cream cones (fresh-served ice-cream seems to be widely available in convenience stores here; for US readers, imagine the 7-11 clerk serving ice cream…or maybe don’t). Luckily we also had a nice tailwind, and then as the roads got even busier (and multi-lane!) approaching Rotorua, the on-street bike-lanes continued for longer than Google knows.
At 6pm, three hours after we usually like to get into camp, we rolled into another holiday park near the center of town. It was so late that I got an automated email saying “uh, office closes at 7pm, when are you guys going to show up?!”
While Rett showered up, I set up the tent on our designated square of grass and then bounced back out to get pizza and salad and wine to cook up in the multi-oven camp kitchen.
With those calories narrowly ingested before we killed each other, we then went to the hot-spring pool for a much-deserved soak (following the fifth-longest ride of our nomadacy, timewise). Somehow we’ve become hot-spring aficionados in 2023 without even trying!