National Park, NZ to Pipiriki, NZ

Day 5

We had booked two nights at the Alpine Chalets: 13-mile hike day, and then today’s rest day. When we made the booking, we got an email offering us a “free upgrade” to the second floor for better a better view of the mountains. Well that’s a nice offer, but we have the bikes, so unless there’s some other storage area, staying on the first floor is probably easier than getting them up the stairs. The next email says “oh, just go up to your second floor room, and there will be a key for a first floor room that you can keep your bikes in”. So we essentially got two rooms for the price of one! That’s good business knowledge; they must know their guest flow well enough to know that the chances of their 10 rooms filling over the next two days were near zero. But the even more-impressive skill is turning that business knowledge into customer-pleasing service; since they wouldn’t need to clean our “bike room”, it wouldn’t cost them a cent to deliver a delightful experience to us. A simple thing, but 99% of places wouldn’t make that effort. Thanks Alpine Chalets!

The Alpine Chalets in National Park, where we somehow managed to occupy 1/5th of their rooms.

When they made the offer, I figured the “better views” of the second floor would be kind of pointless, since in three days we hadn’t seen the tops of any of the mountains under the clouds. Even on our mostly-clear hiking day there were clouds between the mountains and National Park. But our rest day had clear blue skies, and we definitely spent much of the day looking out the window at the blinding-white top of Mount Ruapehu, or leaning over to check on Mount Doom. Even though we’ve been in New Zealand for two months, and most of it has looked strange and different, something about seeing the snow-covered mountain finally brought the New Zealand of our imaginations fully into view.

Lamby was enjoying the view of Ruapehu from our motel room bed just as much as we were.
The Mount Doom of the Lord of the Rings movies was a significantly altered version of the actual Mount Ngauruhoe, but I think the first thing Peter Jackson had to do was edit out the flowers.
We’ve seen plenty of snow-covered mountains (particularly in our time in Washington), but somehow this one felt different, it felt New Zealand-y. I’m not sure if that’s due to the shape of the volcano, its proximity to us, its flattish green surroundings, or just the fact that it’s in New Zealand?
Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu in one view (with the really-crumpled form of Tongariro to the left of Ngauruhoe).

To Pipiriki

37.8 mi / 12.2 mph / 1519 ft. climbing
Home: Pipiriki Campground

I definitely had to loosen up some stiffness in my legs before I could easily descend the stairs from our second-floor room, and for Rett it wasn’t easy even after loosening up, but pedaling the bikes wasn’t too bad. And luckily we’d be nearly returning to sea level in a single ride today. There was a bit more traffic on SH4 heading south out of National Park than we’d had on the more-minor roads heading in, but it was still pretty chill.

Seven miles in we did a 90-degree turn into a river-gorge-traversing in-and-out, and BAM, there was Ruapehu, from our closest vantage point so far.
The train tracks take a more-direct route across the Makatote gorge. This was the final link in the island-crossing railway.
A really cool giant owl carved into a giant tree stump. I wonder what the sheep think of it?

We stopped in Raetihi for second-breakfast at a cafe, and groceries at the Four Square. Raetihi felt like a down-on-its-luck US Midwest small town; something about the wide main street, slightly-stately old bank building, and mix of empty and hanging-on storefronts carried those echoes from across the ocean, echoes we haven’t heard in this country until now.

Leaving town, the road led us into the best riding we’ve done in New Zealand so far. It dove and twisted around sharp-pointed green hills, whose high slopes were populated by sheep eyeing our approach. And traffic was nearly zero. Again it’s sort of a “simple” landscape where I’m challenged to communicate the layered scale and beauty through photos, but we were both grinning for most of the ride.

Heading west on glorious Raetihi-Pipiriki Road.
Sheep, sheep, and more sheep.
Lamby likes to yell “HIIII SHEEEEPEEEEES!!!!” whenever she see her cousins, and her excitement often makes them jump up and run the other way. But this stampede (and extended, hillside-wide chorus of “baaaa”-ing) was triggered by me simply stopping to get a photo.
I’m not sure how four hobbits turned the short walk from The Shire to Mount Doom into such an epic journey; they must have gotten really lost along the way! Like, it’s right there, guys! Two days of walking, max!
Hilltop sheep ignoring the giant volcano behind them in order to make sure the two of us don’t do anything dangerous.
Sheep and cattle lands turned more native as we continued west.

Pipiriki is a small remote settlement where Whanganui River Adventures is perhaps the only business. We arrived before we had even eaten lunch, were warmly welcomed to their campground, and bought a soda from their small store to have with our lunch that ate in the adjacent campground kitchen/lounge. Since we were so early, we decided to walk down to the river and check for a swimming opportunity. Our own “Whanganui River Adventure” ended up being sort of a bust, partly because Rett’s stiff legs meant she could barely walk down the sloped road to the river, and partly because the moss-covered-rock river bottom wasn’t ideal for swimming. But “exploring the country roads of a nowhere-town” was a new thing for us in New Zealand, so it was worth it just for that.

Feet in the wide Whanganui River.
High cliffs rise around the Whanganui gorge that we’ll be riding down tomorrow.
Pipiriki Campground. A nice modern-simple bathroom/shower box in the left foreground, Three dwelling units (one occupied), and four of the seven parties here tonight were without vehicles, a pretty cool ratio!

When I was supposed to be fetching pain meds for Rett while she sat in the lounge afterward, I got pleasantly distracted (less-pleasantly for Rett) by Anna and Moritz (from Germany), a just-arrived couple on bikes who are 7 months into a 2-year world-tour. We talked for 20 minutes before I remembered what I was supposed to be doing, long enough for both of us to have our first encounter with the dreaded New Zealand sand flies biting our ankles. We re-gathered around and after dinner, along with Dirk from Belgium (who had done the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in the US 20 years ago!) It’s cool how the amenities in these private campgrounds not only make life so much easier with their kitchens and roofs and comfortable chairs, they also provide a common space that brings like-minded people together in ways that might not happen if we were all isolated around our own tents. Rett knocked off to the tent early, but we stayed chatting past when we could no longer even see each other in the darkness (until someone remembered we could turn on a light in this nice electricity-filled room we were all sitting in!)


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