Pipiriki, NZ to Whanganui, NZ

45.0 mi / 9.9 mph / 2961 ft. climbing
Home: Caroline’s Outback Campground

A variety of birds were tweeting and hooting and squawking and beeping through what felt like most of the night, but that’s a more-enjoyable source of campground noise than partying humans, so I couldn’t be mad at them. When we woke and got out of the tent, Rett immediately rolled her bike and everything up to the kitchen/lounge/bathrooms, while I packed up the tent and followed soon after to join her making breakfast. We shared the space with the three other non-motorized parties camping here, and it was again nice to feel like a part of an ad-hoc community (it seems like people in vans/RVs almost never use the communal campground kitchens, which is a little surprising since the kitchens are probably nicer than what they have in their vehicles, but I guess “private” vs. “shared” outweighs space/quality. And no complaints, since it leaves them more-empty for us!)

The beautiful quiet westward road that had brought us to Pipiriki yesterday turned south at this point to flow down the Whanganui River gorge, but it remained similarly-empty and beautiful. For most of its 40 miles it didn’t even have a centerline drawn on it, and we saw one vehicle maybe every 20 minutes.

We can now add pigs to the list of domestic animals we’ve seen in New Zealand!

And while it never turned to gravel or dirt (something we might expect of a road this empty), it didn’t do a great job of sticking to the river. At least not vertically. We had a couple of 500-foot up-and-down climbs in the day, plus dozens of smaller up-and-downs. But nothing insanely steep or curvy, or even if it was, the lack of traffic made any other challenges a non-issue.

Riding the quiet Whanganui River Road.
High mudstone cliffs tower over us in the Whanganui River Gorge.
It’s so nice to know that quiet paved roads in New Zealand do exist!
Break time in the Whanganui gorge. There’s a river down there somewhere!
The Whanganui River, seen from the top of our first major climb up from its banks.
The Ruaka Marae, a traditional Maori meeting place, surrounded by nothing but green hills and the river.

We stopped at the Matahiwi Cafe (the only bit of commerce visible in the 40 miles) for some 2nd-breakfast. They didn’t have much available (even the coffee maker was still coming back online), but we managed some cookies, and the cuteness and friendliness of the place made up for any lack of food options. We chatted with a couple of older guys just out for a Sunday drive in their Hillman Minx (a 1950s-era “Harry Potter car” from a manufacturer I hadn’t even heard of!), and also had our first sight of a couple driving a rented station wagon, who would then pass us multiple times over the next 20 miles as they stopped to hike/sightsee/etc. and we would catch up again. A road where you get to “know” 50% of the other users that day is a pretty good road. Along those lines, the woman running the cafe said she had passed us on her way in and wasn’t expecting us to make it through the hills to her for another hour, so it was nice to know that we’re recognized too, and I guess we were making good time!

A prop from the 2005 movie “The River Queen”, set and filmed along this river. It seems barely-known outside New Zealand (or even this area), despite starring Kiefer Sutherland, at the height of his ’24’ fame.
As we were getting to ride on from the coffee shop, this little piggy came ambling across the road to say hello.
Does it seem that Rett might be a little excited that this little piggy went to her?
Horses, sheep, and alpaca, all living in harmony.
#FindRett riding over a giant cave/tunnel/hole in the hillside…I still am not sure if it’s some sort of intentional drainage system, or natural?
Rett riding a nice quiet bike path. Except it’s not a bike path, it’s a road! A two-way road at that! We’d have to take a non-zero amount of care if a bike came the other way; I’m not sure how two cars manage it!
We rode along these exposed rock faces for much of today (and yesterday). They’re clearly stacks of horizontal layers, but very thin and uniform, and less-easily-eroded than what I would expect from this sort of “sandstone”, so I wondered if all the earth here could be layers of ash set down from the nearby volcanoes, but it seems that it’s instead just “mudstone”, laid down in the ocean and then uplifted.

The day’s second (and steeper) 500-foot up-and-down was rudely near the end, but at least it brought us to the best view we had upriver, even letting us glimpse snow-covered Mount Ruapehu one last time.

The Whanganui River from Aramoana viewpoint.
The especially-bright cloud sitting behind the hills at the upper right isn’t a cloud at all, it’s our likely-final view of Mount Ruapehu, now about 45 miles away.

We flew back down the hill, and shortly after made a right turn on to SH4, bringing an end to our 100km (62 miles) of nearly traffic-free road, and one of the best roads we’ve ever cycled on. But US4 was a reasonable return to civilization, with a good shoulder, light traffic (still 10x more than the River Road), a gradual downhill, and we were only on it for a few miles before we did a pain-in-the-ass but worthwhile wind-around to cross a cyclist-only bridge to the opposite side of the river and another road that was also nearly empty until the residences and businesses of Whanganui began popping up along it.

#FindRett crossing a pretty massive investment in cycling infrastructure, the Upokongaro Cycle Bridge that brought us across to the west side of the Whanganui River for the first time.

Whanganui has 43,000 people, which is enough to make it the 19th most-populous city in all of New Zealand. Being sited in this nearly-empty nation allows it to attain a higher ranking on a nationwide list than if it were a suburb of Chicago, where it wouldn’t even be one of the top 25 suburbs! We skipped the big-chain holiday park on the edge of town for a slightly-cheaper one closer in, but still not close enough for us to get a sense of this metropolis yet. Caroline’s Outback Campground is out back behind her restaurant and seems to mostly house long-termers, but there was a small area available for short-term tenters/vans. Payment was just in cash (one of the few places we’ve used cash in NZ so far), NZ$20 per person to Bruce, the host who lived up to his Google review reputation of being friendly and interesting. He asked if we were the couple who had called ahead, and even though we weren’t, he gave us the prime tent spot under the shade of the one tree (“that’s the reward for getting here first!”). Now back at sea-level, it’s quite hot again under the afternoon sun, so the shade was a nice surprise since NZ campgrounds are frequently wide-open. Upon returning from the shower, Rett was a bit bothered to see the three other parties that had been packed closely around us, but they were all quiet and respectful (as generally seems to be the case with NZ campers), so it wasn’t an issue. The walk to the restaurant was shorter than the walk to the bathroom in many campgrounds, so we easily gave into the temptation to get a relatively-fancy dinner there.


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