Tapu, NZ to Kauaeranga, NZ

25.1 mi / 10.9 mph / 951 ft. climbing
Home: Totara Flat DOC Campsite

For the first time in recent memory, the morning was truly sunny, with no drips, drizzle, or mist to dampen us at any point during the day. Even better, the tent was free from condensation, likely a combination of the giant tree blocking its heat from rushing off to space, and the steady wind that had continued flowing all night (which was still flowing a bit this morning, despite the forecast predicting near-windlessness).

The sunrise view from our tent at Tapu Motor Camp.

The first 12 miles were a continuation of the second half of yesterday, a water’s-edge cruise south along the Firth of Thames. In some places, the rocky peninsula to our left flattened out a bit before it reached the water (and that’s where strips of vacation homes would lie), but for most of the stretch the hills just dove directly into the water, and it’s clear that the road builders just cut out the edge of the cliff to create a flat spot for the pavement.

The standard layout for 12 miles: cliff on the left, the road, thin shoulder wide enough for pohutukawa trees to grow, a narrow rocky beach, and then the water.

As people who have sought out a lot of coasts to ride on, we can say that it’s rare to have a road built this consistently-close to the water (the east coast of the peninsula has nothing like it). And when such roads are force-fed into the landscape, they frequently have problems. Evidence of small rockfalls made it clear that erosive forces are tugging at the sliced-off cliff walls, which shows that the road’s construction was rather under-engineered. It really has the feel of a road where some Auckland politicians declared “we want a coastal road built on the Coromandel Peninsula (and how dare you think it has anything to do with accessing our vacation homes there!)”, and the engineers said “I’m sorry sirs, putting a road right down there would cost 100x more than the initial price tag due to the never-ending repairs and shoring-up that will need to be done”. And the politicians said “Fuck you. Build it”.

But we don’t pay the taxes for its maintenance, or suffer the long-term effects of soil instability, so we selfishly say thank you to those (hypothetical) corrupt politicians! Because it was a pure gift to us, not just beautifully scenic, but an easy flat ride requiring far less effort than a more-sustainable design that rolls up and down with the landscape.

A rare section with no pohutukawa trees, maybe because here they used that space to instead create a rare bit of shoulder on the left to collect the falling rock from the cliffs (rather than have it tumble straight onto the pavement).

It would be a truly exceptional place to have a vacation home, and we saw plenty of nice examples, though nothing especially extravagant. During the summer Christmas holidays the highway must be absolutely nuts (I could see people who don’t even have homes here just driving it to see the miles of pohutukawas in their full red/white/green “New Zealand Christmas Tree” bloom). But for us in this shoulder season it was pretty quiet, which is good because it had some sections where the entire road (not just our lane) narrowed to be barely wider than the few big trucks that passed us.

A section where there is space for vacation homes (though in most such places, the cliffs began directly behind the houses).
Whenever we neared one of the rivers that drains the spine of the peninsula, views inland would open up significantly.

We were in Thames five months ago, but had approached from the south, to our motel at the south end, and only ventured as far north as the Pak’N’Save grocery store. This time, approaching from the north gave a much more-positive impression of the town, with parks, schools, museums, etc., making it seem more like a home for humans rather than a soulless retail/commercial buzzsaw.

Thames has some sort of super-tiny railroad, or, super-huge model railroad.

But we weren’t staying long (for now), and only stopped again at that Pak’N’Save, and the strange mall-McDonald’s, before continuing to the south end of town and a familiar road that went by our hotel. The road then hooked inland, and quickly turned into a gorgeous country road of a style that felt unusual-for-New Zealand to me.

Kauaeranga Valley Road, in its lower stretches.

We passed a line of trees dropping their yellow leaves, and the low-angle sun warming the scent of soft decay into my nose made me wonder: do New Zealanders “get it”? In a country where all deciduous trees are imports, and still quite rare, are there enough encounters with the glow through their crowns, and the aroma of their fallen leaves, for Kiwis to receive the same positive associations with the bountiful harvest, with tumbling into a warm house to a fresh-baked pie after a game of touch-football in the crisp autumn air, that both Rett and I felt instantly and deeply in our bones when we passed that line of trees? Or is it just a strange smell, and a pretty-but-forgettable scene? I sure hope they feel the former, because, what a wonder that feeling is!

Seven miles up Kauaeranga Valley Road, it forced us over to the DOC Visitor Center for the valley. Wait; DOC Visitor Center? Although it felt completely normal, I think this is actually the first time we’ve seen the Department of Conservation build anything even close to a US State/National Park building! Anyway, we got some good advice from the ranger(?), and filled three liters of extra water from their filtered water source, since we would be spending two nights up at a campsite with the river as the only water source.

The road then turned to gravel for the next five miles, but thankfully it was “wet” gravel, where forest cover keeps it damp enough to solidify. When such a gravel road is “bad” (which this one was in places), that means it gets potholes. But those are easy for us to avoid on the bikes (less so for cars), unlike the loose deep stone or washboards of a “dry” gravel road. I’ve heard that over time, New Zealand is slowly sealing most of its gravel roads; I say they should prioritize those “dry” ones and leave the “wet” for last!

There is a whole line of campsites running up the valley (US National Forest-style), and we set up at the second-to-last one, Totara Flat. We were the only people on the upper level, and there were only three on the lower level closer to the river (well, and two more somehow arrived after dark, which is in full-effect by 6:30pm). When the moon came up, it was so blindingly-bright that I looked (days later, when regaining Internet) whether it was some kind of “super moon” or whatever, but no, just a normal moon, apparently the terrestrial environment in this dark quiet place was responsible for “super-ing” it.

The view up the Kauaeranga Valley reveals the mountains getting pointier.
Our campsite at Totara Flat: we claimed the picnic table, have the tent tucked under the trees, and set up a line for drying after river-showers/laundry.
Moonrise reflecting in the river.


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