Tour Aotearoa, named after the Maori word for New Zealand, is an MTB brevet running 3,000km the length of the country, from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. I took part in the 2018 edition. On a gravel bike.
There’s been an NZ government project over the last few years to build a network of long distance MTB trails, and the TA’18 route was designed to take in as many of those as possible as it made its way down the length of the country, linked by rural gravel roads, cycle paths and the least busy tarmac possible, only taking the direct way down the highways when there was no possible alternative. I chose to add another 500km to the total distance by riding up to the start from the Bay of Islands and going on from the finish to tour around the Catlins, but I’ll gloss over the misery of riding through the terrible weather on both those extensions to concentrate on the event itself here.
The Tour Aotearoa brevet had been held once before, as a one-off in 2016 with 300 riders, but demand for a repeat led to this second edition. This time there were 600 places, all of which were taken several months ahead of the start. There was no entry fee, but we were required instead to make a charitable donation and to offset the carbon emissions from our travel out and back. To avoid overwhelming local infrastructure and services before the field had spread out, we were split into six waves of 100 riders each, with the waves starting on different days spread over a two week period.
We all had a limit of 30 days from our respective start dates to reach the finish at Bluff. The rules stipulated we were to ride unsupported, that is to carry all our own gear, to find our own food and places to sleep along the way and to deal with any mechanical issues that arose. To prove we’d followed the route we had to take 30 Control Point photos at specified locations, and to also carry satellite trackers so we’d be able to send our location to Search and Rescue in an emergency, much of the route being too remote for there to be any mobile signal.
Many people chose to travel light and sleep in accomodation but, to keep the costs down, I decided I’d camp all the way I think that should be the way in an event like this anyway. If you’re not packing sleeping gear on your bike then you’re not bikepacking, or at least that’s what I told myself. Besides, waking up in a cabin or motel room is not a patch on waking up in the great outdoors. I took a tent over a bivvy bag though, in deference to the South Island’s reputation for rain and sandflies. I also carried a sleeping bag and inflatable mat, a primaloft gilet, waterproofs, a single change of riding clothes, knee warmers, tools, spares, a water filter, a little meths burner and some fuel. Whenever I found a supermarket I would cram enough food into the space remaining in my bags to last me until the next town. Fully loaded with food and water, my bike weighed approaching 30Kg. Far more than a typical bikepacking set up yet still less than a traditional touring bike with four full panniers. That reflected my approach to riding the event. It wasn’t a race so I wasn’t race light, yet there was a need to press on perhaps more than a touring rider might.
Veterans of the 2016 event had warned beforehand that a cyclocross/gravel/adventure bike wouldn’t be the best suited to the route. The vast majority of the field were on 29er MTBs but I really like my drop-barred Arkose and I’m stubborn, so had decided I was using that. As a result, I did struggle over a few of the MTB trails. Partly because some were far more technical than the bridleways I love riding it on back in the UK, partly because the weather was so wet on occasions and the surface so muddy, and partly because I had so much weight on and hadn’t geared down enough to allow for it all up the steep off-road climbs. But where I couldn’t ride I walked, and I made it through everything in the end, even where more than a few MTB riders were taking shortcuts.
On the less technical trails the Arkose felt more at home, the 135km long West Coast Wilderness Trail in particular was a blast and I don’t think it could have been more fun on any other bike. And there was definitely payback to be had on the long section of Southern Island highway, to which the bike was much better suited than the MTBs.
It was interesting how my outlook changed during the ride. At first, I just wanted to make progress. It was a long, long way to the finish and I felt the urge to eat into the distance. People back home were watching my dot and I wanted it to move a respectable distance each day. I went with a schedule in mind and I was pleased with how I managed to keep to it in the first few days, making easy kilometres on the road sections by riding late into the night when necessary, but I got frustrated by how tough some the off-road sections were when I got to them. Halfway through the North Island I started to lose that frustration. I began to savour the experience more and care less about how many days it was going to take to complete, just as long I finished within the time limit. By the time I’d crossed into the South Island I was thinking what a shame it was that the adventure would soon come to an end, and even contemplated deliberately riding shorter days just to string it out a bit longer. But I didn’t. I thought I might lose my sense of purpose if I wasn’t sleeping, eating or moving. Ever since the start it was all I’d known.
26 days, 5 hours and 20 minutes after setting off from Cape Reinga it came to that end. I’d ridden with some great people along the way. Some for just an hour or two, others for a day or two. Others still I met over again at café stops along the way. On the last day ten of us found ourselves all having lunch at the same café, and decided we’d ride the remaining 70km all together to finish in a bunch. It was great to end on such a high. I’d ridden along beaches, through remote rainforest, across mountain ranges and alongside lakes, seen and heard unfamiliar wildlife, and slept outside my tent under a sky unspoilt by light pollution. I’d experienced great kindnesses from complete strangers and made new friends I hope to keep for life. And I’d proved to myself that whilst I’ll never have the speed required for ultra-distance racing, I did at least have the determination to get up out of my tent at first light every morning and get back on my bike, no matter how tired I was and no matter the weather. But then I said I was stubborn, didn’t I?
Tour Aotearoa Image Gallery