All we could see of Mt Ruapehu was a thin band of snow and rock beneath a battleship cloud. The wind, sucked down from the unseen, icy heights, bored through our clothes, chilled us to the bone, and slowed our progress to a pedestrian pace. We struggled for the best part of a day across what is called “The desert Road”, an open stretch of highway over a high moorland saddle at the foot of N. islands mighty mountain. Could we have picked worse weather? Well, the day before was spent huddled in the tent in the shelter of some bushes as a storm raged over us for two nights and a day and the rain never stopped. This is New Zealand’s summer, the coldest and wettest in the memory of septuagenarian Sheppard’s, even their flocks look a little miserable. It does not help that someone told us the English are in shorts and T-shirts right now. The weather is all upside-down.
We have had some fine times though and the sun is hot when it deigns to shine. After leaving the sanctuary of Auckland family (Thanks Wendy and Co for a great time) well fed and rested, we took a ferry to the Coromandel peninsular and were left on a small remote jetty where we pedaled off into the last of the 22 countries we have seen since leaving England.
In a house on a hill looking back towards Auckland lived Trevor, a retired Sheep farmer who invited us to stay the night and share a home-grown dinner of tomatoes, roast potatoes and Red Snapper caught that day in the bay. What a welcome to rural NZ.
The next day turned to heavy rain and we rolled wet into the shelter at Port Jackson campsite where we met Monty and Penny and their bus and boat. We were treated to more delectable red Snapper and advised to stay on the beach as the country didn’t get any better than this. After two days it seemed we had found paradise and had no reason to go any further. After a days unsuccessful fishing (will we ever catch another fish) we pushed and pulled our way around the peninsular on the dirt roads, tracks and paths to Hot-Water beach where we found the backpacker crowd digging holes in the sand and bathing in the volcanic springs.
Next morning riding in the other direction came two adventurous looking types on touring bikes, all bagged and tented out with road dust on the visors of their helms. It was Mark and Jenny the Australians we met a year ago way up in the Nepalese Himalaya. This pair had been on the road in Europe and the Americas and were just finishing a tour in NZ. It was great to see them again and we spent a great day and an evening in a wood chewing the fat and telling tales of the road. We rode off in different directions the next morning, I wonder where we will meet them again.
Onward we rode through sulfur smelling towns and past hot steaming lakes until we came to Taupo, the great lake where we bought ourselves a fly-fishing rod and tried our hand (unsuccessfully until now) at this complex sport. And so to the Desert Road.
On a sloping verge by a crossroads on a backroad in a strange land of cropped round hills and sharp, deep gorges is a picnic table. It is made of steel and wood in a hexagonal form and is stapled to an almost level gravel base with a rusty band of re-bar. It seems to be fairly new. Of all the hundreds of such tables we have eaten at along the way this one gets top marks for the view, if its position is a little strange. We looked back as the sun went down to the half-distant white mountain we had struggled past and failed to see. A few farmers passed and waved as we ate our dinner and drank our wine and we pitched our tent by the side of the road. We woke to a frosty morning and a frozen fly-sheet but we slept well and dreamt of never-ending all-powerful winds that blew us back over the miles we had travelled.
After a few days in the gorge-land backroads we surfaced in Ashurst near Palmerston North and began looking for a campsite, a task not easy on the busy road. Suddenly a sporty car screeched to a halt and a London accent asked if we were looking for somewhere to sleep and if so to ride on a few miles and pitch our tent on the lawn of no.196 and make ourselves at home. And so we find ourselves staying with Sean. He is a wealthy businessman and a former comic and magician, a good one too. The wind has picked up again so we are spending a rare day indoors. Tomorrow we head for Wellington and the boat to the S. Island.
Over and Out.