As we cycle through the cool air of the kauri forest, the canopy gleaming after heavy rain, we are simultaneously exhilarated by the beauty and tranquillity of the ancient forest and caught up in the history of its rich tradition of myth and legend.

It's a sharp contrast to our urban rides, which typically take us along the Auckland waterfront, accompanied always by a constant stream of traffic. Here there is only the occasional car ascending with us on our early morning climb.

"Car back," comes the call from the tail rider and occasionally, "Our car," as the hired rental van and trailer comes up behind and lingers before passing.

It's day three of our nine-day cycling tour, which started near Whangarei and brought us here via the river town of Dargaville, and our middle-aged legs are starting to strengthen under the challenge of the terrain.

We're well-rested after an afternoon relaxing at Waipoua Forest Park the day before and sleeping in the rustic but comfortable backpacker accommodation.

From the valley floor to the ridge are 12km of gently winding roads and about 10km up is the majestic Tane Mahuta, lord of the forest, and by Maori legend the separator of heaven and Earth.

A quick walk along the board walk to view the majestic tree, the largest living kauri in New Zealand, is essential. This 2000 to 3000-year-old kauri lies at the heart of the marvellous Waipoua Forest Sanctuary created in 1952 to preserve native flora and fauna.

After that, the rapid descent to the pastoral land leading into Omapere is thrilling. A tail wind makes the ride through to Opononi easy work and we are ready for coffee at the Opononi Hotel.

There is a small bronze statue of Opo, the dolphin that made the little town famous in the summer of 1956-57, but more recently Opononi has reinvented itself with a well-appointed hotel with bar, cafe and restaurant.

We move on, eager to reach the harbour town of Rawene, where we will spend our third night, cycling over undulating farmland, through the mangrove swamps downhill to the quaint community, one of the first European settlements in New Zealand. A second coffee at the Boatshed Cafe, and one of the trademark blueberry muffins is hard to resist.

As usual, our daily distance of around 55km is easily attainable by lunchtime, giving us plenty of time to read, rest, swim and enjoy exploring our destination.

For our group of seven mostly recreational cyclists this is the first road trip. Hiring a rental van plus the cycling trailer from the local high school provides the option of a pick up if a rider's legs have reached their daily quota. But, naturally, that's not common.

Overnight rain in Rawene means we board the ferry the next day in misty conditions for the 15-minute trip across the Hokianga Harbour. Being the designated van driver for the day I have time for a more leisurely coffee at the Waterline Cafe. I also get the chance to browse in the general store and wait for Marg Morrow's Village Arts gallery, one of two local galleries, to open.

As a bustling kauri mill town in the 19th century, Kohukohu still boasts many fine examples of well-preserved kauri villas and colonial buildings. Today it forms part of the Northland Art Trail and has one of New Zealand's highest ratios of artists per capita.

From Kohukohu, a climb through the valley takes our cyclists through to Broadwood and the century-old General Store.

Here we make the sensational discovery of Len's pies from Kaikohe, launching a tour tradition of "guilt-free" pies, with the hangi pie voted the best option.

Well-nourished, we cycle on to Ahipara and our backpacker accommodation for the night.

Next day, at the turn off to Karikari Peninsula, we meet the only other cyclists on our trip, two 30-something tourists from Seattle. They tuck in behind us, complete with panier bags weighing tens of kilos, but their young legs and daily distances of over 100km mean they are well out of the league of most of us.

By late morning we are at our destination for the night, the golden sands of Cooper's Beach, rimmed with pohutukawa in full bloom, providing a welcome two nights' stay plus a rest day, giving time to explore Mangonui and Karikari Peninsula, and sample Ben Dugdale's gold medal-winning chardonnay over a leisurely lunch at Karikari Estate.

On this side of the island the traffic is thicker but it's still easy cycling via historic towns such as Kerikeri, Waimate north and Waitangi to our last overnight stopping place in Paihia. We celebrate a successful journey at one of the local restaurants.

On our last day, choosing to avoid the heavy traffic, we take the van into Kaikohe and cycle down the Mangakahia Rd, via Twin Bridges, with hardly a car passing as we wend our way through the picturesque scenery.

Almost by surprise we reach the picnic spot near Maungatapere where our journey began with lunch nine days before.

As we picnic in this idyllic spot and load our bikes back on to the cycling trailer, the words of T. S. Eliot come to mind:

"We shall not cease from exploration
"And the end of all our exploring
"Will be to arrive where we started
"And know the place for the first time."

In that spirit we talk about resuming normal life, future trips and having enough summers in which to complete them.

Route: Depart from Maungatapere and cycle down SH14 to Dargaville; through Trounson Forest Park, to Waipoua Forest, Omapere, Opononi and Rawene; take the Hokianga ferry to Kohukohu and cycle on to Ahipara via Broadwood; continue on to Cooper's Beach via Kaitaia and Awanui; head south to Kerikeri and Paihia with a side trip to Waimate North; ride back inland to Kaikohe then back down SH14 to Maungatapere. Approximately 500km cycling.

Where to stay:
* The Greenhouse Hostel, Dargaville: Email

* Waipoua Forest Visitors Centre - cabins: Phone (09) 439 6445.

* Rawene Motor Camp
* Ahipara Backpackers: Phone 0800 888 988.

* Hone Heke Lodge, Kerikeri: Email

* Peppertree Lodge, Paihia: Email

* Backpacker accommodation ranges from $20-$33 pp per night.