A 1100km bikepacking meander across the most remote part of Aotearoa provides artistic inspiration, writes Murray Dewhurst
Kōpiko Māori trans (verb): to go alternatively in opposite directions, go back and forth, meander, wander, ramble.
It's late 2020 and a major work project has just been cut thanks to Covid and I'm scrambling to find clients to fill the gap. My frustrated mind wanders and for some reason the idea of cycling 1100km across the widest and most remote part of the country appeals. With the press of the "Send" button, my entry to the Kōpiko Aotearoa is made. A deceptively easy step and an instant mood booster.
Kōpiko Aotearoa is the brainchild of brothers Jonathan, Paul and Simon Kennett, who have collaborated on a range of cycling-related projects across the country, including Ngā Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail, and the 3000km Tour Aotearoa that travels from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Kōpiko spins across the North Island — ride east to west, or west to east — from East Cape Lighthouse and Cape Egmont Lighthouse. The event is ingeniously (or deviously) designed to avoid busy highways — even if it means taking the longest and hilliest way from A to B.
As an artist interested in the storytelling potential of sketching, I want to add the challenge of recording the trip in quick sketches along the way. I reckon I have a five- to 10-minute window per sketch before I'll piss off my riding mate so pack a small concertina sketchbook to slip in and out of my cycle shorts without getting off the bike. I go on to fill both sides of two sketchbooks — about 70 sketches.
Mark drops me and mate Ian off at the start as the warm glow of sunrise grows behind Mt Taranaki and the Cape Egmont Lighthouse. Mark brews a delicious craft beer, and I realise I enjoyed too many of them last night. Cold fingers scratch out a sketch while the Tasman Sea crashes behind us in the semi-darkness.
We ride straight up the side of Mt Taranaki as the sun's rays stretch over Parihaka. We wind over Pukeiti Saddle through dense bush. The views are astounding. We blast downhill to New Plymouth then ride a cool, urban streamside trail that drops us at the beach. We pass Len Lye's Wind Wand and roll over Insta favourite Te Rewa Rewa Bridge before heading inland.
After a wearying 110km, we set up camp at Pukeho Domain and take a swim in the community pool, a great way to finish the day. I take a moment to let the day and the enormity of what we've set out to achieve process in my mind. I look at Ian, and I can tell he's thinking the same thing — what the bloody hell are we doing?
The next morning, with the daily ritual of packing tents and cookers over, we set about riding over four winding saddles. It's stinking hot up the Purangi Valley, sheep take shelter from the sun behind what foliage they can find and watch while we crank slowly upward.
Views change as we climb the lush Whangamomona Saddle. We stop for a chat with an older couple who've cycled all the way from Tauranga. They look as if they're out for a morning walk.
The downhill into Whangamomona, on the Forgotten World Highway, is a blast. We stop at the famous hotel for an enormous early lunch, coffee and chat with other Kōpiko cyclists, motorcyclists and beekeepers. The publican is serving some trademark wry humour with every beer.
After lunch, another steep saddle confronts us but with a reward of a view of Mounts Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro. We finish this day in Ōhura. Every business is closed and has been for some time, all except Fiesta Fare. Imagine a Mexican cantina in backcountry Aotearoa. We enjoy superb food, a hot shower and a campsite in the back paddock. Kiwi girl Michelle grew up in Mexico and has brought the flavour to town.
I wake to the relaxing sound of horses munching grass outside my tent. Ōhura is still misty as we ride up beautiful Matiere Valley. The legs feel weary but the body is slowly getting used to this routine of eat, cycle, sleep — then repeat.
Later, on the Timber Trail, we swap gravel and tar seal for a twisty single track. We're riding the "wrong way" — most ride this in the opposite direction to take advantage of the elevation drop. But not us — we're riding uphill, but the trail is so good we don't notice it — much. Spectacular swing bridges like the Mangakotukutuku keep it interesting.
Despite an energy-boosting roadside cook-up at Pureora, the following hours of slow gravel really take it out of the legs. After an endless downhill before the Arataki Swing Bridge, and a spirited chase from a farm dog eager for a piece of my leg, we hit the superb Waikato River Trails. This would have been really enjoyable if we weren't exhausted. Ten hours on and off the saddle for a meagre 95km will do that. Camp is pitched by the river as the sun goes down and trout splash.
We ride past Pohaturoa, that craggy maunga easily visible from SH1. Did you know about 300 early Māori once lived up there? Cycling gives you plenty of time to ponder those who came before us. We ride over three hydro dams, past bubbling mud pools in the Ohakuri Valley and end the day soaking in the Waikite Valley hot pools.
Alluring glimpses of Lake Waikaremoana flash us through the dense bush to the impressive Panekire Bluffs surrounded by a massive podocarp forest — a must-sketch moment.
We leave the bush behind for a long, screaming descent past Tuai to the Ohuka Valley. The students of tiny Ohuka School have had fun with a welcome sign and messages of encouragement for Kōpiko riders. We wander in hoping for water but head teacher Sharon sets us up with fruit and coffee — next, we're swimming in the pool.
It's tempting to pitch camp on the school field but we say goodbye and start riding up what I call the "hell hill" of Ohuka. It's so steep the refreshing swim is almost instantly forgotten. Onward up the Ruakituri Valley, more hills with massive views as we climb — the contrast from the lush Urewera bush to typically dry, craggy Hawke's Bay is huge. An exhausting day on the bikes finishes at Tuahu Station. Pulling into the driveway we meet John. "You guys want some steak?" he asks, followed by "beers around there", pointing around the corner. Steak and beer in hand, we happily wander off to the shearers' quarters — best welcome yet! We set about devouring enormous steaks while a wall-mounted boar's head gives us a belligerent eye.
I wake to the smell of scrambled eggs cooking in the Tuahu Station kitchen. Nice! Not much time for sketching today, though, just the odd break. Coffee and icecream at Tiniroto Tavern, and I'm surprised to see we're only 35km from Gisborne. We arrive at Mokonui Station some 120km later. A superb dinner is being prepared — I could get used to this! A magnificent change from the tent and dehydrated food.
Another cooked breakfast courtesy of another cyclist, Ross, including proper coffee courtesy of Signore Bialetti, and then we climb and climb and climb some more. Just out of Rere Falls, we bump into Lou at Te Wera Station. She's refuelling and chatting to a big bunch of east-west riders. One announces it's his 71st birthday tomorrow.
We pass an impressive 6m-tall pou whenua, reflecting the history of the local Te Aitanga a Māhaki iwi, on our way to Matawai. The old pub is long closed but the well-stocked Matawai Store has the important things in a bikepacker's life, like grunty coffee and Peanut Slabs. We sit and chat with a bunch of recalcitrant motorcyclists in their leathers. Their jokes about lycra and the apparent lack of "real" power between our legs is funny as hell and I'm still smiling to myself as we spin down towards Mōtū Village. The Mōtū Community House is full of east to west riders inhaling bowls of hot noodles. It's clear they've had a tough morning climbing the Mōtū Rd from the coast.
Partway down the Mōtū Rd, we veer into the beautiful, lush Pakihi Trail with its swing bridges and crystal clear river for a night in the bush before hitting the coast at Ōpōtiki. We share the DoC hut with hunters Ash and Haami, who are up to do a recce for the upcoming "roar".
It's great to be riding along the coast again. We ride east, unsure of how far we'll get around the cape today. A welcome dose of manaaki at Omaio General Store buoys our spirits — it's just as well they've stayed open for riders as we need all the energy we can muster to make it to sparkling Maraehako beach for a swim as the sun goes down.
Our last day and the scent of the finish line spurs us on. We enjoy vast views all along the coast. We ride past Te Kaha's famous marae glowing in the morning sun, then Waihau Bay for breakfast. More huge panoramas keep us ticking on the way over Hicks Bay hill before a stop for yet more "fuel" at Te Araroa. A strong tailwind ensures we quickly nail the last 20km to the East Cape Lighthouse.
Have we really knocked it off? No wait, there's more, we're not finished yet. We need to walk the 700 plus steps up to the lighthouse to make it official. We complete our epic ride surrounded by one hell of view.
TOP TIPS FOR KŌPIKO AOTEAROA
• The self-supported event is not a race. Starts are staggered over multiple weekends during February and March.
• Most riders take nine to 14 days to complete the trip.
• You don't need to be an athlete to ride the Kōpiko, but you do need to do some training. Ride a few times a week in the months before the event, build up to longer rides — anything over 70km will be helpful. Even longer is better.
• Accommodation options are limited. You'll need to pack a tent, a small cooker and some dehydrated food.
• Don't over-plan the ride. It's liberating to head off each day not knowing where you'll spend the night, chatting to other riders along the way, or the organiser's booklet will present multiple options. Be sure to pack light, though — you have to carry it all to your bike.
• Visit touraotearoa.nz to enter the Kōpiko Aotearoa or its longer sister event, the Tour Aotearoa.
To see Murray Dewhurst's full reportage of the event, visit aucklandsketchbook.com