Sunday, 9 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 08 - The Forgotten World Highway

Saturday, 1st December
After one exciting and one totally lazy day in Stratford, I finally took off again. Stratford's at the western end of the 153km long Forgotten World Highway (HW43), a link between the Taranaki region and the central part of the island. It's considered a heritage trail due to early 1900s settlements that were later abandoned. There are several villages with old brickworks, a flour mill, schools, etc. and according to the brochure, every single one of those things is a marvel. Of course...

In the real world, it's just a hilly ride through remote country, with nice views of Mt Taranaki, Tongariro, and a few man made landmarks worth noticing. The road's strongest point is traffic; the lack of it, to be exact. The quietness makes it ideal for cyclists, if they don't mind going up and down on a roller coaster.

HW43 is a tough route with no less than six big climbs (although the brochure mentions only four) and lots of rolling hills. As for human heritage, the only things worth mentioning are a triangle-shaped tunnel called the Hobbit Hole, a bridge called the Bridge to Somewhere (although it's in fact in the middle of nowhere) and the small village of Whagamomona. The bridge is just a slab of concrete in the middle of the bush, an absolute waste of time unless you like rough mountain biking, in which case the 20km track linking Whagamomona with the bridge is a real treat. It took me almost two hours each way and it involved plenty of mud, two tunnels, deep muddy tracks and several landslides, including one where the road just slid into a gorge a dozen metres below and the gap could only be crossed on a 50cm narrow ledge. The bridge was highly disappointing, but the ride was totally worth it.

The tiny village of Whagamomona is, in my opinion, the most interesting human-made part of the route, because it's an independent country, or so they say. It proclaimed itself a republic in 1989, with presidential elections and everything. A poodle dog was president until it died and got replaced by a goat. The current head of state is human, probably for his longevity. You can get your passport stamped at the hotel and taste beer "imported" from NZ (the Whanga Ale is brewed in Hawke's Bay). January is Republic day's time, apparently it's a big event attended by thousands of people.

But back to the riding. Like I said, HW43 is a tough one. I didn't really enjoy the first day, still a bit tired from the previous day's volcano climbing, and disappointed by the overcast sky that ruined a great opportunity to photograph Mt Taranaki. Despite my late start (10am from Stratford), I made the 70km to Whanga by 5pm and since I really wanted to see the famous Bridge to Somewhere, I left my gear at the campsite and tackled the hardcore mountain bike track. This all happened on Saturday. Sunday was lazy day number two - exhaustion caught up with me again, plus it rained for the whole day, so I stayed inside my tent, fully immersed in Cheryl Strayed's book about a life changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2600-mile trail from Mexico to Canada. Having done a similar long-distance hike myself (Pyrenees, 800km in five weeks), I identified myself with many passages.

Monday, 3rd December
A beautiful day full of unexpected meetings. When I stopped at the Hobbit Hole to take a picture, a strange man asked me whether I was lost. Obviously I wasn't, since there's only one road for 153km, but he kept asking whether I was lost and if I had a map, a compass, a gun... oh, these Texas people.

The rest of the ride was nice and easy, I even made new friends. I stopped to take a swim in the Whanganui river and just as I plunged into the water, completely naked, a canoe with two female paddlers approached. I heard them talking in Czech, so I replied and there it was, chatting and exchanging facebook contacts...

The day's only disappointment occurred at the very end. Sundown caught me in Taumarunui, the town at the highway's other end; too dark to ride on and look for a spot to camp free, I had no choice but to go to a super expensive campsite ($17 for a tent site!!!). To make matters worse, I hadn't planned it, so I hadn't bought anything to cook, making little use of the kitchen, and I didn't need a shower having been in the river just a few hours before, so the whole camping was a complete waste of money.

The only good thing was the presence of a Belgian guy who's walking the Te Araroa, a 3000km trail across all of New Zealand. He was chatting with some people who were fascinated by his stories and kept asking him questions, so I didn't even need to engage in their conversation. I just sat there, did my own things and listened. It was better than the radio, perfect bedtime stories!

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