Winter is coming. I live in Wellington and soon it’ll be a miserable ride anywhere near the Desert Road / National Park / Napier-Taupo road because of extreme cold, and potential snow and ice.
I decided to plan a sneaky 1,600 km in on the first weekend of May – the last big ride before the cold set in. I rode a BunBurner 1500 (1,500 miles in 36 hours) in the first weekend of May 2016, and the weather could not have been better. It was exactly the same this time around. Clear skies and no wind over the whole of the North Island. Perfect riding conditions.
I checked with Stretch, my buddy who I recently escorted around the North Island 800. Stretch is a badge junky and wouldn’t entertain coming on the ride unless there was an opportunity to get one. He was keen to try for his Iron Butt certification – the minimum for that is a 1,600 km Saddlesore ride. I agreed to plan a route to meet that requirement.
We’re both early risers. Our aim was to leave Wellington at around 4.30am on a Saturday morning and be back at the same spot before 4.30am on the Sunday. Leaving as early as we did meant we’d be riding in the dark, but we’d also be riding on very empty roads, thereby maintaining a good average speed. To do a Saddlesore 1600 you need to maintain an overall average of 67km in order to keep below the 24 hour cut off. Sounds easy.
Stretch and I met at BP Connect on Taranaki St. We did everything we needed to do before we paid for our petrol. The timestamp on the petrol receipt is the official start time for scrutineers. So there’s no point paying for fuel, then mucking around inflating tyres, or packing your bike. The clock is running. You need to get on your way – pronto!!
Waypoint 1: Dannevirke
The planned route took us over the Rimutakas. I love that hill especially when there’s no traffic. It was a surprise to me to find quite a few cars heading our way. The road was damp and didn’t really lend itself to fast travel – more careful and wary.
Stretch doesn’t like night riding, whereas I love it. After my first Rusty Nuts Grand Challenge back in 2010 I vowed to never have a bike where I would rely on stock lighting. Invariably it’s shit. Yellow and underpowered light, especially if your bike was built pre 2012 when LEDs started becoming the norm. I have installed HID lights on every bike since that first ride, and my experience of night riding is improved out of this world. I guess what I’m saying is that I shot over the Rimutakas faster than Stretch. I waited for him in on the outskirts of Featherston. We were still on track!
Coming in to Woodville I was right behind Stretch – I mean right behind him. I never go into the town but always take that right hand turn just after the railway crossing which does a quick loop around the outside of the village. Stretch kept going straight ahead. Because I was so close to him I assumed that he had seen me and that we’d meet up on the main highway out of Woodville.
I reached the main highway and looked left. No sign of Stretch. I waited. I waited a bit more. I did a U-turn and headed back down the Woodville main street looking for him. I wondered if he’d gone to Caltex. No sign of him there. I headed back down SH2 back towards the railway crossing. Still no sign of him. This was weird. He’d disappeared off the face of the earth. Aliens had abducted him. I was positive.
What did I do? I carried on to Dannevirke. I thought surely he’d head that way and we’d eventually both end up at the first checkpoint. I sent him a TXT to tell him that was what I was doing. I arrived in Dannevirke 20 minutes later, filled up with gas, and waited. And waited a bit more.
I ate my first pie.
Eventually Stretch rode onto the forecourt. He hadn’t noticed me behind him in Woodville despite my high intensity lights 🙂
He was so worried I had fallen into a ditch, or that I may have turned off the road to Pongaroa, so he rode back to that turnoff. When he couldn’t find me he carried on, hoping for the best. It all worked out in the end.
Waypoint 2: Wairoa
At Dannevirke the original intention had been to head out to Weber and then on to Porangahau, up to Waipukurau, and then through Hawke Bay to Wairoa. When we left Dannevirke BP my GPS threw a sicky. I seemed to have lost the route that I had plotted on Garmin Basecamp. So I did a manual entry for Porangahau and off we went. The route above is the one we travelled – through Ormondville. It was obvious we were heading north east, away from Porangahau. It was kinda obvious, in an effort to track us back towards Porangahau that at some point we’d turn right and head south. If we did that we’d likely end up retracing our steps which would be a waste of effort. Shortly after Ormondville the inevitable happened and we were prompted to turn right onto a gravel road. Bugger that. There’s no way we were wasting time sliding around on gravel. Stretch was riding an FJR1300 for Gods sake!
So we ignored the GPS and followed our noses. Or, more importantly I followed my nose and Stretch followed me. I grew up in Waipukurau so all of these roads were vaguely familiar, and the landmarks gave me a clue where I was. We ended up just south of Hatuma Lake, my old stomping ground. Ordinarily I would have popped in to say hi to my 88 year old Mum, but it was still early in the morning and Stretch and I were on a mission. There was no time to waste.
From Waipawa we headed east and out to the wonderful Middle Road that took us through to Pakipaki and the expressway through to Napier. We had a very short watering stop at the BP in Bridge Pa before heading off to Wairoa. Arrival time was 10.34am. We were on schedule.
Checkpoint 3: Te Araroa
The Z in Wairoa was interesting. In my experience it usually is. I’ve had an unusual encounter at that station about three years previously when riding with a group of friends.
Stretch was filling up when a carload of patched Mongrel Mob members pulled up at the pump next to him. I was wondering why Stretch was taking so long getting filled up and paid. He told me later that one of the gang members was eyeing up his GPS unit and he was worried that if he went in to pay it’d get swiped. So Stretch delayed and delayed until the car had filled, paid and left.
I ate my second pie.
We headed off to Gisborne, taking the bypass around the south edges of town. Then through Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Ruatoria, and Tikitiki before rolling in to Te Araroa. This was an important fuel stop in that it would prove we had travelled around the East Cape instead of taking the shorter route from Gisborne to Opotiki.
There’s a 24 hour Allied self service pump at the Four Square store. 91 fuel only. If that’s all you can get then I’ll take it. I filled up, remembering to get a receipt and also to retrieve my card (unlike my ridiculous experience in the 2016 NI1600), then Stretch did the same. Because Stretch is a man of cash he flicked me $30 and I used my card to top him up.
We popped around to the foreshore to see the largest Pohutukawa tree in the world. It’s 350 years old (they think) and it spreads rather than grows upwards. It is huge! A steady stream of tourists stopped to look and take pictures.
Checkpoint 4: Awakeri
The trip through to Awakeri was a great ride, but we had been travelling for quite a while already, and the winding road is not exactly conducive to carving up the big miles. It seemed to take for ages.
There were a lot of other motorcyclists coming the other way – obviously on a tour – mainly GS1200’s, GS800’s and several Ducatis. We passed maybe 30 bikes in groups of five or six.
I was interested in seeing some of the damage the recent floods had made in Edgecumbe after the Rangataiki River broke its banks.
There’s a section of SH2 that winds along the Waimana River. It was clear that the waters had been raging through here during the cyclone as there was an obvious very high river mark. Grass and vegetation had been flattened by flood waters.
The first sign of ‘trouble’ was the bridge that crosses the Whakatane River on White Pine Bush Road was closed to all traffic. This meant that we would detour north west into Whakatane, and then head south to our destination. It added a few extra kilometres to the journey but we thought we were behind already as a result of the GPS muck up all those hours before in Dannevirke.
Awakeri was busy. We filled the bikes. It had just gone dark. The time was 5.44pm and we were both keen for a proper meal to get us through the night. A Chinese takeaway next to a busy bottlestore alongside the Z provided the necessary nutrient. We sat at a table and chairs outside in the still night air, watching the people coming and going on this busy Saturday night.
Checkpoint 5: Turangi
Having the opportunity to sit down and reflect on the route I decided that I needed to make up for some lost kilometres from back in Hawkes Bay. Stretch thought he was OK, afterall, he had doubled back and ridden a considerable distance looking for me in Woodville.
To make up the shortfall we decided to part company for the next hour. I’d detour towards Tauranga and then go down SH36 to hit the western side of Lake Rotorua. We’d meet up at Z Fairy Springs in Rotorua. This wasn’t a scheduled stop but it seemed the easiest and most visible place to get back together.
Stretch was going to head off on the pre-planned route along SH30, across the northern tip of Lake Rotorua and into Z Fairy Springs. According to Google Maps we would likely both arrive at the same time. Stretch was nursing a front tyre with low tread, and he was riding a bit slower in the dark.
I headed through Edgecumbe. Lots of empty houses but in the dark nothing looked particularly out of order. I hit Matata on the coast. This is a long and slow road with a speed limit of 60km that seems to drag on interminably. I made sure to slow down to the required limit, but you know how it is? My speed crept up without me being aware of it. I saw a car on the side of the road – I looked at my speedo – 73km – car turn on some blue and red lights – shit! bugger! f_ _ k!
I pulled over immediately. I had no excuse. I never do. Other than I told the cop that I had made a conscious effort to slow down, knowing it was a 60km zone – but…all to no avail. $120 fine and another 20 demerits.
I carried on along the highway to Tauranga. Just before the toll road that Stretch and I had ridden only a few months earlier, there was a sign turning left saying ‘Rotorua’. I took the turn thinking this was SH36. It wasn’t. It was the main road into Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotorua. I didn’t realise I had made the mistake until I reached Okere Falls. Oh well, never mind. I kept going, missing the turn-off to Ngongataha which would have been a more direct route to Z Fairy Springs. Instead I rode all the way into town then north on the SH5. I pulled into the petrol station, bought a few chocolate bars (only so I could use the toilet) and then waited for Stretch.
Much to my surprise, and his, he appeared only five minutes later. He had taken the main road into town, and so, like me, had doubled back to Z Fairy Springs. He admitted he had been lost, but had the good sense to use his borrowed GPS to find me. We were back together and on our way to Turangi.
Leaving Rotorua behind we headed down SH30 to Atiamuri. At the intersection with SH1 we turned left, and rode about 8km before turning right into Tirohanga Road. This took us along the south side of the Waikato River.
We rode through Mokai, although I have absolutely no recollection of it, despite having wanted to visit this town for many years. Eventually we emerged on SH32 which wanders down the western side of Lake Taupo.
Turangi gave us sustenance, in the form of a flat white. I may have had another pie. I was the last customer to be able to enter the shop. After my purchase the night window was in operation with one very grumpy woman doing the change over (settling her till) and a slightly more accommodating woman taking over. If we weren’t in a bit of a hurry it would have been funny. Instead it was bloody frustrating, and not what customer service is supposed to be!
It was just after 10pm. We had been riding for 17 hours.
Checkpoint 6: Levin
From Turangi we rode back through National Park, and along the Parapara’s towards Wanganui. The idea was to do a few dog leg tracks to add to our distance. This meandering across country roads took us towards Marton, then across SH1 into Halcombe, across SH3 into the depths of the Manawatu, back out onto SH1 and along to Himatangi. At Himatangi we turned left at the main intersection and zipped back to SH57 and then onto SH2, and Shannon. From here it was a quick jaunt to another fuel stop in Levin at the BP.
Back in Turangi Stretch had examined his front tyre more closely. It was developing a very pronounced flat spot. Each time he leaned into a corner it felt to him as if the front wheel was falling off the flat spot onto the better tread on the outside of the tyre. He said it was an unnerving experience, so I guess he was happy to finally be on more familiar roads from Levin onwards.
We left Levin around 2.30am on Sunday morning. We had two hours to make it back to Wellington.
Finish: Levin to Wellington
I’ve ridden this road a million times, and I have to say that in the early hours of the morning, and with a new expressway through Paraparaumu it is relatively quick going.
It took us an uneventful and easy one hour travel time to make it back to where we had left 23 hours before. We had done it! Subject to approval from the IBA Stretch and I had completed a Saddlesore 1000 (miles) or a Saddlesore 1600 (km).
Note: If anyone would like the official Garmin Basecamp route then get in touch. I can send you the .gpx file. In fact I can do that for pretty much all of the routes I have recounted on this blog.