Tour Aotearoa Day 15 – Belgrove to Murchison – Dodging the Rain

I overslept but was confident the extra rest would have done me good, and I’d be able to make up the miles throughout the day. My strategy has been to push hard on the paved roads so that I don’t need to rush on the more technical unpaved sections.

This morning continued along the Nelson Rail Trail, with the spectacle of passing through Spooners Tunnel which, at 1.35 kilometres long is New Zealand’s longest railway tunnel and the fifth longest tunnel open to walkers and cyclists in the world. Constructed in 1893, it’s an amazing story of engineering as the work involved 100 men digging from opposing sides; when they met in the middle they were only 8 millimetres – less than a centimetre! – out of alignment. The tunnel was unlit so I put my lights on and pedalled hard through the black oblivion, listening to the ghostly echoes of my heavy breathing and pedal strokes. It felt like the tunnel would never end, but eventually, I felt like I was born again as I erupted out of the tunnel and into bright daylight.

I stopped in a café in the village of Kohatu where I devoured a stack of pancakes in the vain hope of feeding my insatiable appetite. Food tastes so much better when you’re bike touring, but it’s impossible to get enough. With my stomach lined, I embarked on the 480-metre climb to Tadmor Saddle, much of which was on a gravel track. The temperature dropped as I rose higher, and entered a tranquil pine forest with low, tangled clouds sailing through the trees. My efforts on the climb, earned a twisting descent into the Hope Valley, before a second climb up to Lake Rotoroa, also looking atmospheric with the low clouds reflected in its still waters.

From Lake Rotorua, the route continued along the Braeburn Track, and up to Braeburn Saddle, 650 metres high. Unfortunately, the heavy rains of the past days had made this legendary track a muddy nightmare. The four river fords were high and more challenging to cross, and the sticky gravel track sucked at my wheels, and made the tread slippery, but this challenge was quickly forgotten on the amazing 30 kilometre descent to Murchison, where I’d be spending the night.

The day had been much easier than the previous few days and I was glad to have completed the 120 kilometres before 20:00 and to have avoided the rain. I must have been riding just ahead of a weather front because soon after I arrived I met a rain-drenched bike tourer who said he’d been riding in the rain all day, whereas I hadn’t felt a drop. Baptiste from France was a nice guy, and we went for dinner and a beer together. Conversation flowed easily and with much laughter, but unfortunately, like all the friendships you make on the road, they’re very short-lived. Your journeys align for a while and then you separate and go your own way. Baptiste is slowing his pace, whereas my long days continue. I’m always thankful for the kind, fun people I meet and the time we get to share.

I’d managed to get a last-minute bargain to stay at the Grand Suites in Murchison and enjoyed a luxury room. Just before going to bed, I checked the forecast and received some good news. Heavy rain warnings have hung over my head, threatening to interrupt my journey with violent flooding and landslides, but the weather seems to have accelerated south. I still face rain and challenging road conditions in the days ahead, but I should be able to continue as planned. I feel sorry for those cyclists a week ahead of me, who are not so lucky and face emergency measures.