New Zealand Life and Leisure Magazine
Words and Photographs by Chris van Ryn
It was a last-minute decision. The end of the year had crept upon me with stealth. Anxiety was drumming within my temples.
I booked a bus for the following morning.
The trip from Auckland to Rotorua takes four hours. I collect my bike from the luggage compartment. Flip-click-lock. I give the wide-eyed disembarking passengers a generous smile, shrug into my small backpack and don my helmet. With a rather over-exuberant leg swing I set off down Haupapa Street, pressing through the slightly chilly air towards the YHA Hostel. I pedal on the edge of an exhilarating emergent feeling of being in command of my own existence.
From room 46 on the second floor I can see directly into the communal kitchen below. By 7pm there are clusters of people crowding around the kitchen bench with its puffing pots: stirring and shaking and lifting lids and sipping spoons. Suddenly, I’m famished. I head downstairs ... past the kitchen and straight out the front door. I retrieve my waiting bicycle. With a single pedal rotation I coast all the way along Haupapa to Fenton, over the little speed bumps between side streets, coming to a gentle stop outside Sam's Cafe. I laugh into the evening.
Sam is Turkish and has been running Sam’s Cafe for 16 years – in the same location. I sit below photos of the town of Cappadocia where abodes are built directly into the mountainside. I'll go there sometime. I dip my spoon into a steaming lentil soup with a splash of sour cream, a pinch of parsley and a side of heated pide bread.
After dinner I pedal around the city in the cool of evening. Rotorua's amiable centre is a neat quilt of ordered roads with a flat and tidy geography - a gentle induction for a cycle tourist. Street corners are softened with manicured shrubs and colourful scented flowers. The city is a not surprising winner of the Best City Award.
I wake at 6am and lie in bed considering my bicycle propped against the wall. I think: I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Hell’s Gate is a 40-km round trip and it's been 25 years since my last cycle tour. I had spent four weeks crawling over rugged mountains in Iceland, in and out of snow. I was fit then .... I try to work out a dignified excuse for when I get home. Perhaps ... “OK, I’ll go!” I say out loud.
Water bottle - check. Sunblock - check. Raincoat - check. Camera - check. Cycle shorts.....ummm.
As a last-minute precaution I pull on two pairs of underwear. I head out on state highway 30. It's a deliciously cool morning. The road follows the contour of the sapphire lake. The island in the middle seems to follow me.
I am reassured to find a cycle lane on the highway. But after 30 minutes it runs out. Now I'm cycling on a small crumpled verge.
I hear it before I see it. A rumbling noise which reaches me as a roar. Then I feel it: a shuddering gust of wind which shunts my bike sideways and whips up a dust storm. WHOOSH ... WHOOSH. A huge articulated cattle truck thunders past me at 100 km per hour. And it's followed by the pungent odour of urine and a long unforgiving line of cars. Hell, I think. Bloody hell. What if the driver’s attention slips a fraction and the speeding metallic carcass crosses the line ...
My progress slows to something like a brisk walking pace. I think about the 1800-km ride two Dutch environmentalists made on bamboo bikes recently. My own 40-km attempt feels a rather ... limp effort.
The sun is beating down when I pass a coffee kiosk with its back to the lake. As I wipe my forehead, six-year-old Tewai comes to check me out.
"Is that a mountain bike?"
"Not exactly. It's a folding bike." I take a sip of my latte. "I'll show you."
Flip-click-unlock. I fold it in half. "See?"
"Wow. Awesome. Mum! It wraps up! It wraps up!”
I turn off the main highway and begin pedalling up a gradual incline. The traffic is now sporadic and the pleasure in my surroundings increases in proportion. The air is scented with waving pine trees and freshly cut grass and languishing cows and the heady fragrance of a lavender farm.
Clouds of white and the strong smell of sulphur announce Hell’s Gate before I see it. The clouds hang in the pure blue like large white sheets. The entry comes into view. I ride right up the ramp to reception and give the woman behind the glass a wide grin. Without getting off the seat I book a massage and a mud bath.
The mud bath is a one-person pool in a semi-private space. I’ve read the tourist speak - the healing, mineral laden, spiritual heavy water that’s been curing ills for over 800 years. I step into the 38 degree bath and feel the muddy sediment squelch between my toes.
A moth flutters on the surface. I scoop it out and place it gently on the edge of the pool. I lower myself gingerly into the muddy soup. It reaches just below my neckline. I ladle up handfuls of soup and lather myself so that soon I am covered in black slushy mud.
Hmmm ... time to attempt a connection with whatever universal power might be out there. I cross my legs, let my eyelids droop, relax my hands in my lap and let out a long sigh. I begin to meditate. I recall a yoga class of stiff-limbed beginners where we chanted a sound which creates a portal to a deeper level of consciousness. A sound with a vibration that harmonises fighting cells and creates a deep and profound peace.
“Ohmmmm, Ohmmmmmmmmmm, Ohmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
I begin to drift, the warmth soothing my joints, the silky smooth mud a balm for my aching muscles. My spirits begin to soar. I open my mouth to Ommm and – “Are you all right, sir?”
I pop one eye open. The young Maori woman attendant has appeared in front of me.
“I wondered if you were all right, sir. It’s just that ... well, .it can get hot in here and people can get dizzy and ... well, I thought I heard you moaning.”
The moth is flapping its wings. After a minute it ascends haphazardly into the sunlight and heads off, on an apparently random course.
Mira Mira, sometimes called meremere or mirimiri and using the oil extracted from Titoki seeds, is an ancient Maori massage technique with centuries old healing properties. I’m face down while Rachel rocks me gently, praying for spirits to guide her. The rocking feels comforting - perhaps an infantile recollection - and I begin to sink into a slumber. I am only mildly aware of long rhythmic strokes that culminate with a firm unhurried press of the heel of the hand. When the hour is up I am relaxed and ready to embark on the next stage of my journey.
In the evening I cycle around the lake front along Memorial Drive. I pass other people on bikes, a very old man with dark leathery skin on a park bench gazing accross the water into past memories, couples reclining in various degrees of intimacy on the grass, families playing tag and a girl trapped inside a large clear plastic ball floating on the water, trying and failing, trying and failing to stand.
I cycle back via Tutanekai St, the restaurant strip of Rotorua, to eat bolognaise in a corner Italian.
I wake at first light and set off immediately. Sixty pedal minutes from Rotorua I dismount at the fringe of the Whakarewarewa Forest with its redwoods of over 100 years old. I lock up my bike. The air has an edginess and the sky is beginning to glow a fresh crispy blue. The Information Centre is yet to open but I see a post that points to a walk.
I set off into the shadows down a gently undulating track that meanders through a multitude of trees. It is soft underfoot. The bark is a rich coppery red, textured with deep vertical furrows. The trees close around me. There is a woody, earthy scent and occasionally I catch a hint of sulphur, carried on unseen currents. The sun casts fingers of dappled light between the redwoods, interrupting the shadows.
The thrilling, heart-lifting aria of a tui arcs through the forest. I spy it perched precariously on the tip of a barren branch. The white feathers under its beak tremble as it croons.
I turn a corner. The indefinable beauty of the large gnarled redwoods brings me to a standstill. A memory surfaces of a visit I made to Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou, China where people of all ages were hugging the trees. I feel drawn to lean in and stretch my arms around a trunk. To my surprise what looks rough is strangely soft. My fingertips squeeze into a crevice. I press my cheek against the cool bark. And I feel very much alive and in the moment and in this world.
Over the next four hours the forest becomes resplendent in the emerging sunlight. I abandon myself to the mysterious workings of nature. I feel anxiety ebbing from me, and, in its place, an emerging calmness and a renewed energy.
Fabulous folding bicycles – beware! A folding bicycle is not just two wheels. It’s an addictive way of life: an invitation to hit the trail or commute the streets and to live in the moment. Try the following brands: Giant produces the nifty ‘Expressway’ bike which is a well-constructed entry level model for around $600. Quite a few notches up are the fabulous Bike Fridays, manufactured in Oregon. Most of these bikes are made to order and are custom fitted. A local supplier can be viewed at www.bikefrenzy.co.nz . Bikes start at $1,500 and can go as high as $4,500. (Read “The Handsomest Man in Cuba” by Lynette Chiang, who travels through Cuba on a Bike Friday with a trailer.) Finally, a strong competitor to the Bike Friday is the Brompton. You’ll have to order this in from England. It sports a stunning “quick fold” piece of engineering. There’s a wide range of models to choose from, so take your time browsing www.brompton.co.uk Prices are dependent on what you order. The site also has interesting stories of places that people and their bikes have been to. Worth a look.
How to get there: I like the Intercity bus service. For $30 you can kick back and enjoy the scenery. Your bike can easily be accommodated in the luggage area under the bus but be warned! The bus service charges an extra $10 cash for the privilege.
Where to stay: I like the atmosphere of the YHA Rotorua located at 1278 Haupapa St www.yha.co.nz/hostels/north-island-hostels/yha-rotorua/ Once a place for youth, it now accommodates people of all ages – including families. It’s an amiable, neat-and-tidy, cost-effective place. Lodging starts at around $35 a night. A double room will cost around $65.
Where to eat: There are restaurants throughout Rotorua but the restaurant ‘drag’ is located on Tutanekai St. You can dine on almost any fare there. Try the Italian on the corner of Tutanekai and Arawa St for a delicious bolognaise and a glass of red - ideal fuel after a day in the saddle.
Sam’s Cafe is a small unpretentious cafe on Fenton St and serves a delicious lentil soup with pide bread for around $9 - a fantastic hearty meal at a great price after a day on the pedals.
Cycle Trails: AA Directions recently published a list of cycle trails around New Zealand. Under construction is the National Cycle Trail, part of which goes through Rotorua. You can link up with it for a two-day cycle through the thermal area. www.nzcycletrail.com
The Redwoods, of course, are a special treat for bikers. Warning: if you are a novice to these trails watch out for mountain bikers who come racing around corners and swerve just in time, narrowly missing you and causing your already fast-beating heart to beat even faster.
Further entertainment: For simple pleasures visit a great little low-key movie theatre located in a basement on Hinemoa St. It shows all kinds of interesting art movies as well as some mainstream features. Or take a walk around the lakefront and watch the people. There is plenty of green space to recline on or share a picnic lunch.
For a massage and spa in interesting surroundings, visit the “Spa at QE”, formerly the Queen Elizabeth Hospital built by the government for returning injured soldiers. Be warned! The brochure promises a facility much smarter than it turns out to be ... the building seems not much removed from the days of WW2. The walls are adorned with black and white photos of injured soldiers with damaged limbs inserted into medieval-looking contraptions. But this is what makes the place a treat. If the QE really takes your fancy, you can purchase a book about its history from reception.