A big high-pressure system sat over the middle of the North Island offering encouragement for a group of seven cyclists set to head from the mountains to the sea.
The historic and culturally fascinating Whanganui River valley was to be our route but a stinging frost was first to be negotiated. Arriving at the Mangawhero campsite on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, we pitched our tents and I crawled into my lightweight summer sleeping bag, an ambitious attempt to keep warm, prompted by the small size and weight to be carried in my panniers. All seemed fine until about 5am when the cold really hit and crawling out of the pit at 7am the tents were frozen with the rigidity of an igloo. How were we going to get moving in this? Everything as far as the eye could see was as white as the polar cap.
Eventually the seven cyclists sat on the seats and tried to pedal, a chilling descent led us into Ohakune and although we had just started it was time for a stop at the chocolate éclair shop. With the sun out and the sky a rich blue, we headed for Raetihi and a café stop – coffee was the goal. With Suzi getting her caffeine fix, we headed through the hills in search of the Whanganui River; up and down dale we went before arriving at the river in time for lunch. Mt Ruapehu had been glistening in the brilliant sunshine all morning and under those sunny skies we ate our lunch while sitting on the banks of the river at Pipiriki. The gravel road was a pleasant trail to follow, with little traffic (well almost nothing) seen; we meandered down to Jerusalem and visited the old church. The land of James K Baxter was a peaceful and tranquil setting, and our departure led us down the river to an historic flourmill.
We arrived at the old flourmill. A long path led down from the road, at the bottom was the old mill with its large water wheel. An old historic cottage was a few metres away, with a covered verandah and surrounded by grassy lawns. A stone fireplace was built into the bank, and across the fence dead trees provided firewood. Flat grass, shelter, a fireplace, firewood, and a water tank – it looked ideal. The only slight problem was, were we actually allowed to camp here? Should we go on to Atene? We knew camping was allowed there. But it was still 20 km to Atene, another hour and a half, and it would be getting dark by the time we got there. And we didn’t know what the campsite there was like. A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, we decided. A sign on the unlocked door of the mill building said no camping inside, which we interpreted liberally to mean camping outside was allowed. We decided to stay.
After dinner we were enjoying a pleasant social evening around the fire. Then all of a sudden there was the noise of a motorbike roaring along the road just up the bank above us. Rifle shots rang out. What the hell! What was going on? More motorbike roaring. More shots. A spotlight lit up the trees up along the roadway. Maybe the locals had seen our campfire. Maybe they didn’t like people camping here. Thoughts of in-bred country yokels from “Deliverance” sprang to mind. We stayed still, stopped talking, and stopped stoking the fire. The bike stopped, seemingly right at the top of the path to the Mill. What would they do? Please Mr. Motorbike Man, I thought, we’re not doing any harm. We’re just some innocent cyclists. Don’t shoot us, Mr. Motorbike Man. We didn’t know you weren’t supposed to camp here. Honest, Mr. Motorbike Man. Was somebody up there, watching us? Would somebody come down? We held our breaths. But then the bike went away, although the noise of its engine roaring and the occasional rifle shot could be heard for some time to come, further away, further up the hillside, back from the river road. “They’re just possum shooting” said Grant, and we relaxed and stoked up the fire again.
Awakening in the morning the peaceful valley was shrouded in fog and the chilly air made progress slow, but we eventually began pedaling down the valley, and by the time we had reached Atene the sky was again a vibrant blue. The official campsite was still in shadow and looking a bleak damp spot, we all felt satisfied we had made the correct decision as to our campsite. The travel was pleasant with minor hills all morning, but prior to lunch we were faced with a decent climb, a time to find bottom gear and grit our teeth in the heat of the day as we progressed to a superb vantage point. Stopping at the top we lazed in the warm sun and enjoyed the views northwards up the Whanganui River, now nestled well below us. All that lay ahead was a rapid descent before the flat stretch into Wanganui, a great reason to spend 2 hours for lunch. Looking south the air so clear, that a vague outline indicated the presence of the South Island. After enjoying a brew we made our exhilarating descent and met up with state highway 4 and the flow of traffic, thus realizing how lucky we had been on our journey. The flat terrain allowed a fast finish into Wanganui where we found ample opportunity to enjoy a cold beverage or an ice cream and feast until the 5pm arrival of the Orient Express.