Thursday, April 26, 2001

Tour Aotearoa 2018

On February the 28th 2018, the last group of riders set off in the Tour Aotearoa, leaving from Cape Reinga, at the tip of the North Island of New Zealand.

An hour and 10 minutes later, Wellington massage therapist Pat Hogan reached Bluff, 3000 kilometres away, finishing the journey that he started 14 days earlier on February the 14th.

The inaugral 2016 Tour Aotearoa was so popular that the 300 available places filled up very quickly.

In the 2018 running of the event, the organiser, Jonathan Kennett opened it up to 600 riders, in 6 x 100 person waves, starting on the 10th of February and staggering the start waves through until the 28th. This would spread the load over the country and make sure that the smaller towns were not over-whelmed with hungry riders looking for a bed. It also made it easier for the Ferries to cope with a more manageable stream of riders.

90-mile beach. Photo by Paul Nicholls
A bit of pre-camping before the start. Photo by Paul Nicholls.

The Tour Aotearoa is not your typical event. It’s not a race, it’s more like an adventure, a journey. It’s like a cross between the Coast to Coast and the Camino de Santiago. It encourages self sufficiency and resilience. It must be completed between 10 and 30 days, unsupported, with 6 hours a day minimum rest from riding, for recovery. Riders must ride, and not deviate from an established course that takes in some of New Zealand’s great rides. The Waikato River Trail, the Pureora Timber trail and the Big River Waiuta trails on the west coast of the South Island. Deviation from this path can only be for safety reasons outlined in the course notes, or in cases of civil emergency or local road closings, as happened during Cyclone Gita this year.

Not all plain sailing on the Kaipara Harbour with wild weather causing havoc at times. Image Paul Nicholls.

New Zealand has a very changeable weather system, the literal translation of Aotearoa is “The land of the long white cloud”. After coming off the hottest summer in recorded history this year's Tour Aotearoa was suddenly hammered with rough weather as a series of tropical cyclones swept through. Rider resolve was being tested. Ferries were being cancelled, roads were being washed out and closed. Conditions were becoming challenging as cars and heavy traffic were re-routed onto the previously quiet Tour Aotearoa route, with little regard for the riders.

A burgeoning community has grown up around the tour Aotearoa with many remote accommodation options popping up and sharing their details on the official Facebook site. Spectators and family members watch as their loved ones navigate the country by keeping an eye on their “Spot-trackers”. The Spot trackers are the thing that has probably done more to promote this kind of an event than anything.

Watching the progress of your friend or family member from the comfort of your computer or cell phone as they battle the elements and terrain can be very addictive. You might liken it to Reality TV where the actors are your friends, and assuming there are fresh batteries in their trackers you can see where they have stopped to eat during the day or are sleeping at night. This knowledge of where your people are is a double edged sword as now the concerned family members can get worried if their rider's spot tracker seems to stop in one place longer for what they deem an acceptable period.

Despite the emphasis on resilience, social media has now become a big part of the tool-set with which some people arm themselves. In earlier times, if you suffered a catastrophic failure then your only option was to keep on walking until the nearest farm house where you could usually rely on a friendly farmer to help you out. Nowadays the request also goes out to social media where random people will offer a loan of replacement parts or just advice on where is the nearest bike shop. Within hours of a rear hub failure, a rider has found an after hours mechanic on Facebook, and a rescue mission has been launched to extract another rider deep from the boon-docks by friendly DOC staff. Two other riders were reunited with their bikes after they were stolen from their accommodation over night, all with the power of Social Media. Like it or loath it, Social Media is here to stay.

A large number of the riders in this year’s Tour Aotearoa were woman. Typically an event of this length would attract 9% to 11% women at most. It is estimated that around 21% of the riders this year were ladies. Maybe it was the example set by trail blazer Anja Mcdonald’s ride in the 2016 event. Anja finished 3rd across the line in her wave in a bit over 10 days. This year her husband Tristan Rawlence was trying to beat her time, but for every elite level rider doing the TA there are 100 riders who just want to experience the outdoors and meet a new challenge. Several riders over the age of 70 were out there this year mixing it up, and for a large number of people this was their first exposure to any kind of a Bikepacking event. This brings big challenges for some of these riders lacking experience in the outdoors and basic bike maintenance skills. Fortunately New Zealand is a small country dotted with towns, many of which have good bike shops enroute.

With an 87% finishing rate, organiser Jonathan Kennett is doing something right.