PAUL LEAVES HIS STRESSES SOMEWHERE ON THE
ROAD BETWEEN OHAKUNE AND NAPIER

I was 17 years old, dealing with the consequences of a tragic event that was to shape much of my life. I rode for hours on that hot summers day, alone with my thoughts, along quiet back lanes and boring trails around arable fields. I sat under trees watching the breeze make the wheat fields dance and just staring into space. I don’t recall the details of the ride: where I rode, for how long exactly, or how I fuelled my journey. But I distinctly remember returning home as the sun sank, with a clearer head, ready to face the world again.

Since that day, 24 years ago, riding has often been an escape from the stresses that build in my life. Every so often, I find I need to get out on my bike, alone or with friends. The physical journey doesn’t really matter, it is an opportunity to re-energise and reset my emotional balance.

Our regular family trip north to visit friends in Hawkes Bay is always a good excuse to ride somewhere a bit different. In the month leading up to this particular late-summer trip I’d let stress get the better of me. The first issue of Journey had just gone to print and I was worried about the response to it and the financial implications of starting a magazine. At the same time my bill-paying job wasn’t exactly going smoothly. For a few weeks I’d been a slave to the computer screen, and I hadn’t managed much riding. So on this trip I didn’t just need a day around the roads and cycle trails of Hawkes Bay. This time I didn’t travel north with family.

I wanted to ride the Gentle Annie, a road only recently sealed, that crosses the Central Plateau from Taihape in the west to Napier in the East; 150 very lonely kilometres through beautiful scenery. The remoteness of the road appealed, as did the opportunity to ride somewhere new, making the trip a very distinct break from everyday life. I planned to travel light; a three-day credit-card tour sleeping in comfortable beds and eating out each night. The weather forecast was perfect: dry and sunny with nothing more than a light breeze.

I stepped off the Overlander train at lunchtime into a very quiet, out of ski-season, Ohakune Junction. There had been rain on the journey north, and the sky here wasn’t exactly blue and friendly-looking. I was a little worried about leaving my rain jacket hanging on a peg at home. After a brief flurry of two cars picking up other alighting passengers, I was alone on the platform. I had a 70-kilometre afternoon ride ahead along quiet back roads to my first overnight stop in Taihape. But first there was time for coffee and cake at the Station Café.

I spent far too long in the café nursing my coffee and cake, moping about the weather. It was mid-afternoon by the time I rolled out and my weather worries turned into time concerns. I’d taken a four-wheel-drive track to avoid a stretch along the highway. It sounded like a good idea, but it was slow going along rough track deep with gravel. However, the back roads to Taihape soon materialised. They were incredibly quiet, with gentle rolling hills and few settlements to break up the Rangitikei farmland scenery. I hadn’t brought a map, I’d just scribbled a few brief notes about when and where to turn. On most days I’d be in heaven, but today I felt nervous and disorientated—worried that it was getting late, that I’d missed a turn and was heading in the wrong direction, and that the unexpectedly threatening weather would break on me. I only relaxed on reaching the highway, knowing I was just a few kilometres from Taihape, it was still light, and it wasn’t raining.

The Gentle Annie road would take me past remote merino stations and through the Kaweka Forest Park, before depositing me in Hawkes Bay wine country. It was a big day: 160 kilometres and a few thousand metres of climbing with only a handful of farmhouses, a basic campsite in the forest, and a B&B between Taihape and Napier. I usually overpack for trips like this, being a little cautious about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception or immediate means of rescue. This time, though, I had no camping or cooking gear and few warm or weather-proof clothes. Whatever space remained in my bags, which wasn’t much, was taken up with ride food and two litres of water. I hoped that was enough.

I made an early start, assuming the ride would take up to 10 hours. It was a misty morning, but it cleared very quickly to a warm sunny day. Navigation was easy—there were a few junctions close to Taihape, then just one road heading east. I was expecting a few big climbs, including the Gentle Annie herself, but I wasn’t ready for the grind to start right out of Taihape. It meant I had one eye on the time for much of the day, as a 10 hour ride would get me to Napier at 7pm. I seemed to be doing my best to keep my nerves frayed.

The next 100 kilometres were characterised by sheep mustering, unexpected roadworks, grinding hills, eyewatering descents, relentless sun, water rationing, intense solitude and stunning beauty. The journey came to a head after the bulk of the climbing was over, but with 60 kilometres still to ride. I sat in the shade of pine trees, having struggled up a frustratingly long hill, sipping at my last half-litre of fluid and cursing the lack of drinkable water along the route. It was a low point: my body was tired and my head was weary. However, I pedalled on to reach a lookout over a parched Hawkes Bay landscape. It was a wonderful sight and the start of 40 kilometres of mostly downhill roads. The stress finally melted away. I reached Napier delirious from a heady mix of dehydration and endorphins. After getting completely lost in the outskirts of the city, I found a dairy, almost made myself sick by drinking a litre and a half of water far too quickly, and got brainfreeze from scoffing three iceblocks in quick succession.

My final day on the roads and cycle paths of Hawkes Bay was an utterly relaxed affair. I had all day to explore, with my final destination no more than an hours ride away. After the solitude and ‘self’ of the last two days, it was refreshing to be around people again. However, I wasn’t sure how much energy and motivation I’d have after two mentally and physically draining days in the saddle. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. I firstly headed north to explore trails on reclaimed land around Napier airport. It was quite surreal—dead flat land that was seabed before the great earthquake of 1931. I rode past lagoons abundant with bird life, beneath old sea cliffs now far from crashing waves, and through paddocks surrounding an ex-island. The riding was effortless on a warm and windless day, with no hills to crest. I returned to Napier along the coastal path, soaking in the life around the port, and took an extended brunch in the sunshine watching the world go about its business. With hunger temporarily suppressed, I continued along the coast to Clive, then inland to Hastings and afternoon tea. I stopped for a chat and a milkshake at a bike store in Havelock North and, with the day fading, I took a longer route around Te Mata Peak to my final destination at Waimarama to await the arrival of my family after their road trip.

My recall of the final day around Hawkes Bay is a little blurry, as if I am viewing it through a soft-focus lens. I covered 120 kilometres to add to the 230 kilometres in the previous two days, when I only needed to ride for 30. I’m not sure where the energy came from, but I ended the day feeling more energised that when I started. After the stress of the last month, and the nagging anxiety and weariness of the previous two days, this was a release: a near perfect day on the bike that I just didn’t want to end.

I’d found my balance again.

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