“Come up and stay. We’ve got great riding here, and great tearooms and cafes.”
My friend Carmel had spent years trying to get me to visit and ride in the Rangitikei. She knows my weaknesses oh so well. She was advertising roads carpeted in custard squares: a slab of custard sandwiched between two pieces of flaky pastry, topped with icing. They are a favourite cycling treat of mine and I had fallen for the bait.
The plan was to ride around the Rangitikei region, avoid State Highway 1 as much as possible, and take in a slightly implausible number of cafés for a single day’s ride. In my mind I envisioned a very small number of kilometres (less than 100) and a very high number of artificially yellow pastries (at least four).
The day started leisurely—as I hoped it would continue. We left Marton some time after the sun came up and aimed to time our café visits for when they would be well stocked with counter food. Our first port of call was Bulls.
I love Bulls, I really do. Any town that bases its tourism around terrible puns on its name is all right with me. Actually, it is more than all right, it’s applaud-a-BULL. To get to Bulls was a 15 kilometre downhill downwind ride.
Carmel was keeping me company for the first part of the ride. We found wonderful farmer’s back roads to take us from Marton to Bulls—the rolling landscape divided into fields reminded me of the borders of Scotland. It was lovely scenery, but Carmel assured me that this was some of the more boring riding in the area.
The Mothered Goose claimed to have delect-a-BULL food; it wasn’t wrong. A lovely tearoom was set out in front of us with a great array of slices and pastries behind the counter. They had just what I wanted, but branded as something different: a custard oblong. Now, I can’t really take issue with this, as it really wasn’t square. It still tasted exactly like a custard square, was still loaded with sugar and fat exactly like a custard square, but it wasn’t exactly a custard square. It didn’t stop me finishing it, though. Onwards and upwards.
And upwards it was. Bulls isn’t much higher than sea level, while Marton sits up on the hill that leads to the central plateau. The climb was almost imperceptible, but into the headwind it felt very much uphill. We arrived back in Marton for café number 2, with a grand total of 33 kilometres on the clock.
Our Marton café was The Lounge, a café and pizzeria with a bit of a French feel. The logo of the famous 1980’s cycling team La Vie Claire on the wall added a little cycling ambience—maybe it wasn’t a direct reference but it was good to see. If it was anywhere but Marton, The Lounge would be very busy. Counter food was a little sparse though, and there were no custard squares—not even custard oblongs. The next best was a yoyo biscuit, a poor substitute that at least added to my custard content for the day. But two cafés in 33 kilometres still seemed like a disproportionate number of cafes; the plan was coming together nicely.
The previous night, we had decided that a good stop would be Hunterville—there are good cafés there apparently, and the local area would offer peaceful and beautiful Rangitikei cycling (in between the pastries). A section of the Gorges To Sea Cycleway would take me there. This is a highly recommended route from Taihape on the central plateau to Himatangi on the coast. The section of the route I’d ride (in reverse) took me over Mt Curl. I’m told that on good days you can see Mt Taranaki and Tongariro from the top: either I’m blind or unlucky, as I didn’t see either peak.
Was there still time in the day to make one last café and to actually get my hands on an equal-sided quadrangle of pastry filled with gooey yellow stodge?
Hunterville appeared soon enough and the ride there didn’t skew the café to kilometre ratio too much. I was 70 kilometres into my day and onto my 3rd café. I chose Relish café simply because there were happy-looking people outside of it. It was a cunning ploy to tempt me in, and I should have seen right through it: I should have seen in their eyes that they hadn’t had their daily custard square dose. Shock! Horror! Relish café didn’t have a custard square for me. I had to force down a slice of carrot cake and an Anzac biscuit, both utterly devoid of custard. I’m not sure I enjoyed them in the slightest.
Was there still time in the day to make one last café and to actually get my hands on an equal-sided quadrangle of pastry filled with gooey yellow stodge? Could I make it to another café to make it four for the day and still maintain the café to kilometre ratio, to keep it the right side of ridiculous? I pedalled the back way out of Hunterville with the State Highway 1 landmark of the Sugar Plum café in mind.
I had a feeling that this wouldn’t go according to plan, and I was right. Carmel came out to greet me and pointed out the café closed sign. That was it. I’d covered 100 kilometres and had only visited three cafés. What sort of ratio is that? A frankly sensible one, I tell you. How many custard squares had I had? Precisely zero. This bike riding malarkey was bordering on healthy.
The Rangitikei may be a fantastic place to ride but it needs to work on its catering, on the spacing of its towns, and availability and sizing of its pastries. How is a man supposed to fulfil his dreams of drowning in custardy goodness? I suspect I’ll never find the answer, but I will continue trying and will plan a return trip to find those elusive Rangitikei custard squares.