We are moving slowly, enjoying the scritch-scritch of tyres on limestone, feeling connected to the surroundings.
At this pace, we are able to discover the detail: on this first day of our Hawke’s Bay Cycle Trail trip, we learn that the land we are on was once underwater.
Before the 1931 earthquake, Napier’s small centre was hemmed in by Ahuriri Lagoon, rich with all manner of seafood. When the quake hit, the lagoon was pushed up nearly two metres, leaving fish to rot: apparently the smell was quite something. The land has been gradually reclaimed and now has housing, farmland and pockets of wetlands on it.
High tide on a cloudless day and all is quiet. There’s more chance of seeing birds at low tide and first thing in the morning, so we engage in competitive ornithology, searching for black swans, pied stilts and royal spoonbills but actually spotting shags and white-faced herons. A murmuration of starlings rises from the sedge, swarming in a curving, sinuous mass.
Hawke’s Bay is top cycling country: four themed trails are wonderfully wide, mostly off-road and well signposted. Locals use them enthusiastically and help visitors enjoy them, too. One truck driver stops his rig to jump out and set us right.
We wind through Taradale to Otatara Pa Historic Reserve, one of New Zealand’s largest pa complexes. Settled more than 500 years ago, the steep slopes were coveted for their defensive value and the access to wetlands for food, water, weaving materials and transport. Many died here, so the reserve is tapu, though you can still explore various trails.
It’s very hot. We head up Tutaekuri River towards Puketapu, on top of a stopbank and exposed to relentless sunshine. I’m wearing a long-sleeved cycling top to avoid sunburn, but it’s making me overheat. The path goes on forever. The chocolate in my pannier is melting.
We turn to ride back along the river’s south side and find a swimming hole.
Soon after we turn to ride back along the river’s south side we find a swimming hole, where a family has set up a picnic and portable stereo. Teenagers clamber up the bank to jump, turn flips and bomb.
I collapse into the cool water, speechless with relief. We drift, half-listening to divers egging each other on and teenage chatter: “nah, he’s not that cool; d’you know what he did last week?”. What’s the Time, Mister Wolf? by Southside of Bombay comes on the stereo and in that moment we enjoy a happy sense of being Kiwi, of belonging here.
Day two’s goal is the vineyards of Gimblett Gravels and the Bridge Pa Triangle. Overnight rain has dampened the sunbaked hills; we pass orchards laden with apples, pears, stone fruit. There are also furrows and furrows of uprooted onions: New Zealand’s highest-value export vegetable perfumes the air with an unexpected sweetness.
Through a mile-long avenue of oak trees, through Flaxmere, the wine tastings draw nearer. The first cellar door on Ngatarawa Road is…closed.
“Que sera, sera,” I warble.
Better luck at Salvare Estate: “Let me guess – one-dayers?” co-owner Steve Nathan asks, referring to our cycle trip.
“Nope, day two of three,” I say. My tired legs manage to carry me inside.
“Well, I figured you weren’t five-dayers,” he says. “They usually look totally over it by the time they turn
At a picnic table by the vines we demolish a platter with Salvare olive oil and dukkah, and sample frozen wine cocktail mix. Golden retriever Zoe hangs around, quietly hoping we’ll share. We don’t.
The pop, pop of scareguns echo as we cruise on.
Our final day dawns cloudy; we head out from Havelock North atop the Tuki Tuki River’s stopbanks. At the coast the path winds through wetlands, home to pied stilts, black swans and herons. On the beach, horses stretch their legs; Cape Kidnappers stretches out to sea.
At Zeppelin Café in Clive one of the kitchen staff pops his head out the window: “We’ll keep an eye on your bikes.” Another joins in: “Oh, but we nick all the good ones!”
Everyone seems very happy to be here. We meet ‘refugees’ from Auckland and locals who visit big cities just often enough to remind them how much they prefer it here.
The final stretch heads along Marine Parade into Napier, past the port and back to where we began.
Reported by Mary de Ruyter for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue