RESEARCH WITH CYCLING ROYALTY

A last minute bikepacking trip with a Kiwi legend 

Words: Amy Kwong 

Images: Amy Kwong and Jonathan Kennett

It’s late February and peak bikepacking season. I’d managed to re-emerge from my Paper Roads workshop a bit more after an intense bag-making season the past two or so months, kitting out rigs for everyone else’s summer adventures.

Dealing with nerve and wrist injuries after the Renegades Muster in November last year, I’d been going easy until the need to “scratch the itch” became too much. 

That’s when I enviously commented on one of the Kennett Brothers’ posts, which accidentally landed me with an invite to join Jonathan Kennett on a “research ride” from Ōtorohanga, to revise routes in the Bikepacking Aotearoa book. My jaw dropped and I replied with an instant “yes, let me know details and I’ll be there”.

Given just five days’ notice, I was also tasked with inviting others – those who could take a Friday and Monday off work. It was proving to be difficult, and I feared I’d be going on a date with Jonathan himself. Maybe rather, the feeling of being selfish for not having others to share a trip with “bikepacking royalty”.  

Awkwardness was avoided just in time, and I mustered together a superstar lineup. At 10pm on a Thursday night, Jonathan arrived from Wellington, joined by Jan Taylor from Napier, Robbie Danger Webb, Anh Pham and myself from Auckland. I looked forward to catching up with Jonathan after sharing some unforgettable times on the Tour Aotearoa 2018 and briefly meeting on Kōpiko Aotearoa 2021.  

The catch of the ride was that no GPX file was provided. In the cabin, Jonathan unfolded a paper map to show us a highlighted route we’d be taking to Arapuni. Then he proceeded to rip pages out of the Bikepacking Aotearoa book. My astonishment at the inventor of the three famous New Zealand brevets had now reached anxiety levels, realising that my fate lies in the hands of this paper map guy for the next four days. That quickly translated into food anxiety and the urge to buy some emergency McDonalds cheeseburgers for the ride. 

Our final comrade, Pete Maindonald from Rotorua (Renegades Muster race organiser, overall legend) joined us in the morning. My Team Marin 2 bikepacking hardtail was equipped with a nine-piece Paper Roads bag kit, while my mates had another six of my handmade bags among five bikes.  

The weather posed no threats as we settled into the cruisey pace Jonathan had promised over Messenger. He also tried to offer accommodation with a roof for all three nights, but there was nothing available for the third night, so I forgave him for that. Later he broke the news that there was also no accommodation at Cambridge due to the rowing championships.  

Unfortunately, at 45km it was clear that one of our group had bitten off too much that her current fitness could handle and with much deliberation we let her go her own way. The quiet, sealed country roads enabled some speed, which ramped up as each hour passed. The cruisey pace morphed into a workout pace driven by these seasoned riders, punctuated with long stops to chat and eat snacks on somebody’s kerbside.

‘The ‘cruisey’ pace morphed into a workout pace driven by these seasoned riders, punctuated with long stops to chat and eat snacks on somebody’s kerbside.’ 

I guess riding fast despite the long breaks was what got us to Cambridge in daylight for fish and chips. It was rather a shock to my very unfit system—my sorry ass had gotten too soft for my Brooks Cambium saddle. 

By now, the ride was starting to look like something I hadn’t signed up for. If I’d thought through it carefully, I would’ve braced myself for an intentional lack of accommodation. After all, Pete Maindonald is infamous for sleeping in toilets.  

Luckily there was no need to, but the Top 10 was too packed and fancy for Jonathan. The vote to stealth camp out of Cambridge was four to one. I mainly wanted a shower, but a trade-off for sleeping under the stars next to a quiet field wasn’t bad, except I struggled to get one wink in my bivy, let alone 40. 

I’m no stranger to being a sleep deprived zombie on bikepacking trips and this trip turned out to be a record breaking one for insomnia. Fresh air, laughter and being in motion on the second day eased the problem. (Caffeine agitates a retching problem I have as well).  

‘I’m no stranger to being a sleep deprived zombie on bikepacking trips and this trip turned out to be a record breaking one for insomnia.’ 

However, by the time we rolled through Hamilton my right knee had flared up with a pain I’d never had before. In my weary state, I worried about making it to Raglan and suggested to Jonathan that I call on some Bikepacking Waikato friends to bail me out.

Rather than letting me quit, we diagnosed my iliotibial band as the culprit – with some quick thinking, rolling it out with Robbie’s Nalgene bottles saved the day. What a relief it was to reach the end of the cycle path at Ngāruawāhia, refuel and welcome the change of rhythm on the tarseal to Glen Massey.   

Waingaro Hot Springs—what a gem of a place! Run down, locked in a time warp, and only partly functioning, it was reminiscent of its glory days in the past. I felt like a hot water dip would finish me off and the others felt the same, save for Jonathan who must be immune to post-hot springs jelly legs. The rest of us enjoyed ice cream and banter in the afternoon warmth. 

Back on the road, Jonathan’s fresh legs punched hill after hill, with Robbie and Jan in a tight tow. Gaps started opening up in front of me. My dormant road cycling brain kicked ineither fight to close the gap or get dropped. Pete brought up the rear behind me and I felt the obligation to give it my best. It felt good to be challenged, riding with some of my best mates. It was a privilege. 

Calvin Avison kindly gave us use of his house in Raglan. Our digs for the night were luxurious, chatting on couches with Pete and Jonathan about the early days of mountain biking—it was hard to fathom that they had seen it all since the dawn of the sport, carving out its future from rudimentary hiking trails on old school bikes.  

My experience is so elementary in comparison. Yet, today we shared an adventure together—a trans under-30 year old and a Chinese 30-something year old riding with friends almost twice our age. It’s more crucial than ever to champion diversity in bikepacking and that is why I invited Robbie; aside from him being a great rider, he’s also keen to help build understanding around gender issues and bridge the generation gap in the bikepacking crowd. 

A scarce couple of hours of sleep was shattered by downpours on the tin roof. Another 6am wake up after a night of my body screaming overdrive. To our disappointment, the day wasn’t likely to bring good weather, nor did we have five continuing to Marokopa. Robbie decided that he’d done well enough on “Jonathan Kennett’s Research Race” and set off for 140km back to Auckland.  

The stretches of remote gravel road out of Raglan to Bridal Veil Falls and the Kawhia turn off are prime bikepacking country. The forest was fresh and dripping and so was our wet weather gear. I got one good chase up a hill behind Pete and Jan out of my second hand legs. As we crested a major climb, a few pushes of the pedals sent me downhill out in the front, coasting the bends on my Team Marin, the trusty Maxxis Ikons providing great grip on wet gravel. After that, it was a bit of a grovel seeing my elders disappear into the distance over the next stretch of hills, dying a little inside as they pulled away. 

The big yellow Oparau Roadhouse was flush with newspapers, which I shoved down my soaking shirt and used to smear mud off my legs. Jonathan was keeping an eye on the rain radar. I suggested we could hunker down in Kawhia if it persists. In reply, he basically called me soft. Alright, if legends are made of the tough stuff, I’ll stick to it and do what I’m told!  

To our surprise, blue skies emerged, and we were rolling again, onwards to Marokopa. We said goodbye to Pete, who peeled off (due to commitments) over the Kaimango Road climb and down the spectacular Honikiwi Road. 

The party of six was now three. Jonathan, Jan and I continued to Marokopa in the late afternoon on perfect tarseal that rarely sees cars, spoiled with calm vistas over Kawhia Harbour’s ever-changing scenery and grand rock formations. We spotted flocks of Paradise shelducks, a Shag family and jumping fish. We even chanced upon pet-like sheep on the road that demanded pats before granting us passage.  

Reaching Marokopa was hard-earned and the pain in my body faded while listening to Jonathan talk about his mountaineering adventure with Bronwen. The story was followed by another and another, about what it was like growing up as a Kennett twin, stranding Simon on a DIY raft on Lake Tekapo, going to school, tramping and riding the three person tandem in the middle. It was a Kiwi-as upbringing. 

A storm was certainly on the radar for the final day. To make things easier, I slept the night in a KiwiCamp laundry, and I was finally able to get a few hours’ quality sleep, which was crucial for the final day’s ride—an arduous 35km gravel climb.  

A strong, gusty wind preceding the storm blew us inland and up the first hill. We stopped to chat to a farmer who warned us about patches of new gravel. It wasn’t even a minute down the road when Jonathan’s rear tyre popped like a balloon. At least he seemed to enjoy fixing the 3cm gash in the sidewall in the rain.  

It became clear that I was running out of gas as we continuously gained elevation so when Jonathan stopped to periodically pump up his tyre I’d slowly carry on. After a while, I was riding alone.  

Eventually I reached an open, high country nearing a trig point. The gale howled, whipping me sideways across the gravel road and the rain lashed, stinging my face. Every hill and every open section of road was a battle to stay upright. I kept wondering if I should stop.  

‘The gale howled, whipping me sideways across the gravel road and the rain lashed, stinging my face.’ 

I resisted until I saw a farmer in his ute outside a woolshed. Worried about the state of Jonathan’s tyre, I begged the farmer to go back and look for them. Meanwhile, I tried to pull the bike into the woolshed. A gust bowled me over and the bike landed on top of me on the stairs. Inside the woolshed, wet, exhausted and hungry, I ate most of my remaining food to get my energy levels up.  

Without fail, Jonathan and Jan arrived on their own. Turns out he had to replace the tube again except he found he was carrying a 26-inch tube. I started to think that he’s the kind of guy who enjoys it when things go wrong! The consensus was that we need to get back out into the storm and push on to Waitomo. I put my big girl pants on and headed out. 

My knee began playing up again as the torrential rain and wind continued to wage war on us. I was zapped, my spirits at their lowest ebb. I had pushed myself every day for four days and the final test in the storm was savage. As Jan and I stopped to clear a fallen tree from the road, she gave me a hug. I was choking up and feeling nauseous.

‘I had pushed myself every day for four days and the final test in the storm was savage.’  

Only 8km from Waitomo, a head-on gust brought me to a standstill. Tears mingled with rain as I sat on the roadside completely beaten up but also embarrassed that I couldn’t keep my silly floodgates closed. With Jonathan pushing my bike, I limped and retched until I could roll downhill to Waitomo. 

It was the worst weather Jonathan’s ridden in, which was some comfort, but I felt like my body had let me down and robbed me of the final 15km to the finish. Despite feeling relieved that Jan would return to pick me up, I was gutted that I became a casualty. 

A good adventure is one without a certain ending or any predictable outcomes. This was a true adventure in mid-North Island West Coast paradise with my mates and role models. It was a ride in bikepacking heaven and character building in hell, pushing my physical limits and adapting as the adventure twists and turns.