Tough Girl Tribe Thursday Blog
Every Thursday, we champion the writing of women from the Tough Girl Tribe; blogs, poems, thoughts and stories. The aim of Tough Girl Challenges has always been to create a platform for women's voices about the outdoors and sport and now we can hear even more of them.
Beach by Bicycle
Back in ye olden days, apparently, distances were measured by the amount of time it took a man riding a horse to get from Point A to Point B. Ninety Mile Beach on New Zealand’s North Island is so called because it a took a horse ninety miles worth of time to get from one end to the other. What the rider didn’t realise is that the horse was slower on sand, and the beach is only 55 miles in length. Never mind. I still wanted to ride it, but on my bicycle instead of a pony.
I was heading north from Auckland to Cape Reinga, two weeks into my six month cycle tour with my bike buddy Mulley. In the Bay of Islands, I’d gotten chatting to another cyclist who had ridden up the beach as we planned to do. The sand was hard packed and it was just like riding on tarmac, she said. Tail wind all the way, she said. The whole beach in one day, she said. Perfect, we said. It would be our flattest day, traffic free, and would keep us off the highway. We headed west from Paihia and joined the beach at Waipapakauri, ready for a dream ride.
Safety billboards told us to be off the beach two hours either side of high tide, or risk drowning. I was less sure that this was such a good idea, especially when it started to drizzle and my phone lost reception. The Tasman Sea on the left, and sand dunes on the right, for as far as we could see. Quickly, for the first time in NZ, we were on our own.
The spit turned to drizzle. Sand clogged up in my gears and my bike started to crunch as I pedalled. I had to stop every half hour to kick off clods of wet sand from my chain. I had touring tyres on, which were quite thin, and if I hit a soft patch of sand, my wheels would sink in. The wind got up. Not the tail wind we’d been told out, the tail wind we were hoping would zoom us up the beach in a single day. Instead we got a head wind, shifting degrees to the left and right as we battled to keep out of the soft sand by the dunes and keep out of the sea. It was tough going. Pedalling in third gear, tiring out much quicker than usual, I felt like it must have been at least an hour since my last snack stop… but it was just fifteen minutes. I tried to figure out times and distances in my head – could we make it to the Te Paki stream and off the beach before the high tide danger zone?
Low tide had come and gone and we were still miles away from our destination. About half way up the beach, there was a freedom camp, a patch of grass behind the dunes with a tap from a water butt. I didn’t want to lose a day, but I didn’t want to get stranded either. It seemed irresponsible to pass up the campsite, even if all the flat pitches had already been bagged by Te Araroa hikers and the water had bits of tree floating in it. We used chlorine tabs as well as our water filter, just to be safe, and pitched the tent by a scraggy bush to try and shelter from the wind. It rained, and we felt defeated.
The next morning, the wind and rain had passed. Phew. We had 13 miles left of the beach. Just a half marathon! No dramas. Our route off the beach was up the Te Paki stream. The sand was soft and water logged. Barefooted, we half-pushed-half-carried our bikes through the water. It was probably only a few 100m, but with panniers on it felt a lot longer. We stopped to eat our last bits of food – bread and sweaty cheese. I made a mental note to always have better emergency rations. I never wanted to run out of Whittaker’s chocolate again! I would, though, more than once.
There are huge sand dunes at Te Paki, the biggest I’ve ever seen. It looked lunar. At the top of the stream, we were confronted by a row of buses. People with selfie sticks and clean t-shirts screamed as they body boarded down the dunes. Me and Mulley were hungry and dirty, tired from hauling our bikes up a stream with our trainers tied around our necks. They looked like they were having fun in a way that I wasn’t. But I knew I didn’t want to swap my trip for theirs, and that even if it hadn’t gone exactly to plan, I was definitely having an adventure.