Musing on the landscape: Cycling the length of Aotearoa

Opononi, Northland: attempting to absorb the landscape in slow motion

I decided that a Great Big Goal was needed for 2022. Like cycling from Cape Reinga to Bluff in a month. Was it even possible? I didn’t think so, until I committed myself to 6 months of training, finding a suitable 2nd hand bike and some basic gear for the annual Tour Aotearoa event. Not a race, it’s an opportunity to cycle a meandering route from top to bottom the way you want (superfast or leisurely, camping or luxury, solo or in the company of others…) while donating to whichever charity you select.

I’m always intrigued by the “Why?” so, I asked other cyclists en route: For a semi-retired natural history author, the answer was a simple “well, you’ve got to do SOMETHING”; for others it was the sheer challenge, for one couple it was a journey to commemorate a son, for another, a catalyst for pondering moving a career into new directions. This post summarises a privileged adventure in a few notes, a prelude, perhaps to a more creative interpretation of the journey as small artist’s book.    

All the gear that’s needed for a month on the road

Interpreting a condensed landscape

How best to summarise a 28-day journey from top to bottom, along highways, quiet gravel backroads and wilderness trails? Having worked in the environmental sector for several decades, to explore and ponder the landscape both through ecological and historical lenses was captivating. You’d think that by cycling you’d be able to see the country in all of its intricate detail. However, travelling at around 100km each day, ecosystems just flicker past because in Aotearoa everything is condensed. With the collision of 70 million years of plate tectonics and a short, sharp, brutal history of human colonisation, the result is, well, an extraordinarily complex landscape we simply call “home”.

Travelling through landscapes much modified (clockwise from top LHS): Hauraki Rail Trail, Waikato; Wanaka, Otago; Poutu Peninsula, Northland; Kumara Reservoir, West Coast

Geology and geography

Mountains tumbling into braided river systems, humans stripping vegetation from hill sides and riparian margins, wetlands drained to make way for paddocks, coastlines pounded by relentless waves – so many natural and human-driven processes are continuously at play. Awed by the dominating presence of the Southern Alps, I remarked “hell! where’s a geologist when you need one!!” Turns out I’d met one the day before: extraordinarily well-travelled, Martha spoke with love and eloquence about rocks and how ground to dust, added different hues to the South Island’s West Coast rivers. I’d pondered this phenomenon, stopping at will in the middle of nearly traffic-free bridges to try to cram the landscape into my crappy phone camera. I’d also read Geoff Chapple’s superb book Terrain, the geological journey the 3000km walk the Te Araroa Trail traverses. It provides a glimpse into the violence that has shaped this country, its rawness and antiquity. Being a plant geek, it suddenly dawned that the ecosystems cloaking the land are geologically speaking, incredibly young, just a few thousand years sitting atop millennia of upthrusts, inundations and endless, endless cycles of erosion.   

The 3000km cycling route of the Tour Aotearoa

Wildlife: alive… and dead

Snapshots of wildlife – a swamp harrier standing roadside, clipped by a car, one wing drooping to the ground; a still shadow of ruru in the half light of dawn frightened to flight by the sound and movement of me cycling past. Then roadkill – and plenty of it. Small feathered bundles of piwakawaka and skylark flung off windscreens at high speed, squashed hares and rabbits in various states of putrefaction, a desiccated cat ground into the gravel, a bloated ferret and possums, appallingly everywhere, from north to south, lowland to mountain. I might have seen a kiwi or even two, similarly pulverised by passing traffic but they didn’t immediately register while cycling, mind elsewhere – just quick impressions of large feet, feathers more like fur and possibly, the curve of a long beak.  

Roadkill (clockwise from top LHS): rabbit, cat, ferret and swamp harrier, the latter hit by a car while predating roadkill. All Otago and Southland.


Some travelled with earbuds for distraction but having yet another device to charge put me off the extra baggage. And I didn’t need the distraction. The soundscapes were compelling, heightened by having the time to just be in the moment. The route took in c. 1500km of gravelled backroads and trails diverse in so many ways: colour palettes spanning all shades white to pinky-red and grey, the surface from fine powder to sharp-edged chunks, from hard and flat, and occasionally sloughs of deep gravel collected on roadsides and corners. Each change was accompanied by a shift in timbre and sound quality: the singing of tyres on smooth tarmac became a textured white noise on the gravels. I wish I’d recorded the latter because of its strange meditative quality. And because it captured a sense of wellbeing: moving through the landscape in a life, that for a short time, was simplified: the goal for each day reduced to just getting from one location to another.  

The long gravel road from through Walter Peak Station (Otago) en route to Mossburn (Southland)

Where to from here?

More adventures of course! I like revisiting places because each experience differs as do the insights. Equally, there’s the allure of visiting new places. But there’s still a need to digest the month of cycling and the lead in time of training. An idea I had from the outset of TA planning (and my rationale for travelling with notebook and pen) was to create an artist’s book (see here for posts on some of my creative outputs over the years). The book would draw together ideas, observations and encounters into a series of visual and textual notes. Nothing flash. It’s still on the cards for when I find space in the clutter of everyday life.

Further reading

Chapple, G. 2015 Terrain: Travels through a deep landscape. Penguin Random HouseNZ. 269pp

Molloy, L., Martin, D. & Potton, C. 2014 (2nd ed). New Zealand’s Wilderness Heritage. Craig Potton Publishing. 351pp.

Everything you’ll ever need to know about birds in Aotearoa, alive, visiting and extinct:

A rare opportunity, and a privilege to simplify life: after a day’s riding, collecting thoughts over beer and chips in Cardrona (Otago)

2 responses to “Musing on the landscape: Cycling the length of Aotearoa

  1. Kia ora Monica. Thank you for sharing your great posts, Myself and peers thoroughly enjoy reading them. Nga mihi Pete


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