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Text: Dan Bonello | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Videography: Saint Street Video Production

Opotiki, a sleepy coastal town on the Bay of Plenty, came to us strongly recommended as a starting point for a multi-day trip in New Zealand’s North Island. While the South Island is justifiably world-renowned for its jaw-dropping vistas, the North has an abundance of quality riding to offer. And besides: staying north made sense for us, given that we were arriving in New Zealand on the fringes of winter which in these parts can be just as impenetrable as the thickest of Kiwi accents.

This little coastal town would act as a gateway to three days of exceptional riding across the eastern cape of the North Island to Gisborne, before pitching back inland to our final destination – the natural hot springs of Kerosene Creek, just outside of Rotorua.

We wanted to ride predominantly unsealed roads for our trip, and our research using a combination of Google Earth and Street View had guaranteed that there’d be no shortage of that. Forecasting the unpredictability that gravel roads can serve up, we tried to prepare our bikes accordingly. We needn’t have fretted: the quality of roads through the whole area was exceptional. Every unsealed road that we used was either the ‘B road’ between towns and villages, or was used so frequently by locals that maintenance was never too far in the past.

Our journey on day one would take us on a coast-to-coast journey through the heart of the eastern cape to the well-known surf town of Gisborne. It was astonishing to discover just how remote it can feel in New Zealand even if as the crow flies you can still be relatively close to a town. And as for mobile phone reception: if you picked up the cheap SIM card at the airport when entering the country, you can forget about it.

The lawn at our AirBNB in Opotiki was the perfect teaser to just how green the North Island of New Zealand really is.

Where the tarmac ended and the gravel began on day one of our adventure.

Motu Road, a stretch famous for more than just cycling. Eurosport list Colin McRae’s 1991 victory of the Rally New Zealand as one of the top ten highlights of his driving career.

Most of the climbing on day one came in one solid stretch from sea level all the way up to 900m.

The clouds had loomed all day – and we had even ridden into them – before they eventually conspired to dump a huge amount of water on us.

Road porn.

Sometimes, it is hard to comprehend just how dense the forest is until you’re deep in it.

“Is that a sunny patch over there?”

Does it get any more Kiwi than this? Kumera fries to accompany our fish and chips. 

Rolling through the rolling hills.

Almost as iconically New Zealand as the fish ‘n chips we just inhaled.

The sea cliffs to the west of Gisborne were a highlight of the stunning scenery we encountered on day one. 

The pine forests around Gisborne made for a distinct lack of autumnal tones. 

Our second day’s riding featured a jawdropping procession of rolling hills, impossibly green fields, and perfect sunshine. But that was nothing on what was awaiting us at the end.

Based on a small amount of personal research and a larger amount of anecdotal evidence from Marcus Enno and Simon James, Nick and I were expecting the scenic highlight of the trip to be served up to us when we reached Lake Waikaremoana at the end of day two. Our expectations were duly met. Although it may seem like a somewhat insignificant body of water when compared to Lake Taupo on a map, the ‘sea of rippling water’ (as its name translates from the Maori) offered not only stunning views but champagne riding conditions on a road that sees its fair share of rental cars.

While the gravel roads were what we were came to New Zealand in search of, the sealed roads didn’t ride much easier. 

This country makes for hardened riders.

We went looking for a place to recreate that Windows 1998 background. We found it.

Following the river usually indicates following an elevation line… more or less.

If you don’t yet have a gravel bike in your quiver, this adventure shows you why it’s something to consider.

Spoiler alert: more hills ahead.

There is so much moving water in New Zealand that it is never too far between bridges.

Dropping the hammer. 

Day two offered a seemingly endless procession of spectacular and lush farmland. 

Climbing into the haze of a perfect afternoon. 

The gravel roads are beautifully looked after here as they are frequented by local traffic.

As the sun rose on day three, we were treated to repeated glimpses of the lake as we traversed its perimeter for the first couple of hours of the day and up to the eventual highest elevation of the trip. Due to the lack of reception and wifi at our eco cabin on the shores of the lake, I was assuming a mostly downhill profile for the day. I was far from correct. Nick was polite to not remind me of this weak promise.

When sketching together the route for our trip, the finishing point had originally been set as the unfortunately scented town of Rotorua – one of the most popular tourist attractions for visitors to the North Island – but after realising that we could unclip from our pedals and immerse ourselves in the naturally warm waters of Kerosene Creek it was a no brainer to end an amazing three days of riding in this more rewarding fashion.

While we had to cover increasingly longer miles on each day of our adventure, it still feels like we just scratched the surface of the secluded and seductive riding that the North Island has to offer. One look at the map and my eyes still light up, drawn to the tantalising green stretches that I know hide kilometres on end of unforgettable riding. A revisit is only inevitable.

We started day three with a long gravel climb to be rewarded with views of Lake Waikaremoana.

Well worth the early alarm. 

Stunning, secluded bridge overlooking waterfall surrounded by lush rainforest? Not entirely uncommon in these parts.

82km of gravel roads for breakfast.

For our photographer’s purposes, some conveniently missing railings. 

It stubbornly refused to completely warm up on our third day, resigning us to leg warmers and long sleeves.

Here we go again…

Golden glow on the approach to Kerosene Creek.

Making mates with some cheeky locals.

Basking in the warmth of Kerosene Creek, and the accomplishment of three days gainfully spent.