Tour de Coromandel: Horsing around for a good cause
It was the only complaint I heard all week, but several people repeated it: "My muscles hurt more from the dancing than from riding."
Since the six-day trek covered more than 100 kilometres of bush, beach, road, and farmland, that was some claim, and actually said more about the riders' resilience than their weakness. After all, when you're up carousing until the small hours after a day of fresh air and exercise, with another to come in the morning, you must be fit.
The 60 or so horse riders on the Tour de Coromandel would be the first, though, to admit the physical superiority of the walkers, runners, and bikers on this same trail. Whether toiling up a winding road, wading through thigh-high kikuyu grass or crunching along a stony beach, their tenacity was matched only by their unremitting cheerfulness.
It helped, perhaps, that we all were here not just to have a good time – though we certainly had that – but to raise funds for research into treatments for multiple sclerosis. This is the disease that took trek organiser Steve Old's mother, and he's been tireless over the years in running events to support the Malaghan Research Institute.
That long experience means that this latest trek was a slick operation: every day a team of volunteers erected and manned a mobile village of a marquee, kitchen, toilets and showers, massage tent, horse feed, and fencing, leaving space for the trekkers' tents beside the beach, or woolshed, or a river. A vet, farrier, and medic were also on site and accessible during the day in case of need.
Emergencies were far from our minds though as we headed north through the town of Coromandel on our way to the tip of the peninsula. Clattering by shops and people, we were soon out in the country, road followed by bush and farmland.
Pitching our tents later that afternoon in a paddock beside a creek just outside Colville, the pattern was set: big breakfast, make our lunches, set off for 30 or fewer leisurely kilometres of glorious scenery broken by a lunch stop, fetch up at the new camp, settle in, enjoy a delicious dinner then some entertainment, before sleeping like babies in our tents or trucks.
Whether we were old hands at this sort of thing, as many were, or new to trekking and on a hired horse, what everyone had in common was a permanent grin. There was a friendly fellowship among riders, walkers, and bikers, and a universal appreciation for the scenery we were moving through at the perfect pace to appreciate it. The bush was rich with silver ferns and nikau palms; the farmland was green, varied, and approved of by the many farming folk among us; even the road was quiet and winding, and not too steep for the self-propelled.
What blew everybody's minds though, was the coastline; especially the Pohutukawa Coast road we followed on the second day on our way to Port Jackson. In perfect weather, with the warm sea so clear that we could see stingrays in the shallows, the horses' hooves crunching along the deserted stony beaches, and under the shadow of so many great, gnarled pohutukawa, it was breathtakingly magnificent. Whether down by the water, or up on a headland with wide and long views across the brilliant blue Hauraki Gulf towards Great Barrier Island, we were all reminded again of what a stunningly beautiful country this is – and how lucky we were to be out there among it all.
Each of us had our own satisfactions. The runners got the route to themselves, always away first. The cyclists had the fun of whizzing downhill; the riders had the most sociable time, clopping along chatting companionably; and the walkers were able to appreciate the quiet of the bush, where the birds sang undisturbed by their passing.
Marshals were stationed along the route to encourage us and prevent straying, and one followed behind to round up stragglers; but there was no pressure to rush. There was, however, a yellow T-shirt presented every evening to those first back in each category, with a lot of mirth and a spray of champagne. It was just the start of each night's after-dinner entertainment: dancing to a DJ, karaoke, a slideshow of the trekkers photographed by the marshals, a charity auction, even a couple of local bands in the hall at Colville. There was always something to divert us, and to use up any stray energy by getting our groove on.
But the days were the best. To be out among our glorious scenery, on an eager horse, surrounded by people having an equally good time, all needs taken care of and nothing to do but get from A to B with as much fun as possible – what could be better?
This annual event is suited to those who enjoy exercise, the outdoors, and the company of positive people. Riders, bikers, and walkers/runners will follow a different North Island route each year, including over private land. Participant numbers will be capped at 150.
The 2017 event, the Western Windmills Tour, will take place along along the Waikato coast on February 11-19. Entry fees are $1650 for riders, and $1550 for bikers and walkers. All profits from the event, and funds raised in the auction, go to the Malaghan Institute for research into multiple sclerosis.
A reasonable level of fitness is important, especially as a biker or walker, to cope with hills and distances of up to 30km a day. Horses will be available for hire: approximately $750 for the week. Camping packages can be purchased by those without tents or the desire to erect their own. See trekkingevents.co.nz.