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Harry Rainbird from Ashford cycles New Zealand's length in 26 days

An avid cyclist has crossed New Zealand by bike in just over 26 days.

Harry Rainbird from Godinton, Ashford, took on the Tour Aotearoa challenge after coming top of his graduating Maths class at the University of Bath.

Harry about to jet off to New Zealand to sttart his huge journey across the country (32676335)
Harry about to jet off to New Zealand to sttart his huge journey across the country (32676335)

His daily ride to university - which saw him riding up a steep hill on a bike with no gears - made him think he could do it.

He jokingly remembers: "I'd been commuting to uni for a year so figured I was more than qualified to cycle 3000km."

The bi-annual brevet sees cyclists travel the length of the two islands from Cape Reinga to Bluff, taking a number of routes with differing terrain and inclines.

One of 716 cyclists, the 22-year-old set off on February 22 as part of a group who called themselves 'The Slow Saturdays' due to a faster, more experienced group who started on the same day.

He recounts: "The journey was absolutely amazing. Obviously, it was physically demanding and tough.

Mr Rainbird gets off the saddle after his highest climb, Crown Range at 1121m
Mr Rainbird gets off the saddle after his highest climb, Crown Range at 1121m

"However, you end up spending a lot of time with the same people and go through highs and lows together. So you really do make friends for life.

"Also, being on a bike for 10+ hours a day makes all food taste absolutely amazing since you're hungry all the time.

"The first day was gruelling - it was all on a beach called '90 mile beach'. Although it was worse for those that started on the 23rd who had a hideous headwind. I've heard a horror story of a 70-year-old man getting stuck on the beach and sleeping in the sand dunes."

Throughout the journey, accommodation was not always a given. A list of places he slept includes a shipping container, boat house, a motel floor, a tent, hostels, private cottage, and a friend's floor.

Most often, Harry had to sleep in a bivvy bag under this small makeshift tent
Most often, Harry had to sleep in a bivvy bag under this small makeshift tent

Perhaps most dreaded were nights in his bivvy bag.

Mr Rainbird said: "One of my worst memories of the trip was any night in my bivvy bag - a bivvy bag is an outdoor sleeping bag.

"It's much lighter than a tent and saves a lot of weight but means you have to sleep with your face exposed to the elements/wildlife.

"Every night in my bivvy bag I hardly slept. Rain, mosquitoes, rats, sand flies, bright lights. Something different kept me awake every night.

"I stopped using it shortly into the South Island, which was a lot more touristy and so had many hostels to suit my budget."

The intrepid cyclist had to carry everything he needed with him on the bike
The intrepid cyclist had to carry everything he needed with him on the bike

Despite roughing it on many nights, he absolutely loved the experience.

The maths whizz recollects: "For the first 10 days I cycled with the same group of about 8 people - 'The Slow Saturdays'.

"The Tour Aotearoa route has many "alternative" routes. Some of the route is difficult mountain bike trails that are technically and physically demanding and so, for those who don't feel up to it, there are highway alternatives. Those who did all the trails gave those who didn't a fair amount of stick.

"In the first week, coming into a town called Mangakino, there was one of these trails through thick forest. It had lots of switch backs (hairpins) and steep drops to the side. Most of the "slow Saturdays" had decided to skip this trail. At lunch, just before the trail, everyone was chatting about how we only had a few hours of road until Mangakino, but I didn't realise there was a trail.

Mountain trails often became torrents of water, with this particular one "not even being the hardest"" the bike fan faced
Mountain trails often became torrents of water, with this particular one "not even being the hardest"" the bike fan faced

"I set off from lunch before everyone else and soon found myself in the middle of a dense forest, on a mountain bike track some of which was unrideable and you had to get off and walk.
"I was deeply confused, where was the road?

"Two to three hours later I emerged into Mangakino, exhausted and covered in mud to find all of the Slow Saturdays waiting for me in the town square with a crate of beer."

Mr Rainbird - who hopes to return to do Bath to complete a PhD in September specialising in Algebraic Geometry - also spoke highly of the generosity and camaraderie of his fellow cyclists.

He said: "As one of the youngest on the Tour, I was treated very well by the older guys with higher budgets than me. The average person on the tour was probably a 55 year-old male.

One of the "hundreds" of cycle bridges the 22-year-old had to cross on his journey
One of the "hundreds" of cycle bridges the 22-year-old had to cross on his journey

"Another highlight was the second to last night. We passed through this small single-street town called Mossburn.

"It had one hotel and was fully booked out by cyclists and my camping set-up was only suitable for the warmer north island. I had nowhere to stay.

"Fortunately, my 60-year-old friend Tim from Brisbane, Australia had a room and said I could sleep on his floor.

"I arrived in Mossburn to find that my other friend Rick, a 53-year-old Kiwi, had decided to cycle on to the next town that night and told the hotel owner that I could have his room.

"Beats sleeping on the floor - I couldn't stop smiling."

Taking a brief breather at Eketahuna
Taking a brief breather at Eketahuna

Finishing the route in 26 days and 2 hours, he was relieved to have finished - but he couldn't savour the experience for too long.

Despite planning on staying in New Zealand for a little while longer, news of Covid-19 had started spreading.

Initially "very much out of the loop", the Godinton resident was told more than half way through about the growing pandemic.

Not thinking too much about it until he finished, he saw that countries through which he'd have to transfer had started closing their borders.

Harry recalls: "I heard rumours that NZ was about to go into lockdown and decided just to try and get out. At first I didn't realise how difficult it'd be to find a flight. For each flight you had to check the transit rules to see if you could stop there.

Celebrating after completing his 3,000km+ journey
Celebrating after completing his 3,000km+ journey

"I found one via Singapore but it sold out before I could buy a ticket.

"I called my family and had everyone on the phone to a different airline - by this point it was midnight in NZ and so my family was awake.

"Eventually my sister found one via Canada - yep, the wrong way around the world. I had to be at the airport in three hours and had to abandon my bike in NZ since the flight was before the bike shop opened. I also had to leave without saying goodbye to the people I was staying with.

"The journey was also 50 hours door-to-door. It was also a lot more expensive than I could afford but my grandma agreed to pay for it. It was the right decision.

Harry (standing second from right) with the 'Slow Saturdays'
Harry (standing second from right) with the 'Slow Saturdays'

"The day after, NZ announced that everyone had to stay home. Those still doing the Tour had to stop and go home. I was extremely lucky."

Despite this premature end to his travels in the Australasian country, he says it was the trip-of-a-lifetime and can't wait to set off on another challenge.

The cycling fanatic said: "I'd absolutely recommend it to other cyclists - I'd recommend it to anyone. I had the time of my life.

"I probably won't be doing the Tour Aotearoa again as it was quite expensive getting there. I'd definitely do a similar bike packing event in Europe though.

"There's the French Divide and the Tuscany Trail which I'm considering for 2021.

"There's also the Tour Divide, which traverses the Rocky Mountains, which I'd love to do in the future - It's very hardcore though: it's longer, more remote and you have to deal with bears..."

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