By Jack Biddle.
It was in the very early hours of March 7, 2021, when Terrance (Tex) Stephenson with his cycle in hand and along with riding buddies, Gav Christensen and Chris Deacon, boarded the ferry in Wellington bound for Picton. They were all in good spirits. In days past they had already ridden the length of the North Island as part of their 3,000km quest to bike-pack from Cape Reinga to Bluff following the official Tour Aotearoa (TA) guidebook route.
The TA is no race; instead, it is designed to be enjoyed and to take in a combination of cycle trails, tracks, paths and lanes connected by some of the best and most spectacular scenery and country roads possible. A certain level of fitness is obviously required to take on the TA, but Tex a close family man from Ngatea, had been an avid cyclist for many years and had not known any serious health issues when he started out from Cape Reinga some 15 days earlier. At 61 years of age and the youngest of a family of eight boys and one sister, he grew up being involved in or surrounded by, some sort of physical exercise or sport most of his life.
The early 2.00am crossing had been chosen to ensure they all got some sleep and rest onboard and were able to disembark early to enable an unrushed start for part two of what had been to date a trouble free and enjoyable ride.
Sadly, the next morning family and friends were given the tragic news that Tex had passed away in his sleep overnight due to a medical event. He would never get to complete the TA ride, never get the opportunity to embrace his mates at Bluff and never get the opportunity to celebrate and say thank you to a loving wife, three adult children and six grandchildren who had supported him 100% on his personal bucket list challenge.
Cycling and outdoor adventures have been part of the whole Stephenson’s clan makeup for many years. Three of Tex’s brothers, local Whitianga resident Robbie, former Thames boy Doug, and their older brother Keith from Coromandel Town, were also all very active and keen cyclists.
“When Tex passed away unexpectedly, it was a massive shock to the wider family. He seemed to be in great shape. Losing our younger brother was bad enough, but while doing something we all related to, and respected him for, was hard to get our heads around initially,” says Robbie.
Not long after Tex’ death, Keith, Robbie and Doug decided the best way to honour their brother was to complete the TA ride in his honour. It was on the ‘list’ for all of them to tick off at some stage anyway, so discussions and plans began to take shape.
However, within 10 months of the passing of Tex, tragedy would once again stand in the way of the three brothers completing the TA ride together. This time, before it had even begun, Keith was to suffer a sudden and fatal heart attack while out on a casual cycle ride on the roads, close by his beloved Coromandel Town.
Keith’s passing came as a huge shock to not only the Stephenson family, but also the community of Coromandel Town. His overwhelming contribution to the town and its people through many years of voluntary activity and being a long-term community board member are legendary, and are deserving of far more words than this story will allow.
“To lose two brothers in such a short space of time was hard to comprehend and started to impact on our decision making,” commented Robbie. “Do you suddenly stop doing all the things that basically connected us as a family or do you continue on knowing that both Tex and Keith were doing what they loved and would want us to continue?” asks Robbie. That was the burning question. It was Doug who initially started the conversation about carrying on with the TA ride in memory of now two fallen brothers. “I then made a promise and commitment to Tex’s family that if he couldn’t make it to Bluff, then his bike definitely should and would. We were similar in build and height, so riding his bike was no issue technically and I felt somewhat honoured and privileged to be given the bike to ride by Tex’s family. It was like we were all on this journey together”.
So, with some solid training in their legs and bags packed, Robbie and Doug, along with a mate Julian from Christchurch, assembled in Red Beach north of Auckland on 14 February this year, excited but also a little apprehensive, about what the planned 30 odd days ahead would bring.
Nothing could have prepared them for what actually was in store. It wasn’t personal health crises but incredibly heavy rain, followed by extensive flooding and a cyclone called Gabriele that took aim at the North Island.
“With many road diversions in place, it took us around 10 hours in driving rain to get to our overnight stop at Pukenui which was around a one-hour drive to our start point at Cape Reinga,” explains Robbie. “Thankfully, the following day we had favourable conditions riding down Ninety Mile Beach, but what followed was two days of having no power and cold showers on our overnight stops at Ahipara and Opononi. The destruction caused by the cyclone was clear to see as we rode further south but so too was the generosity and hospitality of the people of the far north. The locals at Kohukohu for example, invited us onto their Marae for a welcomed cup of tea and biscuit. It was a tremendous act of kindness which lifted our spirits no end,” adds Robbie.
Warm showers after long days in the saddle were finally a welcome relief as was catching up and staying with family in the Matamata-Piako District. For Robbie, that time was particularly special.
“We got to celebrate my birthday at our sister’s place in Te Aroha, meet up with my son at Matamata and even rode a short distance with my 6-year-old grandson at Little Waipa Reserve which was a re-enactment of what Tex had done with his grandson during his TA ride.”
And so the journey continued south and onto Wellington where the same 2.00am ferry crossing (on which Tex had died) awaited them. Doug says the crossing was one of several special emotional moments he and Robbie shared together. “On reaching Picton, we both knew nothing was going to stop us getting to Bluff. We had carried Keith and Tex on our shoulders from the very start and would continue to complete and embrace the journey together. It was truly an amazing feeling for both of us.”
Bluff was finally reached 30 days after leaving the wet and battered far north. Robbie and Doug had toughed it out, ridden 3000km, climbed over 3,500 metres in elevation and managed to still average around 100km per day. When they reached the signpost at Stirling Point, telling them their journey had come to an end, a very emotional and unashamed man hug took place.
An end maybe, but a great personal and family achievement for them both, that will never be forgotten. Robbie and Doug well done, you did your brothers and extended family proud.
Caption: Robbie and Doug at their final destination.