The Best of the North Island

Prose by Guy Trainor

Ian Sutherland, from Nth Otago, Alan & Liz Eskrick, from Richmond, and I crossed on the ferry on March 27. Wellington riding wasn't really part of our itinerary but we managed to fit in a couple of hours at Makara Peak and, the following morning, some fun tracks at Wainuiomata. Our Porirua host, Phil Hartwick (met at Kaiteriteri), was our guide for this outing, making sure we rode the best tracks and in the right direction. The latest addition to their network - Freeride - is a real blast, crammed full of trail features to ensure complacency never gets a look in. Kudos to those trail builders!

Ian, Guide Phil, Alan, Liz and Guy pose for a group "selfie" at Wainuiomata

The Bridge to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere


Back in the wagon and up to another Kaiteri contact's place at Raetihi, our base for The Bridge to Nowhere and the Ohakune Old Coach Road cycle trails. The logistics for doing the 35 kms BtN involve getting a shuttle from Raetihi to the trailhead, arranging for a canoe or jetboat shuttle down the Wanganui River from the track exit to Pipiriki, and then a shuttle back to Raetihi. It's a pretty slick operation and it's also great to see how local businesses are getting in on the cycle trail action. As for the trail....


The first half is of interest with respect to the abandoned farms that are dotted along the valleys. The bush is quickly reclaiming them so, unless you're carrying the brochure, it's easy to pass through with little awareness of the back-breaking effort these families put into trying to establish their farms in such inhospitable terrain. The only indicators of former homesteads along the trail are wooden crosses etched with a family name, perhaps a clearing, some exotic flora, the odd brick chimney. Hopefully, the Trust managing the BtN trail will get the funding to install some good interpretive panels and really bring this fascinating part of the region's history alive.


The riding through this section goes from gravel road to 4WD to quad bike quality. Eventually you reach a small swingbridge, beyond which quad bikes can't progress. This is where the trail becomes singletrack and a lot more fun! There are several bluffs to traverse (the official advice for cyclists is to "Dismount Here"), lots of narrow, boardwalk-style, bridges that demand a good line, and heaps of beautifully-flowing trail. It feels that all too soon you arrive at the Bridge and, with tour groups arriving by jet boat and other trail users savouring the moment, experience a sense of being back in civilisation.


It is, however, still a pretty remote spot. Unless you're doing the return journey, the only way out is down the river. As three of our group had already canoed the Wanganui, we opted for the 40 mins. jetboat shuttle - which isn't a bad way to end a ride!

Ohakune Old Coach Road

Old Coach Road, Ohakune
The following morning had our host drop us off at the start of the Old Coach Road cycle trail to Ohakune. Although only 17 kms long, this is an absolute gem of a trail. There are panels spaced evenly along the route that informed & entertained us from start to finish - a model for every CT in the country.The track also sidles through some stunning rainforest (this is one of the wettest places in the N.I.) that had the photo-junkies among us prolonging the ride by at least 50%! It's also got a heap of history and its own catalogue of hardship and heroism.



This magnificent bridge is just one testament to The Age of Steel that dominated this period of our nation- building. It's impressive enough as a structure spanning a gorge. It's doubly so when you read stories of the encampment that was established on an adjacent hillside, now just regenerating bush. Hard men, hard women, hard lives.



The Moki-Rerekapa
Next stop was Taumarunui. Dave Mitchell, in his book Mountain Biking: North, describes the Moki-Rerepaka route as "a mythical adventure". Well, there's nothing mythical about the vertical drops off the side of narrow benches into the streams several metres below.


"Relax and concentrate on the path ahead" is his helpful advice. He could also have added, "And don't trust your traction on the papa rock an inch". I'd heard about the greasiness of this region's bedrock and it fully lives up to its reputation. The many damp gullies and side- stream crossings presented enough of a challenge - I wouldn't go near it in the wet!


It's the sort of loop that cries out for some local group of mtbers to adopt. The bench is there, even the bridges over the crevasse-like chasms are there - tho' many sections of the track are in danger of soon becoming impassable...


But there are also some beautiful stretches that beg to be ridden. Like the Sth Island's pack tracks, the Nth Is. hinterland is crisscrossed with these old roads and benched trails, abandoned as livelihoods dried up or enterprises failed. The national cycle ways initiative is doing a fantastic job of re-opening some of the better known ones but it can't reclaim them all...


The Timber Trail

The Timber Trail
One of the big successes is the Timber Trail. This 83 kms trail is already proving to be hugely popular, with people choosing to do one half or the other, overnighting for two relatively cruisey days or, as we opted for, bashing it out in a day. It's a phenomenal feat of construction. There are 8 large suspension bridges and the longest, Maramataha, (141m) cost $460,000 accounting for a fair whack of the $5 million+ total budget.


They're undoubtedly a highlight of riding the Timber Trail, but it's also so much more than that. There's spectacular scenery to match the structures, there's swooping singletrack, expansive views and, of course, the history of the area that gives the trail its name.


The 42 Traverse

The 42 Traverse
The 42nd Traverse hadn't made it onto our original itinerary but some left luggage saw us needing to backtrack a little. My memories of the 42T from 10 years ago were of smooth, clay, washed out quad tyre ruts with sides & berms you could slalom off, whooping & hollering the whole way down (funny how you forget the climbs!). What has happened since is that a heap of gravel has been laid the whole length of track. There's still some fun to be had on the descents but, at least in the dry, it's not the ride it was. 


Perhaps my enjoyment was also a little tinged by a conversation with an Auckland mate the night before, when he told me that the last time he rode the Traverse, he collided with a speeding quad bike rider 10 kms in, breaking a toe and a derailleur. The occasional quad parked alongside the track reinforced the message that every corner posed a potential head-on. The one thing that hadn't changed was the views...
From here, we headed for a six night stay in Taupo, where we were joined by Deborah. 

Great Lake Trail

Waihaha - Waihora section

After a short day riding the Rotary Trail out to Aratiatia and back along the road vainly looking for a coffee shop, the next ride on our bucket list was the new, western-most section of the Great Lake Trail. From the elusive Kinloch (if you blink you can miss the signed turnoff and end up miles away), we shuttled to the start of our ride with Great Lake Shuttles. John Key had officially opened the trail the day before so we were the first punters to ride it officially.
The trail builder have done an excellent job winding the trail through some amazing country, skirting deep gorges. 6km into the ride the freewheel on Alan's bike packed a sad so he was forced to scoot, coast and walk the next 18km.


The track finishes on the shore of Lake Taupo after a spectacular descent of "the waterfall' on a zig-zagging section of boardwalk. The boat shuttle back to Kinloch was part of the experience and we were lucky to strike the lake on a calm day.


Thanks to a helpful tech at Pack n Pedal in Taupo, Alan's bike was up and running again with new parts by 10am the next morning.

Craters of the Moon

Craters of the Moon
Next stop, Craters of the Moon! Purpose-built mtb parks have a certain uniformity but, for the more- established ones, it's interesting to see the evolution of track design and building technique. Some of the early tracks that were - or still are - classed as intermediate - have, through erosion and/or lack of maintenance, deteriorated to the extent they are now, effectively, advanced. This is fine so long as new tracks, as at Craters, are then built to better design specs to fill the intermediate niche. This meant we never really knew what to expect on each track: an intermediate track that suddenly turned steep with roots and ruts or an advanced track that, by comparison, provided less of a challenge.
About the only thing we could determine on Luge that warranted its advanced grading, for example, was this cool seesaw. You get a long way off the ground before you reach tipping point! My son showed us oldies how easy it is.

Incline is an example of the type of highly-groomed trail more typical of recent track design. The berms are huge, the tabletops are nicely spaced, the flow is impeccable. It's impossible to finish ripping down a track like this without a huge grin!


Waikato River Trails

Waikato River Trails
The Waikato River Trails are still a work in progress. Some completed sections that skirt the riverbank are truly exceptional, especially with the sun glistening off the water. More time and a dip would have been hard to resist.


We drove further down river to sample a couple of sections marked Advanced on the map, only to be disappointed. The trail veered away from the river, following forestry roads through plantation pines. The only thing challenging about the ride was some fairly brutal climbs. One can only hope that, in time, the official trail will hug the river and dam-generated lakes to capitalise on the Waikato River's natural beauty.


Rainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain

Like a sentinel, Rainbow Mountain, not far south of Rotorua stands in the junction of Highways 5 and 38 commanding views to the north over Lake Tarawera and south over Kaingaroa Forest. This area is famous for its thermal activity, with many commercial venues catering for the tourist traffic. Rainbow Mtn is free for the taking though, if you have the lungs and low-gearing to tackle the climb! Fortunately, you can use the excuse of stopping to take in the steaming cliffs and lakes while you catch your breath and wait for your heart rate to return to a survivable level.


There are fantastic 360 views to be had from the top. Other than from the top of Mt Tarawera (which was under cloud this day), you'd be hard-pressed to find a more expansive view of the thermal basin. But we hadn't been drawn here for the gut-busting climb or the panorama. Some local Mtb'ers have created a superb advanced, mtb-only, track that descends the mountain, top-to-bottom. Steep & techie from the top, it becomes a little milder as you near the lower slopes until you finish with a series of high-speed berms that spit you out by a carpark.
And why is there a carpark? Because this is where the bath-hot Kerosene Creek slips down a series of small waterfalls, creating any number of pools in which you can let all of that adrenaline soak out of your pumped body. It took some effort to leave...


Whakarewarewa - Rotorua

Being this close, it would have been rude not to have carried on to Rotorua for an afternoon's sampling of some of the Redwood's tracks. Ian & I were a RotoVegas virgins so I was prepared for my long-awaited initiation not to match expectations. I needn't have worried. We happily spent another 5 hours there the next day and didn't ride the same track twice over the two days.


Pakihi Track-Motu Road

Onward to Opotiki, our base for a couple of backcountry rides and a scheduled rest day. First up was the Pakihi, part of the 92 kms Loop Trail. This is a fairly narrow, benched track - formerly a stock route but now upgraded by DOC to mtb standard. More explosives per km were used restoring this track than on anything similar in NZ. Due to its narrowness, it's signed as being one-way (down) from the junction with the Motu Rd. Without employing a shuttle service, I can't imagine many people tackling the full Loop in a day. Due to it being mid- week, showery and late-season, we opted to take our chances and ride up it (not encountering any other trail users). It's the gentlest of gradients (2-3%) to the hut and climbs steadily thereafter to the road saddle. Not helped by the distracting views, this track demands concentration and a no. of small slips on bluffs occasionally made us err on the side of caution. But what an amazing ride!


It was our first experience of the truly lush vegetation that flourishes this far north. Nikau palms draped the track and ferns & broadleaf filled every crevice. Mature podocarps towered overhead, adding to the impression of an impenetrable jungle. The beautiful Pakihi River was our constant companion for much of the journey to the hut.


We couldn't believe such a stunning trail had been built, let alone upgraded, purely for our benefit.
At the saddle, Alan & Liz turned around for the all-downhill cruise back to where we'd left the car, while Ian & I opted for the Motu Rd back to our rented beach house. They definitely got the easier ride, as there are some decent-size saddles to cross on the way out to the coast. On a hot day, it would be a tough loop.


Our rest day took the form of a gentle meander into Opotiki, 7kms away. I say 'meander' because that's just what the Dune Trail does, weaving its way through the sand dunes in gentle undulations. It's brilliant! Whale island sits 10kms offshore and, on a clear day, White Is. is visible to the north. Eventually it will extend 15 kms to link with the Motu Rd and the locals love it.

Te Waiti Track


Duly rested, the next day we headed back up towards the start of the Pakihi, then veered right into the Te Waiti Valley. Listed in Dave Mitchell's book, this is another benched trail, in places even narrower than the Pakihi (which we hadn't thought possible!). As it's not a designated bike trail, DOC haven't fully bridged it but we only had to dismount a couple of times. If the bush on the Pakihi had impressed us, this time we were gobsmacked. Neither words nor photos can do it justice - you have to go there.


Returning to the car, we observed a number of people undergoing baptisms just upriver. We weren't too happy about having to clean our bikes in their washed-away sins; but what can you do..?

Moerangi Track

From Opotiki, our route turned southwards to Whirinaki Forest Park. By the time we reached Murupara we were desperate for a coffee. You might be surprised to know that Murupara has a coffee shop - we were. It's called the Dipherent Cafe (geddit..?) and serves espresso coffee in a pot, accompanied by hot water and a jug of hot milk. You make your own coffee as you like it and pots get refilled as required.


It also comes with the owner. She sat with us, another couple of Mtb'ers on a day trip from Tauranga and a pair of Aussies from Perth who had just done the Moerangi (and rated it the best trail they had ever done - ever!).
But back to the owner (the grey-haired one at the back). God knows what led her to Murupara but she's the best thing the town has going for it. She's a total crack-up to converse with, knows the ins & outs of every local tourist spot within 50kms (plus a few off the beaten track) and operates like a one-woman information centre, complete with maps and advice about when it is and isn't safe to leave your car at various out of the way carparks. Plus, she makes her own pies.
Like the Aussies, we were here to do the Moerangi. Whirinaki Forest Lodge was our base and provided the shuttle to the trailhead (definitely NOT a place to leave your car). We rode a lot of pretty cool track over our 3 weeks, but it would be hard to disagree with the judgement of the visitors from Perth. The Moerangi Track probably offers the best single-day, singletrack experience in the North Island.


At 35kms, it's achievable by any reasonably-fit, intermediate level rider. It's got the sort of flow that begs to be ridden fast. The trouble is, it has the sort of scenery that has you stopping every few minutes for another photo. Near the end, there are a few gradient/erosion issues that, one assumes, DOC has yet to get round to, but don't let that stop you booking yourself in for this uniquely kiwi ride.


And if you're looking for somewhere to stay, Garry & Darlene at the Lodge serve up the sort of post-ride, back-country tucker (wild pork, anyone?) that provides the perfect finish to a perfect day.

Tora Tora

Passing by Eskdale ($10 ea. for a couple of hours on greasy singletrack in the rain - forget it), our final destination was Toratora, a farmstay in south Wairarapa, 31kms SE of Martinborough. We wanted a nicely-indulgent last night together on our road trip and, despite initially unpromising omens, got the finale we wanted. Checking their website the night before, we were disappointed to read that they'd closed their private mountain bike tracks due to damage caused by a week of heavy rain. Bummer! What the hell, we decided to go anyway...


On mid-afternoon arrival, we then learned that, through a mix-up of dates, we had been expected the night before. The lamb casserole had been cooked, the woodburner had been lit, SAR had all but been despatched. And the managers were about to depart for Masterton.


It took a little sorting. Firstly, that they would let us ride the tracks on condition of signing appropriate waivers and reporting back on damage. Secondly, that we were happy to reheat the previous night's casserole. And, finally, that we could light our own fire. They set off - and so did we!


Ironically, the various washouts, slips, slumps & track scouring turned what would otherwise have been a fairly average, though scenic, intermediate track into an, at times, technically challenging, advanced grade ride. The greasiness of the clay on some sections added to the excitement and we ended up having way more fun than ever expected.


After giving the bikes their final clean, we retired to the old homestead, replete with back issues of NZMTBR, Spoke and Inspiring Riding (all of which happened to include glowing reviews of Toratora, funnily enough). Before tucking into the lamb, Liz snapped we blokes toasting the conclusion to our three week tour in which we sampled a fantastic array of trails in some memorable places. We rode every day but one and still felt we'd left enough behind to warrant a return visit before we get too old.