People often ask what our favourite part of the trip around New Zealand has been.
Discounting all the bits with cake and beer, I guess they must mean the cycling bits, in which case it would have to be the Great Rides.
There are 23 in NZ and so far (and growing) and we’ve ticked off 7 of them, albeit not every one in its entirety.
In the South Island we tackled:
- The Queen Charlotte track
- The Paparoa track
- The Great Taste Trail
- West Coast Wilderness trail
- Alps to Ocean
In the North Island we rode:
- The Hauraki rail trail
- The Remutaka rail trail.
In an effort to redress the North/South balance we’ve since added one final one to the list. One which also marks the end of our cycling journey in New Zealand.
The Mountains to Sea or Ngā Ara Tūhono connects 2 national parks, the Tongariro and the Whanganui, with a trail linking Mount Ruapehu to the Tasman Sea. A 1-6 day/231 km epic that does exactly what it says in the title. The trail throws in everything from tar-sealed valley roads to lush and muddy forest trails, it even includes a jet-boat ride (or kayak) just to add bang for your buck.
It’s multiple sections comprise a network separate mtb trails, some of which are on the route for the Tour Aeoteroa (TA) now officially underway.
We join the track fresh from our sojourn in carrot country as Ohakune is conveniently located at the start of the Old coach Road section of the trail. Sadly this means we miss the starting point from the volcano but it does mean we can ride from the front door of our accommodation. Even better we’ve managed to ditch the heavy touring bikes and luggage by hiring lighter hardtail mtbs and booking a night in a bunk house en route.
A trip to the local recycling centre has also provided shoes and a dry bag of sorts for the princely sum of $5 (£2.50).
We’ve been advised that our touring bikes would probably struggle with the muddy terrain so I’m more than happy to get someone else’s bike filthy and to ditch some baggage weight. So the lovely people at Kune Shuttles & Bike Hire have promised to drop off the touring steeds and panniers at Pipiriki, our campsite in 2 days time.
Day 1 is the Old Coach Road to Ruatiti
Completed in 1886 the OCR was used to carry goods and passengers between the ends of two railheads, basically a horse replacement service before the track was connected. The road was a mix of cobblestones and bridle track around 4 metres wide so that 2 carriages could pass each other. After falling into disuse on completion of the link line, it was restored as a recreational path for walkers and cyclists in the 1980s.
Riding up over the cobbles one has to feel for those poor souls being jolted along for miles in horse drawn coaches. We’re riding the trail in the less popular direction as most riders start at Horopito and head towards Ohakune where the gradient trends downhill. The route is busy too and we pass dozens of electric bikes, careening towards us with riders who look like they have bitten off more than they can chew.
It’s also school outing time with knots of school kids and enthusiastic teachers strung out along the way. The front groups of students chat and wave happily at us whilst the ones at the rear just glower from under their hoodies, knowing how much further the have left to tramp.
Fortunately the cobblestones were short lived, and the track turns into a gentle forested climb. The highlights include the beautifully curved, derelict Old Hapuawhenua and Taonui Viaducts
These giants were some of the most steeply curved bridges of their time, so much so that engineering was then thought to be impossible.
Daring plans were drawn up however and materials laid in to begin building, only to discover that the engineer’s drawings had been mislaid. Not to let a small thing like that stop them the chief workmen drew up an alternative on the back of a box lid and hey presto the bridge was constructed anyway, working perfectly.
Legend has it these bridges were also the testing grounds for A.J. Hackett and his very first bungy attempts. Keen and foolhardy souls would be required to take on the 9km hike along the old trail to try out this new and mysterious way of leaping to your doom attached the the bungy cords you buy in hardware stores.
It’ll never catch on!!!
The bridges today don’t look like they would hold the weight of many humans, let alone trains, but the structures still stand, bridges to nowhere in the middle of the dense bush.
The OCR trail ends after 15km of easy grade climbing and enjoyable tree-lined riding before morphing into the main Mountains to Sea (M2S) route and a mix of gravel and tarmac back roads.
With 45km still left to cover we stop for a quick sandwich when I’m suddenly doubled over with stomach cramps. I’ve never before experienced such an intense and urgent need to evacuate my bowels but this ride was all about new experiences it seems.
Fortunately I manage to find a quiet nook off the gravel road to give nature free rein. Unfortunately it was by a nest of very curious/unhappy bees. As I empty my misery as discreetly as possible, frantically batting away insects and brambles, M also decides to record the moment for posterity, knowing full well I’m helpless to retaliate.
I do have a long memory however.
The day ends with a long 15km climb up a dirt mountain track to stay at the Ruratiti backpackers’ hut. We’d decided to splash out a little on upgrading from the tent, so we could get away with carrying far less gear for the night. The backpackers cabin is on land owned by the Ruratiti Sheep station and, after 35 miles, as we neared it, the manager appeared in her car and flagged us down. Happily, as we were the only visitors that night we’d scored an upgrade to the main hunting lodge with a proper bed, ensuite bathroom and dinner cooked on site. The downside was riding a further 3km uphill.
It was totally worth it however. The view from the lodge was fantastic, all misty mountains and sheep for miles. The warm shower and clean sheets were also superb as was chatting to Bridget, part of the husband and wife team who manage the 4000+ head (sheep) station and find time to cook for random cyclists and hunters who stay with them on top of the mountain.
During the course of the cooking we learn that the station only farms sheep – cows not being suited to the steep, unforgiving terrain tend to fall off the mountainside and die.
We learn the price of wool has tanked over the last decade with it now hardly being cost effective to shear the sheep. A job Bridget often does alongside many other.
We also learn that she is rasing her young niece and nephew and that the school run down the mountain takes an hour, twice a day.
Finally we learn that there is a large, and growing methamphetamine (meth/ice/crystal) problem amongst rural communities in New Zealand. A 2019/20 report by the NZ government estimated 1.1%of the population, this was of course pre-covid and anecdotal reports since estimate the number much higher. Bridget’s family has experienced first-hand how this insidious drug is ruining not just younger lives but those of older generations (hence the care of her niece and nephew). At a time in her life where work and family commitments should be easing, the opposite has happened but Bridget is nothing if not pragmatic, a necessary quality as the life up on this remote station is a hard one.
Day 2 The Mangapura track to Pipiriki
We wake to a light drizzle and a good breakfast. The misty rain is actually refreshing, as is packing just a tiny bag onto our super light bikes.
Just a mile from the Ruatiti station the M2S route joins the Mangapura Track, a fantastic 36 km piece of double and single track which climbs and then descends to the Whanganui river gorge.
There are 2 entrances to the trail, our route and another descending from further north, also part of the TA bike route.
Both trails are described as ‘great fun in the dry…..tough going in the wet’…..
After an initial climb through the mist and clouds the descent beings into a lush, green valley populated by dripping ferns and plunging rock walls to a leafy chasm far below us. Swing bridges and negotiating tight trails around crumbling rock faces follow. Its wet and slippery unde tyre, due to a papa clay-based surface making for some interesting slidey moments towards the path edge. Whilst the going is damp, the mud isn’t too bad.
At one point I think I’m seeing things when I round a tight bend and there’s a set of brake lights ahead of me. Not imagination, it turns out to be a Department of Conservation worker, gingerly making his way along the trail in a side-by-side buggy. We stop and chat with Timbo the DOC worker who explains that he and a colleague spend a week out here at a time, working to maintain and drain the trails. He also shows us a video on his phone of how they deliver the equipment to site, which includes a huge digger, being landed precariously by helicopter. Both impressive and terrifying in equal measure but it certainly gives a perspective on what it takes to manage and maintain the lands here.
As we ride we also notice little wooden signs hammered into the ground at varying intervals.
Each sign displays a family name, McDonald, Smith, Adams, each plot owned but nearly always unused.
In 1917 the land in the valley was offered to returning soldiers from WW1 in an attempt to settle the area. The NZ government gave financial incentives for living and working the land. It was one of the last unpopulated areas and with good reason, the land had reputation of being unfarmable.
Too steep for either good grazing or to grow and harvest enough crops to live on.
A few hardy, hopeful and stubborn souls did take up the challenge but clearing the land was exhausting, felling trees was tough, dangerous work and, with the bush cut back, nothing was in place to hold the soil which then cascaded into the gorge below. After 30 years of backbreaking toil and disillusion the last settler packed his bags. The remains of a few homesteads can still be seen however but in no where is this more poignant than the famous Bridge to Nowhere.
This concrete arched bridge is the only piece of architecture still gracing the area. It links 2 bits of muddy forest track and is absolutely pointless.
Originally built at the time of hope by the early settlers, the bridge aimed to allow vehicle access to the Mangapura settlement, linking the valley tracks to the Whanagnui riverboat service. Completed in 1936 its a marvel that the materials alone could be hauled up from the river, miles away, let alone the engineering it must have taken to complete it. Sadly it closed just a few years later in 1942 when the last of the settling families moved from the area, unable to make a viable living in the harsh environment. It is now a tourist attraction that marks the penultimate section of today’s ride.
All that remains was to cover the final miles to our camp at Pipiriki in style….by jet boat.
In years past this stretch of the Whanganui was serviced by a paddle steamer. Now however, the only way to negotiate it is by kayak or jet boat. We chose the latter.
Waiting on a stone outcrop at the end of the trail it was bizarre to see this middle of nowhere place gradually fill up with bikers and walkers, all being whisked away by their boat taxis. Ours was driven by the delightful Thomas who has lived in the area his whole life and gave a great running commentary for our hour long cruise, skipping over rapids down this beautiful river valley. Bikes balanced on the back of the boat.
Our campsite is in the small, sleepy village of Pipiriki where we’re also reunited with our touring bikes. I feel guilty but I’m less than delighted to see Custard, my touring bike, and the mound of baggage that comes with him. Riding with no bags has been amazing and, as I try, and fail, to carry all the panniers back to camp I wonder again at whose good idea it was to lug our life around on bikes.
This isn’t helped by the 2 TA riders who arrive with us, who are all sleek gravel bikes and next to no luggage. Instead they are taking the credit-card option to bike packing, sporting little more than a change of clothes and a toothbrush – the first class approach to cycle touring.
As a concession to our growing softness after a few nights with a mattress we splash out and book a tiny cabin next to the TA guys. We’ve also seen the weather forecast for the next 24 hours and isn’t good.
Day 3: Pipiriki to Whanganui
The weather forecast is very rarely accurate in NZ but today, annoyingly was spot on.
We felt quite smug on waking to the sound of violent rain pounding on the cabin and very glad we hadn’t camped, especially as the dining area was littered with soggy people drying out tents.
The deluge even eased up as we packed up to leave. This was good as I was already grumpy about regaining Custard + 25kg of luggage.
Heading out of camp and on to the first of many hills the sky darkened with my mood and shortly after the rain returned with a vengeance. Rocks and mud also littered the road with that disconcerting habit that NZ hillsides seem to have of sliding down on to the tarmac. Splashing along, dodging boulders and squinting through the downpour there came the ominous sound of thunder.
Fortunately the one and only cafe on route today was close at hand and we reached it before the lightning joined in to play.
For the next hour or so we sat out the storm whilst eating our body weight in baked goods at the little cafe, the owner of which was a relation of Bridget at Ruatiti!
With the rain finally easing to steady patter and 70km to cover today we peel on damp layers and brave the road and, as a watery sun appears, we start to appreciate the beauty of the Whanganui river valley. It’s spectacular. A wide, fast flowing river bordered by lush greenery.
The river was the superhighway of it’s day with boats running all manner of people, goods and services along it’s considerable length and beyond yesterday’s jet boat landing.
I’m briefly diverted by the name of towns such as Jerusalem, London and Athens, a veritable mix of geography. Also by a herd of goats improbably standing on the face of a vertical cliff like they’d be glued to the wall.
We follow the river for the rest of the day, through plains of fertile farmland, the road undulating along its bank before a final steep climb out of the valley to the industrial zone of Whanganui. Its a shock to be in a city after the quiet peace of the last few days and it takes some readjusting as we pedal, tiredly to our camp at the edge of town.
If you were being picky there is still another 15km or so to ride to dip your wheel in the ocean and complete the Mountains to Sea Route, but we’re not picky and this is it for us.
All that remains is a ride into the city centre tomorrow after which we will be taking the final 2 weeks off of cycling, to rest up, to have a break and to be non-bike tourists for the our remaining time in New Zealand.
This ride has given us a real appreciation of the toughness and resilience needed to make a living from the land, both for those early settlers, toiling to carve out railways, roads and farms to the modern day farmers struggling, on that same land against everything from fluctuating stock prices to narcotics.
It’s been a tough cycle but nothing compared to those who work to make a living from the land we’ve covered and meeting them, as always, is a real highlight.
Another truly great ride and, with so many trails left to cover a great reason to return one day.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.
23 March 2023 at 12:55 pm
Two words Wow! And Custard? 😀
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23 March 2023 at 7:23 pm
Haha, Custard is the name of my touring bike, which I’m not sure I mention much. Imaginatively named for being bright yellow 😂
23 March 2023 at 10:06 pm
I like it!
My Ducati is bright yellow 😎
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24 March 2023 at 12:29 am
But what’s his/her name……?? 🙂
24 March 2023 at 3:41 am
It’s nameless 😂
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7 April 2023 at 1:27 pm
Now that was a fabulous read with pictures to match!
7 April 2023 at 1:32 pm
Thank you so much. It’s an excellent country to visit and perfect for cycling 😊
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