On river time

By Mike Ellott 11 February 2015
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Touted as having some of the best cycling New Zealand has to offer, the Mountain to Sea Trail is immersed in history.

“The kettle’s always boiling,” booms the rugged accent across the clearing. Tom Mowat points towards his cooker. Following his finger, I make out an oil drum cut in half effortlessly working away, naked flames tickling a timeless teapot on the makeshift stove above.

I’m halfway through New Zealand’s five-day Mountain to Sea cycle trail and, not for the first time on this trip, a new friendly face offering coffee is welcomed with opened arms.
Just off the Mangapurua Track, Tom has set up camp on a spot where history runs deep. His father was one of the original settlers who tried to farm this valley back in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, the valley proved too much and became impossible to work due to the severity of the land and, by the 1940s, it was abandoned and handed back to the wilderness.

The weather is kind to us and it could not be a better day to take on this cycling challenge. A crystal blue sky hangs above this trail, which is slowly building a reputation as the best-varied one-day ride in the country, but of course this adventure rolled out two days ago.

Yard by Yard

I meet Darren, my guide and cycling partner on the road for the next five days, in the winter ski town Ohakune at the foot of Mt Ruapehu. We both pore over the map laid out in front of us. A long red line snakes its way from the top of Mt Ruapehu to Whanganui on the coast, cutting through the wilderness – it’s over 200km long. This trail traverses two national parks, and takes a quick excursion down the Whanganui River.

With Darren working in the town since 2006, he’s seen this map become reality. The Mountain to Sea cycle trail got off the ground with the help of $9 million in government funding and a lot of hands-on work from the local community. It’s now one of 23 trails that you can find around the north and south islands showing off the best of New Zealand.

“You’ll be alright, you look pretty fit to me and know how to handle a bike,” Darren remarks. I smile – although a passionate roadie, I neglect to mention that the last time I rode a mountain bike I was wearing a school uniform. Looking at the map again, I immediately realise this is going to be the most exciting and challenging five days I’ve had on two wheels.

Everything starts somewhere and this cycle adventure start is nothing short of spectacular. About 15km from Ohakune, in the heart of Tongariro National Park, are the ski fields that sheet Mt Ruapehu. For serious cyclists, the road to the top is the highest road in New Zealand making it a climb of 1700m over approximately 15km.

Plummeting down the mountain it’s difficult to imagine this road took about 50 years to build. ‘Yard by yard’ is a term often associated with this great build and thankfully the years have been kind to the road surface – it’s in great condition, making it all too easy to fly past the volcanic roadside rocks, taking in the mountain’s natural waterfalls, as well as one of the oldest forests in New Zealand.

Too soon we are back in Ohakune, with barely a pedal turned, ready to take on our second jaunt of the day, the Old Coach Road. Darren’s good friend James joins us for the rest of the day giving me an extra wheel, with excellent local knowledge of the area to boot. Although the Old Coach Road is 15km long, it easily takes the rest of the afternoon to navigate, simply due to the many historical points of interest. I’ve never cycled such a short distance where the scenery changes so dramatically. Heavy woodlands, open fields and restored viaducts piece together and round out a day’s satisfied cycling.

Family Time

Leaving the Old Coach Road and the township of Ohakune behind us, we make our way across country heading down the Ruatiti Road. Jackson, Darren’s young son, is along for the ride and has that no-fear approach that only children possess. Adding extra leg power to Darren’s bike by cycling on an attached singletrail bar wheel, the two of them expertly keep balance all day, working well together to navigate the 40km country road ahead of us.

Watching Jackson and Darren enjoying this time together I can see why this specific route was chosen and created. This road is very light with other road users; I probably saw less than 30 vehicles all day. A fact backed up when Darren begins to tell me even with the varying degree of riding difficulty, the number of families completing the five days of riding is increasing. On a day like today, I could not think of a better way to experience quality outdoor time with my family.

Adding extra enjoyment to the day, we find ourselves travelling mostly downhill through the heart of the North Island. With no canopy above us, and perfect riding weather, we amble along, stopping to watch the carefree fly fishermen and to take in the landscapes of this area’s farmland.

Places to stay are limited, but our day ends with an overnight stop at Ruatiti Bridge to Nowhere Backpackers & Camping. Four basic hilltop cabins with good company and an open fire are all we need to relive our cycling tales so far.

The jewel in the crown

Before leaving camp I glance over a sheet of paper with the day’s route. Towards the bottom, a few bullet points under the general headline ‘Warnings’ burn the back of my retina: “This is a very remote trail, with no phone coverage, and no properties where you can go and ask for help, carry a GPS tracking device”. After reading it a couple times my nervous energy turns into excitement. I remind myself this is what it’s all about, getting lost for a day, having no phone and throwing myself, wheels first, into the experience ahead.

We saddle up and head out of camp, and 5km down the road looms a big sign directing us onto the Mangapurua Track. After an early morning start, James has joined us again for the day; although a local to the area it will also be his first time tackling the trail towards the historic Bridge to Nowhere.

In contrast, Darren has guided this track before and has a good idea of what’s ahead, and a fair idea how long sections should take. He tells us many people make the common mistake of rushing through, resulting in a few hours wait at Mangapurua Landing, thus missing out on the park’s historic highlights. Cyclists tend to worry that they’ll miss the 4pm jet boat pick-up, the last of the day. The aim is to get to the landing around 3.40pm, giving us plenty of time to have a victory drink and wash the dust off our aching limbs.

With the weather gods looking down on us the trail is bone dry, technically making it easier to ride and an altogether more enjoyable experience. Darren’s motto of the day is repeated a few times before we get down to business: “No broken bodies, no broken bikes”. Smiling, I dig my wheel into the gravel and attack the first 5km climb of the day.

With burning legs I rest at the top and take in the view. Under a cloud-free sky the Ruatiti landscape rolls away before me, joining up in the distance with Mt Ruapehu. With Darren and James joining me at the top we chat about the ride. I’m more used to the territorial world of road cycling where discussion normally revolves around carbon bike weights and how fast you can ride 100km before you are physically sick in a coffee cup. But speed today is not much of a factor. I’m in great company and can’t get enough of the panoramic views before me. James sums it up best: “Today is about our journey”.

Advancing, we skim the top of the ridge and stop off at the Settlers Return, a shelter dating back to the 1920s, which is still in use by hunters today. I take in the black and white historical photographs lining the inside of the hut, and wonder how many people have set eyes on them and can’t help feel they deserve a wall in a museum somewhere.
Further into the park we enter Tom Mowat’s camp, nestled in Johnson’s Clearing, for lunch.

Tom welcomes us and talks about the trail’s growth in popularity. To put it into perspective, before the government funding which led to clearing and widening of this track (not to mention the addition of the numerous swing bridges), it would have taken a specialist mountain biker about 10 hours to navigate the route. Today, if you have the ability, you can fly through in under four hours. I sit and reflect on the morning’s ride, feeling pretty pleased with myself, surprised by my confidence and how my bike skills have grown.

With the best of the day still ahead of us it’s time to push on. From river level we gradually start to climb again, taking on the more technical part of our riding day. At times my balance and judgment is greatly tested as we skirt along a number of edges high above the water.

On more than one occasion I dismount and walk forward to a wider, safer part of the trail; a decision we are all happy to make considering the long drop down to Battleship Bluff. The bluff gets its name from the grey cliffs forming what looks like the front of a ship, with the Whanganui River gently flowing at its base.

Moving slightly inland we head to towards the Bridge to Nowhere, the arch that this stretch is famed for. Darren pushes me forward telling me it’s something I need to see for myself. Out of nowhere the structure appears and, for something that was originally built in 1936, it looks strikingly modern in its contrasting leafy surrounds. Leaving the symbolic bridge behind, we tackle the last 5km of riding, enjoying the downhill trail to the Mangapurua Landing.

After a short trip down the river by jet boat, I rest my bones at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, run by Joe and his family. I ask Joe about the Mountain to Sea Trail’s popularity. Has this government funded idea paid off from a tourism perspective? Joe explains that five years ago, he picked just two people up from the landing. By contrast, 987 enthusiasts have tackled the trail in the last year. Of these 95 per cent are New Zealanders, with the oldest being 84 and the youngest just seven years of age.

Despite these numbers, I feel privileged to experience this unique day out on a bike, a day that easily justifies the title of ‘The best one day ride in New Zealand’.

Enjoy a little gamble

At the start of the trip Darren warned me about today’s canoeing. We would to tackle a small number of rapids, one notoriously named 50/50. I quickly do the maths and realise there’s a good chance of me seeing a lot more of this river than I originally bargained for.
Pushing off the bank into the middle of the river, my first canoeing experience is a calming one, with just the sound of the paddle guiding the canoe onwards. The river’s width and its supporting wild-forested walls loom large around us. It’s easy to see why people travel from all over the world to spend days canoeing this tranquil, one of a kind stretch of river.
We pull over to the right and jump out of the canoe and watch the drama unfold in front of us.

The river naturally bottlenecks and we see two Americans plough head first into the 50/50 rapid. There’s a number of us on the riverbank all holding our breath with childlike excitement, the Americans whooping with arms and paddles aloft looking like they are on a roller coaster. It soon becomes clear why this rapid is called 50/50.

After a bumpy entrance a large hole naturally creates a wave that is slightly higher than the canoe which, in the case of our good American friends, fills their boat with enough water to make sure they sink. Thankfully the rapid calms quickly giving everyone time to laugh and joke about the experience, whilst swimming around to reclaim their soggy possessions.

Darren explains to me how we need to approach this little wave. We’ll enter the rapid straight and, at the right moment, power our way diagonally across the water, hopefully avoiding a dunking. We are both full of confidence and Darren restores my faith by saying in all his years he’s never guided a capsized boat yet.

With our international canoeing crowd watching on, we commit 100 per cent to the task and we skirt our little canoe around and over the waves triumphantly through to the other side. As we glide past the Americans they call out, “You guys are pros!” Darren asks if I want another go at it, but I rest on my laurels and politely decline, so we push on to Pipiriki, joining back up with our beloved bikes.

The road from Pipiriki out of the national park, is the only scenic road alongside a river in New Zealand. As with the previous roads, there’s not much traffic making it a pleasure to enjoy on a bike. With all the technical riding behind us now, it’s easy to soak up the views and cultural communities found just off the road. Highlights all worth stopping for include the convent at the village of Jerusalem, the Kawana Flour Mill and the Maori meeting place at Koriniti, which we respectfully observe from the roadside. Time has a different meaning here. The pace of life is not dictated by the nine-to-five grind, but by the flow of the river. River time is a tempo I could get used to.

The last four days are starting to catch up with me and my legs burn and I struggle to deal with the lumpy road. But we’re close to our overnight stop, The Flying Fox, and Darren calls out, “I think you are going to make it.” With plenty of daylight to spare there could not be a more homely, bohemian place to rest and recharge overlooking the majestic river.

Day 5 – The final stage

Before getting on the bike for the last time I’m fortunate to have breakfast with Annette, the owner of the Flying Fox, and also the mayor of Whanganui. She’s keen to hear my thoughts on my experience so far, especially on how the track is holding up, and what if any improvements can be made. Chatting away, I realise this trail is not only there to be experienced, but it’s something that brings out passion from the people who live alongside it.

It’s encouraging to know that a cycle trail has the ability to bind a community together.
I suggest more signage wouldn’t go amiss on certain parts of the route, and a more detailed map would be handy for a rider’s back pocket, but it’s easy to explain to Annette that the last four days don’t really get any better from a two-wheeled perspective.
We hit the road and there’s not much talking going on; probably because Darren and I know our journey is swiftly coming to its end. As ever the river guides us out of this national park.

Rolling on, the road escorts us towards Gentle Annie, the last not-so gentle climb we have to conquer. It’s an ascent road bikes are built for, but I’m happy to spin away on my trusty mountain bike, taking my time to reach the top. Darren however, finds his Chris Froome legs and comfortably pulls away from me, reaching the top with an untroubled heart rate.

At the summit we look down and back over the land that we recently weaved and wobbled through, at the furthest point we can just see Mt Ruapehu, and between us is the picture perfect landscape of the North Island, with its single road and river falling away from our feet, happily cushioned into its rolling hills. The view is a reminder of what I’ve achieved on the bike and a spectacular lasting memory of this trip.

Reality hits hard descending into Whanganui. Gone are the green lush views that we have become accustomed to, replaced with traffic and industry. Snaking our way towards the sea we finally reach the beach. I find myself having mixed emotions: ecstatic that we made it to our journey’s end safe and sound, coupled with a slight sadness, because it’s back to the real world of concrete and fast-paced information, with all of its added stress.

Off the bike I sit and drink a victory beer, watching Darren’s son Jackson running and playing on the beach. I wonder if in 10 years time he will have the opportunity to ride this trail? Will it still be here? Based on the quality roads and trails, and the passion of the people supporting this great ride, I’m confident that Jackson will get to cycle alongside this great river to the sea.

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The essentials

Getting There: Air New Zealand fly frequently to Auckland. Domestic flight to Taupo from Auckland transfer daily.

For more info, www.airnewzealand.com.au

The Adventure: The Mountain Bike Station runs this five day Mountain to Sea cycle trail. The company also offers a multiple of packages to cover different lengths and difficulties of rides.

The price of the full Mountain to Sea Trail is approx $1200 per person, this includes bike, bag transfers, food, jet boat, accommodation and transports. www.mountainbikestation.co.nz

Best time to go: The drier summer months will make the trail a lot more passable and enjoyable to ride. The river will also be slower moving and lower with less rain fall.

Gear: Taking on this challenge will naturally mean you are in the saddle for most of the day, a pair of padded cycling shorts will only make your day more comfortable. I also brought along my own pair of mountain bike cleated shoes with pedals.