One of New Zealand’s great bike rides: Mountain to Sea
One by one we arrived at Station Lodge in Ohakune, a small town in Tongariro National Park in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, the evening before the start of our five day Mountain to Sea cycle ride. Station Lodge, where we had booked to stay for two nights, has a variety of accommodation for all pockets from an old station house that has dorms, single rooms all with shared facilities to newly built units that comprise one bedroom ensuite and two bedroom chalets with all mod cons. Mountain Bike Station shares the same location as Station Lodge and as the name suggests it is beside the train station about 11/2 kms from the centre of Ohakune. Both businesses are run separately, but owned by Darren & Jane, whose interest is primarily the Mountain bike business where they will plan bike routes, hire out bikes, take guided bike tours, arrange self-guided bike rides or arrange/book any other activity in the area from their Mountain Bike office.
Planning for our bike trip began months earlier to ensure dates and accommodation suited all ten participants. Accommodation is fairly sparse in some legs of this trip so one does need to book early. The average age of our group was 68+ so you can imagine the look on the face of the owner of Mountain Bike Station when we began to arrive in his car park the evening before our ride! Darren, however, was not phased nor did he show any element of surprise at our advancing years (he had seen it all before!). He greeted us warmly and proceeded to discuss with us what we wanted, where we wanted to go and when we wanted to set off the following morning. The Mountain to Sea ride is about 205kms long and can be ridden in 3-5 days – we opted to ride it in 5 days with a rest day in towards the end. Four of the five sections we had broken the ride into were grade 2 but the THIRD day was a grade 3-4, to quote Darren “it is a true mountain bike ride”. We were a group of reasonably fit “for our age” pedestrian riders and had not tackled a true mountain bike track yet… As a group we have done several bike rides spanning 4-5 days but they have always been grade 2 and comfortable. In fact we were the inaugural group that rode the Alps to Ocean ride a few years ago – another beautiful ride (NZ South Island starting at Mount Cook – 300+ kms long)
What was in store for us we asked Darren? We had read as much as one can about the third day – The Mangapurua Track from Ruatiti to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ but what you read is all relative to the people’s bike skills that write it. Darren was very clear it was indeed a tough ride (not sure if he was influenced by the ‘fossils’ on bikes he was talking to!), there was no cell phone coverage, it had 15 swing bridges, bluffs you needed to dismount from your bike to walk across, lots of ruts and plenty of hills. It quickly moved to a grade 4 if it rained! As a group we decided there and then to hire Darren as our guide for that day – a well spent NZ$200 + expenses between us. ….and were we so glad we did! We had already booked Mountain Bike Station – owned by Darren & his wife Jane to transport our bikes and us to the start of the first three tracks and to transfer our baggage on a daily basis from one nights accommodation to the next. With Darren’s help our gear was checked, our tyres inflated or deflated and bikes were locked away for the night. Hunger then drove us down to the road to the local watering hole, the ‘Powderkeg” for some food and drink. Early to bed for an early start the following morning. We were told Jane starts to make coffees at 830 am and it is good!
Day 1 (first ride): Ohakune Mountain Road. From Turoa ski field car park to Ohakune (17km, Grade 2)
Up and ready with coffee in hand by 0830 – and it was good! We all checked our bikes, packed our lunch, donned bike helmets and watched while Darren loaded all the bikes onto the trailer. The trailer can take up to twelve bikes and it is a smooth operation. We were leaving at 0930 and we were all raring to go. Jane drove us up the road to the Turoa ski field car park pointing out tight corners, a place to stop for an amazing view of Mount Ruapehu and some waterfalls on the way down. It was cold at the top and we were all a little nervous after driving straight up the mountain road in second gear! But this run straight down into Ohakune should only take 1/2 hour non-stop so we would warm up on the way and we would give our brakes a really good test. We did stop to see the Mangawhero Falls where Gollum catches fish in the ‘Forbidden Pool’ in Lord of the Rings. Easily missed if we did not have local knowledge.
With a 1000 meter vertical decent we all flew down – some loving it more than others. there was some rubber smells from some bike and others complained of cold and sore hands from constant brake pulling but we all made it totally elated with our first ride. If you are super fit you can choose to ride up this hill!
Day 1(second ride): Ohakune Old Coach Road (15km, Grade 2)
This ride is a very popular day ride and can include a visit to “Smash Palace” or locally called Horopito motors the scene of hundreds of wrecked cars and where the NZ film ‘Smash Palace’ was made in 1981. Darren warned us that this was not an easy Grade 2 ride. It seems there is huge variation within this grading system I could not equate an easy11 kms down hill (grade2) to an undulating gravel surface with several hills (also grade 2). Jane loaded the bikes onto the trailer again (with some muscle power from the group) as we had chosen to start the ride at Horopito and not Ohakune – more downhill that way. Again Jane pointed out where we would meet the road and a few things to look out for and where to have lunch. She even acted as our photographer!
The ‘Old Coach Road’ follows the the route of old horse drawn coaches which carried people in the early 1900’s between the two rail heads of the unfinished North Island trunk line. The track has many rocky patches from the old cobbledcoach road, two huge viaducts, one tunnel, many interpretive panels along the way, massive rimu trees, beautiful native forest and farmland.
We stopped for lunch at the old Taonui Viaduct (as suggested by Jane). The terrain of the track varied – gravel, cobbles, grass, viaducts and tar seal. Some cycled across the old Hapuawhenua (Hapu=pregnant, whenua=placenta) Viaduct from which you could see the river below that was used by Maori to bathe young Maori women after childbirth to aid recuperation during their post-natal period. We took our ride slowly as there was so much to see on the way and agreed it was a tough ride but most enjoyable. We did meet some riders that were doing it both ways! Back to Station lodge and with bikes safely locked up we had takeaway pizzas and some local NZ wine and reminisced on the events of the day…..32kms down and lots to go……
Day 2: Horopito to Ruatiti backpackers. (43km, Grade 2)
Packed, luggage placed by van read for transport to tonights accommodation and one of Jane’s great coffees in our hands we were ready for our second day. Our bikes were once again loaded onto the Mountain Bike Station trailer to take us to Horopito to start Day 2. Ruatiti Domain was suggested by Darren for our lunch stop today. It was 10 km before our accommodation for tonight – the Ruatiti bridge to nowhere backpackers. The first 8-10 kms was on an undulating gravel road through farmland and potato crops. we stopped at Ruatiti domain with the Mang-nui-O-Te-Ao River running through it. Locals swam, jumped from rocks and rode tyres down the river while we ate a leisurely lunch. Our support person who had hoped to ride with us but had unfortunately fallen from her bike and injured her shoulder, passed and encouraged us along the way . We all agreed it was very comforting to have someone playing ‘camp mother’ just in case….
The last ten kms leading to Ruatiti Back Packers(BP) was gravel and undulating but we were very please to arrive there and the ultimate insult is the steep heavy gravel up to the farm. One kept slipping backwards while pushing one’s bike up the drive. The backpackers has only been going for about a year but is clean comfortable and part of a working farm – sheep, cows and deer. We had arranged to have dinner, breakfast and lunch catered for and also asked for linen to be included in our tariff to limit our luggage but we did however make sure we had enough wine and beer to have with our meal. Sue, the lady who runs the BP left us all food prepared so we could just turn the stove on and cook. It was a plain honest meal and we were all satisfied but if I had one grouch it would be that we had meat patties bought from a store and we were on a farm that had many animals! Bed were comfortable and the silence was deafening. Thousands of stars lit up the sky as we sat and drank our wine and mulled over the events of the day and worried about the ‘BIG’ ride tomorrow!
Day 3: The Mangapurua Track. (48kms Grade 3/4)
Eight very serious faces this morning as we made our packed lunch. We were meeting our guide from Mountain Bike Station, Darren, 5 kms down the road at the entry to the Mangapurua Track at 0800. We needed an early start as he felt it would take us between 5-7 hours to make it to the Bridge to Nowhere and we had booked a jet boat to meet us at the Mangapurua landing at 1600 hours. It was a beautiful day, clear skies following a cold night. The temperature was predicted to get up to 28 degree C. We walked back down Sue’s driveway having left our bags out for transportation to The Bridge to Nowhere Lodge where we would stay tonight. We had maps, we had food, we had bikes and we had a guide who gave us a pep talk about taking it easy up the first 4 km of gravel road as we would need to keep our concentration for later in the day – and he was so right! Our first stop was the top of the gravel hill grind but we also had to be mindful of hunters on quad bikes coming back from early morning kill.
After 10.8kms we came to the junction where the Kaiwhakauka Track meets Mangapurua Track. A beautiful carved Maori Totara Pou has been erected. Darren explained the history and meaning of the carving and we looked at the board telling us how far we had come and how far to go!. Next stop 30 mins at the trig. We left our bikes and headed up to the trig via some caves that had been former explosive storage caves. The views from the trig were stunning. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. The view stretched from Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park in the east to Mt Taranaki in the west – over 100kms as the crow flies. We took time out to snack and drink as our guide insisted we do. Toilets and water are located here just off the main track.
As we headed downhill towards Johnson’s Clearing we met our first swing-bridge over Slippery Creek. We struggled initially to haul the bikes onto the rear wheels and walk them across, but by the time we had crossed 15 bridges we were experts!! This whole valley has a strong sense of history and all along the track there are wooden signs with names of returning servicemen’s families who settled in the valley after the war. A map given to us by Darren and called ‘Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka Returned Servicemen Settlement Map’ is a must if you want to understand the hardships and struggles many families went through in the valley. Some stayed for only a few weeks while others stayed for years. There are many exotic trees to remind you that people once settled here.
At Johnston’s Clearing we found several camp sites belonging to hunters and met old Tom whose family had farmed here for years. He told us he and his father had brought cattle and squatted in the valley for several years and the authorities turned a blind eye. Tom himself now past retirement comes here every year for the whole summer. He has set up a little cave near a river to keep his beer and milk cold and he maintains a garden with tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables growing. He has a quad bike so he can go and get supplies when he runs out but many hunters coming into camp for a week or so also bring him in supplies.
The next stop was the old homestead of the Bettjetman family who lived in a lovely 4 bedroom home, with outhouses and a tennis court, from 1917 – 1942. They did not want to leave the valley and offered the government $200 to buy the valley and they also offered to upkeep the road but the answer was no as the planned road though the valley had been abandoned due to increased slips and flooding in the area. Just 1.5km from this site is another swing bridge where the access for quad-bikes ends and only bicycles are allowed from there to Bridge to Nowhere.
From here on the track narrows and this is where total concentration is needed as we start to cross bluffs and narrow tracks. This is also where bikers must dismount and walk and where we began a series of four unfortunate episodes – luckily none serious. Two of our group flew over their handlebars when their bikes hit some ruts, another stopped along a very narrow part of the trail and put her right foot down to rest but there was no where to put it so she tumbled two meters down into bracken taking her bike with her. Darren reached her and hauled her and her bike up and thankfully she was ok – just pride hurt and a little stunned especially when Darren muttered when he looked over the bluff Darren that she could have fallen another 30 meters if not held by the bracken! Lastly, one rider fell awkwardly from his bike which got stuck between a rock and a rut landing on his fingers one of which became dislocated. He grabbed his finger himself and attempted to pull it back into position but Darren got on his bike and chased two of the group ahead who were nurses, one a current practising nurse who managed to pull the finger back in place splinting it with equipment that Darren first aid kit!
We all felt that we had had enough ‘trying episodes’. All had happened in the last 10km of our bike ride when we were all getting a little tired. So we steadied down and rode slowly and steadily over the last 10 km, walked the bluffs including the much improved and wider Battleship Bluff and suddenly the Bridge to Nowhere appeared! What a fantastic sight! We were shattered but elated. Darren set us off on the 2.7 km to the Landing where our boat would be waiting. We said good bye to Darren at this point as he was heading back the way we came! He took food and water and off he rode – he had never done this before and we asked him to report in that night to let us know he was safe and sound. He rode back in 2hours and 10 mins!!!
The last 2.7km we shared with walkers and canoeists who were canoeing down the Whanganui river, tied up at Mangapurua Landing and walked to see the Bridge to Nowhere. We reached the Landing at 1530. There were six other bikies waiting for the jet-boat also. It arrive on time, we helped load our bikes on the back of the boat (a special rail set up at rear of the boat to hold up to 20 bikes) and headed down the river for 15 mins to the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. Our bikes were locked away and our life jackets were put in a shed halfway up a very steep long driveway to our beds. Ah but first wine and beer then a beautiful dinner and bed…….all looking back at the days adventure which for some was more dramatic than for others – but we were all safe and happy.
Day 4: Pipiriki to The Flying Fox (35km, Grade 1/2)
Up early for a hearty breakfast after which we assembled our lunches. Down to the boat where the bikes were loaded. we were all packed in with all our luggage that needed to go to Pipiriki for collection by Darren for transportation to The Flying Fox, our next accommodation. The four bikies we met the day before were canoeing down to Pipiriki and would cycle from there back to Raetihi where they began their trip.
We arrived at Pipiriki about 11am and headed off on a tar sealed road for 8kms then climbed a gentle but long hill to a a lookout back over the Whanganui River and valley – beautiful, helped by another beautiful sunny day.
Next stop Jerusalem which was the site of a historic Maori village that has a beautiful old convent and church. The convent can be booked as accommodation with shared facilities. A NZ poet and religious man called J.K Baxter lived there for some years and is buried there. Next stop London (Ranana). Lunch stop at Kawana Flour Mill established in 1854 and now restored to it former glory. It is a little walk down a grassy way to the mill but well worth the walk.
Next stop the small settlement of Koriniti and just 1km beyond it was our place of rest for the night, the Flying Fox. But there were a few hurdles to clear before finally settling into our rooms for two nights – tomorrow was our REST day! We had to negotiate an extremely steep gravel drive (not ANOTHER one!) down to a shed where we locked our bikes up and then hit a large gong to call the flying fox to our side. It travelled slowly towards us – a small two seater cablecar – coming to a stop just beside us. A Scottish voice said “Please press the button when you are in and ready to come over!” We did just that and we glided slowly over the Whanganui river for 2mins and 20 seconds to a wonderful welcome from our support person ‘camp mother’ and the owner of the Scottish accent, Kevin. We had arrived in heaven – the ten of us had the place to ourselves, three beautiful houses all hand built and decorated in an eclectic style with love. We felt peace and tranquility in every bone.
Soon we had all been welcomed by Kevin and shown to our rooms. Each of us had our own space to sleep, read, rest or dream for the next 36 hours. We were also going to be fed and watered by our gracious host who would arrive at 1800 following her duties as mayor of Whanganui City. Kevin in the meantime showed us around and made us feel most welcome. What a setting,words really cannot describe this haven – everywhere you looked there was some quirky item or some stained glass window or maybe a hat stand or an old telephone. And you have guessed it, the meals were just as amazing as the setting. Lamb shanks that fell from the bone one night, and perfectly cooked steaks the second night. Some people come to the Flying Fox and bring their own food so are completely independent but we chose to be catered for. A free day to wonder down to the river for a swim, to walk along the banks, to sit in a chair and read or to do just nothing with no bikes in sight!
However all good things must come to an end and so on to :-
Day 5 Flying Fox, Koriniti to Castle Cliff Whanganui (the Sea) (Grade 1/2, 58km)
The only fly in the ointment today was ‘Gentle Annie”, a nasty hill. Darren warned us it was a long and steady climb but maybe because this was the last hill on the last day we all took it in our stride. Having admired the view from the top we flew down the other side to Upokongaro on State highway 4 and to the first cafe we had seen since Ohakune 5 days before. We all gathered for a well deserved coffee. The route was flat from then on but was also on the main highway.
There was plenty of bike room on the shoulder except for two kms before Upokongaro. We rode into Whanganui on a cycle trail which we met just before we came into the city. That took us along the river and over the Dublin Street bridge. However, you have to look hard for the cycle markers along the way as we lost our way once we were on the other side of the city heading towards the Sea. The track had been blocked off for road works and so we rode out to Castle Cliff on the main road and against a strong headwind through industrial area. We could have been even more lost despite asking some people along the way but for our wonderful support person who passed us, tooted and then stopped and directed us into the right road to ride to the sea. And ride to the Sea we did!!!!