It’s not often that the Department of Conservation invites you into the wilderness to ride your bike in places that you generally aren’t allowed, so when I got an email from Simon “Tucky” Tuck from DOC (courtesy of the lovely Graeme Simpson) asking me if I would like to join a small group on a trail scoping mission in the Whirinaki, I wasted no time in replying with a resounding “YES” to his invitation. It had been some time since I had been out on a real adventure, and I suspected this was just what I needed.
A bit of negotiation with the boss (plus some chocolates, achievement of budget for the month and doing the beer run as the only non-drinking attendee at our staff Christmas party) got me an unpaid day off… No meagre task given I was asking for the Tuesday before Christmas off to simply “ride my bike” and was also going on a three week holiday the following week.
The day of our little mission arrived and I travelled by bike to the Rotorua DOC office early in the morning to meet Tucky and my fellow adventurers for the day. We loaded all our gear into a couple of utes and headed out towards the Whirinaki, stopping along the way to do various chores and also to do our “briefing” for the day… The briefing was conducted from the bonnet of the DOC ute and involved scouring topo maps, discussing the objectives of the day and Tucky showing us the various functions of the EPIRB, CB radio and GPS, should we require them (but hopefully not)… During our little chat, one of the Murapura DOC employees wandered over to chat about the area we were going into. With a chuckle and a comment about “hope you don’t mind a few river crossings”, he wished us luck and reminded us that maybe we might need to take lights along with us “just in case we had a long day”.
In the car, stories emerged of previous trail scoping missions… Long days, hard work, fallen trees and stinging nettle… Any “normal” person likely would have been grabbing at the door handle in an attempt to escape, but I couldn’t wait. Even though I have only lived in Rotorua for five months, I have long been part of the furniture in the mountain biking community, so it was refreshing (and a little surprising) to meet riders I had never come across before… As silly as it sounds, I felt a bit like I had been invited into an entirely new world of resourceful two-wheeled adventurers. As I recounted the last few months, it occurred to me that the last time I had been on a “real” adventure was probably way back when I was in Europe earlier in the year… I felt reinvigorated, like an adventurous spark inside me had been relit.
On arrival at our destination, the weather was pretty ordinary… Not necessarily cold… Just drizzly and a bit miserable. We kitted up and headed off up the end of the Moerangi Trail which was a stiff enough warm-up to have us stripping off layers in no time (I discovered through the course of the day, with all the humidity, that I could choose to be wet with rain without a jacket, or wet with sweat with a jacket… I chose the former). After a good solid climb, we regrouped at a trail junction and broke off from the Moerangi trail onto an old (rarely used) walking track. I’d just like to point out here that riding walking tracks is not ok without permission from DOC (and in any case, you would probably be sorely disappointed at how much hike-a-bike you would be doing)! The idea of these trail scoping missions, we were told, is to find appropriate areas to build suitable trails and develop some one day rides that create the incentive for riders to visit local communities and stay for a few days, providing economic benefits to communities rather than people just doing single day trips… So if, for example, there are two amazing single day rides based from the same town, riders are likely to do one ride in a day, then stay the night in town, spend a few dollars, and do the other ride the next day… Makes sense and is as good an excuse as any to scope out and build more trails!
Once off the original cycle trail, we let loose on quite a nice descent, dodging windfall and rubble along the way, and pulling to a stop and climbing over fallen trees that had made their mark across the track. One thing I was quick to learn is that on these “missions”, trail conditions change quickly and dramatically, and it wasn’t unusual, throughout the course of the day, to be enjoying a largely ridable section of track and then have to dismount and carry your bike for the next couple of kilometres. Our ridable descent turned very quickly into what one could only describe as “jungle bashing”… The route wasn’t even poled… Our only indication that a trail was present were the occasional orange arrows nailed to trees.
We descended towards the river bed and traveled directly upstream in the flowing water, riding until we were forced off our steeds into hike-a-bike mode. The further we delved into the forest, the more the track deteriorated. We worked our way upstream, negotiating mud, fallen trees, debris and scrambles up steep sections of “track” with our bikes over our shoulders. I was also introduced early on to the presence of whole lot of stinging nettle in the area… So much so, that over the course of the day, it just became a part of life that we would be stung by it, so we more or less just came to ignore it and tolerate its presence. In all seriousness, if we had been tramping this track, it would have been hard work… Doing it with our bikes slung over our shoulders was nearly superhuman. I remember at the start of the day, being a little concerned about my pace, and whether I would keep up with everyone else, and my fears were allayed somewhat as we had ridden up the first section of the Moerangi trail… Our jungle bash, however, was a completely different story. I’m pretty bike fit, but my hiking fitness wasn’t too impressive, and further compounded by my midget legs (simply “stepping over” a fallen tree trunk just doesn’t happen when you are merely 5ft short). I often found myself falling a little behind as we worked our way along the track.
The above mentioned challenges of the day, though, were all negated by the stunning beauty of our surroundings, and the sheer excitement of being out in the forest, in the rain, potentially being part of the first steps towards an epic new ride in the area. For a number of hours, we moved through the forest, sometimes riding our bikes, sometimes carrying them, stopping off at huts along the way. My lunch consisted of last nights leftover pasta, consumed from a Ziploc bag with a spork. I remember reaching our lunch hut destination, after a section of ridable climbing (through patches of stinging nettle) and peering at the maps to discover we were less than half way through our adventure for the day and being surprised by that… It felt like we had covered so much ground, but it had just been slow work.
We finally reconnected with the Central Whirinaki Walking Trail for the ride home. Having just been on foot, carrying our steeds for half the day, it took me a while to get my balance on two wheels again, but once we were going, it was a largely downhill singletrack blast with incredibly spectacular scenery. The other thing that was incredibly spectacular (although with no witnesses to vouch for it), was my rather awkward dismount down the embankment off the edge of the trail. There were some rather narrow sections of trail to negotiate across old land slips, most of which also had precarious drop-offs on one side. At one such point, there also happened to be a rock in the middle of the trail, so as I negotiated my way around the rock, I also knocked my handlebars on a rock that was jutting out of the cliffside next to me, which sent me tumbling down the side of the embankment head first, and into another patch of stinging nettle. Ironically, the fact that my arms and legs were already numb from the nettle was probably the reason the fall (or any other dings and bruises, for that matter) didn’t hurt so much… It was a much different story a few days later when the nettle wore off. After somehow recovering myself from down the embankment with the grace of a small elephant, I continued on my way a little more cautiously than I had previously. The trail wound its way downstream back towards the Minginui Road end, glimpses of stunning, untouched native bush, the beautiful clear river, and waterfalls cascading down the side of the track… It really was paradise and I can’t wait until the construction of a cycle trail through there for everyone to enjoy.
Considering the navigation on this final part of the trip was relatively straight-forward, we had all moved along at our own pace. As I neared the end of the Central Whirinaki track, though, I crossed a bridge to the other side of the river. There was a beautiful waterfall cascading under the bridge… The crossing disoriented me quite badly, though… This whole time, I had been riding with the river on the left of me, and now it was on the right… It felt like I was heading back the way I came, and no matter how many times I assured myself that I was heading down stream and was now on the other side of the river, I still had this anxious inkling in the back of my mind that I was going the wrong way. I stopped a couple of times, hoping the group behind me would come through any minute and confirm I was on the right track, but they didn’t, so I just kept moving, constantly checking that I was still heading down stream… FINALLY, I saw a sign pointing to Minginui Road end (PHEW!!), and was on the home stretch. It took us 9 hours to work through 41km of riding/hike-a-biking. I arrived back at the car a little exhausted, but pretty stoked on an awesome adventurous day out with a good bunch of people, for a good cause.
It took five days for my legs to stop tingling from the stinging nettle… I’m sure it will all be removed in good time to hopefully make way for the new cycle track… There were some great sections of trail that were actually very ridable and good fun, which wouldn’t require any further work, but some sections where there would be a significant amount of benching work to secure a ridable trail along the route we followed (mainly along the river). The thing that I find very reassuring is that in Tucky’s hands, the work will be done with minimal disruption to the environment, and by a trail builder who is a rider and understands what makes an epic trail for an enjoyable day out on the bike… It would be such an honour if (when) this trail is developed, to have seen it through from its conception as “jungle ride with orange markers” to an awesome one day adventure that trail users will enjoy and will bring excellent economic benefits to the surrounding communities. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to head along at some point and do my bit shovelling some dirt.
I think it’s fantastic how much significance is now being placed on providing quality riding assets. It’s great to see that communities, politicians, and relevant organisations are recognising mountain biking as a successful, growing sport which brings economic benefits to communities, and are now investing resources in developing facilities that will, ultimately, raise the profile of our sport, which, in turn, provides better funding and resources all over again. I suppose it is also up to us, though, as riders, to make sure we foster a good relationship with these groups and communities by doing our bit in terms of being courteous to other trail users, respectful of the environment and the trails (this means controlling your braking and not leaving rubbish behind) and participating in trail maintenance when we have the opportunity. Furthermore, it is important that if you know you shouldn’t be riding somewhere, then please don’t… There is a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for trail advocacy so that we can enjoy getting out on two wheels, and this can be undone by the inconsiderate few who choose to ride in places where it is expressly forbidden, or by those who chose to abuse or torment other trail users. We are so lucky here in New Zealand to have a seemingly endless natural wonderland at our disposal to enjoy and share, and I don’t think I speak purely for myself when I say trail advocacy has come a long way in the last five years or so. Whilst I’m not in our current government’s camp, credit must be given to the establishment of projects such as the national cycleways project, which has opened the door for some outstanding adventures on two wheels. It’s an exciting prospect that as we tick New Zealand adventures off our bucket lists, that there will constantly be more there waiting to replace them.