A ride in the Park
Mountains to Sea
Our Trail Story
How about starting a cycle journey that begins higher than any other in the country; descends from an active volcano into a lush rainforest filled with tunnels and viaducts, before reaching a bridge to nowhere with a jet boat escape back to civilisation? Well I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need a giant carrot to tempt me to Ohakune to start this epic ride!
So it was that on a cool autumn day my wife and I headed to the centre of the North Island. We were conscious of an ex-tropical weather system that was bearing down on the region; threatening to thwart our plan. Our plan was to ride the forested sections of the Mountains to Sea Trail by having an easy ride together on day one in the Tongariro National Park, before a more challenging backcountry trip into the Whanganui National Park the next day.
After arriving late in the day at the alpine village that is Ohakune, we promptly headed up to the Turoa skifield. We stood above a ceiling of cloud and watched the sun go down below the white shroud that was pierced only by the triangular silhouette of Mt Taranaki. The next morning we rode from our chalet to the trail located beside the quaint railway station on the main trunk line. Turning our pedals and chugging our way out of town. It seemed to be a fitting way to start our cycle journey.
At the station I attach three GPS units to my bike, switching them on to warm up ready to map our way. I watch the screens flicker briefly illustrating the shores of Lake Wakatipu, which is our home turf, until they triangulate our new position far to the north and realise we are all on an adventure. The multiple GPSs are along for the ride as I am a cartographer, and while on this jaunt I was gathering data for my app; the Great Rides App.
Finally the screens all flash up “position acquired. That’s our signal to roll. We’re off!
We are sucked into the countryside not long after leaving the station and there we hop onto the historic alignment of the Old Coach Road. The road is so named as before the main trunk line was linked up over some tough terrain, horse pulled carriages connected passengers across the rail-less gap between awaiting trains. Today the former road takes cycles not coaches, and on the few unusual cobbled sections that remain our tyres dance around enjoying a party of their own.
Increasing elevation brings better views over the verdant pastures of the King country as we meander around the folds in the landscape along a forest edge. At times we pass through tunnels of tree canopy before returning to the forested fringes. It is a cracker of a day which is soon lost to us as the trail suddenly leaves the sunny countryside and dives into the deep dark depths of the forest.
The gloom deepens even more as we ride past a trail junction and head straight into a ‘mole’ hole. The Hapuawhenua tunnel, like many hand-built main trunk railway tunnels of its time, is named after an animal. As we ride through this century old portal we find it burrows in for a couple of hundred metres before abruptly terminating. Before us, running perpendicular to the tunnel, is a massive cutting of the open aired modern railway line … we are confused! We later discovered that the old tunnel and its approach was too low, windy and steep for modern locomotives. So a new cutting through the hillside was built, and the ‘mole-hole’ was carved in two by the current main trunk railway line.
Back at the junction we continue through virgin rainforest, past a giant rimu, before descending the hillside to a magnificent engineering feat. Before us was not only one massive viaduct but two, both spanning the forested valley. Incredibly, the graceful century old 286 metre curved steel lattice viaduct is part of the trail which majestically elevates us 45 metres above the valley floor. The ride is a cyclist’s dream come true. Seeing the sleepers which once bound the rails just builds our historical appreciation for the journey. The old viaduct consists of 688 tonnes of steel and tens of thousands of tonnes of timber all of which was all hauled to the site by packhorses, only to be installed by hand.
No scaffolding was used here.
Workers clambered up ladders from the stream to the deck!
Surprisingly no fatalities occurred during construction, however the completion of the viaduct meant the death of the Old Coach Road as the railway was finally joined from north to south.
Mirroring its predecessor is a modern engineering marvel, an equally elegant span of concrete columns taking trains 414 metres across the valley. This modern viaduct makes a more direct line than the old and can cope with the stresses of today’s heavier train stock. Seeing a train rumbling over the new viaduct from the vantage point of the old is impressive for those lucky enough to time it right. The new viaduct is a fitting replacement with its gentle curve mimicking the shape of its neighbouring elder.
I enter a waypoint and take photos of the viaducts then steam on through the forest on the Old Coach Road. The ride is gentle and interesting as we pass old bush camps and reach a derelict steel viaduct where we enjoy a late lunch before reaching Horopito. While some cyclists continue onward, we elected to ride back the way we had come before saving the day’s data back in Ohakune. If day one was spectacularly easy, we knew tomorrow’s trail of slick clay and slip crossings would be more precarious. The storm clouds brewed as we sat and stewed.
After an unsettled sleep we awoke to a blanket of cloud that had rolled in overnight shrouding the magic mountain. Travelling north to the Mangapurua track and back on the saddle, the ride is now on a 4WD track leading me into the wilderness. I’m alone to day. My wife had the sense to know the damped slippery trail probably wasn’t for her. I think she was was probably right. This section starts with a climb on the forest edge, and after less than an hour I had gained 300 metres and lost a bit of a sweat. I tire just as the trail levels out offering a view northward to the rugged ranges of the Whanganui National Park. Standing tall beside me is an ornately carved pou that appears to protect those who pass. Pedalling on I reach a hairpin corner at Mangapurua trig; 661 metres above the Tasman Sea. I am relieved because from here it is almost all downhill out to the sea.
Before plunging seaward I turn and take in the surroundings. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but there’s a white pole nearby proudly flying our national flag. Beside the flag is a memorial with a map that shows the land parcels that were gifted to soldiers who had just returned from the Great War. The story of the early settlement here is bleak; before the land could be productive it had to be cleared. It must have been a hard and lonely slog trying to clear forest to improve one’s life in this jungle; so remote and just after the horrors of war too. Tough! A road was built, however it was prone to regular impassable slips which, coupled with the marginal productivity of the land in the valley, led to the place eventually being abandoned. Little remains of all that hard work except for a few clearings and crumbling chimneys.
Just behind the trail I take a short stroll to a shallow cave that once stored explosives for the road worker’s use. Beyond is a lookout where, if cloud wasn’t hampering the view, I could gaze at the volcanic peaks of the Central Plateau. Aware of the fresh slips and the greasiness of the trail after rain, I was satisfied with the views and got underway to try and outpace the foreboding rain clouds.
From the trig the trail is down, my bike picking up pace as I free wheeled with my new-found friend; gravity. I whip past some of the clearings that were made by the returning soldiers, and negotiate the impressive Battleship Bluff – an incised oxbow bend in the river where the trail is precariously etched into the cliff. After crossing some narrow bridges, the trail itself narrows and deteriorates painting my bike in mud in the process.
Then suddenly I pop out of the forest at the Bridge to Nowhere.
‘Nowhere’ on my ride is a paradox; coming out of the wilderness to reach this concrete span transfers me from quiet trail to tourist Mecca; a couple of boatloads of visitors are viewing this well-known structure. A jet boat diver casually greets me. He has been expecting me and my all-mud all-over bike. I enter a waypoint and after taking a few photos trying to capture the futility and beauty of the Bridge to Nowhere I descend to arrive abruptly where the trail meets the swirling turbid waters. Goodbye mudslinging trail, hello Whanganui River!
I had arrived at our country’s longest navigable river. It must be rush hour. Before me, near the landing, are all sorts of watercraft warriors who are stopping off along the Whanganui River bank to view the bridge. There are groups in kayaks, canoes and jet boats all enjoying this stretch of river. Our jet boat driver helps me and a couple of others with our bikes, securing them to a rack on the back of the boat before we are loaded on and we pivot away downstream. The river here is wide, swift, and a hue not dissimilar to that of my soiled bike.
Once the boat is up and planing we quickly negotiate the sweeping bends in the river course, the driver stopping occasionally to show us points of interest. While tired from today’s ride the wind in my hair keeps me alert as the obligatory 360 degree spin marks our arrival at Pipiriki with a splash. This village is where the trail meets the road, a sealed route to Whanganui’s river mouth which is oddly also called the ‘mole.’ After saving the trip data and switching off the GPS units I called it a day; reunited with my partner we head inside just as the weather rips in, rainwater tumbling just as we had - from Mountains to Sea.