Club Ride to Motu Trails and Rainbow Mountain – Ride Report
One of the biggest things to happen to cycling in New Zealand in recent years has been Nga Haerenga – The NZ Cycle Trail. While not quite the solution to the unemployment figures that the government touted it as, it has nonetheless provided funding to create new trails, rejuvenate old ones and open up cycle access to some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the country.
Most of the trails follow the example of the Otago Rail Trail, catering more for those interested in an easy ride; more touring than “mountain” biking. However, if you investigate the trail network you do find a few gems more suited to those of us who enjoy the rough stuff. One of the closest to Auckland is the Motu Trails, near Opotiki, and the club recently organised an away ride to check it out.
The focal point of the Motu Trails is the old Motu Road. This single-laned gravel road was the original coach road to link the Bay of Plenty with Gisborne and stretches 78km from just outside Opotiki up and over the ranges to Matawai. There are several ways to ride the Motu Trails, catering to different levels of rider, and of course we chose the hardest – the 90km loop from Opotiki, along the Dunes Track, up the Motu Rd, down the Pakihi Track and back to Opotiki.
We stayed at Bushaven, a fantastic lodge set next to the Te Waiti stream in the Urutawa Forest Reserve, surrounded by imposing valley walls covered in beautiful native bush, and handily close to the end of the Pakihi Track. Bushaven has various accommodation options to suit groups of all sizes, and our hosts John and Virginia were extremely friendly, accommodating and definitely willing to go the extra mile to ensure our stay was as enjoyable as it could be. They provided a delicious meal for our group of 14 on the Saturday night as well as shuttling some of our group up the hill so they could avoid the worst of the climb.
Another bonus to staying at Bushaven was the Te Waiti track which started literally next door to the house we were staying in. Some of us arrived early on the Friday so were able to check out the 7km track before night fell. It climbs up the valley following the stream (river, really) then descending through some super-tight switchbacks to cross the stream, before continuing on to Te Waiti Hut.
It is possible to continue on from the hut but we chose not to and instead rode back the way we came. The track was surprisingly enjoyable, with several bridges and stream crossings, some big drops off to the side in places and really nice flow for a walking track. It was definitely worth crossing the stream to go the hut as the ride back down offered some technical challenges to keep us on our toes.
By the time we got back to the house a few others had arrived so we cracked open the beer and settled in for the evening.
The Motu Trail Loop – “long, flat and smooth”
On Saturday the weather forecast was decidedly dodgy so we decided to make an early start. 11 of us were going to ride the 90km whole loop and three were shuttling to Matawai to cut out some of the distance and climbing. We agreed to rendezvous at the top of the Pakihi Track, assuming the weather wasn’t atrocious, so we could enjoy the downhill together.
The ride down to Opotiki was essentially a road ride, starting on gravel then onto tar-seal and we soon split into smaller groups. We had a wide range of bikes, from light XC race machines, through full suspension trail bikes, to Rob’s 7″ Transition Blindside – affectionately known as “The Truck”.
At the northern end of town an impressive timber suspension bridge marks the start of the Dunes Trail. This new track cuts out the road ride along the coast, and instead swoops and flows through the dunes. Easy stuff, great for kids, even your mother would enjoy it. Halfway along you have a choice of riding along the beach or the road. As it was high tide we opted for the road. This was only for a kilometre or so and after a little confusion we managed to find our way back onto the track. Another group opted for the beach and as you can see from the photos got wet feet and a bit of an adventure.
After the Dunes trail it was back on the road to the start of the Motu Road. Pretty soon we were on gravel and starting to head up into the hills. The skies were a dark gray but the rain was holding off for now.
Riding the Motu Road this way, we had two climbs to look forward to. The first was up to a 400m pass and the second was 600m. We had agreed on a lunch stop at Toatoa which is a tiny settlement in the valley between the two.
The first climb was a bit of a chore for me personally. I suspect if you’re more of a XC rider, or do a lot of road riding, then you’d love it, but it just seemed to go on and on forever. The scenery of course was stunning, and the thought of the original surveyors and diggers who built the road was impressive, but my hands were numb and my bum was numb and just before we got to the top the rain started.
It’s also worth mentioning that we did meet a few cars on the road so caution is advised if you’re going to do the ride. All of the drivers were friendly, apart from one – there’s always one eh? – who, despite the fact we heard him coming and were all pulling over to the left as he came round the bend, insisted on abusing us on his way past. And I quote: “Get on the f***ing right side of the road you f***ing c***s!”.
There’s not much to do in these sorts of situations other than laugh so I made a joke about the Opotiki Tourist Office mobile unit and we spent the rest of the climb ribbing each other over which of us were the c***s he was referring to.
After several false summits the wind picked up and I knew were at the top. Rounding a bend I was rewarded with a stunning view across a valley that reminded me of home. Because it had been cleared for grazing, it looked just like something out of the Scottish Highlands; carved by glaciers rather than tectonic plates.
The descent down to Toatoa was a welcome blast, with grit and water spraying everywhere, and we were soon regrouping in Toatoa, hiding under a hedgerow for a spot of lunch.
Once we were all accounted for, and suitably refueled we set off again. This climb was more of the same, but didn’t drag on as long as the first climb and before I knew it the sign for the Pakihi Track appeared round a bend. I was quite impressed with our timing too, as we were only 10 minutes ahead of our rendezvous time. Amazingly the shuttlers arrived a few minutes later while were were waiting for the tail-enders to arrive. I love it when a plan comes together!
The Pakihi Track is an old stock route that descends 400m over 10km to a hut, before following the Pakihi river downstream for a further 10km. It was great to be back on singletrack and the descent to the hut was the highlight of the day’s ride for me. I had waited at the top for the final tail-ender and had gotten cold, but that also meant I had a clear run at the track. Cut into a steep sided valley through dense bush, the track was a blur punctuated by bridges, slips and sharp corners, all the while blinking grit and spray out of my eyes.
After a quick stop at the hut, we were off again. This second half of the track is a much shallower gradient but the track is precariously cut into the rock face on the side of the river. Apparently the track had the most dynamite used per km of any track in NZ when it was built, and you can see why. DoC have put in over 20 bridges that cross side streams, and there is one big suspension bridge that crosses the Pakihi River at one point. They are going to have a big job maintaining the track though; we passed one massive slip that had thrown house-sized boulders into the river and another that had shunted one of the bridges off its foundations!
Apparently on a good day the river is a beautiful blue-green colour and you can stop and swim. For us, the rain was getting even heavier and it was definitely time to be getting back to the house. Unfortunately after the single track there was still another 10km of gravel roads to go, but we put our heads down and muscled on. To their credit, everyone made it home safely under their own steam. John and Virginia had cooked up a massive feed which we devoured along with a few beers and wines, before relaxing for the rest of the evening, joking and reflecting on the 100kms of riding we had just done.
Rainbow Mountain – “short, steep and super technical”
We awoke on Sunday to find the worst of the weather had passed and blue sky was starting to make an appearance between the clouds again. The plan for the day was to drive home via Rotorua to check out the new Rainbow Mountain trail. Sweet ‘vegas singletrack that climbs 300m in 5km, before losing that elevation in only 2.5kms! Whereas the previous day’s riding had been long, flat(ish) and smooth, today was going to be short, steep and super technical.
I managed to convince six others that this would be fun, I think mainly by the promise of some left-over beers and a dip in the hot spring at Kerosene Creek afterwards. You can park on SH5 but we parked by Kerosene Creek, right where the downhill track finishes. This was a good idea, as the track round to the start of the uphill was a good warmup for our tired legs and meant that at the end we could ride – almost literally – straight off the downhill and into the creek. Being a weekend there were plenty of tourists around so we had no problems with security.
The track sidles round the base of the hill for a couple of km before the uphill proper starts. This section put a grin on my face immediately with flowy, well designed, singletrack that Rotorua is renowned for.
I had read that the uphill was unrideable. Those of you who know me will know I’m fond of the saying “it’s all rideable”, so I was out to prove them wrong. Up to the lookout at the halfway point things weren’t too bad, with a manageable gradient and the track climbing across the slope of the hill for the most part. After the lookout though, the track essentially went straight up. Combined with lots of loose rocks and ruts this was going to be a seriously technical climb.
I think the uphill would be rideable with no dabs if you were blessed with both fitness and skills. I like the technical stuff so wasn’t too worried about the latter but the former is not my strong point, so every 30 or 40 metres I would stop, lean against a tree and let my heart rate come down from what felt like 200bpm. There were a couple of points where my back wheel spun out, but I got my balance and carried on from where I had stopped. All the way I was looking up, trying to catch a glimpse of the antennae at the top of the hill. Finally the single track opened up onto a road and there it was. A quick final spin up the road and I was on the top. What a view! A 360 degrees panorama of Rotorua, Taupo, Mt Tarawera and the huge pine plantations heading east to Murupara.
We stopped for lunch before going to find the downhill. A word of warning: immediately below the summit, on the right of the road is a track marked with an arrow. This is not the start of the downhill. It might be rideable if you’re Steve Peat but if you’re a mere mortal then head 50m further down the road and you’ll find the very large and obvious sign indicating where the offical start is.
The downhill was sublime – “mountain biking heaven”, as Mark put it.
What had taken 55 minutes to climb, took 10 minutes to descend. The first half was steeper, more technical, with lots of roots and off-camber sections. Where it spits you briefly out onto the access road marks the halfway point. After that the track was all flow: berms, tables and sections that were more like a pump track.
Every single one of us came skidding back into the car park with the biggest grins on our faces, high fives all round! If we hadn’t done the big ride the day before and didn’t need to hit the road then I think we would have definitely gone back for a second lap. As it was, our legs were tired and time was ticking on, so it was straight into the warm waters of Kerosene Creek for a well-earned beer and a soak, before hitting the road back to Auckland.