30 years ago Mountain biking was barely a blip on the radar of the cycling world’s collective consciousness. BMX though, was at that time a juggernaut of two-wheeled dirt-fueled fun and I was lucky enough to be the right age to get into the sport in its infancy. It’s not too surprising that many of my mates from racing all those years ago were like me; enthusiastic participants when the mountain bike scene truly hit in later years.
That passion for mountain biking is twofold in its appeal for us; as well as the obvious enjoyment of the riding itself, it provides our group with a common interest to help bring us together year after year. Like many Kiwi riders we’re spread far and wide these days, with all the usual life commitments of family and work to fit our precious riding time around. We still make an effort each and every year to gather for a weekend with our families, and for the guys to get out for a ride or two.
At our last get-together in Hawkes Bay we rode Yoemans Track which everyone thought was great. So when it came time to plan our next gathering I hesitantly floated the idea of doing the Moerangi trail in the Whirinaki Forest. I say hesitantly because I had ridden most of this trail on one occasion myself, and knew it was a solid effort, especially for riders that regardless of their passion for mountain biking might only get out to ride intermittently.
Fortunately one of the guys did some online research and turned up the comment ‘...will take riders of intermediate fitness and skill 4-5 hours’. I had already let everyone know that if we did the ride they had to carry a decent amount of water, a spare tube, waterproof jacket and thermal layers. Those instructions along with the 4-5 hour information let them know this was a serious day out. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when every single one of the guys said ‘yes’ and the planning began in earnest.
Most of us arrived on a Friday afternoon and headed off in our vehicles to the nearby Whirinaki Trail. This is an awesome trail in its own right - not of the epic proportions of the Moerangi trail, but a true old-growth forest ride. The Department of Conservation have done us bike riders proud with not only opening up access to these amazing parts of our country, but building and maintaining bike-friendly trails as part of their offering. For our mate Steve, an ex-pat Kiwi who has lived in Sydney for many years, this was heavenly. And the best part for me - knowing that if he thought today’s riding was great, tomorrow’s would really blow his mind.
Off the bikes, the Jailhouse offers some pretty special views of our great New Zealand landscape.
By the time Saturday morning rolled around and the rest of our group had turned up we were well and truly ready to go. We elected to go with a local shuttle service. Because the trail is a point-to-point the shuttle makes it easy, all riding is on the trail with no gravel/tar seal commuting to do the good stuff, and no worries about leaving our vehicles in remote forest carparks.
I’d been conscious during the planning phase of the weekend to not sound like a big-headed know-it-all, while still making sure everyone had the right gear and the right attitude for a big day out. One thing I did was an extremely short but to-the-point brief as we were about to head into the trail from the shuttle drop off. Namely to remind everyone that although the trail is heaps of fun, and riding with mates tends to bring out everyone’s competitive urges, they should always keep in mind a couple of important facts:
1: There are some big drops at times, the kind of drops that if you went off the trail, you wouldn’t walk away from.
And 2: There is no cell phone coverage, at all, so if something does happen we’re self-reliant until someone is able to ride out for help. (That was a bit of a white lie because there is patchy Telecom coverage at one specific point towards the end of the ride, but you wouldn’t want to rely on that as a ticket out of trouble).
And then it begins. DOC outdid their performance with maintaining the Whirinaki trail from the day before. There have been some sizeable slips over Winter on the Moerangi and the trail is just flat-out awesome. Sure, there is some running water and a bit of mud here and there, but considering the remoteness and the big terrain (with corresponding big amounts of water running off it) it is 99% rideable.
You can’t help but make comparisons to the blockbuster Hollywood ‘Jurassic Park’ movies when threading a path through the enormous old trees and lush green ferns.
The time taken for the first leg in to Skips Hut flew by, and once there it provided a chance to get a bit of food onboard and take the time to stop and soak in the views of surrounding forest. I headed off 10 minutes before the others to find a spot to take photos and left them with the words of wisdom ‘from memory there is a bit of climb now before cresting a saddle and rolling onto the next hut’. In hindsight ‘...bit of a climb’ was a little understated but was a good wake up call. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some perverse pleasure in being able to tell the guys when I saw them half an hour later that the hill out of the first hut wasn’t really that big.
Even better than riding classic back-country trails is being able to share them with your riding buddies.
The last hill... now that one is big! The last major climb of the day is over the Moerangi saddle and is a long and reasonably steady haul. From previous experience I knew most of the guys today would be doing some walking, and probably not enjoying it too much. But because we had maintained a sensible pace during the day (I can’t believe I just called these guys sensible), we had enough energy in our tanks to knock over the climb with no major meltdowns.
The temperature at the top was as I remembered it from the previous ride - because of its height it feels about 10o cooler than the rest of the ride! Cool enough that most of us put on jackets for the long descent and final section out to the trail end. This is the part of the trail I was most anxious about, with higher speed, riders tired both physically and mentally and the natural enjoyment of descending with a bunch of good mates a crash here was possible, and the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Sure enough, the one significant high speed crash of the day happened here. Huggie clipped the inside of a slight turn with his bars which promptly flicked him over the front and down the trail for six or so metres. This was actually a fantastic result - I went back to take a photo of where he crashed, there were the marks in a straight line down the trail where he hit and rolled. While half a metre to the left was a virtually sheer drop with no discernible bottom. I’m not trying to make this trail sound like some death-defying ordeal, it’s not. The nature of singletrack through big hills means there are going to be parts where the rider just needs to dial it back a notch.
The remote and rugged nature of the terrain means the trail is susceptible to major weather events. The occasional short hike-a-bike section only adds to the day's adventure though!
With an uneventful remainder of the run out to the end it was all over, except for the stories told that night and the memories of riding with mates that last a lifetime. Moerangi truly offers a unique experience through majestic old-growth native forest.
A good kind of exhaustion - flat out on the lawn with beer in hand after a full day of epic riding.
Originally published in New Zealand Mountain Biker magazine. Writing and Photography: Nick Lambert