I took this photo because I want to share the significance to this signpost to me, and the bike leaning against it is part of the story.
My first mountain bike came into my life a long time ago - my mate who got one from the same batch reckons it was 1983, but it could have been earlier. Prehistoric, anyway.
I didn’t meet that mate until some years later, and I didn’t know anybody else who had a mountain bike. There were no magazines available here, and the internet was still an undeveloped concept.
I took the bike on urban off-road excursions through the Auckland Domain, and all over the volcanic cones that dot the city. I spent a long time figuring out what I could do on the thing, with goals like trying to ride all the way to the top of Maungakiekie on the sheep trails, without a dab.
When it came to field trips, I chose Rotorua. There were several reasons for this. It was an easy sell to the family. We liked motels, and some classics in Rotorua were more like apartments - spacious, fully equipped, and sporting excellent hot pools. There were things to do our kid liked, and stuff we liked to do too. And Whakarewarewa Forest seemed like a good place to go mountain biking.
In those days, before Lange’s government caved to Roger Douglas and sold the trees, Whakarewarewa was not really a production forest. It had been planted mostly as an experiment to see what would grow, and it supported over 60 species. The hundreds of kilometres of forestry roads were hardly ever used, no logging had taken place for a long time, if ever. With a few exceptions, the roads were for the most part like singletrack, kept open by walkers and horses I guess. If there were any local mountain bikers active at the time, I never met one.
Navigating was even harder than it is today, because nearly everywhere was covered with big, mature timber, and if there were maps I never found one.
There was a sculpted model of the forest in the visitor centre on Longmile Road, and I would go and puzzle over it while trying to work out where to go.
Longmile was the access point, and my rides went pretty much like this:
Start by heading up Nursery Road. I can’t recall whether it was tar sealed for the first bit like it is now, but it was my first port of call. Then up The Wash, and into a grove of redwoods every bit as big and majestic as the few token survivors that remain. The road changed into a dirt trail through the big trees, and was the only real singletrack I found on that side of the hill.
Where Hot X buns is nowadays was huge Douglas Fir, and I would grovel my way up Direct Road, all the way to where Hot X starts. The bit of road that connects across the face of the hill was not there, or if it was it had become completely hidden by foliage, so I would go up past what is now the start of Te Ruru and continue across to Hill Road. There I would go right, along the curiously flat piece of Hill Road and down a narrow and fast section which had wooden drainage gutters across it at about a 45 degree angle, to Moerangi Road. I would climb there, among big pine, more Doug Fir and the native forest that is still there, to the top, where Time Warp takes today’s riders to Split Enz.
Then another fun downhill, one of the highlights of the day, until I got to a road with the culturally insensitive name of Chinaman’s Lookout.
That was a real singletrack section, a narrow rideable strip down the middle of long-unused road, which lead to a bench seat and a little safety fence at the top of a prodigious drop.
That was the pay-off, a view of the entire forest, the old Waipa Mill, and the far-off town.
I would sit there and eat a Moro bar, wondering whether I was doing mountain biking correctly.
Then I would return by the same route.
Seventeen years or so later, we moved to Rotorua. The trail system was begun, and those long exploratory rides continued, but were more likely to feature less obvious routes. The Chinaman’s Lookout was still there when the original Spilt Enz was created, one day I battled through the buddlieia and other stuff where the trail crossed a small clearing and found it.
As I stooged up the back side of Moerangi the other day, at 20kph on the latest high powered e-bike offering from Trek, I spotted the sign and stopped to consider it.
The bike I was riding had a carbon-fibre frame, gobs of suspension, reliable disk brakes, 12 speeds (one one chainring!), tubeless tyres, a seat dropper - and is if that was not enough, it also had an electronically controlled electric motor with almost a hundred kilometres of range.
Which is awesome, but would still only cover you for less than half of the purpose built singletrack now in the forest.
There are car-parks with amenities at three entrances to the forest. There is a bus service to get you up the hill. There is an organisation with full-time employees looking after the trails, and creating more. And on top of that, commercial trail builders (that is a thing!) and passionate enthusiasts alike maintain trails and build new ones.
The way things have changed is beyond what was possible to imagine on those early rides, and makes me wonder what the state of the sport will be in Rotorua and everywhere else in another forty years’ time.