At times we Kiwis can take this sort of scenery for granted, especially if we have a primary objective based around a bike ride and are focused on the ribbon of brown dirt in front of us. It’s when you’re with international visitors that you recognise how truly special New Zealand’s backcountry rides are. Or, as in our case, when we’re out for a good time, not a long time. Plenty of stops for photos meant we had ample opportunity to look around and truly savour the visual extravaganza that the central North Island’s native forest offers.
It’s not all peace and quiet though. At times the birdsong is noticeable and, to be honest, sometimes the piercing alarm calls of the Kaka are jarring - in a good way though. Their shrieks serve to remind us this isn’t our place, we’re merely temporary visitors in the grand scheme of things, and it’s a fitting prompt that beautiful native New Zealand fauna are the original inhabitants of this forest.
Although the Moerangi trail is most often ridden in a clockwise direction via shuttle drop off, I’ve often done it as an out-and-back from the River Road end of the trail. This involves a tough climb with about 600m of vertical gain, which is a correspondingly awesome descent on the return trip.
On an e-bike I got to describe the climb as something I never thought I’d say: “It was fun!” We rode every part except one short stretch of soft pumice. I don’t deny I’ve got a real bee in my bonnet with fellow riders who slag off e-bikes without having experienced them. I relish the opportunities they offer both to beginners, or riders with limitations for some reason, and to more experienced, capable riders. In our hands, on this day, we simply enjoyed every single second of riding. Although easily still able to get a solid amount of heavy breathing going on any given climb, the difference from a regular bike was that we were actually riding steep, rutted sections of trail that would quickly have had me walking on my regular bike.
As mentioned previously, I’ve ridden this trail a lot, so am acutely aware of my limitations on any of the technical climbing sections. On the Konas we were still working hard, but in a different way; looking much further ahead on the climbs than usual, because the greater speed meant we’d be coming into whatever was next at a greater pace than on a regular mountain bike. It was also vital to ensure we were in the gearing appropriate to keep a fast cadence throughout whatever we were climbing. Pedal assisted e-bikes simply stop assisting if their cadence/torque sensors sense the rider is only barely turning the cranks over. it’s a weird thing though, the low gearing/high cadence we were utilising effectively on the e-bikes would be completely impractical on a regular bike. On one of those, it’s often desirable to have a slightly tougher gear to crank through over tough obstacles on technical climbs. I’m no physicist (obviously, my wife tells me) but I figure it’s something about torque. All of that is somewhat moot though, because the more you ride an e-bike, the more intuitive it becomes as to what gearing is best for given sections, and how to best utilise the power assist.
Consider your favourite adventure ride. Can you do it differently?
I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t explain a little about the bikes we were on for this adventure ride. Their nature had a significant part in shaping how our ride developed, and the high level of fun-factor we achieved.
We were on Kona Remote CTRL models - featuring Bosch motors. These slot in amongst the lowest price points for proper, full-suspension electric mountain bikes. I say ‘proper’ to clarify they’re not bicycle shaped objects purporting to be mountain bikes, like many cheap monstrosities for sale on TradeMe.
Sure, at the price of the Konas there are compromises on specs: relatively short travel dropper posts; SRAM Guide brakes instead of Codes, which would be more practical for the speed and weight of an e-bike; and unusual choices for New Zealand conditions, like Maxxis Icon tyres. The Icons are great tyres, for a purpose, but not for those of us who push the boundaries of what is rideable, where traction is king for getting up, down or around any given section of trail. There are plenty of solid performers for critical components though - like RockShox Lyric forks up front and Monarch Plus shocks, with SRAM NX level drivetrain.
Overall, we came away impressed with the bikes. The geometry was on point, the design and construction of the frames was flex free and solid (a particularly important point with heavy and powerful e-bikes). The suspension was tuned appropriately to the rider and bike combo dynamics. To come away with these responses to the capabilities of the Konas, given the remote environs we were riding in, is no small compliment to be dishing out.
I believe it’s one of those things which is virtually impossible to quantify, but if you did try, it would be along the lines of: “For the lowest-priced, real mountain bike e-bikes available in NZ, we had 90% of the performance possible compared to uber-spendy ebikes upwards of $10k. But, and it’s an important ‘but’, we had 100% of the fun available from what e-bikes bring to rides like this”.
Unfortunately, I can tell you from painful experience that it is almost a rite of passage to encounter the native Onaonga plant on Moerangi rides. Although my fellow riders on this trip didn’t get to experience it, I ‘took one for the team’ by taking one step off the trail in the wrong place and getting an instant reminder of what the native stinging nettle Onaonga looks like - and why I should have remembered it from the last time it got its venomous little spikes into me. The skin on my shins is tingling as I write this now - a reminder to pay more attention to look where I’m stepping when I get off the bike to take a photo in the future.
Ah, the serenity. It truly feels like the middle of nowhere most of the time, although we did hear helicopters working occasionally. It’s possible they were tourism operations, hunters or fly fishermen, but it’s more likely - when it’s a busy aircraft flying around for extended periods - they were DOC workers. The recreational users tend to get a drop-off/pick-up and that’s it.
On a previous trip into this area, we spoke with some workmen waiting for their ride into the day’s work site. Their ride was a helicopter. In that instance they were bringing building supplies into the multiple DOC huts in the forest. Those workers also get on the tools to clear the trails which, because of the remoteness and rugged run-off of the terrain, are often subject to weathering from the rain and windfall of storms.
The trails have no views to speak of - not the sweeping vista variety anyway - but the views within the forest are other-worldly, with the verdant greenery of the forest floor and the imposing old-growth native trees putting you in your place.The towering native trees, and the tortuous Giger-like displays of northern rātā gradually strangling their giant host trees, serve as a reminder of how puny we are. (Rata is one of New Zealand’s tallest flowering trees, beginning life as a plant perched on a host tree, high in the forest canopy. Its roots eventually grow down to the forest floor, finally enclosing the host tree and producing a huge tree up to 25 metres high with a trunk up to 2.5 metres in diameter.)
Consider your favourite adventure ride. Can you do it differently? Ride a loop in the opposite direction to usual (if it’s not a one-way trail, obviously); pack a picnic and plan to stop and soak in your surrounds instead of trying to smash out a new Strava PB; take a mate who hasn’t done it before and bask in their enjoyment of it; do it on a different bike if you’re fortunate enough to have a choice. However you do it, there is potential to rediscover and reinvigorate your enjoyment of a trail you know - or at least think you know.
As an added bonus, whether you’re South Island based and it’s a major holiday trip, or reside in the North Island and it’s easier to get to - ensure you put the Moerangi and Whirinaki trails on your bucket list. You won’t regret it.
Thanks to Neil Hutton and the team at DOC Whakatane, Earl Rewi and Sharon Nikora and the tangata whenua of Ngāti Whare
Check with the Murupara DOC office to make sure the trail is open if you’re doing it in winter or when there have been storms in the area – it is prone to slips after heavy rain.
This is a true backcountry ride, so ensure you’re ready for it with suitable gear for trailside bike repairs and have enough food and water. There is virtually no cell phone coverage to speak of on the trail.
Words & Images: Nick Lambert
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