A new take on an old favorite.
For a few years, either side of the turn of the century, Apple used a tagline for what was at the time, the underdog Macintosh computer: ‘Think Different’. It summed up their ethos at that time. Since then, the brand’s success has seen its culture shift significantly but the underlying directive to ‘think different’ has always appealed to me. Why roll with the status quo? Why not try new experiences? Use things for purposes other than what they were intended for? That kind of attitude. It’s a mindset that has seen me in some unusual scenarios: travelling internationally to a road race, but writing mostly about off-road riding; attending press events and riding everything on offer - from fixies to fat bikes to XC to DH rigs. My latest venture was to take a couple of mates to an iconic native forest trail I know well, on a different kind of bike... of the electrically assisted variety. But first, some background...
The Whirinaki Forest is the traditional home of the Ngāti Whare people. A key component of the tribe's Waitangi Tribunal settlement in 2012 was the inclusion of Ngāti Whare alongside the Department of Conservation (DOC) in co-management of the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park. This acknowledges both the significance of the area to the Ngāti Whare, as well as their kaitiaki (guardianship) of the long-term well-being of the forest.
Located between Rotorua and Taupo, with extensive ranges of rugged native bush, the appeal for mountain bikers is obvious. A network of well-established tramping tracks and DOC huts date back to the ‘50s, when the primary human interaction with the forest were hunters employed to eradicate deer and other pests. In more recent times Ngāti Whare and DOC have been leaders in allowing and encouraging recreational mountain bikers to experience what is on offer in the park, with legal access to the Moerangi and Whirinaki trails.
When liaising with DOC and Maori landowners as we prepared to complete this ride, we entered somewhat of a rabbit hole when discussing DOC’s role in caring for the area in which the Whirinaki and Moerangi trails reside. Talk turned to DOC’s goal of protecting the whio - NZ’s endangered native blue duck.
Neil Hutton, our contact at DOC, passed on an astute observation about the whio: “A lot of New Zealanders have only ever seen a whio on a $10 note… Whirinaki is one of the best places to see whio in real life”.
Stoats have been identified as the primary cause of the whio’s decline in the Whirinaki. Although scientists of the time warned they would be a threat to native birds, stoats were introduced to New Zealand in 1884 to control rabbits and hares. At this stage, I started doing some research into stoats but Google results quickly had me feeling despondent - they’re amazing. Amazingly good at killing, that is. So to curtail their invasive decimation of the endangered whio population is no mean feat.
Since 2011, trapping has played a major part in the improvement of the whio’s long-term fate. Part of my quick research turned up DOC’s info about their trap lines in the forest park - over 1,800 on their trapping lines in the security area.
While simply riding through the trails, the traps are in evidence - sometimes right on the main track. We stopped a couple of times to see if there was a captive stoat in any of them and although the few we saw were empty, they’re obviously only a blip on the radar in the scheme of things with about 1,797 others we didn’t see. Once we ‘got our eye in’ though, we’d often note the presence of trap lines, seeing the markers and the subtle paths leading into the dense bush where the workers lay their traps.
The stuff that happens before saddling up to start a ride is all part of the experience, especially if you’re doing it with a sense of adventure, trying new things and going to new places with new riding buddies.
Before even entering the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park, most visitors will come from the more populated northern side of the park - in our case, from Rotorua. The only township of note on the route in, is Murupara, a small town which is effectively the main gateway to Lake Waikaremoana and the Whirinaki Forest. Murupara was once an industrious place of extensive forestry, which there are still some remnants of. But like many of New Zealand’s small forest towns, Murupara has experienced hard times with the downturn of labour-based forestry operations in recent years - and there’s little other employment for locals.
Our visit to the area included a quick stopover - in anticipation of a lunch break in a few hours’ time - to fill our packs with filled rolls and sandwiches at the local bakery. OK, and there may have been some slices of cake in our orders as well. Oh, OK, yes, some of us may have started eating our cakes before even leaving the car park, but we’re not here to judge each other, are we?!
Also worth noting, as you drive out of Murupara township towards the Whirinaki Forest, is a shared office for Ngāti Whare and DOC – making a convenient place to stop with public toilets before travelling on to the start of your ride.
As we were getting the bikes and our gear ready at the trailhead, a large group of trampers arrived. They were a group of disadvantaged youth with ex-army wranglers guiding them through a bush craft exercise. The military leaders obviously had them under their guidance for a while - I’ve never been called ‘sir’ so much in my life, that must be what it’s like to be in the monarchy -though, to be fair, the youngsters also had plenty of comments along the lines of: “Chur, flash bike au”; and the ever-important thing kids want to know: “How much did that cost?”, quickly followed by, “What?! I could buy a car for that much!”
The ride - doing it different
I’ve experienced the Moerangi trail many times, in a variety of ways: on different mountain bikes; doing it as a shuttled loop; riding it as an out-and-back; even bikepacking it on gravel bikes; and doing a heli-drop to the depths of the forest, to do a 30km trail run out.
Every time I’ve been on the Moerangi it has been epic and this time round we found another way to experience it: on e-bikes.
Apart from the nature of the riding itself, one of the notable differences with riding e-bikes is the ability to take more time to stop and look around. Although you can still work hard on an e-bike, you’re arguably fresher than you’d be on a regular bike. That equates to being more inclined to stop and savour the moment, the views and the sounds of the forest. In this case, it was also an opportunity to revisit the Whirinaki mountain bike loop, which is a separate track at one end of the Moerangi trail. I’d only done it once before, many years ago. In recent times, my objective of a day trip to Moerangi was to ride the main trail, either in a shuttled loop or as an out-and-back to as far along the trail as our group wanted to ride.
Riding the Whirinaki loop was great fun and a lot easier than Moerangi. The trail boasts gentler climbs than Moerangi, and there is significantly less elevation so what climbs there are aren’t sustained for long. Mellower gradients lead to less rain-damaged rutting as well, which can be a noticeable feature on the Moerangi, after a series of storms have been through the region.
But apart from the riding experience, the visual and auditory rewards are similar. As soon as we left the car park on the Whirinaki loop trail we were amongst towering podocarp trees - rimu, miro, matai, kahikatea and the mighty tōtara. At ground level the density of lush lime-green ferns is profuse. The heavy rains from the day before our ride adding another degree of vibrant freshness to the intensity of the undergrowth.
On an e-bike I got to describe the climb as something I never thought I’d say: “It was fun!”
Words & Images: Nick Lambert
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