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Ride Beneath Giants


The towering podocarp forest of Whirinaki has long been regarded as some of the finest in New Zealand. Now, as JIM ROBINSON discovered, you can experience the magic by mountain bike.

“LET THE WHEELS DO THE TALKING” is one of cycling’s favourite expressions. It means you’re going to avoid hype and glitz, in preference to letting actions speak for themselves. With a slight twist – to “let the shovels do the talking” – the words are perfectly suited to the mountain bike track in the Whirinaki Forest Park.

The 17km circuit is thirty kilometres from even remote Murupara – off the road to Lake Waikaremoana.

Nationwide, Whirinaki is equalled by only Pureora for its intact podocarp canopy. Every hectare, there are up to 400 - 600 of the giants - totara, kahikatea, matai, miro and matai, some an estimated 800 years old and up to 45 metres high.

The ride is in the Whirinaki Ecological Management Zone, a 15,000-hectare area (the whole Whirinaki Forest Park is 55,000 hectares) set up by DOC in 2004. The forest-clad zone ranges between around 400 and 1100 metres in altitude, in contrast to the southern part of the park, which reaches up over 1300 metres. As you’d expect this close to the volcanic plateau, the Whirinaki basin had fiery origins, and in the Taupo eruption about 1800 years ago was buried in a thick layer of pumice – fertile ground for bio-diversity.

“The zone is intensively managed. We take a holistic approach, managing all the eco-systems together, instead of focusing on selected species and eco-systems,” Department of Conservation Ranger Rob Rymill explained to me. You’re likely to encounter yellow crowned kakariki, and - night riding anyone? - there are a number of North Island brown kiwi. Further into the zone, Whirinaki is also home to whio (blue duck).

From the early 1900s right up until 1984, Whirinaki was actively logged – to great controversy from the late 1970s. Much of the mountain bike track is routed over the old forestry roads, though you’d never guess it. Thanks to judicious earthworks and a power of replanting, you’re mostly riding a twisting trail a metre or so wide. Bike-friendly banking and gradients keep things rolling along, numerous culverts keep water away, and there’s smooth pumice, dirt or shingle under wheel. Three decades after the Government called a halt to the milling, young trees are pushing upwards everywhere.

The track is ideal for reasonably fit bikers and families, something of a short tramp on wheels. That’s a fair call. Thanks to all the track work, you need no more than basic off-road riding skills and a reliable bike – full suspension and other whizzy bits are not required. The terrain is certainly not flat, so like walking in Whirinaki Forest Park, there’s a fair bit of good honest puff and huff. The bush is invariably gob-smacking, and with no slippery tree roots under-wheel, you can look up and revel in the Forest’s beauty.

For further recreational appeal, there are several pedal picnic tables and plenty of “short-cuts” down forestry roads to the finish of the track. You could easily tackle a 4km loop, or a 10km loop, before biting off the whole ride. The shorter options take in some of the best scenery and riding. The 10-kilometre loop, for example, takes you over a giant fallen kahikatea which has had the top levelled to form a half-metre wide, 20-metre long bridge. Biking skills a bit rusty? Relax, there’s an easy alternative.

I am a firm believer that a good mountain bike trail need not have ferocious drop-offs or gnarly goat tracks to be challenging and fun. You just need to go faster (or slower, depending on your abilities). The new Whirinaki track’s continual up-and-down means skilled riders can easily get that speed and have a fun time over the continual twisting and turning (for safety, there’s a recommended direction for all riders). I even re-rode some bits just to re-live the buzz.

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Created: 19 July 2018

Last updated: 19 July 2018