I admit it – I’m a terrible mountain biker. The second I get off blacktop and onto dirt I find verticality almost impossible to maintain. The last time I straddled a mountain bike, for example, I overcooked a downhill turn, grabbed a fistful of front brake, vaulted neatly over the handlebars and popped my left shoulder. That was five years ago and I haven’t set bum on a mountain bike since. So it is with considerable trepidation that I pedal into the brooding shadows of Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest.
For the uninitiated, The Redwoods, as this forest is more commonly known, is one of the finest MTB parks on the planet. The area’s volcanic geology has gifted the park with both a vertiginous topography, and a mouldable pumice and clay soil. Translation: trail builders can follow the rugged contours of the mountains, sculpting berms and rollers that set like stone and don’t wash away in the rain. The result is a vast web of premium single trail, graded from 1 (beginner) right through to 6 (maniacal), which cuts through the old logging forests of sequoia, pine, spruce and larch.
According to my guide, Karl Young, a silver-haired veteran of Rotorua’s MTB scene, the mammoth task of scratching these trails out of the forest began 30-odd years ago, with keen locals doing most of the dirtwork themselves. But since the 2006 MTB World Championships, which took place in Rotorua, the scene has exploded with the government calling in inmates from local prisons to cut more and more trails. Now there’s 180-odd kilometres of trail in the forest, with a colourful array of names that range from the ominous (Frontal Lobotomy) to the downright bizarre (Kung Fu Walrus).
All of which sounds great on paper, but I’m slightly less enthused after a gruelling 20-minute climb has us sitting at the peak of a mountain, Lake Rotorua sparkling below us, with trails that look more like waterslide chutes dropping into the undergrowth.
I ask Karl if there are any trails in the forest he wouldn’t dare set tyre on. He considers for a moment: “Nah, people hurt themselves on all kinds of trails in here…” And with that he nudges his wheel over the lip of a Grade 3 run called Challenge and disappears.
Now, I wouldn’t exactly say I followed with relish. Nor would I say I handled my bike with panache. But I did get to the bottom without eating dirt – a minor miracle I attribute entirely to the quality of the trails. Smooth and flowy, these things are more like rails than tracks. My bike simply does its thing as the banks and berms direct it down, down, down.
By the time I roll back into the carpark, I’m wearing a shit-eating grin and begging Karl to take me back into the forest.
If the trails of the Redwoods are all about white-knuckle thrills, then the Timber Trail, a 90-minute drive south of Rotorua, provides a muddier and more wearing challenge. This 85km trail, opened in March 2013, has been billed as the North Island’s answer to the wildly popular Otago Rail Trail down south. But while the Rail Trail is a straightforward pedal along hard-packed gravel, the Timber Trail cuts a more feral path through the ancient volcanic peaks of the mighty Hauhungaroa Range.
A signpost at the Pureora trailhead grades the track as easy-intermediate, but don’t be fooled – this beast is a worthy opponent. The opening 8km climb up the flanks of Mount Pureora is a wicked heart-starter, while the twisty descent down into the gorges around Piropiro demands stiff concentration. It’s an up-and-down grind that chews up unsuspecting quads, with the suspension bridges that dot the middle kilometres of the trail providing the only flat-land relief. My tip: don’t expect to snap out the entire 85km stretch in a single day. Carry a tent and camp at the Piropiro flats or take the 7km detour and stay at the fantastically rustic Black Fern Lodge.
Besides, why would you want to rush? The dark primeval forests on Mount Pureora are the stuff of fairytales, with the towering Rimu trees and Punga ferns furred with moss and ringing with the calls of Kaka parrots. This is the ancient Podocarp forest that once blanketed New Zealand before farmers and loggers had their way. To wend through it on the saddle of a mountain bike is a truly magical experience.
Travelling to New Zealand’s North Island in autumn? Don’t miss these high-octane events
This competition takes eight of the world’s finest open-water athletes and runs them through eight distinct disciplines, from big-wave surfing to stand-up paddling. The event is a moveable feast, with the athletes travelling from the sparkling bays of the north to the arctic fjords of the south in search of favourable swells. The first day’s competition, however, is an outrigger canoe race that starts and finishes on Auckland’s Tekapuna Beach. Surf ski and stand-up paddleboard races are open to the public. Theultimatewaterman.com
The third iteration in the Crankworx series – after Whistler, Canada, and Les Gets, France – this thumping mountain-bike festival plays out on the slopes of the Skyline Gravity Park, with the world’s best enduro, slopestyle and downhill riders doing unspeakably dangerous things on two wheels. Don’t miss the blue-riband slopestyle event, where the riders cruise down a downhill course, pulling jaw-dropping moves off perilously high jumps. It runs from March 25 to April 2. Crankworx.com