I woke in a warm tent to the strong stench of sausage breath mixed with the smell of two unwashed men. Oh, the joys of bikepacking and sleeping in a tent! The rain was still somewhat drizzling?! In this area - from what I’d heard from the locals - it rains often and is quite hard to predict. Our new plan was to tackle Otipi Road first thing – well, after a brew and some porridge. As we would be riding out and back, and would come through the camp again, we’d leave our luggage behind in order to ride a little lighter.
In order to start Otipi Road we needed to get across a river - which luckily wasn’t too high - so we took our shoes off and got our feet wet. On the other side we looked for a 4WD track and found it overgrown, basically climbing straight out from the riverbanks. Once in our lowest gear, grinding away, we were surrounded by amazing backcountry. It was a real jungle; dense bush, wildlife and the native ferns, echoed with birdsong. The forests include a wide range of podocarp: broad leafed species like rimu, rata, tawa, hinau, rewarewa, kamahi, kahikatea, miro, beech and totara. You’ll also find native wildlife in the area; bush birds like fantails and tui, and more rare species such as blue duck/whio, kaka, falcons and kereru are also found.
Although the New Zealand Forest Service established the extensive (115,044ha) Raukumara Forest Park in 1979, this level of protective status was not enough to stem government plans for hydroelectricity. Threats of dam building in some of the most spectacular of the Motu’s gorges, spurred a campaign by rafters and canoeists to protect the river, and also prompted a call from FMC for the surrounding land to become a wilderness area. In 1984, the Motu became the country’s first ‘wild and scenic river’, and wilderness status came in 1988.
As we climbed higher, the clouds started to roll in - the mist was eerie and made the ascent epic. We rode for more than an hour up steep, sketchy slopes that were unrelenting. We reached the summit at over 900m and looked out, it was filled with mist and layers, mountain range after mountain range. It was evident we were now deep in the Raukumara Ranges. It’s clear to see that there’s not been much through here, after all it’s one of the most un-trafficked forests in the North Island. After the summit, we decided not to go on to the end of the road but instead drop back down into the valley. This means the end of Otipi Road, which is the Motu river, a mystery - well, to me anyway. It also means I’ll have to go back at some point and complete the road. On this occasion, we simply didn’t have enough time, which more often than not seems to be the case when doing these adventure trips. You set out with the best intentions to tackle everything, but once you get in the environment you soon learn you can’t do it all. But that’s what I mean when I keep harping on about the initial plan always changing.
We descended the sketchy and unmaintained road, crossed the river, pulled up at camp, had our second coffee then packed up. The next mission was to head out, get back onto Motu, then tackle Pakihi Track and eventually end up back in Opotiki. This was still a bloody big mission but what you’ve probably come to realise, if you’ve been reading the journal for a while, is that we like a challenge.
We rode the valley back to Toatoa and stopped in at the Toatoa Farmstay, where a coffee and biscuit was served up by Bob. He yarned to us about the area and the demise of the people living out these ways, and told us that when land (old farms) were up for sale it had to be chopped up into lifestyle blocks so that the ‘city folk’ could buy it. I sipped on my cuppa and looked around his 70s abode. I told Bob what we were up to and showed him our maps – and he told us to get a move on as we still had a fair bit ahead of us. So we listened to him and patted his dogs before we rolled out.
The next section featured some great riding with mixed terrain and a climb, before we entered Pakihi Track. The Pakihi Track was first formed around 1905; early settlers hoped it would become the first road to connect Motu and Opotiki, but this never happened. Within the first few switchbacks, I lost Marcus and he was hollering and hooting his way down the track. It should be noted that, depending on skill level and bike choice, most of the track should be rode with caution. It is well formed but, in places, it’s narrow with steep drop-offs to the side. Often, there are small rock falls and debris – this is a backcountry track in challenging terrain and the track is very prone to slips and washouts. Yep, we had to scramble over and under a few trees on our way down. It’s a little rowdy on drop bar gravel bikes, but super fun! We reached the midway hut and were buckled, I think we only said a word or two to one another. That’s a good sign that fatigue has set in – when there’s not enough energy to even speak?! After some snacks, we recovered slightly then ventured off again. The bottom part of the trail opens up to the Pakihi steam below; flattening out and hugging the riverbanks. This is a stunning section; we’d probably have enjoyed it better if we weren’t so fatigued. Marcus then got a flat - his body was already flat but this time it was his tyres - and as is the case with most punctures, it always happens at the worst time, doesn’t it? We fixed it up - it was a tubeless tyre so it was messy - jammed a tube inside and set off.
Time was getting on, it was around half six at this stage, so we pedalled into the evening light and as the trail finished, we popped out onto the Pakihi Valley Road. At last we could finally up the ante and tick off a few kms before time seriously got away on us! We drove our tired bodies to near exhaustion as we navigated our way through the valley and onto the straights, back into Opotiki - or ‘O’ as the locals call it. I looked over at Marcus as the sun was setting in the hills behind him – his somewhat tired face plastered with a happy smirk summed it all up. We pulled back into the Motu Trails yard, where the local crew of riders were having beer and burgers. I asked for a beer and was handed one with a burger - the crew wanted to yarn about the trip but I barely had the energy. As for Marcus, he went and had a little time out to gather himself. It’s often weird coming back into reality when you’ve been riding in the backcountry, especially when you’ve gone deep. It’s your own little world until you meet someone else - often they’re none the wiser to what you’ve been doing and what you’ve just put your body and mind through - they just natter away while your head tries to process and comprehend everything that’s happening. I like the elation and sense of satisfaction when setting out with a task, and ending it with an epic journey. Yes, it may be your own little world – ‘coz only you know the highs and lows the journey has taken you on, but as time passes, the pain disappears and the tales grow taller and louder.
Trail: Motu Trails
Ride Time: 5:30
Ride Length: 75km
Start/Finish Location: Whitikau Fork Campsite – Opotiki
Words: Liam Friary
Images: Marcus Enno