We woke early and had planned on leaving early. But setting up always takes a little longer than you think. And, to be honest, it was nice to take our time with breakfast. The kitchen was kitschy, with mismatched tablecloths, chairs and odd bits here and there, which was aptly fitting for the motel’s character. As bike wheels rolled out of the campsite, there were a few hoots, mainly from me. I love the sense of excitement when you start: you don’t know what will come but that when you return, you’ll be different. Up the road a few kilometres a bus tooted at us as the driver gave us a big wave. Turns out Helen, from Murupara Motor Camp, also drives the local school bus—talk about multi-talented.
The road started to weave as we entered Te Urewera. Wow, this is steep and severe countryside. If you do some research on Wikipedia, you’ll find that Te Urewera is a protected area and former national park. It was established as a national park in 1954 and disestablished in 2014. It covers an area of approximately 2,127 square kilometres and SH38 is the only road that leads through it, mainly all unsealed. Te Urewera is the traditional home of the Tūhoe people. Due to its geographical isolation, it was one of the last regions to be claimed by the British during colonisation in the 19th century. In March 2013, the Tūhoe signed a deed of settlement, settling the tribe's claims at the Waitangi Tribunal. Under the deal, the Tūhoe got $170 million and more control over Te Urewera. The area is now administered by the Te Urewera Board which comprises joint Tūhoe and Crown membership.
We go up and over a few climbs as we get further into the dense clad bush. Lush ferns hang over us on the right and a stream flows on the left. We get to a small settlement and pull up outside the Waikotikoti Marae. The grounds of the marae had me in awe. There was also a little construction, so I pulled up to the other gate and asked about what was happening. A guy greeted me, turns out he was the local kaumātua (elder) Kohiti, who told me about his ancestors and the history of the area. When he asked where we were heading and I replied Moerangi, he didn’t understand me at first, so I repeated it. He then taught me a lesson on the proper pronunciation. “Moe” means dream and “rangi” means sky, so sleeping in the heavens. He then joked about sleeping with my wāhine (women) up there, but whilst he joked he had a strong expression that demanded respect. We continued to kōrerorero (talk) about his building project, and I asked about the small house on the grounds, which looked colonial. He told me that was the court where a lot of his ancestors’ land was seized. After he taught us more about the area, the local people and the strong history, he then blessed our ride. By the way, they are building another whare that will house over 200 guests: if you’re passing through on a bikepacking trip, this stop would be well worthwhile.
We head towards Minginui, a village of a mere 150 residents, to whom, unfortunately, the 1980s economic reforms have been unkind. For 30 years this small town has struggled without the forestry jobs that used to bring in the money. But there’s a new beginning here, with a investment into a native plant nursery that is a joint venture between Scion and Te Runanga o Ngati Whare. Employing local people will go some ways toward rebuilding this small town. Minginui is also where the road turns to gravel and where the trail for the Moerangi begins. The small roads led us deeper and deeper into the bush, where it started to feel like real backcountry. When we hear a helicopter flying overhead, we are intrigued—is it farmers, hunters or DOC workers? After another few kilometres we hear the heli start up and all of a sudden it flies over us. Talk about an epic experience; this is why you venture into the back of beyond. Turns out the heli was for the DOC workers and was dropping off building supplies for the huts. We pull up and yarn with the DOC workers beside the helipad. They were local guys working on the huts in and around the Moerangi trail. They talked about recently clearing the trail, which is subject to damage from windfall and severe storms. When I observed that it isn’t a bad place to work, one bloke stood staunch with his arms folded and replied, “Nah, its pretty good aye—I normally hate Mondays, but when I’m out here it’s all good.”
We enter the Moerangi Track and all of a sudden we’re surrounded by trees and can barely see under the dark overhanging native ferns. The trail is lined with thick trees, such as tōtara, rimu, miro, matai and kahikatea, they truly have you awe. The trail meanders in and out and around small streams and the chorus of the birdsong along with the creak of branches is the only thing you can hear. We are now deep inside the forest of Whirinaki, Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park. In order to get to our hut for the evening we need to pass over Moerangi saddle which reaches over 950 metres above sea level. It should be noted it’s easier to ride the track starting at the Okahu Valley Rd entry. Yes, there would be some hard yakka’ ahead of us. As the track tilted up, we searched for the lowest gears on our laden Surly rigs. For what it’s worth, we’d have a bigger range of gearing next time, such as a wide-range cassette. This makes climbing with weight, like bikepacking bags, much easier. As we got higher up the track it started to get rutted from the rainstorms and some of it wasn’t rideable. The steepness of the terrain and deep gullies made for quite a few sections of hike-a-bike, which is basically walking with your bike. The morale was still high, and a few jokes were had—again I go back to the point of taking the right crew into the bush.
We finally reached the top of the saddle, and the lunch stop we had been craving for the past few hours. Although it was well past lunch (now around 2.30), no one really cared. On top of the Moerangi saddle is a special place; there’s not much vista as the bush is super dense, but you can feel the wairua (spirit) of the forest. Bob served up some superb cheese slices with salami sandwiches, I brewed a cuppa with the gas stove and kettle, and we had some great yarns. Well, that was after we ate; everyone was pretty silent during the meal, a sign of either good food or tired bodies.
Singletrack and a long descent followed, featuring pockets of switchbacks, small stream crossings and cliff drop-offs. Once off the saddle the transition from podocarp to beech forest is evident. The bikepacking bags were taking a ton of abuse, along with my upper body, for this is a mountain bike track after all. My arms were the suspension on my trusty Surly Midnight Special. The capability of these bikes is super impressive. Fitted with some large volume (2.2 inch) mountain bike tyres, a steel frame and bikepacking bags, along with a pilot that’s down for an adventure, these bikes will truly go anywhere—like this route that links tarmac, gravel and track all together.
After the descent the trail flattened out, and we started to feel a little flat. Nick said, “The hut shouldn’t be too far away,” and it turns out he was right! Following endless switchbacks and turns through some of the best forest you could ever imagine, we finally pulled up at Rogers Hut, whose bright orange colour pops through the dank forest. Apparently, the DOC workers that we previously bumped into had just repainted it a few weeks back. Rogers Hut (Te Wairoa) is rich with character, originally built for deer cullers in 1952, and is one of only three remaining slab-beech huts in the Urewera Range. The location is stunning native bush with a river close by; the sheer remoteness of the area is incredible. I really like how riding—mainly bikepacking—brings you into places like this. To get into this part of the backcountry, you need to apply a ton of effort, which is the cost of entry.
Words & Images: Liam Friary & Nick Lambert
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