I woke to the sound of raindrops on the old tin roof of the hotel, and when I glanced out the window, it was grim. Black clouds surrounded the old Steinlager sign outside the window. Walking down the creaking wooden stairs, I sensed the characters of years gone by, who would have sipped a few jugs and told some yarns inside this old hotel.
Continental breakfast was served as the rain continued to pour. Sipping another strong coffee, I pondered the day ahead. We needed to traverse some tough backcountry, over numerous saddles, at almost 800 metres elevation: with the inclement weather it was going to be epic, but hard. This remote part of the east coast is not to be understated. If you’re entering, be aware you don’t have any cell reception or services along the way, so a personal locator beacon (PLB) and being self-sufficient is highly advised. This gives you a snapshot of the country we’d be riding through. This is the Motu Road, frankly more of a dirt track than a road.
Heading out of Opotiki, we rode for the Pakowhai ki Otutaopuku Bridge and the Dunes Trail, part of the Motu Trails. This section is super fun, with the track meandering along the coast. The views up to the east cape are stunning, but hills loomed on the right. We were enchanted by the clouds hugging the rugged terrain. After the Dunes Trail, we peeled off to the right and rode into the hills. The Motu Road starts off like any other piece of tarmac around NZ, but quickly becomes narrow and twisty until you get onto the gravel. Perfect, that was what we were here for! We would stay on gravel until we reached Motu, our spot for tukka’ and a sleep. The track followed the native bush in, out and around the Waiaua River as it wound us up to the top of the first saddle. I was feeling the pinch from the previous day’s efforts, and probably one too many pints from the previous night. Once we reached the top, the views opened up to a vast open space that felt as remote as one could get. This is the Toatoa Valley.
The track took us through the tiny settlement of Toatoa, which was once a key rest stop for people travelling by train and service car between Gisborne and Opotiki. Old wool sheds, a settler’s hall, an abandoned schoolhouse, one farmstay, and a few broken-down rusted-out trucks are all that remains. What once could have been? We bombed down the lanes, staying on the tyre track and dancing in and out of the loose gravel. I think we hadn’t seen a car for around three hours. Up the next climb we did see a car—well it was a ute, with a cage on the back, pig dogs hanging out the back and three staunch-looking guys dressed in Swannies and camo caps. After exchanging customary pleasantries for the area (eye brow lift, followed by “hey bro” and the response “all good”), we went our way and they went theirs. It was several hours before we saw another vehicle.
As we got further towards Motu, the track become more and more stunning and the views didn’t stop. Whether looking left, right or straight, you cannot help but be blown away by this fine bit of backcountry. The track zigzags its way in and out of the hills and stays high on amazing plateaus, which gives a chance for the legs to spin out before the next ascent. The sun was getting lower and the body starting to fatigue, when the small village of Motu emerged below us. We screamed down the switchback descent into Motu, bowled into Motu Community House, and then Philippa went to play with Boris, the local Russian Boar.
Motu is a small area with a thriving community, and the Community House is a vision of Paul Cornwall, the local headmaster of the six-pupil school. It was going to be sold to someone outside the community, but he called the locals asking for their support and money; now they all have a share in the House. This sums up the spirit of the area. That night Shelley Cornwall (Paul’s wife) cooked us a venison stroganoff while Paul, not shy of a word, told us some tales. This place is a sanctuary for riders, and if you’re bikepacking in the region it shouldn’t be missed. The local hospitality is second to none.
Jim Robinson’s Local Tip
The Motu Road frankly deserves a book. It was part of the first road link between Gisborne and Opotiki, cut through by 60 men, 15 years before the present-day highway down the Waioeka Gorge. In the 1920s, the road was part of the journey between Gisborne and Auckland; in the 1930s it had sheep musters totalling up to 35,000 sheep per year; in the 1950s it provided access to hydroelectric explorations on the Motu River (via Otipi road); and in the 1980s and ‘90s it was part of the Rally of New Zealand, therefore part of the world series and acclaimed as one of the greatest rally stages of them all. From the late 1980s, the Motu Road began to be used by mountain bikers. In 1994 it was included in the Motu Challenge multisport event, which just celebrated its 25th edition. And in 2012, the road was officially made part of the Motu Trails, one of 22 Great Rides on Nga Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail.
Toatoa Farmstay and Motu Community House are the two key accommodation providers on the road. Both assure a warm country welcome—but no mobile phone coverage. At Motu, if you have any zip in your legs, explore the Motu Falls Road, which takes you to Motu Falls. When you’re riding the Motu Road, always remember, it is a road. There is traffic. A counter in 2018, at one of the busier points, echoed a count from several years ago: an average of about 18 vehicles per day.
Words: Liam Friary and Jim Robinson
Images: Cameron Mackenzie
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