If you’re into adventures, it’s time to start hunting out gorgeous backcountry and tiny communities, which are, more often than not, tucked away in the nooks and crannies of our stunning country. Trust me, the map research is worth it. You stumble across places like Motu, which is a tiny dot on the map between Gisborne and Opotiki. It’s now home of just a few house-holds, but in in its heyday (early 1900s), it had a population of 2,500, 60 pupils at the school, 13 sawmills, and the town could field four rugby teams. We ventured into this remote part of Aotearoa for a three-day bikepacking excursion.
We set up camp at Ohope Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park. The next day we brewed coffee, watched the sun rising from the eastern corner of the bay, and ate some muesli. This park sits right on the beach, so we heard the sea lapping against the sand as we ate breakfast. The east coast of New Zealand is the first to see the sun in the whole wide world, so it felt right to be starting our adventure from its gateway. Strapping on our bikepacking bags, we headed for Whakatane. There’s a great detour route that cuts out the main road: Burma Road is a remote track (closed to traffic), and was the tasting platter for our trip, with lush native bush, broken gravel and views into dense bush gullies. To say I was excited about the three days ahead would be an understatement, especially after chatting with Neil Hutton, a bloke who was dead set on kiwis—he volunteers for Whakatane Kiwi Trust, helping restore the local kiwi colony.
In order to respect the land we’d be traveling across, we headed to Mataatua Marae, home to one of NZ’s most travelled wharenui. This marae has a strong presence, standing high and looking out towards the sea. However, it hasn’t always been in this stunning spot in Whakatane. Back in 1879, the wharenui was deconstructed and put into a boat three times smaller than it and sent on a voyage around the world. Ngāti Awa had asked for the return of the house after it didn’t return home after Sydney and Melbourne, and successive generations of Ngati Awa leadership petitioned the Government to return the house. Those collective calls were acknowledged in 1996 when the badly damaged house was returned as partial settlement of Ngāti Awa Treaty of Waitangi claims.
Our small group was welcomed onto the marae with a powhiri, including a challenge/wero. We walked slowly onto the grounds and then had an amazing cultural experience. Mataatua Wharenui has embraced its strong stance in Whakatane as a visitor attraction, but it’s still an operational marae. Inside the wharenui, the waiata was performed beneath carvings of the ancestors of Ngati Awa. The tukutuku panels were an impressive display of time well spent weaving. We then experienced a light show, using the carvings and inside of the wharenui as the backdrop. This whole experience blew us away and it’s a place that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the region. At the end, we were treated to a kai of Maori bread and kumara cake, He reka te kai! Feeling a new-found respect for the land, the people and the places we’d travel by bike, we rode off into the hills.
Back on our laden rigs, we crossed tarmac and gravel roads that connected Whakatane and Opotiki. The gravel roads swept in and out of streams, bush and forestry and were mostly hard pack. The coast line was never far, and the island of Moutohora (Whale Island) always stood proud. We headed for Opotiki’s Hukutaia Domain, a local tree treasure, learning about tree conservation and the hardworking people behind it. Before heading into The Royal Opotiki Hotel, for a few ales, chats and feast with the real people trying to revitalize the town. These people always inspire me with their hard yakka stories, like part-owner Leon, who had taken on an old hotel and was trying to make something of it in Opotiki. The town has seen harder times of late, but it is on the rebound, thanks in no small part to huge growth in kiwifruit and the Motu Trails. When we finally hit the hay, I dived under the covers tired but excited for the adventures ahead.
Jim Robinson’s Local Tip
Gluing together backroads isn’t the fastest way to travel Ohope to Opotiki, but you get to see more of the area’s heart. Maraetotara and Burma were the original roads between Ohope and Whakatane, built in the 1870s, that twist through what’s now wild kiwi country. They’re popular with local riders and runners, creating an achievable circuit from/to Ohope (which has just been named New Zealand’s favourite beach). By heading south to Taneatua on SH2, we were able to hook onto the gravel of Stanley Road, passing through forestry and farmland hills back to the south-eastern side of Ohiwa Harbour (which you pretty well miss taking the main road). Seven kilometres south of Opotiki, Hukutaia Domain is a treasure, a pocket of original forest that provides a glimpse back to what the area once must have looked like. The domain is for walking only, but you can park your bike and wander 200 metres to Taketakerau, a massive puriri that’s estimated to be 2,000 years old and was once a burial tree for Te Upokorehe hapu. This special place has nothing to do with cycling, but giving a touch to the land makes your cycling richer.
Words: Liam Friary, Philippa Friary and Jim Robinson
Images: Cameron Mackenzie
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