I might have been over-cautious, but two survival blankets and an excessive quota of muesli bars got stuffed into the camelbak for this mountain-biking adventure. Scott and I were heading into sub-alpine territory in the middle of winter, so I thought it best to be prepared for all contingencies. All the same, Scott thought me a little fanatical.
I knew there was cycle access on Tree Trunk Gorge track in the Kaimanawas, but I could only find limited (and somewhat conflicting) information on the tracks via the Internet – a good enough reason as any to get out there and do some exploring.
We headed for Urchin Camp, which is smack in the middle of the two tracks I wanted to explore. Fifteen kilometres south of Turangi you turn left onto Kaimanawa Road and a few kilometres in there is good sign posting to all points of note, and we quickly found ourselves in the clearing that is Urchins Campsite.
First we headed for Tree Trunk Gorge track, which begins at the camp. I was expecting quite an easy ride as I know at least one mountain biking tour company takes tourists for rides on the track. How wrong could I be – lets just say if I was a mere moderately fit tourist with limited experience on a mountain bike, I would seriously be questioning my decision to pay good money for this cardiac and pulmonary slog. The track was litter strewn, wide and soft, and not particularly technical through some lovely stands of Beech forest, but there just seemed to be an over-abundance of heart breaking up-hills for a tourist ride, as well as one particularly narrow, steep and rocky downhill. Nevertheless the ride was fun, and try as I might I never managed to successfully clear any of the small river crossings without getting at least one foot wet.
The track is good for about half an hour then comes out on Tree Trunk Gorge Road were a right turn would take you back to SH1 some 23km south of Turangi. We didn’t traverse the road, instead after a brief stop and muesli bar we did a u-turn and turned those lung burning up-hills into some fast and easy down-hills.
Back at Urchin Camp and another bite to eat we took the northerly route from the camp on a short track to the Pillars of Hercules. This is only 15 minutes of meandering single track, but as far as flora goes, this is my favourite part of the track with stunningly mottled Sherwood green clumps of moss, lichen and fern speckled native bush, accompanied with sneaking views of a snow topped Mt Ngaruhoe.
All too soon we popped out onto a road-end car park facing the suspension bridge that crosses over the top of the Pillars. At this point we were rewarded with a spectacular view down into the bubbling rapids that have cut the narrow and deep gorge though the rock face.
On the opposite side of the bridge the track continues and quickly turns into a gentle uphill on a four-wheel-drive track that scratches its way through a haloed tunnel of sub-alpine Manuka. The uphill is a pleasant gradient and before long we found ourselves in a steady rhythm, which was perfect to keep us warm despite the dropping temperature as the distinctive alpine smell advanced. The Manuka seemed to shrink in stature as the altitude rose and after a few kilometres of climbing we emerged on SH1 at a little lay-by on the curvy 35km bit at the beginning of the Desert Road.
Theoretically you can turn the whole ride into a loop by following SH1 south to meet back up with Tree Trunk Gorge Road. However, Scotty and I will leave State Highway cycling to others in favour of returning the way we came.
The downhill back along the four-wheel-drive track was appallingly enjoyable. I slipped my bike into its biggest gear and pushed as hard as I could. I whipped through the Manuka, as branches exfoliating my face and legs as I flew by. This would be a fairly tame downhill for the experienced, but as I met the occasional rocky or rutted patch I was toeing over my line of personal skills and experience and loving every second of it. A whoop of exhilaration and it was all over too quickly. Poor Scotty on his rigid frame was not having quite as much fun as me unfortunately.
Overall, we were out in the elements for almost four hours; we were wet, soggy and cold. I had burgeoning blisters on my hands and Scotty had frost-nipped toes, but we were both ruddy faced and happy. What fun!