Mountains and Rivers of the Whanganui

Mountains and Rivers of the Whanganui

It was an early start out of Taumaranui in the morning as I had a big day ahead. Forty miles to the Blue Duck Cafe, thirty of which would be on gravel of unknown quality, then a further six miles on the Mountains to Sea route along the Kaiwhakauka track to Mosely campsite where I aimed to stay for the night. Unlike my usual routine I was on a schedule as at Mangapurua landing I had a jet boat booked down the Whanganui River to Pipiriki. As I've mentioned in previous posts I'm not a big fan of having to be places at specific times when bike touring and to add to the stress there had been a lot of chat on the Tour Aotearoa Facebook group about the Kaiwhakauka track. In the last week there had been three people airlifted from the trail after serious accidents. The trail is graded as advanced and is very exposed in that there are large drop-offs alongside the singletrack. There was a lot of hype about it and it just added to the uncertainty of the next section of riding.

It was overcast and muggy along the gravel road. I met a couple of other riders and proceeded to play leapfrog up and down the hills with them, I'd overtake them on the uphill and then with their fat tyres they'd fly past me on the downhills. It was a rather undulating morning with large vast views of cattle country. The farms and ranches out here look a lot like I would imagine the ranches in the USA look like. Most of the houses are wooden one story buildings with nice verandas, very different from the farm buildings back home in the UK. I spent a lot of the morning riding with a guy called Brett from Brisbane who was booked onto the same 1:30pm jet boat as me the following day.

Arriving at the Blue Duck Cafe at lunchtime I was really pleased to be ahead of schedule, having managed a steady ten miles per hour on the gravel road. I was happy to see that Gracie and Cassie were here whom I'd met briefly at the campsite on the Timber Trail a few days ago and so I sat and had lunch with them to catch up with their journey. Knowing that there'd be a good few of us riding the next section of trail was a comfort but we each set off at different times on our own missions. It was six miles to Moseley campsite where I planned to spend the night and as the singletrack began I could tell that it was going to be a long afternoon. The trail was pretty interesting and I could see that there was room for serious injury if you came off the bike as the vegetation hid the large drop-off.

Only ten minutes into the trail and I rode across a bridge and attempted to ride up the short, steep rocky on the other side only to get stuck halfway and feel myself falling off to the left exposed side. Luckily there was a tree in my way and it stopped me from falling any further. The only damage done was to my ego and my water hydration bladder valve which snapped clean off and proceeded to soak me whilst I lay there struggling to get free from beneath Betty. That was my warning call and after hauling us both back up onto the track I took heed. Knowing your limits is important and mine were very clear now. Realistically I was carrying a personal locator beacon like those that were activated by the previously injured riders - they have a GPS tracker and an SOS button that if you're in serious trouble you can press and the authorities are alerted to come out and rescue you. Not something I want to have to use though so for the coming miles I dismounted for anything that looked sketchy, from tight downhill turns with big exposed sides, wet rocks, muddy sections and anything steep like the one that I had come undone on. It was all about self preservation and not doing anything stupid, with quite a lot of type two fun thrown in (the type that's not fun at all at the time but thereafter starts to become fun in your mind to the point where you'd consider doing it again). There was still a surprising amount of rideable singletrack that was fun but after an hour of serious adrenaline pumping trail I was pleased to see the sign for the Mosely campsite. Finding Brett there just ahead of me was a bonus and by the look on his face and sweat on his brow he'd had just as much type two fun as me.

Worrying that the rest of the trail would be just as time consuming and difficult we both decided to continue riding another five miles up and over the Mangapurua Trig to the Johnsons Clearing campsite. I was relieved to find that the singletrack became doubletrack as the two mile climb began. It was late afternoon and the sun was hot but I really enjoyed the slow slog up the hill, passing Brett on my way as I hit my uphill rhythm. Pausing at the trig point at the top to savour the view I was pleased knowing that the next three miles were all downhill.

View from the Mangapurua trig point 

The descent began and it made my heart ache with joy at the thrilling sight before me. A nice chalk track snug against the hills, carving it's way around and down.

Trail hugging the mountainside

Stopping to adjust my front brake I heard a noise behind me and saw Brett grinning like a little boy on his descent. He whooped as he passed me and I laughed. This is our reward for the hard work of the day and these downhills bring such pure innocent glee to our weary bodies.

This is the first time I felt that I was riding what I can only describe as 'big hill country'. Miles of forest surrounded us and there was unlikely to be anyone else for many miles around us. It's an incredible feeling and yet I knew that Brett was just down the hill and was glad that I'd have some company for the evening.

The last section into the campsite was flowing, lush green singletrack and as I rolled to a stop on the grassland our excited chatter began about what we'd just ridden. Setting up our tents for the night we realised that the camp was all out of water, the tanks were dry and there was no access to the river to collect water from there. Water is the only real necessity to camp for the night so we would have to ration what little we had left to make it last until the next day. I have to say that my cold, stodgy Uncle Ben's rice dinner wasn't as good as usual but I was saving my precious water for my porridge and tea in the morning - I'm a typical Brit in that I need my brew to start the day!

We wiled the evening away talking about all sorts of biking and endurance events, I really enjoyed Brett's company and dusk was falling when we heard the unmistakable sound of bikes approaching. Gracie and Cassie had gotten to Mosely campsite and had the same idea as us to continue onto Johnson's Clearing and it was good to see that they'd made it safely. We sat chatting into the night.

Johnson's Clearing campsite

Waking earlier than usual I was ready to leave camp before 8am. With less than ten miles to ride to the end of the track at Mangapurua landing we had plenty of time to make the 1:30pm jet boat. Brett said that there was a 10am boat and we hoped that we could make that one and get a headstart on the rest of the days ride to Whanganui. It was nice now knowing that I could meander my way down to the landing and there was no rush. It wasn't long before I encountered my first narrow suspension bridge that in order to cross you have to up-end your bike and waddle behind it.

Narrow suspension bridge maneuvering

There would be another half dozen or so of these in the morning that got a little tiresome by the end but in general the track was nice. Some singletrack, some dramatic cliffside bluffs and only a few places that weren't rideable.


Then I rode across the famous Bridge to Nowhere. Completed in 1936 across the Mangapurua stream to replace the old rotting wooden swing bridge, the steel reinforced concrete bridge is an impressive sight. Taking such a long time to build however, many of the settlers that once lived here had abandoned their land by the time construction was finished due to the toll of living in such a remote place. Erosion, flooding and poor road access had made living in the area too much for all but three farmers that had settled there after the First World War.

Bridge to Nowhere

The final mile down to the landing was a mix of boardwalk and tree roots that kept the mind sharp until I reached the steps down to the Whanganui river where the jet boat would arrive. Wow - what a place!

The sun was glistening on the water and it was so peaceful. Brett was here relaxing already and we decided that even if the 10am boat didn't appear, there were certainly worse places to while away a few hours.

At 10am we waited with baited breath to see if the jet boat would appear and in the distance we heard a hum of an engine. Our ride pulled up beside the landing in style.

Our ride awaits

Bikes strapped down and life jackets donned the anticipation was high as we set off downriver to Pipiriki. As the speed kicked in we both turned to each other and laughed, this was fantastic. What a way to travel! I honestly couldn't quite believe that I was cruising down the Whanganui having spent the last two days experiencing a variety of emotions to get to this point. I felt a bit emotional and so lucky to be able to be here in this moment having such an incredible time.

All set!

After collecting a couple of other people a bit further downstream we saw another boat still on the river. Motoring over to them the jet boat driver knew them, they were locals and had a problem with their engine and needed some tools. Having given them a wrench and a nail we continued our journey downstream passing a group of people canoeing. Surprisingly on the steep hillside there were some cows grazing and the scenery was beautiful as ever.

Sadly all good things come to an end and as we docked at Pipiriki it was time to shed my river legs and get pedalling again. It was noon and the aim for the day was to ride to Whanganui, forty seven miles south at the coast and the end of the Mountains to Sea trail along the Whanganui River Road. It was a tall order but I was enticed by the promise of a bed for the night. Brett had a cabin booked that could sleep four people in a holiday park in Whanganui and he'd offered me a bed for the night instead of pitching my tent - I was sold!

The sun was hot and after a quick lunch we set off along the river road. It wasn't long before Brett stopped to sort out something on his bike and I continued to turn the cranks slowly up the hill. The road was quiet which was lovely and I took in the views along the way. Meeting a dutch couple at one lookout spot, I stopped for a chat and got them to take my photo.

Riding the Whanganui River Road

Passing many little villages along the way it was nice and peaceful. With no shops or cafes along this stretch of road I was glad that I had a second lunch to nibble on after a few hours. I stopped by a road culvert and ate my tuna wrap and decided to wait for Brett to arrive. I waited for half an hour and he still hadn't arrived and I wondered if he'd shot past me as I had wandered along the track to get a view through the little tunnel out to the other side of the culvert. Confused, I decided to continue riding as the sun was getting ever hotter and I still had a good two to three hours of riding ahead of me.

Feeling a little worse for wear, tired and hot, surely I was near the highway that would take me to Whanganui. Knowing I had to ride up Gentle Annie to the lookout before I would reach the highway, my heart sank when I saw the roadside fence way up above me in the distance. Annie didn't look so gentle from here and I really didn't feel that I could summon the energy to ride the incline. Time to pull out my secret weapon, music! I put my favourite country song playlist on my phone and cranked up the volume as the road started to rise. Music is a good way to distract your body from the pain and can be a great motivator and I was counting on it to conquer Annie. The heat was the worst problem as I spun slowly in my granny gear ever onwards and upwards. Nearing the top the last few metres were a struggle as I desperately wanted to stop and cool down. Reaching the lookout point I literally jumped off Betty, ran to the shade, took my top off and lay down to try and regulate my body temperature and stop the pounding in my head from the heat. Slowly recovering my faculties I turned to check out the view and I have to say that it was pretty darn nice. Prettier than my beetroot red face anyhoo, haha!

I felt that Annie was the last obstacle before Whanganui but in reality there was another ten miles to ride. The TA ride guidebook talked of a cafe and bar in Upokongaro a few miles away and as I rode I began to fantasise about an ice cold can of Coke there. By the afternoon I was always drinking warm water that tended to taste mostly of plastic and I was craving something cold and sweet. Sadly my fantasies were not to be realised as I reached Upokongaro and both the cafe and tavern were closed. The last miles are always a mental battle when all you want to do is stop riding and be done for the day and I battled the rest of the way into Whanganui. Stopping short of the central location where the ride ended I found a petrol station by the park and bought a mince and cheese pie and some much needed cold magical recovery chocolate milk. Finding a shaded tree to collapse under whilst I ate my pie and drank my milk, it felt so good to be out of the sun.

Recovery chocolate milk

Having no idea where Brett was but knowing it was another few miles to the holiday park I decided to wait for him alongside the river where the trail went. What I hadn't thought about was that he would detour over the bridge before he saw me in order to get to the holiday park, doh! Riding those last few miles I just kept telling myself that it was all worth it to sleep in a bed for the night.

It turned out that Brett had had a pretty tough day of it, feeling like he had nothing in his legs and struggling like me up the supposedly gentle Annie. Luckily his friends had appeared in their campervan to meet him at the top with much needed cold bevvies and that had helped him to keep going. It had been a long day but I'd made it to Whanganui and to the end of the Mountains to Sea trail feeling much richer for the experience.

Two days on the Mountains to Sea trail

Vital Statistics:

  • ‌Number of microwave postboxes: 11
  • Number of squashed possums seen (for the record they were not squashed by me): 52
  • Number of dogs I've been chased by: 3
  • Number of Kiwi's seen (the birds not the locals): 0‌‌
  • Number of sandfly bites: Too many to count :-(
  • Number of factor 50 sun lotion bottles used: 2 (1 x 50ml, 1 x 100ml)