CORNER AFTER CORNER. Rise and fall, rise again. Rushing, rustling green. Silence broken by the deep rumble of rubber on dirt. Eyes wide and forward. Concentrating, laughing at the same time. Breathe on the brakes, jam on the pedals, almost ready for whatever nature’s rollercoaster deigns to throw up next. This is pure exhilaration… mountain biking nirvana.
Imagine, if you could for a second, a federally funded mountain bike trail network that aims to link as much of Australia as possible. Imagine people being paid to sculpt, fix and improve those tracks, to build bridges and switchbacks and infrastructure along its length. Not in this lifetime or the next, right?
Well, New Zealand is already there. Known as the National Cycle Trail, it currently comprises 2500km of trails across NZ’s two islands. It’s fully funded at a federal government level, including maintenance. It provides a livelihood for a number of tour operators, shuttle drivers and accommodation centres, vital to NZ’s multi-million-dollar tourism industry.
This is a network that’s expressly designed not just for the stereotypical thrill junkie one might (sometimes rightly!) associate with one of the most action sport-centric countries on the planet. Of course, if you want to terrify yourself into an early grave via two wheels, NZ can certainly cater to your bone-risking request. Trail centres like Skyline Rotorua – home to the world-renowned aerial freak fest that is Crankworx for the next three years – feature trails that range from the benign to the ridiculous, and there are plenty of trails out in the wild that will test your mettle.
The National Cycle Trail, however, is different. As a rule of thumb, New Zealand’s trails are graded nationally on a scale between one (think dead-flat graded gravel path) and six (parachute optional).
One of the jewels in the crown of the network are the trails in and around Taupo, one hour’s drive south from Rotorua on the North Island. Wending its way up, over and around the bluffs and outcrops that surround the 660 square kilometres of Lake Taupo – the highest and biggest freshwater lake in the world – The Great Lake Trail network encompasses 71km of grade-three tracks that, on a topo map at least, promise much.
“These trails are designed with the average mountain biker in mind,” says Peter Hart, owner of Great Lake Shuttles and a member of Bike Taupo, a non-profit bike advocacy group who creates maps and petitions the NZ government for funds to employ trail maintenance staff to look after the 220km-plus network around Taupo. “Aussies love coming over because it’s easy to get to, yet the trails are so different.” In fact, Peter says there are more than 400km of trails within two hours of the township.
The plan is to sample two sections of the Great Lakes network over two consecutive days, guided by Ted Webb from Tread Routes. An ex-pat Canadian who chased his ladylove to the land of the long white cloud a few years ago, Ted and his now-wife Erin Lempriere run their guiding business in and around the Taupo area and beyond. I meet the perpetually smiling Ted just out of town, and we shuttle to the start of our first day’s ride, from Whangamata Road to Whakaipo Bay.
I honestly have little idea of what to expect. In less than 500m I have my answer; sheer, unadulterated mountain bike paradise. The track is about a metre wide in most places, with a volcanic pumice surface that drains water like a colander. It rises and falls like a heart trace, and every corner is perfectly constructed to suck you in and spit you out, ready for the next set of rollers.
Rocks and roots are few, but the trail surface is punctuated every few metres by a slight bump or bigger jump, all with a mellow landing lip on the back side. It’s tailor-made to build speed; after a couple of kilometres to play myself in, I let loose and allow gravity the upper hand.
The scenery, too, is nothing short of… awe-inspiring, spectacular, breathtaking… take your pick of an inadequate descriptor. Deep in the rainforests, 10m-high ponga ferns enclose the trail in a dreamily soft green canopy, while the earth changes shade from a deep chocolate hue to a pale while pumice every few kilometres.
The first section of the Orakau trail gradually leads us up across a range overlooking Kawakawa Bay. There is some steady grinder climbs, but it’s not nose-on-handlebar stuff; instead, the trail rewards your efforts with gentle downward pitches that allow you to pile as much speed as you’re comfortable holding, before asking for a little more elevation gain.
Making our way across the point and down the K2K track, we’re pitched into a last section of downhill that is honestly like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Imagine an ice luge run inscribed into tacky dirt, sequences of left/right corners linking seamlessly into each other, hurling you through a twisting tunnel of ancient greenery at speeds your mind can scarcely compute.
But there’s so much grip, such perfect camber to each corner and such flow to the trail that you cannot go wrong. And so it goes. And goes. And goes. It seems as if it is never, ever going to stop. Mountain biking simply gets no better. I cannot stop grinning.
Our lunch stop is at the small holiday town of Kinloch, where fresh toasted sandwiches and coffee have never tasted so good. The lakeside beach is wide, the water is an impossible shade of blue under a lightly clouded sky. It’s a hell of a day to be on a bike.
With 20km down, we push on – or, rather, up – the W2W to Whangamatta Bluffs. The climbs here are sharper and longer – but a semi-regular biker will have no drama tackling them. Besides, the rewards are eminently worth it. Our last charge down to Whakaipo Bay is a bit more technical, but no less grin-inducing.
That night, we catch up with Evan Freshwater, who is the manager for NZ Cycle Trail, and he outlines the idea behind the network.
“The project was created by the New Zealand government out of a job summit. An idea that started as a single ride very quickly turned into ‘let’s make the most of what’s available’,” he tells us over coffee. “We had a number of trails that were ready to hit the ground running.
“That has then progressed into 23 what we call ‘Great Rides’, which [are] our premium product. They range in grade from your Grade 1-2 the Otago Central Rail trail, up to the Grade 5 Old Ghost Road. The offer for cyclists is for everybody.”
Evan explains that the network isn’t just for fat-tyre flyers, either.
“We also have a network of what we call Heartland Rides, which at the moment is standing at 2500km of safe, low-traffic volume roads, with certain criteria met to assure cyclists they’re on the safest routes around the country.”
The Heartland Rides also connect the Great rides and what Evan calls the City Rides, which gives cyclists – both locals and tourists – a safe haven to explore this beautiful little country.
“It’s a real package of, hopefully, encouraging people to cycle in safe, controlled environments,” he says.
Day two, the Turner is back in the car early, and there are a couple of coffees for Ted and I in the centre console. The ol’ legs are definitely feeling it this morning, but after yesterday’s bliss-fest, I reckon I can take a bit more. We’re heading for Waihaha, with a 31km trip up, down and around Te Poroporo Point before dropping down for a ride out with a difference at Waihora Bay.
Today is a little overcast, but it’s still mild for early autumn. “These trails can handle an amazing amount of water,” Ted tells me. “The volcanic soil just drains the water away.” The trail starts out in the open, and crosses bridges built specifically for the trails. The trail itself, Ted tells me, is wide enough to get a quad bike through in order to maintain them – and it’s clear that the guys and girls get through pretty regularly. These are some of the most amazing trails I have ever seen, let alone ridden.
What’s even more amazing is how flexible this set of trails really is. Sure, if you’ve got a few miles in your legs, you’ll be able to really reach into its deep reserves and get a heck of a lot out of even your first run over the network. If you’re relatively new to mountain biking, though, these trails are the ones that will suck you deeper into the sport, such is their ability to flatter and reward whatever level of riding skill you have.
The grey skies finally give way to a little bit of rain as we wiggle our way around the headland to the final descent down to Kotukutuku Stream. True to Ted’s words, the trail hardly changes at all, while the thick canopy of ferns shields us from the worst of the weather. It’s here, whipping through the ponga forest, charging down tight switchbacks and rolling trails etched into the side of sheer cliffs, that I’ll take myself back to every time I have a bad day. It’s the stuff of mountain biker’s dreams.
Our final descent pops us out onto a deserted beach on the shores of Lake Taupo, where a water taxi is awaiting our arrival. Even though we’ve been out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, Ted has been staying in touch with our transport via mobile phone; there’s plenty of reception available, and loads of opportunities for awesome selfies… having a guide over these last couple of days has really added to the experience, in fact. While all the trails are very well marked, and there is loads of literature available in both digital and print form to set you up, the shuttle service to the start of the rides, along with the local insight from Ted, has made this Great Lake Trail adventure something that I’m already planning to repeat next year. And the year after that, I suspect…
Taupo’s Great Lake Trail is just the tip of New Zealand’s mountain bike trail iceberg, and the bustling town is as good a place as any to dip your tyre in the dirt for the first time. A warning; once you’ve done it once, you’ll be going back again.
Bike: Your choice is wide open. A dual-suspension rig is a comfy safe choice, but a 29-inch hardtail will easily cope. You won’t need knee or elbow padding, though if the weather is colder, lightweight pads like G-Form’s Pro-X offer both insurance and warmth.
Supplies: Take three litres of water and a bottle of carbohydrate drink, especially in the warmer months, along with more food than you think you’ll need. There’s a lunch stop at Kinloch if you’re doing the run from Whangamata Road to Kawakawa Bay, but there’s nothing at all until you hit the harbour on the Waihora Bay trail. There are long-drop toilets along both trails. And make sure you’ve got spares and tools with you – and that you know how to use them!