WORDS LIZ FRENCH PHOTOS RAEWYNE CATHIE

The spring trip eventuated when Yvonne announced her Canadian friend Lorraine was coming to New Zealand and that we should take her mountain biking. The rest of our group have been long term friends through skiing, walking and cycling and a share love of active adventures.

The destination was an easy choice. We wanted to show Lorraine one of the most beautiful parts of our country and one we knew she would appreciate, being an outdoors girl herself. Accommodation was solved equally easily by membership of a ski club which owns a lodge in National Park village, perfectly situated for Ruapehu skiing and equally ideal as a mountain biking base.

Day one: Mud on the tramway

We did not arrive at National Park until early afternoon so opted for the shortest ride on day one. The Marton Sash and Door Tramway ride is a 22 km circuit in the hills behind the village. It’s not a well-known ride and not part of the National Cycle Trail but it’s a fun loop with plenty of variety. It would have been less demanding if recent downpours had not left the terrain heavy and muddy.

Once across the railway line we covered a flat stretch where damp clay felt like glue under the tyres before pushing our bikes up the only steep track to the best part where the disused tramway forms a nice riding surface bordered by regenerating native bush. The track’s unusual name explains itself on a plaque in a clearing. The tramways were created when the Marton-based joinery company had the rights to mill timber for…yes…sashes and doors, in this region.

The trail leaves the bush temporarily, follows forestry roads, and then dives back into the undergrowth before a long descent above a stream from where open roads lead into a pine plantation. It was a shady, muddy ride under the trees followed by a bumpy return along the stony edge of the main trunk line to complete the journey back to the village.

We hosed the bikes and ourselves down outside the Ski 150 Lodge where we were staying. The name refers to the 150, mainly Bay of Plenty-based shareholders who own it and use it extensively during the ski season, and spasmodically outside it. We were the only five in a lodge that sleeps 35. There is a commercial-grade kitchen, big dining room, games and TV rooms and a comfortable lounge with views across to Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. We spread out, luxuriating in a room each.

Day two: History on the old coach road

The second day’s challenge was to complete the Old Coach Road, through to Ohakune and back, 15 km each way. The trail starts at Horopito, about a quarter of an hour from National Park, under the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. Horopito is the site of Smash Palace, real name Horopito Motors, the country’s largest vintage car wreckers and museum where acres of vehicles in various stages of rusting dilapidation, dating from the 1920s to 1970s, spread out in the pristine mountain landscape with Ruapehu rising white behind them. It gained fame, and its nickname, as the setting for the 1981 child hostage movie starring Bruno Lawrence and Greer Robson.

The Old Coach Road is one leg of the Mountains-to-Sea Cycle Trail which is part of the hugely successful National Cycle Trail. Scenic ride meets history lesson as the route covers that taken by the horse-drawn coaches which transported rail passengers from Ohakune round the foothills of Ruapehu to Raurimu 39 km away until the final section of the main trunk line was completed in 1908. Signs along the way tell the story of the railway’s survey, design and construction, workers camping in horrendous conditions, and how the line was upgraded and realigned in 1987. History came alive as we passed the hulls of old viaducts, bounced over the original cobbles under bush canopies and crossed the magnificently restored Hapuawhenua viaduct.

After a looping grassy descent there’s a stretch of gravel and seal into Ohakune. We took a pretty river path to the bottom of town where we ate at Eat, a gourmet burger café, while Lorraine’s bike was getting its gears lubricated at the local outdoor persons’ one-stop-shop, TCB. When a staff member was recalled from his lunch break, ten minutes away in Raetihi especially to attend to a minor fault on Lynanne’s bike we appreciated why TCB means Taking Care of Business.

Ohakune is 500 metres below Horopito, the extra peddling on the way back well compensated by the way a return ride can seem a fresh experience in terms in terrain and by views of white mountain against blue sky above green bush.

Day three: Fitness test on the fisher

The Fisher Track, which is also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Cycle Trail, begins in National Park, so we made a leisurely start on our third ride.

In a region known for fickle weather the sun shone for the third day running. We tootled up the gravel road which after five km or so suddenly turns onto farm track. This magnificent 12 km downhill passes through rugged country on grassy, often muddy tracks with the odd slippery patch, and the odd little stony culvert to cross. First-time track riders will be surprised to pop out at the bottom above the luxury hunting-lodge of the Retaruke Country Estate from where it joins gravel road again.

Most people who ride this section of the trail do it one way to make the most of the rolling downhill roller coaster and get a shuttle back via country roads. We opted not to have the local Kiwi Mountain Bikes pick us up but to slog the return journey over the hill, up the 12 km we’d just swooped down.

A bit daunted by the prospect of the long climb, Raewyne faced her fear by taking off ahead of the rest of us. “It is perfectly doable,” she acknowledged when we stopped for lunch on a ridge half way up, lazing on the grass overlooking bush-clad hills.

There was plenty more “up” before we collapsed at the side of the road at the top. One reward for our exertions was wonderful glimpses of Ruapehu. The other was that while we may be in our 50s and 60s we all achieved it with relative ease. We were back in National Park enjoying a coffee in the sun outside the Station Café by mid-afternoon.

Over drinks and dinner that evening we pronounced the three-day excursion a raging success, enhanced by the fine spring weather. The rides had been exhilarating. We had taken the time to revel in the stunning Central North Island environment and made the journey more important than the destination.