The Forgotten Highway

Tekst: Steve Nicholls | Fotografie: Brendon O'Hagon | Datum:

Six Rapha Continental riders have just touched down on the western tip of New Zealand’s north island. Finding themselves in a region called Taranaki, they are about to embark on the first Continental ride in New Zealand. Anxious eyes eagerly check out the unloading of the planes precious cargo: six gleaming machines, carefully packaged. It’s close to dusk, and everyone’s priority is making sure their bikes are assembled and functioning. Only once everything is in place are we permitted to venture out for a meal, and the anticipation of what is to come begins to build. Tomorrow we will roll out from the coast, with little knowledge of where and what we will discover over four days of riding.

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Day 1: Taranaki to Ohura

217km, 2600m elevation gain

Dawn, and the sun stumbles through the clouds. Bleary eyed riders roll out to our designated start point. The wind whistles at Taranaki’s rugged coast. Winding along the picturesque bike trails that meander up and down the west coast, everyone is excited to get started. As we cross a small bridge a glance back shows a majestic view of Mt Taranaki, perfectly framed above lush green fields dotted with cattle. Taranaki was one of the earliest settlements in New Zealand, with the first Maori taking advantage of plentiful seafood, bush and fertile ground. In the 1800s European settlers arrived and set up a bustling whaling port.

The hard life of the sea wasn’t for everyone, and gradually attention turned inland. The dense bush that covered the hills, and rich alluvial soils from the volcanic cone that towers over the landscape, were identified as prospective farmland. Now the second biggest dairy factory in the southern hemisphere, alongside more recently discovered oil and gas reserves, powers the local economy.

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We leave behind the quiet pathway, and turn inland, criss crossing busy arterials, and bracing ourselves against the wall of wind that accompanies occasional milk tankers and stock trucks. We reach the town of Stratford and turn up the mountain. The landscape is bathed in clear spring sunshine, the early wisps of cloud have gone. We emerge from the bush lined avenues that make up the early stage of the climb, with each bend allowing a glimpse of glorious vistas, a blissful breath for air before the suffering of the climb washes back over them. After climbing for 40 minutes we reach the end of the road, having cashed our oneway tickets. We stand in glorious spring sunshine ogling a snow capped peak and a horizon of endless green fields. Spirits are high, and down the twisting descent we head to find coffee.

Next we follow old roads that were marked out by early pioneers, hacked into by hand and foot, then hoof, then wheel. Towns sprung up with infrastructure suited to thousands. As technology has advanced the way we live, the need for regular trading posts has diminished, once roaring places where farmers carted out their wool by horse and oxen, are now empty and abandoned. Old outposts used by railway men, employed to look after a now empty track, sit slowly rusting along the highway. Towns once bustling with populations of over 30,000 people, now reduced to a hardy few souls, in virtual ghost towns.

After several hours of blissfully quiet and undulating roads we reach the Republic of Whangamomona. What was once a busy town of more than 20 businesses in it’s heyday, now only a solitary hotel stands as a spot to quench the thirst and reenergize. The hotel was first built in 1905, burnt down the same year, and the current building stands as it was, rebuilt in 1911, a testament to the eternal optimism of the pioneers that constructed these townships.

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After refueling, we set off again, through the gorge, and onto the first section of gravel and although we are grateful for the views from the top, the legs are starting to complain as we draw nearer to Ohura. There is an obligatory sprint into town, but once we arrive at the prison gates, riders collapse onto the nearest available grassy verge. Beers are passed around and we celebrate having made it through a testing first day. A truly magnificent ride.

Ohura Prison, our first night’s accommodation, has garishly colored doors and the hallways are lined with postcards of classic cars. Our dining room decorations include a painting of four mystical horseman riding out of the canvas. Cheesecake was on the menu.

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Day 2: Ohura – Ohakune

160km, 2500m elevation

Washed out faces greet each other over cereal and coffee in the prison kitchen the next morning. The mood is subdued, and a steady patter of raindrops accompanies the meal. A cold, wet day awaits. We roll into town for a “by appointment only” visit to the Ohura Museum. A treasure trove of antiques, including a faithful reproduction of the old post office, and plenty of historical artifacts from a time when the town thrived. At it’s peak Ohura, built on a successful mining boom in the early 1900’s, housed 30,000 people. Now the population barely scratches 300, and the only businesses are the prison and the local cossie club, where we shared a beverage or two with some of the locals the previous night.

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Charlie, owner of the museum, is very keen to show off his workshop, and some of the restored original machinery and aging tractors. Then he asks “you guys are not interested in seeing my bike Museum are you?”

It’s Ohura, and we are not expecting much, but there are an odd assortment of machines, including a old racing bike, and Charlie’s own touring machine. He’s clearly spent some time exploring the country, self-sufficient. As we talk about his riding and our current adventure it is easy to see a gleam in his eyes, a thirst for adventure by bike, and a pang of regret that he would not be riding with us. The rain is still falling, but we can no longer delay our departure, so we wave goodbye to Ohura and continue along this forgotten highway.

Continuing along this long-forgotten highway, our journey takes us towards the Central Plateau of the North Island. There is a coldness to the air, and with frequent burst of rain, zips are drawn up against the cold. Mossy fence posts frame the road, and suddenly in front of the riders is a spooked cow. Crazily careering down the centre of the highway, six riders in pursuit. After a bizarre couple of kilometres, the frenzied animal finally finds a driveway to pull into, and we continue on in search of coffee and warmth.

After hot beverages, food and a roaring fire, we roll out of Taumarunui and head into the Mountains-to-Sea trail network. It’s wet, and before long, we hit gravel. Cue puncture. Frozen hands struggle to change tyres. We ascend up narrow, turning, twisting roads, a long 500m climb to the start of the Central Plateau. There are no cars, the crunch of tyres on gravel is the only soundtrack. The North Island Volcanic Plateau (often called the Central Plateau) is a volcanic plateau covering much of the central part of the North Island with volcanoes, lava plateaus, and crater lakes. While strictly not a desert, the harsh landscape is sparsely vegetated mainly due to the  the 20,000-year-old Taupo eruption, which swept white-hot ignimbrite through this valley.

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Turning onto the main highway, we skirt the mountains, hidden behind dense curtains of rain clouds. The rain slowly, steadily, increases its rhythm, a harsh cross wind lashes at faces, rain becomes sleet. Now, riding through almost barren plains, exposed to the elements, all thoughts turn to surviving the day. There are no more impromptu excursions, no desire to explore our unique surroundings in search of adventure. Just desperation for warmth and shelter.

Ohakune, a small ski town nestles itself beneath the bulk of Mt Ruapehu on the Central Plateau. Our host asks if anyone would like to use the spa and soon, half-fozen and half-naked bodies pile in. Beer, pies and a spa pool make the exertions of the day quickly forgotten. We spend the evening in the local tavern, watching the Aussie Rules grand final, gossiping to locals, replaying the day’s ride and finally stumbling home to bed.

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Day 3: Ruapehu – Taihape

100km, 1400m elevation

It is about 3 or 4 degrees celsius when we awake the next day, and rain falls from concrete coloured skies. No one is in a hurry to go outside and check the temperature. Breakfast becomes a lazy affair. Outside, the weather doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Raindrops glisten, in patchy light, sparkling on fresh spring blossoms. Periodically the rain stops, the air feels like the day might warm up and clear. Or perhaps pack in and rain. Who would know?

We make an executive decision to retreat to a cafe, have “proper” coffee, and give the weather a chance to make up it’s mind. Through the weather, the weight of the mountain – Ruapeh – makes its presence felt. It’s slopes are not seen behind the curtain of grey clouds, but we know it’s there. Sitting sipping coffee, safe from the elements, two riders decide, enough is enough. They will not sit blithely waiting. Carpe Diem. As we start to ride up through the wet bush that covers the lower slopes, patches of blue sky struggle to poke through the clouds. Gradually the rain eases, then stops. Warm rays cause layers to be peeled off and the riders start to go about their work. Steam starts to rise off the road, creating a surreal image as bikes seem to disappear into the clouds.

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Through snow covered roadsides, we emerge at a wide expanse of the ski area.  Acknowledging it has been conquered, the weather eases, and the mountain throws off the cloud cover that has kept it from view for the last two days. As we roll across the flats, a tail wind pushes us into Taihape, and the sun burns off the clouds surrounding the mountain. There are not too many towns that would proudly proclaim themselves the gumboot capital of the world. But Taihape is one of them. It’s annual gumboot day in March features the fiercely contested Gumboot throwing competition, bringing together the locals, rural community, and visitors from all around the country. We avoided any boot-shaped missiles as we rolled into town.

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Day 4: Taihape – Napier

The Gentle Annie: 170km, 2600m elevation

We rise to a stunning clear crisp morning, and an early start. Taihape slumbers on, oblivious to our departure as we snake out of town, and head for the coast. Sunlight streams through trees standing like an endless row of sentries marking our progress up the first of many climbs for the day. We climb through rugged farmland, high country sheep stations suited to Merino farming. We pass through Erewhon, (an anagram of nowhere) taking it’s name from the 1872 Samuel Butler novel. It is an apt name for such a remote place. There are no stoppages, no cosy cafes, nothing but the tussocky land, endless climbs and the lost highway.

The Gentle Annie takes its name from the steep descent from the Central Plateau into the Kaweka forest. The exhilarating descent draws exclamations of delight. As we near the coast the air begins to warm, and the landmarks of the region begin to reveal themselves: Cape kidnappers, Te Mata Peak. Finally we arrive to the crunch of limestone paths framed by vineyards. We have reached the Hawke’s Bay. The presence of civilisation evokes a strong urge for food and drink, and we desperately try to find an open cafe to slake thirsts and silence rumbling stomachs. Pitstop completed, paths take us through the outskirts of town and the uncertain spring weather opens the heavens and heavy rain falls in a rush.

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Wet, tired, caked in mud, a bedraggled group of riders finally emerge at the coast. Mud encrusted frames honour a journey along paths less travelled. A concrete path meanders alongside a picturesque coastline, until we reach our destination, Napier. There was a certain symmetry to finishing along a coastal path three days after starting along one. These roads, this forgotten highway, now dwindles into wilderness. The riding has been tough and our exhausted bodies make it seem as if we have shared in the physical toil that marked the settling of this land.

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