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Taranaki for Neophytes

01 February 2002

by Charlie Palmer & Jason Barclay

For those who don't actually live there, Taranaki is an almost forgotten corner of New Zealand. It's not really on the way to anywhere, and for many the only reason to venture there is when the Desert Road and National Park highways are closed by snow. However, tucked away in Taranaki are some of New Zealand's true mountain biking gems. There are plenty of adventures to be had - beyond the ring plain there are no gas stations, shops or anything really except the occasional pub. To assist in your exploration Charlie Palmer and Jason Barclay, jungle riders of ill repute, propose some 'rules of thumb' for enjoying Taranaki.

Rule 1. You can't jump a slot canyon.

The aptly named Mythical Moki track was closed for many years while the Department of Conservation repaired bridges that were deemed unsafe. We'd always viewed closures of this type with a degree of scepticism - "how many creeks and streams in New Zealand could be un-crossable without a bridge?" We were prepared to give it a nudge, bridges or not. Fortunately they were repaired when we got there. What we saw made us realise how foolish it is to underestimate Taranaki's backcountry. The geology of Taranaki is fascinating - well for some depraved souls anyway. But the guts of the matter is that the hill country is mainly siltstone, and water carves through it as smoothly and cleanly as glass slices through your tyre. The result is a network of waterways with steep-sided, glass-smooth banks that are often in excess of twenty metres deep. You can't climb up or down 'em or jump across.

Rule 2. When the papa is wet, hang out in the Whangamomona Pub.

The ramifications of this interesting geology don't end with the waterways. The siltstone is called papa. It's light grey and when it's dry, blocks of it crumble seductively in your hands. It is magnificent to ride - tyres grip well and it's smooth 'n' fast. But when wet it is as slippery as potter's clay. Trying to ride on compacted wet papa is as foolhardy as heading down Dunedin's Pine Hill to the Octagon on the black ice of a cold winter's morning. Mix un-compacted papa with water and you're faced with a thick gluey porridge.

Rule 3. Goat perfume ain't no 'eau de toilette'.

Taranaki is full of hunt'n types, but not enough to control the plague of goats that roam the hills. They don't really bother you, except for the colossal assault on your olfactory senses. Goats are filthy little buggers. They roll around in the mud and smear themselves in body excretions to attract partners. Nice. You can smell them long after they've scampered off the track in front of you. Learn to live with it - it's likely to be one of the worst things you've ever smelled, and there's lots of it.

Rule 4. Don't needle ongaonga - it bites.

New Zealand is famous for some big things not found in Texas. We used to own the world's largest eagle, it was big enough to fly off with moas. We've also got one of the world's nastiest nettles. It's called ongaonga and there is heaps of it in Taranaki. It hangs out beside trails where it waits to jab you with its cyanide tipped needles. Learn to recognise it, then avoid it.

Rule 5. Score an AA road map of Taranaki and go mountain biking.

Taranaki's steep dissected topography required some innovative road building solutions. These included very narrow roads crossing cliff faces hundreds of metres above canyons, tunnels, and steep hill climbs through native forest. They remain unsealed and there is very little traffic. 'Keeping to the left' makes little sense as the other half of the 'two lanes' is usually a 30 metre sandstone bluff. Either learn how to fly or take it easy out there, it ain't so cool becoming a Hilux hood ornament. Mmmm ... steep and exciting dirt roads, tunnels, forests - sounds like mountain biking country to us.

Rule 6. Farewell to the jungle.

Mountain biking in Taradise isn't just about doing battle in the jungle. The Lake Managamahoe pine forests near New Plymouth contain a network of superb singletrack with flowing trails and sweet technical descents built by the local freeride fraternity. Some will have you reaching for body armour faster than you can mutter "health insurance". Unlike the inland hill-country it is possible to ride here when it's wet - a healthy option once the Whangamomona Pub has lost its novelty.

Rule 7. There are no droughts in Taranaki, get a good jacket.

It gets wet ... a lot. Mt Taranaki and its environs cop a lot of crap weather off the Tasman Sea. The moisture and winds in Taranaki can send player comfort levels spiralling off the bottom of the scale. It's changeable too, so be prepared for anything the weather gods decide to throw at ya.

Rule 8. Oh, grab a machete too.

Attempts at exploring the region's jungle with a bike will rapidly introduce you to another infamous native plant - manuka. Due to Taranaki's rainfall it colonises bare ground such as old tracks. During its thicket stage it has the not-so-endearing quality of spawning more seedlings per metre than hairs on a dog's back. It delights in hooking itself around your pedals, bars, derailleur, helmet and backpack. Paranoid delusions soon develop when it takes an hour to get your bike 500 metres along an overgrown skidder track. Some days you beat the jungle. Some days the jungle beats you.

Rule 9. Double the expected trip duration time... and take a torch.

The 'naki has a different pace of life. For a province with a reputation for still being something of a 'frontier state', it harbours a large number of dudes who have taken the laid-back lifestyle and then ramped it 'up' another few notches. Everyday things seem to take a little longer than you'd expect, and the same applies to the riding. That easy 45km loop can see you staggering back to the car nine hours later, vowing to take more food next time. Track conditions, changeable weather, navigational challenges, unknown technical difficulty and a healthy dose of mooching often combine to deliver adventure on an epic scale.

Rule 10. Get yerself to Taradise.

Whether you stick to the hill country roads, or hit the trails you'll find directions to some of the best riding in the Fifth Edition of Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides.

Check out Mythical Moki, Rerekapa, Bridge to Somewhere, Lake Mangamahoe and Meremere Road.

There's also heaps of exploring to do. Much of this land was gifted to returned servicemen after WWII. They attempted to clear the forest for farming. Most failed, but the tracks they cut are still there - just waiting for your tyres.