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Whirinaki Forest: Moerangi MTB Track & Environs

07 December 2017

Words by Dave Mitchell
Images by Dave & Ditte

In March 2017 the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park, like much of the North Island, was hit hard by cyclone Debbie. Ditte and I were hunkered down in Rotorua while torrential rain drummed for three days solid on our accommodation's corrugated iron roof. Murapara and Minginui feared worse, bearing the brunt of this torrential downpour and lashed by strong winds. This caused a succession of slips and road washout between the two towns and surrounding countryside.

Fast forward to spring 2017 and the Herculean effort to repair the road is still ongoing. It took all of four months just to join the dots so the locals of Minginui didn't have an hours drive through dodgy forestry roads to get to Murapara. At crunch time there were rescues and vehicles stranded at both track ends, according to the local mountain bike shuttle and accommodation provider, Garry.

We feared that the track we had once considered the very best adventure trail ride in the North Island was trashed for good. DOC's warning on their website didn't seem too severe and at the local level few had been through to paint a more accurate picture. Our plan was to tackle it as an overnighter with plenty of flexibility for us, and pots of food in our packs for any eventuality. From the Jailhouse we peddled the 5kms to River Road and a short 9kms to the start of the Moerangi Track proper. Clockwise is the usual direction ridden, but we figured by doing it anti-clockwise we would get the big hill over and done with early on and could tackle the slips and carnage on the second day, if we decided to keep going.

Moerangi Hut, exit post food.

The initial trail through Te Whaiti Nui A Toi Canyon was encouraging and pretty much as before, but the steep sections on the climb up to the 950 metre Moerangi Saddle were loose and deeply rutted in places and untouched in others. This made the riding with a pack full of overnight kit, clothing and grub exhausting but disturbingly satisfying. The flowing descent down to the Moerangi Hut made up for all the extra effort and the empty hut a good spot for first lunch. Its small library had a selection of FMC magazines and a vast array of hunting and fishing journals full of guns, ammo and camo.

Gripes, missing infrastructure to Rogers Hut.

From Moerangi Hut the track undulated downhill to the burnt-orange painted Rogers Hut. For the most part, the track to that point just needed a good haircut and a few slips tidied up. Rogers Hut is a historic masterpiece constructed of hand adzed timber covered in flat tin with the ubiquitous corrugated iron roof. Many of last centuries visitors had left their mark in this old hut, utilising can lids and a nail to punch names and dates through the lid and attach them to walls, beams and ceiling. We forgot about our second lunch, distracted by these hut medals, and headed due south down a side track of remarkable quality towards the Mangakahika Hut. Lunch would have to wait for a sunny spot.

Rogers Hut resplendent in burnt orange, loitering with intent.

This eight kilometres of benched single track climbs gradually to a high saddle overlooking misty mountains and deep mysterious valleys. We muscled up the last pitch to the saddle where the river runs a wide horseshoe around an 850 metre knob and enjoyed a short lived descent only to be greeted by a bunch of windfall and slips. Alas the last kilometre was a bit worse for wear, with tree fall and poor track conditions dominating the sharp end of the day.

Where the single track flows, Rogers hut to Mangakahika Hut.

Theres a sign.

Relieved we soon spotted the classic forest service design hut standing alone on a wide green terrace. The addition of a front deck and verandah have added immensely to the resale value along with the wash-up sink and adjacent woodshed chocker with pioneer log burner fuel and a rather sharp axe, yahoo. First things first, we lit the fire and laid up enough wood for the night while the billy got a head of full steam. As white smoke drifted horizontally across the clearing the first spits of rain drifted down from the clagged out bush clad Whirinaki tops. This was soon coming down in stair rods, drowning out the roar of the fire and any civilised or un-civilised conversation. A short lived storm followed by a clearing southerly, stars and the nocturnal calls of morepork, kiwi and kaka, while we woofed down tea and settled in for the candlelit night of digesting the hut library. It's amazing how guns can cost as much as top end carbon full suss MTBs.

Billy going and enough wood stacked up for the night. Mangakahika Hut.

Candle power and toasty warm.

With a single track downhill on offer for the majority of the way back to Rogers Hut, breakfast and pack-up became a blur. Surprisingly no sign of last nights storm greeted our knobby tires as we winged our way out. Maybe it was all a dream. A couple of young hunters at the hut warned us about a large tree fall and slip on the way out to Skip Hut and eventually the Okahu Road end. They offered us a tall beer and showed us their long guns. It was too early in the day on both counts. We liked the idea of closing the circle instead of heading back to River Road, so we carried on regardless.

With a bit of imagination the hut for all the world, looked like a steam engine thundering across a level crossing.

Big slip pre Slip hut, up and over we trundled.

About one kilometre before Skip Hut we heaved our bikes over a massive fallen kahikatea (New Zealand's tallest tree) and shortly after it, pushed and carried above a huge slip that had taken a hundred metre monster bite out of a pristine piece of single track. The hut duly arrived complete with a four man DOC repiling and decking team, almost ready to be helicoptered back to civilisation. We lunched and quizzed them about the track forward, lithium iron power tools, torque head screws and tanilised timber. There-after, a series of slips and washouts made the going slow and quite dodgy in retrospect. A short stout rope would have been prudent but the safest option would have been to drop into the riverbed. The track that once roamed above the Okahu Stream-way has completely disappeared, so we forded between the remnants of stormy log jams for a final blissful descent to the road end car park, mowed green grass and picnic table in the sun.

Slip hut repiled, DOC packing up for imminent helicopter extraction while we enjoyed a snack.

Carnage in Okahu Stream way.

Second lunch prepared us for the ride out the valley to the main highway, but not for the carnage wrought throughout the greater catchment. We closed the loop, not sure of the future of this once great trail. Will it become a backcountry epic, a downgrade or upgrade depending on your bent. Either way we enjoyed the adventure and after packing up our kit headed for the excellent selection of Fort Road MTB tracks hidden in a northern environ of the Whirinaki Forest.

Fort Road single track rocks, ask Ditte.

We rode the 16km Fort Road loop in both directions and thumbs up to clockwise, as most of the downhill resides upon flowing single-track. It's magic riding either way and roams through beautiful forest full of tall, kahikatea, rimu, totara and matai. Extensive pest control has invigorated the bird life. We were followed by inquisitive kaka and saw wood pigeon, tui, fantail, robin and bell bird. We also got dive bombed by a very territorial tui in the car park. At dusk they went crazy filling the forest with bird song till lights out. The Fort Road tracks have been relatively unscathed and are a great reason to stay just one more day.

Fort Road tree-fall team-work obstacle-test.

Mitchell Street, but where?