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Finding the Wild in Welly

27 October 2020

Words & Photos: Jamie Nicoll

I packed what I thought I needed for 5 weeks on the road in my wagon 'Colin the Cruiser' and strapped my Tallboy on the back. This was something between me doing my job as an adventure athlete and an inward journey looking for relief from some hard months.

I wanted to tour the North Island - meeting locals, being shown the wild corners, camping out and generally exploring where the 4wd trail stops and the mountain bike carries on.

I left Nelson and took the ferry north. I hadn’t pre-arranged a lot as I needed to keep the pressure low and take time to be creative as and when needed. But, I had got in touch with a few key people keen on my line of fun and to help pull together a group to share sections of the trip with. This trip was also very much about connecting with the local Mtb communities along the way. I’d talked to Jonny Waghorn, a lifetime mainstay in the biking world, and he sounded confident of some good action in the Akatarawas north of Wellington. On this early morning a good crew lined the edge of a remote rural road, all keen for a 'ride'. On reflection I reckon something new has been growing here for a while. An underground world of Mtb exploring exists in these misty ranges, feeding those looking for something a little more raw than the suburban edge offerings.

Jank and pean are the words liberally thrown around to describe the slow tech and barely existing trail scratched through the mossy green jungle we were riding in. Today was probably as challenging as it might get with last night's rain and low cloud wrapped around us. Slipping around, root hopping, log dropping, and tree dodging down some solid 600m of vertical right back to our cars. Wow... what was that!

These trails are not on any maps and would not be found without a guide, but I feel that is part of the point for these boys - keeping it real and less used, the way they want to ride.

Packing Colin post-ride, Jonny jumped in with me and Hadley was also in on the plan with his own wagon. We drove into the Waiotauru Hut via an old forestry road that once upon a time linked through to Okaki Forks from the Akatarawa Road saddle. Some 15 plus kms are still passable with a good 4x4. We took a break after bumping our way into the newly rebuilt hut, then seizing on the improving weather continued on a little further and camped by the river.

Sunday morning was meant to be straight forward, but one steep rocky climb out of the river broke Hadley’s differential and gave my rim a good dent. With air rushing out I soon had it sealed with courtesy of a big hammer. Hadley was now two wheel drive and under tow from Colin as required.

Back on the tarmac, our next stop was to collect Jonny’s van,  head over to the Wairarapa and on to the Pinnacles near Cape Palliser. Our camping spot sheltered us from what I’d say is mostly a very windy exposed coast.

Monday dawned and coffee was brewed on the old petrol-powered cooker. The riding here was a real surprise, up via a farm road to views along this dramatic coastline with steep, eroded cliffs and bright blue pounding waves. From the high point we picked up the singletrack loop that takes you down to the actual Pinnacle area, but it’s well worth pushing back up this steep track to ride the other half of this trail back down to the carpark. Both sides are really fun, a bit of tech and with plenty of stairs and playful features along the way. We spent a good couple of hours exploring this amazing terrain, an eroded landscape that has left these towering pinnacles and narrow slots with access deep into the shadowy hillside. It must be some 27 years since I was last here and now I would imagine it would normally attract scores of tourists after getting a Lord of the Rings location stamp.

This loop, the riding quality, and the visual experience was more than I imagined and completed three days of exploration quite perfectly.

If you are after some less challenging riding in the same area in this stunning rugged coastal setting then head around to Cape Palliser Lighthouse Park to ride the old coast 4x4 track towards White Rock. I’d recommend going all the way to White Rock, but you do need to ring ahead for permission to cross the last 3 km of private land that connects the two public roads. I’m actually sitting in my Land Cruiser typing away from halfway along that trail, tucked in a sheltered spot beside a waterfall and amazing pools on the Waitetuna Stream. This beautiful spot is not signed but you’ll find it on the map.

Thanks, Wellington, cheers Jonny, and all the boys who made this a great start to my 'Meet the Locals' North Island adventure tour.