Te Ara Ahi Great Ride
Thursday, February 11
The day after our cave explorations was another day of unsettled weather - so, once again, a planned signature volcano mountain hike had to be pushed off. In place of this, we inserted a day of exploration in and around the town of Rotorua, about one hour's drive north of the Taupo area. Rotorua is a hotbed (pardon the pun) of geothermal activity, with an especially high concentration of features.
After some discussion and input, we split off into three groups. Myself, Pu and Brian would take our rental house's mountain bikes and ride one of New Zealand's Great Rides - the Te Ara Ahi ride - a 50 kilometre route near and in Rotorua. Andy and Andrea wanted to explore a Rotorua mountain bike park, and Jenn, Lori and Caroline wanted a day of general sightseeing. We organized ourselves accordingly into the two vans, then set off northwards along the "Thermal Explorer" highway towards Rotorua.
Prepping for ride
The guides for the Te Ara Ahi cycle route all show the Great Ride starting at a place called the Waikite Hot Pools, so we dutifully drove there, but didn't see any indication of a cycling trail. We drove back and forth along the road, quite confused, until we figured out that the Waikite Hot Pools was in fact the "trailhead". What isn't clear from reading online or written descriptions is that this segment of the route is directly on the road, and there is very little signage to indicate this or that the Waikite Hot Pools is the actual start of the route. This needs to be made much clearer in the literature for this Great Ride (either that, or be much more profuse with appropriate signage - or even better, make an actual cycle path for this segment!)
We weren't super keen on cycling along the fairly active and quite narrow road (that had no shoulders), so we backtracked back to the state highway, where the first bit of actual cycle path starts, near the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal features. Here we split up from Jenn, Lori and Caroline, and made ready for our (now slightly reduced) ride north to Rotorua. We agreed to all meet up again by 4pm at an information kiosk in downtown Rotorua, about 6 hours' time hence.
While Jenn, Lori and Caroline went to visit the Lady Knox geyser and the other main attractions of the Wai-O-Tapu area, Brian, Pu and I got ourselves in order, quickly visited one of the mud pools, and then headed off. The first little bit of cycle path simply paralleled state highway 5, but within a kilometre or so it abruptly turned off and climbed uphill rather steeply. Thus began a suprisingly challenging (for us newbies) stretch of mountain bike track.
Sharp hairpins and steep grades - both uphill and downhill - taxed our abilities. It didn't help that we still weren't completely comfortable with the gears on our bikes - meaning that when a hard uphill suddenly appeared after a sharp corner, we often couldn't bang it into the right gear fast enough to make a go of it. All of us had to get off our bikes and walk uphill on one occasion or another.
On the flipside, this was great fun. Winding through native bush and wide enough to allow for some mistakes, this was the kind of track to which I had been looking forward. Challenging but not discouraging.
After generally gaining ground, the track wound mostly downhill again, then back up. We passed a couple of beautiful lookouts along the way, usually over some sort of polychromatic lake or hillside, often steaming a bit from geothermal activity.
Rainbow Mountain Viewpoint
Rainbow Mountain Viewpoint
We emerged at a trailhead along state highway 5, and an information kiosk gave us the lowdown on our progress. I learned that the segment we had just completed, from Wai-O-Tapu northward, is called the Rainbow Mountain track. We were somewhat concerned to learn that the section we had just covered was only 4km long - and it had taken us an hour. A whole hour - on bikes! Not exactly a stellar pace. If we were going to make it the entire 38.4km to Rotorua before the search parties were sent out, we'd have to pick it up a bit.
First section complete
Hopping back on our bikes, we continued north on the trail. This next section was immensely beautiful. It ran through deep, shady forest, full of huge ferns and mosses, the track covered in an organic sprinkling of leaves and twigs. It wasn't as hilly or steep here, but it was still very twisty, winding in and out of small ravines. Pu had a bit of a wipeout on this section, showing up at one point looking scuffed up and with a bloodied lip - but still with a huge smile. He was loving this.
I was just getting into a nice rhythm when we arrived at the next trailhead and info kiosk. The magical forest part was over all too quickly.
Where are we?
As it turned out, that was the end of the "mountain-biking"-ish section of the Te Ara Ahi Great Ride - at least for now. After a short stint of a couple of hundred metres alongside a highway, we were directed to turn onto a quiet country backroad (called Okaro Road). There was no track here - it was just plain old road cycling. Fortunately, this wasn't a major highway and the traffic was minimal.
Okaro Road led through some pretty, rolling countryside. It was mostly farmland, although there was patch of forest or a small lake here and there.
There was a geothermal feature at the end of Okaro Road (the Waimangu Volcanic Valley), but our initial slow place meant that we really needed to focus more on making some good time, so we didn't stop. From the Volcanic Valley site, another quiet backroad - the Waimaingu Valley Road - continued northward.
Brian Countryside Cycling
After about nine or ten kilometres of road cycling, we arrived at the beginning of a new section of dedicated cycle track, just metres before where Waimangu Valley Road ended at State Highway 5.
The track, intermittently gravelled and concreted, led directly through a section of active farmland, with fences lining the track to separate livestock from us. Grassy hills prevented us from seeing too far into the distance, but also created a nice sense of cycling through the landscape, rather than over it. Each turn in the track revealed a new little slice of hilly farmland.