Mangapurua Track and Kaiwhakauka Trail Crossroads
The rain from last night has subsided and a grey dawn drizzle welcomes me. My bike is clogged with mud and is making argumentative noises with every pedal stroke. The path is a rough overgrown 4×4 track. Thick grass is the central median whilst the tires tracks are pot-holed and filled with mud and fallen leaves. Ferns lean in brushing cold droplets along my arms and down my neck. The steep valley sides stand behind them, big brothers watching over their little bullies as they tease and whip at my face.
I am steadily making progress though; the towering valley walls are coming down to my eye level as I chug softly upward through the ghostly mist. The air grows even cooler and I can see my breath falling limply out of my mouth and I have to push through it like a begrudging cloud. I look back and it hangs, swirling gently in my wake.
I reach the crossroads where Mangapurua Track and Kaiwhakauka Trail meet and am rewarded with wide views of the valley behind me. Masked by the mist, the jagged landscape is silhouetted against the new morning light as it peers weakly through the grey sky. The trees hang limply groggily waking up draped in moisture. Forest as far as the eye can see.
The track up to the summit, though steep is an improvement. The potholes are smaller and no longer compulsory. I realise that I am not riding in mist but in actual cloud. Water droplets bead off my jacket and up ahead I can see the sun breaking through. I’m riding my way out of the inversion layer.
The views from the top are almost terrifying in their remoteness. From here, the trail is the only sign of human intervention and even that is hidden by thick branches after 10m. I stand at the top of the lookout listening to the bleats of a nearby goat and wonder what it must have been like for the people who lived out here.
After World War 1 the returning soldiers were given sections of this land to make a farm and a new life for themselves. Unfortunately, it was an unfortunately cruel gift. Even to my untrained eye this steep harsh landscape is no place for farming. The bush is so deep and impenetrable it looks more at home to dinosaurs than cows. Add on top the brutal winters and the extreme isolation. The Bridge to Nowhere Trail is a stunning ride, one of the best I have ever ridden, but no way would I want to live out here!
The Bridge to Nowhere Trail is actually the attempted road to make the land more accessible, I am riding what little remains of this folly of human endeavor. Hacked out of the side of the sheer hillside, it snags its way through the mountain range headed back to my old friend the Whanganui River. It took so long to make the road that many of those settlers had given up and left for an easier life. And hence the name the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Descent to Mangaparua Landing
After bleating back at the goat in an attempt at conversation I warily snake my way down the remains of the road. Slippery with moss over the hard, tumbled down rocks but grippy in the rough landslide-debris gravel. I ride as fast as I dare but well aware that a crash out here is going to be a very uncomfortable crawl back to civilisation. A slide off of the sheer edge into the jagged melee of trees would be even fatal.
Sections of the trail have been rebuilt on landslide debris. Huge swathes of trees lay mangled at the bottom of steep cliff drops. The mountain casually shrugging off tonnes of rock, soil and trees over the edge. Like a child throwing toys out of its pram. Although the landslides give great windows out of the green tunnel of foliage they also highlight the dangers of the area. Scars of disturbed land cross the tattoo of the road. Signs of extreme violence shows natures scorn at Man’s attempts to tame the landscape.
The whole day I see just three people. Poncho clad hikers sopping-wet squelching their way along the path. I startle them as my bike wheezes and splutters its way past. Clumps of mud cocoon the gears and brakes so it looks practically organic.
It certainly feeling like it has a life of its own. Changing gear becomes a crooked roulette, the whims of the bike overruling my needs. Sudden and sporadic down-shifting becomes the norm as does skipped gears that sends me jarring forward. Loud snaps and crunches echo through the still air. I learn a begrudging respect for the bikes sudden independence. Like an angry pack mule, it does the job but on its own terms and with plenty of vocal complaining.
The End of the Road
Suddenly I am at Mangaparua Landing. The Bridge to Nowhere, it stands proud and unfazed by the exotic jungle that has it surrounded. A stark contrast to say the least, its water blasted bricks shine bright and garishly new against the ancient forest of the land that time forgot. An incredible feat of human ambition and engineering against the odds, the bridge stands unabashed by its nonconformity to the moss-covered trees.
I see groups of people coming from up ahead. Day trippers coming up on the jet boats and kayakers out on the multiday cruise. They all burst into my quiet little bubble of nature. The sense of wilderness is lost but the awe of the view remains. Trying to imagine what the settlers had seen when they first laid eyes on this intimidating but beautiful landscape.
I stand and appreciate panorama same as the day trippers. The difference being that I am absolutely filthy. Gone is the distinction between shoes, skin and sock, my shoes to my knees is a uniform light brown of cried mud. Smears of dirt and grass stains cover me like camouflage. I see only after a quick selfie that I have mud daubed on my face too. My bike looks like it was pulled from the bottom of a canal then kicked through a bush. I have stripes of dried blood up my arms where rogue bushes have tried to catch me on my descent.
A friendly Maori man starts setting up some biscuits and hot chocolate and calls over to me,
‘You must be Lewis, we just arrived so no rush, help yourself to some food’.
That was a fine introduction, say no more, with a mug of hot chocolate and a handful of cookies I sat and listened to the story of the road as he shared the history of the area and his family who had lived here for generations. From here the road literally ends and the only way out was on the jet boats.
Jet Boating to Pipiriki
Not a bad way to travel. We slung my bike to the back and strapped it on tight. Then off we sped from Mangapurua Landing to Pipiriki pointing out sights and filling us in with more local tales as we went. The speed was fantastic and I didn’t even have to pedal! The wind whipped past me and cooling sprays of water washed some of the grime away. My heart raced as we shot by close to the steep rock cliffs the roar of the engine echoing up the valley.
Arriving windswept in Pipiriki I was pointed to the jet wash. My bike gleaming and me looking slightly more refreshed I set off up the road. This time it was actually a road. A real road with tarmac and everything! I didn’t quite make it all the way to Whanganui (the town) but was happy to pitch up camp by the side of the Whanganui River, my companion for the last three days. I sat watching the honey light of dusk seep into the valley and then the cool shadows follow it. Both moving steadily down the hillside to my camp. I could hear the river rumbling across the rocks below as I fell asleep.
It was only a short ride into Whanganui and I had set up a place to stay with Warmshowers.org Host Anna. Because it was still pretty early, I visited a few of the local bike shops to try and fix my gears. The shops, though helpful didn’t stock the parts needed though did mention;
‘that is the most worn chain set I have ever seen!’
Including the training rides, I think it was on about 2000km at this point in some very tough terrain, not bad for a $700 bike. On the advice of the bike shop I called ahead to my next big stop Paraparaumu to order in the parts for when I arrived. It just has to survive another 145km!
I feel nervous rolling up to Anna’s house, we had never met and only briefly messaged online. The selling point of her profile was the mention of a Burmese Mountain dog. Riding through the suburbs of Whanganui I felt my social skills were lacking. I had been travelling alone for about 2 weeks and had become comfortable in my own company. Possibly too comfortable I smelled and looked like a homeless person.
Anna’s daughter answers the door after my first tentative knock, all bright eyes and welcoming smile, I feel immediately at ease. Then Anna joined her and gave me the tour of the house, an expert in making a stranger feel at home. The tour is ideal, a quick point to all of my immediate requirements, shower, bedroom, washing machine.
Then came the much more entertaining introduction to the animals. The house is filled with a full menagerie of creatures; Magnus the aforementioned Burmese Mountain dog, two cats (one deaf), two goats, a rabbit and a few turtles that had to be rounded up in the evening to get them back in the tank. I loved the organised chaos.
It had been a tough few weeks. Yet, I hadn’t taken a day off since Pouto Point . Anna offered me the room for two nights and I gratefully accepted. In return I cooked her a huge meal. Most of which I ate myself, hey what can I say cycling makes you hungry!