Great ride looping & linking

edited Whakarewarewa Forest Loop Nov2021 credit Graeme Murray 6

Gary maps the Whakarewarewa Forest Loop - a newly opened Great Ride that takes in the sights and encircles Rotorua's epic mountain bike rides.

The Kiwi home of mountain bike trails assisted down-hilling, jump areas, bike parks and legendary international riding events and hundreds of tracks, Rotorua has lacked a single trail that caters for the cross-country rider on a day trip, one that is close to the city and explores some of the best natural features of the area. Until recently, that is. The missing cycling category has been found, with the NZ Cycle Trail Great Rides brand having drawn a big circle on the Rotorua biking map.

The Great Rides are the cycling equivalent of the NZ Great Walks. Unlike the iconic multi-day back-country walks, the Great Rides are as diverse as the cyclists that use them. Some trails are for the casual rider, located in the front country with easy riding through vineyards, stockyards and backyards.


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Others are true back-country offerings suitable for very capable mountain bikers. Then there is a mix of others that fit somewhere in between for difficulty. They also vary greatly in length. Many are overnighters or multi-day rides; only a handful are considered as day rides. They are unique experiences with varying grading and durations - which is what makes the NZ Great Rides GREAT! Recently the Whakarewarewa Forest Loop opened near Rotorua, and along with the new Lake Dunstan Trail in Central Otago, two excellent options have been added to the limited category of NZ Cycle Trail day rides. This new Great Ride needed to be mapped for the Great Rides App, and I am the man for the job.

It's a fine winter's day in Rotorua, and my month-long Great Hikes App work trip means I am without a bike. Fortunately, the trail has two bike hubs that offer rental bikes. So I rock up and score a hardtail for a day. The trail is a clockwise loop, and it is recommended to begin at the new Tawa Forest Hub. Although the hub is still being developed, it already ticks all the boxes for me.


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At the entrance gate stands a four-metre-high carved chief. He is one of several large artworks on the grounds. It is easy to spend some time here reading the artists' descriptions of their ancestors depicted by their art.

The hub also has hundreds of carparks, a café, bike hire, toilets, showers, a bike washdown area and an expanse of open space for riders to chill. It's a similar level of excellence to the more established Mill Hub on the opposite side of the forest. It is obvious that Rotorua not only excels in mountain bike trails but also in its associated facilities.

After switching the GPS units on and recording a waypoint for the hub, I begin the ride by entering the forest. It is gentle going as I descend towards Blue Lake (Tikitapu) on a path that has been used by the local iwi for centuries. This is a fun section with my legs resting as I freewheel on a single track down between tree ferns. Soon the trees part and I can see the lake's mirror-like surface and blue waters. The trail skirts the edge of the bushline but I choose to take a closer look at the waters and reach the shore. On a summer's day, this place must be pumping with recreationists in droves enjoying water sports and camping at the nearby holiday park. Today, winter, it is quiet, peaceful and calm - unlike the violence wreaked upon this place over a century ago. The scene here on Thursday the 10th of June 1886 at 12.30am would have been horrific, with the volcanic blast at Tawawera smashing down almost all of the trees surrounding the 13,300-year-old caldera lake. Enough time has passed since that horror for nature to apply its regenerative ability, and I now re-enter the beautifully recovered forest and head to the lake’s end.


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Beyond Blue Lake is another colourful body of water, the Green Lake (Rotokakahi). This is where the trail becomes more challenging as it winds around the folds in the landscape amid towering trunks of pines and an understorey of tree ferns. Along the way, I come to a lookout and view Motutawa Island. I collect a waypoint here and take photos of the lake’s sacred waters before continuing.

Onwards I travel and soon pass Jeff's Link - I can't help but smirk at the trail sign. Some years back, I got into trail mapping as a result of Jeff's business called NZ Trail Solutions. A billionaire, he contracted his company to hand-build hundreds of kilometres of trail in dozens of exotic locations around the world. In a matter of a few years, the new company went from not employing a single New Zealander to hiring hundreds of Kiwi trail builders and then casting them out to exotic parts of the globe. One of those lucky crew members was me! Jeff soon capitalised on my mapping skills, and it wasn't long before I dropped the hand tools in Chile's Patagonia highlands and mapped my way around the world. In time this led me to come up with the idea to build the Great Rides App. So Jeff was the link to where I find myself today. Grinning to myself, I ride and map onwards.


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As the nostalgia passes, the smirk turns to a grimace as I grunt into a hill climb which soon drops down to the highway leading to the Waipa Hub. Gee, this place has changed. The modern buildings now contain a café and bike hire, while on the opposite side of the carpark is a commercial spa complex set into the forest.

Surely this place must go off at busy times of the year when weary riders flock to soak their aching limbs. Here I collect another waypoint and still more photos. Across the grass lawn, I return to the forest and cross a pleasing new bridge over the Puarenga Stream, which gently makes its way down into the Whakarewarewa thermal village. The full glory of the trail appears as I enter cross-country heaven. Here beside the tree ferns are towering redwood trees, so massive that it seems their crowns are up in the clouds. I feel like I am in clouds too, as the steam wraps around me when the trail winds around a bubbling mud pool, just one of the 1500 geothermal features within the Rotorua geothermal field.


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I continue to climb past a steaming hillside (you eventually get used to the fact that the very land you're traversing is cooking!) and negotiate some switchbacks that take me higher into the heart of the forest park. There are a few trail intersections to carefully cross, which is not surprising given this forest has 250+ trails in its 300km network. One intersection is a breeze to navigate as the Box of Birds trail has an overbridge above the main forest loop. From here there are good views over the city and the main lake. It's not long before the trail begins to drop off the hillside to return to the Tawa hub to complete the circuit.

It always feels great to end a ride with a downhill section. The loop is a fantastic asset for the city, a true cross-country boundary hugger of the forest park. Next time I return, I will also use the loop to access other more challenging trails in the network. There are plenty more to explore, and going by the grins on the faces of the riders awaiting shuttle pickups, there is even more fun in store with various other loops and links. I can't wait to get back.



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Article kindly supplied by NZ Today / RV Lifestyle Magazine




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