Multi-sport adventurer, filmmaker and Kiwi, Deane Parker, recently came out with a new bikerafting film, "Forgotten Highways," which was featured on Bikepacking.com. This short film documents a six-day journey during which Deane and his three partners explore New Zealand’s Whanganui River and learn about its history. Deane is one of, "The Bikeraft Guide," authors. We interviewed him extensively for his expertise in whitewater bikerafting. As well, he's writing a story for the book. Check out his detailed description of his trip and film! Story, film & photos by Deane.
The South Island of New Zealand topography is kinda straight forward, main divide, rivers flow west to the Tasman Sea or East to the Pacific Ocean. The North Island is a bit more convoluted or disorientating. I’ve spent little time adventuring in the "other" Island. Jackson Green inspired me with stories of a route of ancient river folklore and seldom ridden jungle singletrack.
I’d read of the notorious reputation of crashes on the Bridge to Nowhere trail by riders on the length of the country brevet, Tour Aotearoa, including a death. The Wanganui River, while only containing smaller rapids, was full of history and mythology from its early days. It was as an artery for transport and commerce by the indigenous Maori tribes or Iwi and then by paddle steamers up until the 1950’s.
What I hadn’t heard of was a thin ribbon of a walking track from the river up and out to the West through steep jungle country, following a dry ridgeline, the Matemateonga Track. But Jackson had me hooked mid 2019. We hatched a plan to undertake the route in March 2020.
We devised a plan to paddle the upper river in packrafts, carrying our mountain bikes until we reached the Bridge to Nowhere Track. There, we'd transform to bikers and ride over the Bridge to Nowhere Trail and paddle to the beginning of the Matemateonga Track. We'd then ditch our packrafting gear to have it ferried out by jet boat, allowing us to break our gear down for lightweight rigs to take on the predicted grade 4- to 5-day hike a bike. But wait that’s not all! We would then ride to a quaint little tourist town for a well earned night at the pub, with a final day and an idea for some alternative transport.
Our team included Muel, Rose and Rose’s husband Jackson. Though new to bikerafting, he had provided the route and some intel from having ridden and canoed some parts. The other three of us had done a major bikerafting expedition in the Kahurangi National Park 18 months prior and a smattering of other shorter trips. The route was achievable by using the packrafts to stay largely independent with the exception of a food cache and cartage of our packrafting gear by the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge.
Day 1: Packrafting
On 10th of March we finally had the team together with Rose and Jackson picking Muel and I up from the Rotorua airport after competing in Crankworx on their Tandem downhill bike. A squashed drive loaded to the max followed to Taumaranui, referred to as the most upstream terminus of river travel on the Whanganui River.
A plan was made to camp next to the river, for an early start the next day. Arriving at a campsite in the dark before a big trip tends to be nerve wracking and this was no different. Doubts about forgotten gear, having enough food and the inevitable tossing and turning of a sleep of anticipation set the tone.
The morning brought a low layer of inversion cloud common in these river valleys and my first look at this majestic Awa...is that it!? Used to swiftly moving mountain rivers falling off the southern alps, the river seemed unremarkable and small to me. This river of such stature that was even recognized by the United Nations sat here meandering past the campsite.
We started the arduous task of rigging packrafts, stuffed full of our gear and bikes on the bow. We were carrying provisions for the first three days.
It was quite the feeling of jubilation as we pushed off and started clocking up the kilometers, as we knew we would have a long day of paddling to reach the tiny settlement of Whakahoro for night 1. Even with a lofty target, we wanted to soak in the atmosphere of the historical significance of the landmarks.
We encountered very few rapids and the mini gorge had a feeling of remoteness. The sun shone hot and baked us as we paddled. We only pulled over to discover a Niu Pole and a couple of quick food breaks, but still ended up within sight of the Whakahoro settlement at night, after 8 hours.
Choosing to use the last light of day to rig the bikes up with packrafts, we bathed in a relaxed manner with the elation of a great day on the water discovering new country. Our accommodations were bunks in the old School building now administered by DoC ( Department of Conservation).
Day 2: The Bridge to Nowhere
The same inversion layer hung about the next morning. Our second day we planned a bigger day, riding 36 kilometers of rough trail before a transformation back to packrafts for a couple of hours to reach the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. There, we got our food cache for the next three days.
Subsequently, we started early into steep jungle country. We slowly became accustomed to the oversized loads on full suspension mountain bikes. The ancient papa geology (essentially compacted volcanic ash) is striking on this trail forming massive bluffs and deep ravines, which on a maintained trail is spectacular. But, I imagine it must have been fraught with challenges for the early settlers who endeavored to break in the land after having been offered sections of land post both world wars.
We arrived mid-afternoon to the famous Bridge to Nowhere, a construction project that entailed in 1934 to bring prosperity to the Mangapurua Valley. Builders promised the bridge would allow better access. But that wasn't to be.
After the settlers left, the bridge lay dormant in the bush for decades before a plan was hatched to link the bridge as a bike trail to the river at Mangapurua Landing. We rode on to the Landing and rigged up the boats for an evening paddle...it was getting late.
The paddle was surreal, glassy with beautiful light. We relaxed in the moment and enjoyed the serenity. We paddled up to the Lodge Beach with the last light of the day. And after quickly derigging, Mandy, Joe and Wayne welcomed us at their comfortably rustic lodge. An oasis, used the lodge as a launchpad for the most demanding sections to come.
Day 3: Rugged Cycling, History & Humidity
I interviewed Wayne and Joe the next morning and really got a feel for the passion required to run a busy tourism operation with no electricity and requiring everything to travel by river.
Wayne also put the fear of the Matemateonga Track in me when he told me we would struggle with the rugged terrain. Though prepared for 300 vertical meters of hike a bike in the first two kilometers, the north island humidity hit me hard. I struggled to find a rhythm before we topped out for a shady lunch with expansive views over the towering Mt. Ruapehu.
From here to our hut for the night was only 10 kilometers. But, the going would be slow and filled with high exposure sections where a fall could be fatal. We rode some amazing sections and hiked a lot, too. Though dehydrated, I focused intently on the narrow track, ensuring a pedal strike wouldn’t lead to a free fall into the abyss.
After a long hot day through some of the most intimidating terrain, we were stoked to see the hut. That night glowing from successfully achieving the challenges of the day, I decided to get a drone shot of the tiny clearing of the hut surrounded by thick jungle. That was the last flight of the Mavic mini. Due to a power issue, the steepness in terrain and impregnable vegetation, I lost it to the forest.
Day 4: Rhythm
Slow, technical and full of history, the track followed the ridgeline continuously, as this was the only way of traversing this terrain. Departing from the high point would have led into a steepening gradient until it became a vertical precipice. It was easy to imagine the Maori iwi (tribes) moving along the ridge to trade with the river tribes or to make war too.
By now we were on a good rhythm of team travel, and the technical singletrack was awesome around the manky bits. The Matemateonga is a relatively little used track even by hiking standards. The hut journals showed very few mountain bikers, which surprised me. We did have prime conditions. And it would have been treacherous in the wet, but it was fantastic backcountry bikepacking for more advanced riders on full sus trail bikes. The 10-bunker DoC huts offered rain water tanks and spacious common areas.
Day 5: The Forgotten Highway
We finished the Matemateonga on day 5, and a got change of scene. We came to the first gravel road on the trip and coasted down into the steep farmland of the Aotuhia Station. Another locality, it exemplified early settlers endeavoring to break in this tough land decades ago. They even built impressive tunnels to circumvent steep ridgelines on the ramshackle road.
After a gradual climb for nearly 20 kilometers we arrived at civilization, a town! Whangamomona and old coal and rail town now on the "off the beaten track." It's known as the Forgotten Highway, state highway 43 from Taumaranui to Stratford.
We had booked into the pub for the night. When we checked in, the nice publican walked us next door to the old post office done up period style into a motel room. Needless to say we made the shower filthy and set out to drink the pub dry. Reality, we drank two pints each, ate big burgers, and fell asleep before 9pm.
Day 6: The End
Jackson and I had connected with the owner of a tourism outfitter, Forgotten World Adventures. They had developed a tour on the old disused railway using petrol driven golf carts on the tracks. Ian Balme gave us permission to strap our bikes to the buggy’s for the almost 50 kilometers to a spot we would be closest to our start point and leave us a 30-kilometer gravel ride back to Taumaranui.
It was pretty comical jamming our bikes in the back of a four person buggy. But, we made it work and set off with the commercial tour of the day. Once a busy moving coal and timber, prospectors hoped the railway would bring prosperity to the remote areas. It failed to come to fruition and the railway fell into a state of decay before Ian’s business brought it back to life offering a unique way of viewing the landscape.
The tour customers thought we were a bit crazy, there were some nice old ducks and we natted away when we got the chance. They waved us off after we built our bikes up and headed for the finish line. It was a nice cruisy undulating ride through sheep country. Really hot, we had a 300-meter vertical climb to finish before the descent into town. It felt brutal.
It seemed only fitting to call the film Forgotten Highways. We had traveled 6 old trails that had been highways at some point in history, be it Maori or European settlers all with similar enthusiasm for their endeavours as we were in the modern day to accomplish a challenge we set for ourselves. The toil we had endured whilst recreating would have been a drop in the bucket for what these hard men and women undertook to live off the land and even just travel through the landscape without the high tech bikes, boats and equipment we had available to us.
Were they forgotten? That depends on definition I reckon, maybe forgotten as ‘highways’, but this Awa and these trails are thick with heritage and folklore, legend and endeavor. In retrospect it seemed fitting to experience this area undertaking a degree of toil and some discomfort giving us the full immersion experience to the Whanganui District.
Deane Parker has always been drawn by the allure of the backcountry, and always will. For as long as he can remember he’s always been passionate about exploring new landscapes, what’s around that corner, over that ridge, or in that canyon. Backcountry bikepacking, bikerafting, and packrafting are the pursuits he’s been most drawn to, through the evolution of being an adventurous kiwi born and bred in Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand—an Adventurer’s nirvana.