New Zealand Mountain Biking: Great Lakes Trail and Huka Challenge
- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 29 January 2013
There seems to be three favourite activities that keep the locals on Lake Taupo in New Zealand happy: fishing, golf and mountain biking. I was due in town to check out the mountain biking and just before I arrived there was a small eruption on Mt Tongariro on the southern end of the lake (which itself is a 600 km2 crater). This eruption didn’t seem to phase the locals much; they know that the potential for catastrophe is real, but until then they can enjoy this wonderful part of the earth.
I arrived in Rotorua, on the North Island, on an Air New Zealand flight, where I first enjoyed some of the finest Mountain Bike trails in the southern hemisphere. Taupo is located 100km south of Rotorua and is well known by outsiders for the annual Lake Taupo Cycle Classic and the New Zealand Ironman. These major events send the towns population temporarily skyward. Outside of these events, mountain biking is growing as fast as the development of the trails in the area.
The two big options for MTBing in Taupo are the W2K (Whakaipo to Kinloch) trail, which is one part of the well funded NZ Cycle Trail Project, and the Huka Challenge course, which forms part of the MTB leg of the Lake Taupo Cycle Classic, which centers around the Wairakei Forest and Craters Mountain Bike Park, just minutes from the town of Taupo. I arrived without any clear idea of what was awaiting me, though the local tourism department is dedicated to the raising the profile of mountain biking in the area, so decided to show me the crème de la crème.
My first port of call on arrival was my accommodation in the exclusive Acacia Cliffs Lodge on the north western corner of the lake, about 15 minutes from town. The lodge is a modern designer house perched on a hilltop overlooking the lake. Hosts, Linda and Rick, cater for small numbers of guests who are personally welcomed to enjoy luxury accommodation and dining. Rick is an accomplished chef who can prepare your meal personally and presents some superb wine, courtesy of top winegrowers. While you are more likely to find top European bankers and golfers at Acacia Cliffs Lodge, mountain biking is no longer the domain of young radicals.
W2K – Whakaipo to Kinloch
After a great night’s rest, waking up to views over Lake Taupo, it was time to go cycling. In town I met Mark Gibson, the owner of Top Gear Cycles in town. He divides his time between family, running the bike shop and establishing the local cycle trails; the long term vision is a mountain bike track that circles the entire lake. Currently it is planned as a 93 kilometer Great Lakes Trail on the north western corner of Lake Taupo, starting at Whakaipo, and suited to multi-day riding. To date, it is about a third completed. Building and planning a trail of this magnitude involves a lot of learning. One challenge, for example, is how best to organise access rights through traditionally held Maori land and farmers property. The planning team are doing an excellent job.
With two full suspension bikes packed in the back of a rattling old hatchback, we drove out of town to our start point in Kinloch. This is a small picturesque town with a protected yacht harbour, and is a popular starting point to take mountain bikers up and onto a headland loop. The cycling can be easily paced to suit ability in both the speed and the distance.
Mountain biking in this area is special for a few reasons, one of the most interesting is that it offers all weather riding. The natural pumice stone in the earth means that the trails drain quickly, which means fewer muddy bogs. The approach to trail building is not just to build it and leave it, rather it includes an ongoing maintenance component. Trail builders have equipment that ‘belongs to the trail’, such as quads and diggers, to build new trails and repair existing sections.
From Kinloch into the headland loop there is fun single-trail riding. After ascending, the trail becomes a well flowing series of turns following the land contours up and down. The good surface lets you focus your skill on speed and cornering rather than dodging roots or technical sections. This construction means that it is more forgiving for less skilled cyclists, though good cardio fitness and concentration make it more enjoyable.
As the trail crawls over the headland and loops around, the lake is often completely hidden from view until you ride into a picture postcard scenic outlook. From one vantage point Mark and I peered over to the distant shore on the peninsular poking into the lake; Mark already has a clear picture of where the trails there would be created. While the actual riding is not extreme, the idea of circling the entire lake by mountain bike is extreme.
Mark Gibson of Top Gear Cycles in Taupo and Christopher Jones of Bicycles Network Australia
W2K is popular among the locals. It won’t take you to your limits, though it gives you a workout, especially if you extend and ride the K2K (Kinloch to Kawakawa) section as well. I took a few tumbles around tight corners where the grippy trail floor gave way to a muddy patch. My reward, though, at the end of the headland loop, was a choice of doing another loop or enjoying the downhill trip back into Kinloch.
Huka Challenge, Wairakei Forest and Craters Mountain Bike Park
When I first visited Taupo during my honeymoon many years ago, the local i-site info center pointed us in the direction of some 1950’s style cabins. When we arrived at the cabins, it didn’t seem that much had changed since the cabins were built and we appreciated the simple furnishing, original oven and a veranda that opened directly to onto the lake. For my MTB trip, the local tourism board wanted to share another one of their gems, so I left Acacia Cliffs Lodge for one of the newest hotels in town, the Hilton.
You could argue that the Hilton is better suited to golfers and well-to-do guests, though the hotel manager went to great lengths to explain the comfort and facilities for their sporting guests. Particularly during major events, the Hilton hotel hosts a lot of guests who want to enjoy its comforts after competition.
For the Huka Challenge trails I was due to meet with the legendary Bruce Jaine. Everyone knows him in town and they nodded with approval on hearing that he was showing me the trails. I was delighted when he pulled up in front of the Hilton in a beat-up van.
Bruce is a veteran mountain biker and even rode in the first ever Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge in 1977 at a time where riding a bike in Taupo for more than a few kilometers was a ridiculous notion. If you ever get the chance, have a chat with Bruce about the early days of off-road riding, pre-suspension. Bruce has taken on the task of planning and building trails for the mountain biking races in the lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, which includes a 40 and 85 kilometer route. This is a job where he competes directly with natural disasters and logging.
As my guide for the day, we began in the center of town, close to the start line of the official MTB route for the Huka Challenge, and after about 10 minutes left the sealed paths as we followed the Waikato River downstream. One of the sections was appropriately named Junk and Disorderly as a tribute to people who have trouble finding rubbish bins and rubbish tips. Since the trail-building, it has now become cleaner than it used to be and, as a direct route from Taupo to a hydroelectric plant, the mountain biking employees of the plant took responsibility for building part of this trail.
This trail took us along a canyon following the river and included a few steep drops on the edge of the trail requiring caution. The trails continue along the river, though we turned and headed towards the Wairakei Forest and Craters MTB Park. A creative section takes riders through a tunnel underneath the road and Bruce had me ride in front so I could experience the WOW effect. Craters of the Moon is a geothermally active area and though the MTB trails don’t go directly to these hot spots, a large network of trails winds through forest, recently cleared forest areas and over three ridges. Sixty individually named trails are interconnected and offer enough for a quick morning or evening spin, or an entire day grinding.
While we were not about to attempt the 85km course circuit, the shorter route that Bruce chose wove in and out of pine forests and open sections and was a wonderful taste of the riding in this area. Though we avoided hefty ascents, there was hardly a flat section in sight. It was all up and down, left and right. The forestry company who own the land wipe out the trails when they clear trees, though they actively support their rebuilding. Completely new trails are developed during rebuilding so the mountain bike trails, along with the trees, have a life cycle.
One of the real highlights of Craters MTB Park is a recently cleared section called Tourist Trap. Once Bruce and his team built the trail, other engaged mountain bikers chipped-in to create banked corners and jumps so it can become fast and furious if you want to take it at pace.
Unless you decide to head up the ridge, the trails are classed as suitable for beginners to intermediate. While the trails are not technical, a fair dose of concentration and skill means you can really power through them. Conditions change as you enter pine forests from pine needles and pine cones (“grenades”) coating the floor, to new flat pack sections and then onto loose gravel. After 50 kilometers of brisk riding, you can appreciate the stamina required of elite mountain bikers riding 85 kilometers at a time. It is easy to become fatigued, which makes the annual Huka Challenge so challenging.
The Craters MTB Park and surrounding trails closer to town are naturally busier than W2K. We rode on a weekday, though, and they were far from full. With this at their doorstep, it is hardly surprising that mountain biking is so enticing for the locals, and for visitors very rewarding.
I actually returned to Craters of the Moon by car in the evening hoping to catch a close-up glimpse of steaming geothermal area. Instead, I stumbled on a night mountain bike race in this section and met one of the event supporters, Nigel Tipene, of the the local bike shop Phoenix Cyclery. This was a strange coincidence, as I had organised to meet him the following day for a coffee and chat about cycling in Taupo.
There are detailed maps that are worth studying, particularly for the Huka Challenge and Craters MTB Park trails, which can seem like a maze. It is worth picking up a hard copy for a few dollars when you are in town, most of which flows back into the trails. The ride from the town of Taupo past the Huka Falls is worth it, though going by car to Craters of the Moon gets you straight into the action.
It wouldn’t be New Zealand without even more adventure activities. There were sky divers dropping from planes the whole time I was in town. I’d been there and done that, so happy to give it a miss. Though the region boasts world class golfing, that was too passive for me. Instead, I took to the skies in the Taupo Float Plane and remained in the cabin for a spectacular loop over the volcanoes. This flight from Taupo headed to the southern end of the lake and circled the ice capped peaks. On the return leg, we passed the hidden W2K trail and flew over the Craters MTB Park returning to town along the Waikato River.
New Zealand, all in a day’s fun
I couldn’t leave New Zealand without a bit of jet boating. A little way north of Taupo, I joined the New Zealand Riverjet on the Waikato River. All of the passengers, bar myself, stopped in at the Orakei Korako thermal park midway. I was booked in for The Squeeze; dressed in a wetsuit, we explored a small tributary, squeezing between rocks that had been carved by the stream over millions of years.
Another source of adventures in this region are the kayak trips on Taupo, and I was particularly looking forward to seeing the Maori Rock Carvings which I heard about when I first visited Taupo but didn’t get the chance to see. Lashed by the wind and increasing swell, the kayaking required the same energy as mountain biking; the kayak doesn’t paddle by itself. I was mistakenly under the impression that the Maori rock carvings were ancient, when in fact they were created in the 70’s. This reflects upon my limited knowledge of Maori history, though the locals and guides helped to fill in my knowledge gaps.
The best general starting point for the Lake Taupo regions is the Great Lake Taupo Visitor website. For all things mountain biking, the Bike Taupo Advocacy Group is a central information portal with maps and events.
The most convenient flight is the bi-weekly Sydney to Rotorua with Air New Zealand. There is the option of flying to Auckland and catching a small plane into Taupo Airport, though with this option you would need to hire a bike locally.