Ohakune to Masterton
Follow HW49 east towards Waiouru then after about 11 km turnoff right into Whangaehu Valley Rd. This road looks so enticing I was sorely tempted to follow it all the way through to Whanganui. Another time...
Instead, at about 24 km from Ohakune turn left onto the gravel Owhakura Rd through to Bells Junction. Tarmac returns as far as Rangiwaea Junction, turning to gravel again for the last few km into Colliers Junction. With all this junction hopping it's a good idea to have a map handy.
Dairy may have taken hold in Canterbury, but the central North Island is still home to a good number of New Zealand's 30 million sheep. The volcanic soils in this area are cobalt deficient and must be supplemented to avoid "bush-sickness" in livestock. Sure enough, the day I was riding through an aerial topdresser was at work, swooping low over the fields and landing regularly in a nearby paddock to take on more payload. Highly entertaining.
There are no services on this route, nor any stand-out drawcards; the real attraction is the landscape. Despite the hills all around, this day has no major climbs and is not too taxing. Just settle back and enjoy the slower cadence of the country.
About 5 km past the picturesque little village of Mataroa the road joins up with SH1 and you must cycle the remaining 4½ km along the motorway; heavily trafficked, but there is mostly a good shoulder. Taihape (the "Gumboot Capital of the World") is a popular stopover for HW1 travellers and has a supermarket, cafés and many accommodation options.
Head south down Highway 1 for about 6 km till you reach the turnoff left into Gorge Rd. Don't be tempted to continue along the highway past this point; although there is a good shoulder up until Gorge Rd, it soon disappears to make way for an overtaking lane which snakes up the hill, over a bridge and around a blind corner.
The rivers in this area cut deep gorges and soon after the turn-off you're crossing high over the Hautapu River. It's a climb through quiet, tree-lined country roads and the Omatane Scenic Reserve, then at about 15 km you cross over the Rangitikei River turning into Omatane South Rd which soon becomes gravel. Gravel remains for 8 km until you reach Potaka Rd. From here you mostly descend into Mangaweka, dipping into the deep ravines and crossing the Rangitikei a few more times. Stop in at the Hub, a café inside an old DC3. If you've cycled enough for one day there are several accommodation options here, including a campground.
Mangaweka is the starting point for the Manawatū Cycle Trail, 125 km of cycling through quiet, back-country roads. And it's all paved! Head back out and start the climb up Ruahine St. Once along the top the views are expansive and it feels like you're up in the heavens; a sense reinforced often as the road cuts down deep into a gorge and you climb your way back up. At about 38 km from Mangaweka you reach the turnoff to Pohangina Valley East Rd. Here you have the option to cycle the remaining 2 km into Āpiti where there is a pub.
Once you've climbed out of Āpiti most of the hard work is behind you and the remainder of the ride descends through the quiet, rolling farmland of the Pohangina Valley. There are several options to camp along the way with a DOC campground at Piripiri, and Totora Reserve a further 10 km down the road. There are no services between Āpiti and Ashhurst.
Ashhurst is a supply town for the surrounding farmlands and has everything you need. The highway south to Palmerston North has a good shoulder and is safe to cycle. After a few kms a NZ Cycle Trail sign directs you down a side road toward the Manawatū Riverside Pathway which adds a few kms to the trip but gets you away from the traffic. If you prefer you can continue along the highway, as the good shoulder remains all the way through to Palmerston North.
This day starts with a fairly steep climb over the Pahiatua Track. Have a breather at the summit and take in the array of wind turbines lining the road. Once down the hill you arrive at Pahiatua, a small town with supermarket, supplies, and a lovely campground bordering a nature reserve.
There's a bit of a climb out of Pahiatua, but the remainder of the day is wonderful riding along quiet, rolling, country roads along the Tararua Traverse. At Alfredton there's the opportunity to free camp at the domain. Otherwise it's onward to Masterton. The Wairarapa district has a host of quiet country roads to enjoy, and safe passage into Wellington over the Remutaka Rail Trail.