Head out along Hikumutu Rd and soon enough you're climbing a gravel road which you'll have pretty much to yourself. At around 25km the road forks. A NZ Cycle Trail sign directs you right down the gravel Kawautahi Rd, but I prefer the alternative which is to continue left the remaining few hundred meters into the tiny settlement of Owhango, an old mill town, located exactly along the 39° latitude line.
Taumaranui to Ohakune
You can travel the 78km along HW4 from Taumaranui through National Park to Ohakune in a single day, but consider the quieter roads through Whakahoro and Whanganui National Park. The following is just one option, have a look at the NZ Cycle Trail site to checkout other possibilities...
A kilometre or so south of Owhango you reach the turnoff right onto the alternate route down the paved Oio Rd. After a small climb you start a glorious descent which just seems to keep going and going. All good things must come to and end, and for the final 20km the road levels out and turns once more to gravel, following the Retaruke River to Whakahoro and the start of the Whanganui National Park.
The surprising find here is the Blue Duck Lodge, where you can get a bite to eat and perhaps refill your water bottles. All in all this day has a nice shape to it: get the climbing out of the way early then enjoy an extended downhill to end the day in the wilderness.
Whakahoro to Ohakune (86k)
Yesterday you joined up with the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail (Ngā Ara Tūhono) along the last few kms of Oio Rd. Today is a continuation of that trail, along the Kaiwhakauka Track through Whanganui National Park. The Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail is often on the suggested itinerary for long-haul tourers but NZ Cycle Trail rides can be something of a mixed bag, so I was curious to see what the track conditions would be like, especially since the ride is graded 3 (intermediate difficulty). Here's what the NZ Cycle Trail site has to say about grade 3 rides...
- » Off-road trails can be narrow and may include hill climbs, steep drop-offs and small river crossings.
- » The trail surface is mostly firm, but may include muddy or loose sections.
- » There may also be obstacles such as rocks or tree roots to avoid.
In fact most of this route is 4WD track, but there is a 10km section of single track (roughly 5km either side of Mosely Campground) which demands some care, and it is for this 10km that the ride earns its grade 3 rating. I normally ride with only rear panniers. By strapping my tent onto the handlebars I was able to transfer some weight to the front of the bike and so pick my way slowly and carefully through. But the bike still got a good shake up; not the kind of place you want to suffer gear failure. Having said that... well the pictures speak for themselves: it's just beautiful.
Soon enough a more manageable 4WD track returns. Once you reach the Mangapurua Track junction you can either turn right to continue to the Bridge To Nowhere and your (pre-booked) jetboat ride down the Whanganui River to Pipiriki, or left to the road end.
The ride from Ruatiti Rd onwards is pretty relentlessly uphill, and it's easy to see why as views of Mt Ruapehu begin to appear; you are riding up and onto the central volcanic plateau. Initially gravel, the road is sealed once you cross the Manganuioteao River (at about 4km before Orautoha). At around the 40km mark you reach the Ruatiti Domain where there is free camping by the Manganui-O-Te-Ao River.
As you near the end of Ruatiti Rd a NZ Cycle Trail sign directs you left onto the rough, gravel Middle Rd, eventually spitting you out onto the main road at Horopito. The reason? Horopito is the starting point for the Ohakune Old Coach Road, a beautiful cycle route incorporating some fascinating rail heritage by way of the Taonui and Hapuowhenua Viaducts.
Beautiful... but not well suited to bikes laden with panniers. In this case probably better to sail straight past the Middle Rd turnoff and take a more direct route into Ohakune, leaving the Ohakune Old Coach Road for a day-trip. Ohakune is a pretty town. A popular ski resort it has all the things you would expect of a tourist destination, including a supermarket, pubs, cafés, and plenty of accommodation options.