Just two words: pedal power

By Jamie Troughton


Remember as a kid the sensation of pedalling down a hill, the swish and rattle of gravel, the wind in your face? It's a feeling of flying, of freedom, of fearlessness, easing into quietly aching thighs and a soft burn of accomplishment in your calves.

Throw into that heady mix untouched native New Zealand bush, turquoise streams and perhaps the most stunning coastal track in the country and you have the Motu Trails, Opotiki's contribution to the New Zealand Cycle Trail project, and already a contender as one of the best.

Carefree days on a kid's bike are well behind me now, while the soft burn in my calves is more often a white-hot furnace of lactic lava.

A chance to preview the Motu Trails before they open officially in March and an epic two-day Eastern Bay of Plenty road trip soon conquers any fitness fears I harbour, however. With a broad grin, I'm in.

THE first day is a 90km trek, usually ridden in two days but mostly downhill, from the cool climes of Matawai to Opotiki via the Old Motu Coach Rd.

The Motu Rd is a treasure in itself. It's as if you're biking along someone's never-ending tree-lined driveway, gravel occasionally swept aside to reveal bare rock underneath.

Before the Waioeka Gorge was opened up, this was the main route from the Bay of Plenty to Gisborne, dripping with history, cut from straining ranges and swooping valleys with sharpened bloodymindedness.

Early traversers had to unbuckle horses from carts to get around steep corners and, until recently, the road was a feature stage of the Rotorua International Rally race.

Confession time - I've actually driven the road once, coming home from a trip to Gisborne, spurred on by some dodgy navigation and the tantalising prospect of giving the work-supplied Suzuki Swift a thrashing.

In so many ways, however, riding this road is superior.

The scent of native forest adds sublime flavour to the trip and you have time to absorb the magnitude of the view, to take in the shot-up sign advertising the Gisborne-Opotiki boundary.

By the time we reach our halfway point at Toatoa Farmstay Accommodation, I'm in sensory overload.

Luckily, salvation is only a couple of scones and some home-made lemonade away, courtesy of owners Bob and Maxine Crowley, who regale us with the history of the area and their enthusiasm for the trail concept.

"We're really starting to see a lot more cyclists on the road," Maxine says, producing from nowhere a plate of muffins. "We only really notice them go past when the dogs start barking but the trails are capturing peoples' imaginations."

Out here in the backblocks you notice these things. By the time we hit the coast road we've passed a grand total of seven cyclists and just two cars. That's cycling nirvana in anyone's language.

The muffins kick in for the final stretch into town, the Dunes Trail, perhaps the highlight of the ride. Carved into the 10km section of sand dunes is an undulating masterpiece, a rolling coastal track sheathed in an aroma of salt and seaweed.

It's a trail to inspire, to link and transform a bereft piece of coast into something special.

That's just what Mick McLay reckons, too. The former cocky and real estate agent eases his way into Two Fish Cafe in Opotiki's main street early on the second day, searching for a coffee while the garage does a warrant for his 4WD, dapper in his grey suit.

In no time, the 78-year-old is immersed in conversation; his eyebrows jump noticeably when we tell him we're here for the trail.

"I won't be riding it at my age," he grins, "but I think it's going to be a great thing, not only for the community and the local businesses but also getting people out from in front of their TVs and computers and into some fresh air and exercise."

It's a common refrain in a town which has seen times tougher than most.

The Opotiki District Council has one of the lowest socio-economic profiles in New Zealand, with high unemployment. PSA has hit the local kiwifruit industry hard while urban drift has also taken a toll.

But in natural assets, the region is unbelievably wealthy. A long, lazy length of pristine coastline, rivers for kayaking, rich hunting amid the steep peaks and valleys, plus rich soil for growing orchards and farming.

There's still hope for a pivotal aquaculture venture 6km off the coast, which could bring in plenty of jobs, while the cycle trail is already starting to take effect.

Nationally, 658 workers have been already been employed on construction for the 18 Great Rides, which make up The New Zealand Cycle Trail, with $2.9 million pumped into the local Eastern Bay economy for the Motu Trails alone.

We see the fruits of this on the spectacular Pakihi Track, taking us from the Motu Rd through the pristine Urutawa conservation area.

The Department of Conservation is putting the finishing touches to 24 new bridges along the historic track, used by Maori raiding parties in pre-European times, then later home to Barry Crump when he wrote A Good Keen Man.

We've got Bushaven shuttle driver John Maynard along for the ride today, collecting knowledge to share with the cycle tourists he hopes will come flooding in once the trails open officially. I get to see more of the scenery than anticipated 5km into the track when my chain disintegrates. The beauty of this trail is that I coast another 10km downhill before it flattens out alongside the tranquil Pakihi Stream.

While we wait for the Bushaven van to collect us, the stream then washes off the dust and sweat, soothes tired muscles, cleanses the soul.

Our particular journey has come to an end, but it's just the beginning for the superb Motu Trails.

- Hamilton News

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