In 1994, the first edition of Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides described the Motu, deep in the ranges of Eastland, as "a remote corner of a remote country on a remote planet".

"Over the years, New Zealand has become rather less remote and international visitor arrivals have increased three-fold," says Jim Robinson from the Motu Trails Trust. "Up on the Motu Rd, not a lot has changed."

The road now forms part of the Motu Trails, one of the Great Rides on The New Zealand Cycle Trail, so there are more cyclists, shelters, signage, and welcoming accommodation at Toatoa and Motu as well as shuttle drop-offs, bike hire and guiding.

Even so, with the Motu's 48km of twisting gravel road reaching a highpoint of 780m, there's a lot more space than people.

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"The road's always been a remarkable journey," Robinson continues "It was the first properly formed crossing of Eastland, opened 15 years before the Waioeka Gorge road that is now State Highway 2."

The first full trip over the Motu Rd by motorcar was in 1914. The driver commented, "it was the most dangerous trip in New Zealand, and he would not take it on again, except in case of urgent business".

Even before the two ends of the Motu Rd were connected, they were bicycled, linked by a horse track that was first cut through in the 1870s.

With the same spirit as a keen, lean bike packer today, in 1910, one adventurer cycled, rode horseback and walked an epic 1000km-plus loop of the central North Island.

"I came through the Motu Track to Gisborne; carried my bike for a quarter of a mile through mud a foot deep … some of the hills were four miles long and only fit for a horse," he wrote.

In 1911, a Gisborne group cycled to Opotiki and most of the way back.

"At the second [river] crossing an exciting incident occurred," a journalist reported. "One of the cyclists rode headlong into the crossing, and was swept several chains down the river before he was able to get out [but] they reached Motu a little after 10 that night.

"From 1917, a railway line linked Gisborne to Moutohora, just south of Motu," Jim adds. "You can still see the rail bridge that once spanned the Motu River, though the river's long shifted course so the bridge now spans a section of paddock."

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To travel from Gisborne to Whakatane, Rotorua or beyond, people would catch the train, and then take a service car across the Motu Rd. The road trip required three-point turns to get around some of the corners.

Motu was the midway stopover on the bay-to-bay journey. The settlement was also promoted as a place to relax in the mountain air.

As a result, from about 1917, there was a large hotel — incongruous in the forestlands. A 1920 report proclaimed, "wide spacious rooms and halls that lead to a dining room [are] so splendidly proportioned, it is doubtful whether there is any so fine in the Dominion [to] greet the traveller".

But when the Waioeka Gorge road opened in 1929, Motu was bypassed. The hotel was soon dismantled and one section reassembled at Matawai. This smaller hotel still stands, grand, though no longer open for business.

The Motu Community House is just over the road from where the hotel once stood.

"Once the settlement's original post office, it now offers affordable, welcoming accommodation for cyclists and other visitors to Motu," says Robinson. "Those who enjoy things comfortably remote."

www.motutrails.co.nz