As the sun sets, Ohākune Railway Station's dim lights are welcoming. This is where the Northern Explorer rolls into town, stopping at the 1909 station for 10 minutes every day, except Tuesdays. Possibly this is where the area's first market-gardeners arrived in the 1920s, whose significance to the area is marked by the Big Carrot, which dominates the entrance to town on State Highway 49. It stands just up the road from another local landmark, the famous Chocolate Eclair shop which has been run by the Nation family for generations.
I am here to ride the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, a 231km trail through Ruapehu and Whanganui which is one of 22 Great Rides of the New Zealand Cycle Trail. After an overnight in Ohākune, I shuttle 15km to Horopito to begin on the Old Coach Road, close to Horopito Motors. The sprawling vehicle graveyard is probably better known to cinema buffs as Smash Palace, featuring in the 1980s movie of the same name, as well as Goodbye Pork Pie.
The ride will take us through locations important to New Zealand's history, with informative signposts along the way.
At the trailhead, I read that Old Coach Road was formed in 1906 for coaches to bridge the gap between rail lines ending in Raurimu, in the north, and Ohākune in the south. As we ride the trail, juddering here and there on setts, the old handmade cobblestones that remain, we discover stories of the railway construction.
Workers formed the 38.5km track with little but shovels, picks and wooden wheelbarrows, working six days a week in the wettest, coldest place in the North Island. Some of the engineering feats are spectacular – Taonui Viaduct curves rust red above the greenery, Hāpuawhenua Viaduct takes my breath away when I ride over it and peer down. At 43m above dense bush, bungee jumping operated here in the late 1980s.
We're shuttled next morning from Ohākune to Middle Road and ride a mixture of gravel and tarseal to Ruatiti Road. Sheep scatter as we pass; I glimpse Manganui-O-Te-Ao River, dark and reflecting. Māori and, later, early settlers and missionaries once travelled along it to the central North Island.
We spend late afternoon and evening listening to the sounds of the countryside at Ruatiti Bridge to Nowhere Backpackers and Camping Ground, watching pine trees gently sway, and sheep and cattle graze.
Three-and-a-half kilometres on, we reach the trailhead of the 37km Mangapurua Track, rated advanced for cyclists. To exit this isolated trail, a jet boat along the Whanganui River is necessary. Our sailing is booked for 4pm. We get cycling.
A hideous 5km hill greets us. Along the way infrequent signposts bear names. Are there farms buried deep in the bush? I see no driveways.
All becomes clear at Mangapurua Trig. A monument stands in remembrance of WWI servicemen and their families who settled land and attempted to farm it more than 100 years ago. The names on signposts are surnames, marking abandoned farms, given up because of low wool prices and poor access. Twenty-five years after arriving, the final three families left, the road is unmaintained.
Signs inform cyclists to dismount and walk sections where orange plastic safety fencing forms the only barrier to sheer drops on the right. A few rockfalls are navigated, downhill is taken carefully. Bush stretches in every direction except for a few grassy clearings, once farms.
The Bridge to Nowhere surprises amidlush greenery. Built in 1935, the concrete structure crosses the crystal-clear Mangapurua Stream, 40m below. It was obsolete by 1943, all the settlers gone. The crowd here too, surprises. Most are canoeists, having walked in from the Whanganui River, a 15-minute cycle ride away.
We make it with 20 minutes to spare. Whanganui River Adventure's jet arrives, takes on 14 bikes and passengers and blasts, sometimes sideways, along the shallow lime-green, and deep dark waters of Whanganui River. Vibrant green punga and bush contrast with white cliffs; inlets make shallow caves. It feels mysterious. Stretching 300km from Mt Tongariro to the Tasman Sea, we travel on 32km of it to Pipiriki. Canoeists paddle its edges, navigating the white water stretches well.
Māori revere Whanganui River as a kuia, a grandmother. In 2017, it was granted, in a world first, the legal status of a person to reflect the spiritual relationship between Māori and the river.
The Pipiriki Camp office wall displays a Māori legend relating the river's formation. The mountain, Taranaki, in love with Ruapehu, dared to make love to her, angering her husband, Tongariro. A battle ensued and once peace came, Tongariro stood by Ruapehu. Upset and hurt, Taranaki left his homeland, tearing a path across the land to the ocean before heading north. That path is known as the Whanganui River.
Newspaper clippings show the paddle-steamers and steam-ships that plied the river, and there's a photograph of the grand, 100-room Pipiriki House, built in the early 1900s. Its 130ft-long balcony gave views of the river and Māori villages. Pipiriki was the terminus of the coach road from Rotorua, the Whanganui River known as the Rhine of New Zealand. Today, I notice little in Pipiriki, other than the camping ground, once the site of Pipiriki School, and a few houses.
Whanganui River Road takes us alongside the river, sometimes level with it, sometimes high above. We ride through towns named by 19th Century missionary Richard Taylor, like Jerusalem (Hiruhārama) where we stop and peek in at St Joseph's church, built in the 1890s and with an interesting carved altar and Kōwhaiwhai panels.
London (Rānana) slumbers in the heat, home to around 10 houses, a closed hall, marae and school. Exploring the restored Kawana Mill, I discover there were flour mills all along the river in the 19th Century. Kawana is now the only one remaining and has been a world heritage site since 1983.
Matahiwi School is now Matahiwi Gallery and Cafe where the wooden boat River Queen sits, used in the 2005 movie of the same name. We see few cars, few people. Athens (Ātene) is silent.
I grit teeth up "Gentle Annie", a never-ending hill that rewards with spectacular views over the river, and a fast descent to State Highway 4. At the junction I read about the river's spiritual and cultural significance, of river tribes fishing tuna from its waters, the riverboat era which began in 1891, and of town histories.
The paddle-steamer Waimarie is docked on the riverside in Whanganui – restored after lying in the river for 40 years having sunk in 1952. Durie Hill War Memorial Tower stands above houses on the river's far side, colonial homes are spotted.
The town was established at the river mouth in 1840, orginally known as Petre and officially renamed as Whanganui in 1854. It's where we head to complete our Mountains to Sea cycle. Where the river from the mountains finishes at the sea, our history lesson ends.
CHECKLIST: MOUNTAINS TO SEA CYCLE TRAIL
For more information on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, go to mountainstosea.nz
The Mangapurua Track is closed for the winter season, but will open again in Spring. Check the Trail Updates section of the website to find the current status of all parts of the journey.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew