NZ cycling holidays: Mountain biking the Mangapurua track, Whanganui National park. Video / Supplied
In Shifting Grounds, her acclaimed 2021 book about Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, historian Lucy Mackintosh encourages us to look closer at our landscapes.
Starting from the ground up, she says, we might see “place names that evoke a forgotten past, outlines on the land that trace a former presence, trees that mark a home long since gone, walls that organize the land according to earlier senses of belonging “.
The brilliance of Shifting Grounds is that it reminds us that it’s not exactly where you look but how you look that reveals a place’s layers.
Deep in Whanganui National Park, the Mangapurua Valley has plenty of lines and signs that speak of its past – as an ancient landmass once laid beneath the ocean, a well-trodden Māori pathway, and a failed farming settlement now the backdrop to one of the the country’s best one-day mountain bike rides.
A certified classic, the Mangapurua Track is a challenging mission through the remote valley down to the Whanganui River where the trip finishes with a jet-boat ride to Pipiriki.
The trailhead is 30 minutes’ drive from Raetihi, at the end of rural Ruatiti Rd. Closing the farm gate behind you and setting off on the climb to the saddle, you’d hardly know you were heading into a place with so many stories to tell.
A return to the valley
It’s our fourth ride through the valley. With each return journey we know more of its history, and the clues to look out for. Race through and you’ll miss most of them. Muck about and you’ll miss the boat. Set off early and make the most of it.
At the saddle, 6km uphill from the trail’s start, a tōtara pou and storyboard signal the meeting point of the two adjacent valleys, the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka.
The two valleys were once the site of what has been described as the most unsuccessful post-war soldier settlement in New Zealand.
From 1917, returned World War I servicemen and their families were offered parcels of land as part of a resettlement scheme. The idea was that they would clear the bush and farm it. Their families would flourish alongside. In all, 30 farms were established in the Mangapurua and 16 in Kaiwhakauka.
But the endless toil and tough living conditions proved pretty much insurmountable. Within 20 years, most families had given in and walked away with nothing. Others hung on, only to be forced out when the government pulled its support for the settlement in 1942. For good measure, the settlers’ houses were razed to prevent them returning.
A little further on from the pou is Mangapurua Trig, a stupendous lookout with views over Whanganui National Park all the way to Mt Taranaki.
Here, hidden away in the bush, stands a moving memorial to the 96 returned servicemen who came to this place. Their descendants who built the memorial often return on Anzac day.
Valley of abandoned dreams
The big downhill ride from the trig to the valley floor more than satisfies the need for speed. On reaching suspicious-sounding Slippery Creek, the track levels out for its mostly cruisy 20km wind to the Whanganui River boat landing.
Riding slowly with eyes wide open, the landscape reveals its secrets.
While the steep hillsides are densely cloaked in native bush, the valley floor is an unruly meadow of thigh-high grass and overgrown bracken.
A series of clearings are dotted with exotic plants that look quite out of place. A monster hydrangea here. A wizened fruit tree there. Bright yellow pumpkins, ripe on the vine and ready for the soup pot.
An old chimney stack stands exposed and alone. Century-old fences, festooned with moss, lean around long-forgotten boundaries.
A straight row of poplars marks Bettjeman’s farm. The family were one of the first to arrive, and one of the last to leave. A little further on is Hellawell’s, where the community used to gather for hockey and picnics.
On our visit before this one, we met a friendly old-timer on the track. The son of a settler, he returned each summer for long stints, living in a bush camp in the corner of one of the clearings.
He invited us back to camp for a cup. Waiting for the billy to boil, he shared a little of the history. Rich and vivid, its markers all around us. It was living history to him and so it was to us.
Lest we forget, the local history book Remembering Them by Raewyn West captures the stories of the valley settlers.
Further down the valley, the trail passes across a series of incredible mudstone bluffs, a deservedly famous feature of the Mangapurua Track.
Up close they look strange and ancient, layered with sediment and protruding rocks. As the mudstone crumbles and mixes with water it becomes a bedevilling sticky clay known as papa, named after Papatūānuku, the earth mother. This mud is the mountain-bikers nemesis. A reason to ride here only in the dry.
Twenty-five million years ago this landform was the ocean floor. Uplifted and tilted, its soft sediment has been eroded into the intricate pattern of rivers, valleys and ridges that define Whanganui whenua.
In the Mangapurua Valley, Battleship Bluff is the flagship of these spectacular geological wonders. Riding across it today is relatively safe thanks to expert trail builders and their marvelous machines.
Battleship Bluff proved a much greater obstacle for the valley settlers, however, who spent two years blasting a perilous route across its face to secure passage to the Whanganui River.
The river was their lifeline, connecting them to the outside world and bringing in goods by boat. Reaching it required crossing the steep Mangapurua ravine via a timber swing bridge, until it was replaced by a reinforced concrete one in 1936 by which time many of the settlers had already left.
The Mangapurua valley farms were abandoned a few years later, stranding the Bridge to Nowhere in time.
In Shifting Grounds, Mackintosh challenges us not only to look at how humans have shaped the landscape, but how the landscape has shaped human settlement. When you look closely at the lines and the layers, you might be surprised at what you find.
Riding the trail
The Mangapurua Track is part of the multi-day Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail from Ohakune to Whanganui city.
The Mangapurua is a remote, Grade 4 ride requiring good fit fitness and a shipshape mountain bike.
Set off early, preferably using local bike shuttles, and time your ride so you do not miss the boat.
Take plenty of snacks and a Personal Locator Beacon.
For detailed information, see mountainstosea.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
Check traffic light settings, vaccine requirements and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz