My very first bikepacking adventure was to ride the Motu Trails, one of the few New Zealand Cycle Trails which actually forms a loop. The Motu Trails loop is made up of three very different trail sections, firstly cruising along the coast before heading inland (and upwards) on a gravel road, followed by a grade 4 mountain bike track which takes you back down alongside Pākihi Stream.
All up, this sounded like a very pleasant two-day adventure and after packing our backpacks, we cycled enthusiastically out of Ōpōtiki. It was a warm, slightly overcast day and distracted by the stunning ocean views the Dunes Trail offers, we smashed out this first 10km section of trail in no time. It wasn’t until we pointed our bikes away from the coast and finally looked towards the hills that we noticed the dark clouds that had gathered in the sky.
Lesson #1: Check the weather for where you are going, not just where you are leaving from
Motu Road Trail started easy enough, with the first climb not kicking off until you’ve hit the 25km mark. I wish I could say that the views make it worth the big climb, but at this point we had literally ridden into the clouds and therefore all we could see around us was mist and rain. Huddled in the shelter on the corner of Takaputahi Road, we heated up our dehydrated pasta dinners in an attempt to warm up. We also decided to take a good look at the map to see exactly the hut’s location where we would be sleeping.
Lesson #2: Check your route before you start your bikepacking trip
The map clearly showed that the hut wasn’t quite in the middle of the overall 93km, but more towards the 60km mark, which made our first day significantly longer than we thought. So with another 24km to go, we got back on our bikes and continued slogging up Toatoa Hill, the second big climb of the day.
When we reached the start of the Pakihi Track, we were happy to leave the gravel road behind. At the same time, we were slightly nervous for what came next, as we were riding our cyclocross bikes instead of proper mountain bikes. But as soon as we started following the Pakihi trail through the forest, we were loving it! It’s a really nice, flowing trail and it was great to be going downhill after the big slog up!
Lesson #3: Enjoy the downhill, you worked hard enough for it!
Before we knew it, we reached the hut where we could change into dry clothes and rest our sore bums. With our dinner already demolished, we tucked into our breakfast and remaining snacks to fill up our tanks. With a fire going in the woodburner, the sound of rain on the roof and copious amounts of tea, we had a very snug evening in the old bush hut in the forest.
Lesson #4: Make the most of any hut or other type of accommodation along your route so you can minimise the gear you need to carry
When we woke up the next morning, it had only just stopped raining and both the bush and the track were still very wet. Because we now only had a third of the distance left, we assumed that this day would be a breeze, all downhill until we would wheel back into town. Boy, were we wrong . . .
The remaining part of the Pakihi Trail is a narrow path along the Motu River, with some steep drop offs. The trail had what felt like hundreds of little landslides, each one resulting in a pile of wet, slippery rocks blocking the trail, so we had to constantly dismount our bikes and walk a lot of short sections. Whenever we were riding our bikes, we were slipping and sliding all over the place, trying hard not to end up in the river down below us. To make things worse, we had run out of food by now and energy levels were low, so this stretch felt like it took forever.
Lesson #5: Don’t base the amount of food you bring on what you usually eat on a hike, biking makes much hungrier!
So yeah, we were pretty stoked when we eventually popped out of the forest and made it to Pakihi Road. But our joy was short-lived when we realised that the road was not just an undulating gravel road for another 9km, but one of the worst gravel roads we’d ever seen. With 70 bumpy kilometres already under our belt, our butts were not happy with this last stretch on a rutted, corrugated road. Being new to bikepacking, we didn’t have any bike bags but we had just brought a backpack each.
Lesson #6: To spare your back, try to use your bike to carry as much of your gear as possible
Once we finally reached the flat and straight roads, we still had to battle a strong headwind all the way back into town. All up, this day felt much harder, even though it was only half the distance and a lot less elevation than we did yesterday! Needless to say the first thing we did in Ōpōtiki was buy all the snacks we’d been dreaming about all morning. By the time we were soaking in one of the free, heated pools in Kawerau, most of the suffering was already forgotten and we were stoked with our first successful bikepacking adventure.