During and after World War I the New Zealand government offered land in the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys to returning soldiers. Many took up the offer on the understanding they would soon have easier access via a new road, but the land was remote, untamed and hilly, and clearing it was challenging. Without its bush protection the cleared land eroded. Even the elements worked against the would-be settlers – tracks were washed away by flooding and slips. When, in 1936, a solid bridge was finally built across the gorge of the Mangapurua stream, many had already abandoned their holdings. In 1942, after another devastating flood, the government ditched the planned road and announced that access would no longer be maintained. The three remaining settlers were soon forced to leave and, by 1944, all that remained in the ‘valley of abandoned dreams’ was a Bridge to Nowhere. Now the symbol of the ill-fated settlement is a major visitor attraction, accessible only by a boat ride and a walk from one end, or a long cycle ride from the other.
The Mangapurua Track is 38km end to end (its partner, the Kaiwhakauka Track, part of the Mountains to Sea route, is longer and harder) and begins just off a gravel road a ninety-minute drive from Ohakune, ending at the Whanganui River. There you have to catch a boat that takes you to Pipiriki and another hour or so drive back to Ohakune. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde track – Jekyll on a fine day after a dry spell, Hyde in the wet or when it has been so. Neil did it a few years ago after rain and declared it ‘a bit challenging’, making me abandon hope of doing it myself. But, Max at Kune Shuttles assures me, after a month of no rain it’s riding like a non-technical grade three. So, with Neil and friends Jenny and Wayne, I climb aboard his minibus.
Before he leaves, Max talks us through the ride, highlighting points of interest and giving time checks for certain points so we know we’re on target and not rushing to meet the boat if we don’t need to. And don’t forget to stop and look back at the view. Then we’re off, grinding slowly uphill. Within a few minutes I’m puffing like a steam train, sweat is beginning to run and dust is already sticking. Neil powers past me and disappears around a bend.
True to Max’s prediction, the track is as dry as it could be, wide and firm, only a few small areas of gathered gravel to catch a wheel out with lack of traction. Dust replaces mud, clouds of it puffing behind tyres and into the face of someone following too closely. It’s not hard to keep momentum and I maintain a steady pace, breathing hard, my lack of fitness obvious. I round a corner and Neil is there, camera poised, his bike leaning against a km marker.
‘Is that only 1k?’ I pant as I slow to a halt.
‘No, it’s 2.’
I give the thumbs up and take the time to appreciate the view as I recover my breath. Rolling farmland falls away to my right, the mountains of the Central Plateau a pen-line sharp horizon against the almost cloudless sky. The track curls around hills that rise sharply on the left, dug out decades ago as farm access. I roll towards a marker, relieved again to see I missed another and am now at 4km. The climb is almost over and farmland is gradually being replaced with regenerating bush, the bright green of new mamaku shining amongst darker foliage.
Finally the push on pedals eases and I coast for a few metres towards a farm gate. It’s a hot day and there is little shade so the breeze generated by moving faster is welcome. Five minutes later we reach the top of the climb and halt beside the monument to those who worked so hard to make this land their home. A quick scramble gets us to the trig point to see mountains on both sides – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro to the right, Taranaki to the left.
I bump downhill at my normal careful pace, slowing and pulling over when I hear wheels behind me, teenagers who whizz past calling out their thanks. After half an hour the track levels at a large grassy open area, Johnson’s camp site and the midpoint of the ride. At the edge of the clearing is a long drop toilet, a cabin in the middle as shelter for rainy days, with a water tank and a sink. In one corner a large tent is pegged tight against winds that can blow fiercely through here, thankfully not today. A couple of large trees shade us as we eat our picnic, a piwakawaka flits around above us and a few flies hover. I pick up a golfball-sized half-eaten object and realise it’s a pear, the branches spreading above us those of an old pear tree. It’s one of many reminders that people tried to cultivate this land – another is the impressive hydrangea we come across later, its blue a startling interruption in the green bush.
The rest of the ride is undulating, short efforts in between easy riding, through areas of shelter, cool and welcoming in the heat, and large open pastures – it’s easy to see how this could have been farmland. Wooden signs are carved with names of the settlers who abandoned their land when the government abandoned them.
We reach the first swingbridge and the end of the track navigable by anything wider than two wheels. The only way over the bridge is by hoisting the bike onto its back wheel and pushing it, a small challenge for those of us who normally cross these things with at least one hand clamped tight on the waist-high wire. The terrain is rougher now, the track narrow and clinging to the side of steep cliffs in places, signs warning to dismount and push around the open bluffs. New fences, installed after a woman fell to her death a couple of years ago, offer a buffer between me and the fearsome drops to the river below. Five more swingbridges and four more bluffs are further evidence of why settling this area was so challenging, accompanied by the poignancy of more wooden signs, until we round a corner and the concrete of a road bridge in the middle of nowhere greets us.
We pause in the shade and check the time. It’s a twenty-minute ride from here to the River and we have over an hour. We set off at a leisurely pace, the path winding through trees, this section well-maintained to cope with the thousands of feet that walk it every year. We’re almost at the river before we meet any of them, a small group who have left canoes moored beside the jetboat that will ferry us downriver.
The trip is spectacular, the river wide and green, deep within its fern-fronded, steep-sided gorge. In one area the cliffs fall away and farmland stretches, a farm only accessible via this river. Our driver expertly avoids logs lurking like sleeping crocodiles in the water, slows for kayakers and canoeists taking the slower route down, swings into narrow channels between pebbled beaches. I can’t shift a huge smile from my face, this part of the day worth the effort of the previous few hours. Forty-five minutes disappears and we’re soon bumping into the jetty at Pipiriki. Max’s bus is at the top of a sandy path and most of us push our bikes up, Neil choosing to ride the 100m or so (show off!) I slide open the bus door and a chilly bin falls out and adds another bruise to my leg. But inside are iceblocks Max has brought as a balm against the hot day and I don’t complain. We sit and suck, masks temporarily forgotten, as the bus meanders back up onto the plateau and home.