It pays to stay on an even keel. The day before might have been spoiled by the foul weather on Tongariro, but life (mother nature, karma, whatever) has a way of restoring balance if you give it half a chance.
The day started with a tour of Taupo, a pretty vacation town on the northeast corner of Lake Taupo. We then enjoyed a short 3 km walk along the south bank of the Waikato River. The trail began near a thermal hot spring on the edge of town, from where we proceeded downstream (and mostly downhill) to Huka Falls.
The falls are billed as New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction, which seems a tad specious in a land of volcanoes and mountain ranges. The flow of the Waikato River through the gorge is pretty impressive, though. More than 200 cubic metres of water roar through the 15-metre wide canyon every second. Back in my graduate school days, my professors used to drop marker dye into channels of flowing water to help us visualize vortices. Dye wouldn’t be necessary at Huka Falls – every place you look, the aqua blue water is churning and frothing in a maelstrom of eddies and white foam vortices. As you stare into the turbulence from various lookout points along the bank, a jet boat races upstream to the bottom of the falls, thrilling the school children perched out on its deck.
After the falls, we visited a neat shop called The Honey Hive. Not only is honey an important New Zealand product, but it’s made into a myriad of different products. This shop offered many different flavours of traditional honey, plus honey hand creams, honey lip balm, honey body butter, honey wines and (of course) honey beers. I half expected to find tartar-control honey toothpaste, but time was running short. I picked up a jar of tasty manuka honey (when in Rome), plus a bottle of honey mead Scotch for my drinking buddy Grant back home.
We enjoyed a nice home-style lunch at a local café, then moseyed up the highway to Rotorua. Our afternoon’s activities kicked off at a shop called Planet Bike, on the periphery of the Whakarewarewa Forest. We were outfitted with 27-speed full-suspension Mongoose mountain bikes, then given some pointers on shifting, braking, balance, riding position, and (most importantly) scanning the trail ahead for obstacles. Our excellent guides, Dave and Lisa, made sure we were comfortable on our hired bikes. I found the sensation of the rear suspension a little odd at first, having ridden hard-tail bikes all my life, but Dave dialled down the travel to 90 mm and then my bike felt great.
As we rode for awhile on a gravel logging road, we practiced up-shifting, down-shifting and braking. Rear brake first, careful with the front brake! Our guides arranged an impromptu skid-mark contest as a way of making sure we knew which brake to lock up in an emergency. Always a competitor (some would say ‘show-off’), I charged down the road, clamped down on the rear brake, and laid down a classic 10-metre skid. I even threw in a controlled fish-tail at the end for artistic bonus points. In my book, you should seize any chance you get to wear the tires and brake pads off a hired bike! And with that, we were off into The Redwoods for a guided tour of the best mountain biking trails in New Zealand.
Over the next two hours, we breathlessly climbed our way up forestry roads and connector trails, then bombed our way downhill on a myriad of expertly built and maintained mountain bike tracks. We mostly played on the Grade 2 and Grade 3 forest and singletrack trails, so things didn’t get too technical. But the rides were a riot. As I flew over table-top jumps, bounded over rocks, dodged around tree stumps, and threw my bike up into steeply banked corners, I couldn’t stop grinning and giggling. I was transported back in time to when I was a dopey twelve-year-old kid, with a Sony Walkman clipped to my belt and a tape of Queen’s Greatest Hits on endless repeat. My brother and I used to spend hour after hour racing around our homemade farmyard trails on our BMX bikes, trying our best to maim ourselves. Back in the present day on a full-suspension Mongoose, I found that I could actually land jumps without bouncing out of control. And with 27 gears and some real downhill grade at my disposal, I was carrying enough speed to do some serious frickin’ damage if I ever went over the handlebars. Thankfully, I was having too much fun charging at, over, and around the hazards to give my subconscious enough time to process the permutations of peril.
We tackled trails with names like “B Rude Not 2”, “Mad If You Don’t”, “The Dipper”, “Creek Track”, and “Dragon’s Tail”. We were riding in light rain showers, but the sandy-clay trails in the recently harvested areas held up just fine to the moisture. The grip was a little different in the redwood forest, where the profusion of pine needles on the trail made my bike feel looser. Once I got used to the tires drifting a little in the faster corners, I found new ways to have fun.
Just as my legs were starting to voice their displeasure with all the abuse I was giving them, it was time for one last Grade 4 cross-country ride back to Planet Bike. I arrived back at the shop kind of filthy and nearly exhausted, with a grin a mile wide. And I had somehow kept myself alive. Call it payback in full (with interest) for the previous day’s disappointment.
We dropped by our hotel to get cleaned up, then rolled into Rotorua for dinner at the Fat Dog, a funky restaurant with cool décor and great food. It’s always an adventure whenever you travel to sample the local culinary specialties. On this night, I treated myself to braised lamb shanks with mashed kumara and vegetables. A fantastic way to end an unforgettable day of riding.
Song of the Day: “Keep Yourself Alive” by Queen