The Bridge to Nowhere Adventure Ride
I recently rode the legendary Mangapurua Track, often referred to as “The Bridge to Nowhere”. The Mangapurua Track, situated in Wanganui National Park, follows the Mangapurua Valley downstream to the Wanganui River and is the most spectacular section of the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail.
The history of the area is fascinating, and there’s quite a backstory to how this concrete white elephant got stranded so deep in the forest. Officially called the Mangapurua Valley Soldiers Settlement, the land was offered to returning soldiers following World War I with hopes to establish farms and open the area up. By the time the bridge was completed in 1936 however, the lower valley had been abandoned by the settlers with access problems, erosion and poor soil proving just too tough.
In the weeks leading-up to the ride I was stressing-out big time. My training-regime began a month out by twisting my knee and ankle falling off my bike, closely followed by two weeks of flu, sinus infections, antibiotics and a course of prednisone so I could start breathing again. I contemplated pulling-out, but was looking forward to the trip so much and had scraped and saved for months to make it happen. I gambled that my base “bike-commuter” fitness would pull me through. It did, I just rode down the back with the slowcoaches and tried to conserve energy.
Our group of 16 drove down to Raetihi on Friday and overnighted in cabins at the Raetihi Holiday Park. We had riders from as far afield as Australia, even a South-Islander broke hibernation to join us.
I had ridden The Motu Trails with some of these guys in 2011, so it was good to catch-up with old riding buddies, “old” being the key word in that sentence. Let’s just say the average age was approaching the “experienced” end of the scale. We had a few beers in the cabin that night, but with a big day ahead hit the hay at an hour quite embarrassing to anyone under the age of 30. Chalk that one up to “experience”.
Bright and early on Saturday we saddled-up and rode 35km’s on tarmac and gravel to the trailhead. This “road” section through beautiful rural countryside was really enjoyable, the majority of it downhill as we descended the volcanic plateau. If I could find quiet country roads like this near Auckland a road bike might even find it’s way to my garage.
The weather forecast was not pretty, but we only had patches of light rain during the day and it wasn’t “too” cold. With vehicle-access all but impossible you take precautions and we came well equipped with plenty of food & water, first-aid kits, seam-sealed rain gear, thermals, beanies and gloves.
From the Mangapurua trailhead you start with 4km of gentle climbing, followed by lots of downhill, then it’s mostly flat as you shadow the stream to the bridge. The trail is designated “Grade 3” (intermediate), and was only made technical in places by the atrocious weather they’d had over winter. There were several tight squeezes where large lumps of trail had plummeted to the valley floor below. Signs advised to dismount as you had to sneak past at times, pressed hard-up against the cutting walls. I found on the slick clay my tyres had more grip that my shoes, so I kept the pedals pumping and spun through with no close calls.
Most of the trail was wide and easy going with a few narrow sections through the bush and around bluffs. Apart from the slips mentioned above the only tricky bit was negotiating ruts and bogs cut-up by motorcycles and quads.
I lost count of how many swing bridges we crossed. They were all tiddlers, but at only three planks wide too narrow to ride across without my bars scraping the sides. Plenty of the guys did ride them, but with my level of coordination I wasn’t taking any chances.
The scenery was spectacular with native bush cascading from the hilltops, bluffs towering above our heads and deep ravines crashing below. We crossed a handful of grassy meadows too, reminders of the settlers’ toil, but the bush was slowly reclaiming them.
The quick guys up front would stop at intervals and wait for the tail-enders to catch-up. You don’t want to leave anyone behind with broken bikes or worse, we had a boat to catch and no one else would be coming through that day.
My mountainbike is a singlespeed and a bit of a porker, so I took the cyclocross bike on this trip because it has gears. With no suspension it can get bumpy at times, but the track surfaces were fairly smooth and I had no trouble keeping up with the MTBs.
I think it was almost an advantage at times as the skinny knobblies would cut through the slush and grip the firm base below.
Among the group we had one wobbly wheel following a minor crash, some hydraulic brakes decided they preferred slowing down rather than stopping, and a chain-link got twisted. Nothing that slowed us down for long, and not a flat tyre in sight.
The longer I rode the better I felt, and it was a bittersweet feeling when the bridge finally came into view. A sense of accomplishment making it that far, but disappointment knowing the journey was at an end.
After a quick re-group at the bridge we blasted the last 1.5km down to the Mangapurua landing and a waiting jetboat… except, it wasn’t waiting! No sweat, time to make a start washing the muck off our bikes. The river wouldn’t notice, it was kind of the same colour anyway. Eventually the big V8 was heard echoing off the riverbanks as it powered upstream and thoughts turned to hot food and cold beers at our accommodation for the night, the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge.
The lodge, only accessible by boat, sits high above the river. That’s a good thing, as walking up from the jetboat we passed silt and refuse deposited by floodwaters a good 10-15 metres above the current water level. Layer after layer of wet riding gear was peeled off, and all traces of mud and aching muscles washed away in piping hot showers soon after.
That night, around a roaring fire, tales of the day’s ride were exaggerated and embellished with great success. A huge roast dinner was prepared by the hosts and I think I ate twice as much as I normally would. It all had a very “Kiwi”, laid-back vibe, like staying at a friend’s bach.
The following morning we canoed 20km down river to Pipiriki to rendezvous with the shuttle back to Raetihi. The masochists grabbed their bikes off the trailer and rode back to the camp ground, those of sound mind took the shuttle.
Cosseted in the heated van, warmth returning to wrinkled feet, a bottomless bag of scroggin was passed around the tired paddlers. Between chews I pondered the past two days, what a fantastic time I’d had. You can sure pack a lot of adventure in a weekend if you try hard enough.