We all dream of riding trails straight out of our front door. The reality is, though, that’s a luxury few of us have, unless we’ve set our lives up in one of a few towns where it’s possible. For most of us, there’s either a ride on the road, or a car journey, before we can get our trail fix. Nowadays, however, the accessibility of car camping and campervan setups means it’s possibly to literally wake up and ride right from your front door. And, that front door could be in a new location every day – or even multiple places in one day.
Our home away from home rolled up the driveway; a shiny new VW California. The middle offering in the all-new California range, this campervan gives serious modern-day Kombi vibes. With an electro hydraulic pop-up roof and roof bed, plus a self-contained kitchen, there was ample room for us to sleep, eat and chill in between rides.
Bags in the back, bikes on the rack, a couple of espresso shots from the home machine and we were ready to roll. “Where are we off to then?” was the question. We’d made no real plan and with the van being our kitchen, sleeping quarters, chill zone and changing room we needed no reservations of any sort. We had a vague direction to head, and a time we needed to be home, but between then and now, the itinerary was pretty loose – actually, it was non-existent. As we headed towards our ‘loose’ destination of the Coromandel Peninsula, we knew our plan would take shape and unfold as it needed to.
After some discussion, we decided to head to the town of iconic thermal mineral spas and a big ass mountain: Te Aroha would be our first stop and we were there for a good time, not a long time. Having ridden the ‘Gum ta Native’ trail eight or so years ago, I was keen to go back and see if it had seen any updates. NZ’s endless summer was in full effect and within minutes of beginning our climb two things were obvious: one – we should have been at a beach somewhere, as it was too hot; and two – with an almost-clear blue sky, the sun was piercing through the bush canopy meaning capturing any good photos was going to near impossible, i.e. a MTB photographer’s worst nightmare. We continued our climb up, with intentions to get to the high point of the trail and descend back down the way we’d come. The trail seemed to be smoother than I remembered – maybe it had been cleared of rocks, maybe it had been mellowed due to the amount of traffic over the years, or maybe it was just because I was now aboard a 160mm travel 29er, not a 120mm travel 26” wheeled steed?
Two thirds of the way up the hill we decided it was a bust; the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze. Rigs turned 180, lockouts off and down we went. Descending was a blast: some fun, flowing turns, a couple of little bridge features, a few foot-out-flat-out moments, a couple of scarily tight trees, and suddenly we were back at the van, albeit a lot sweatier than when we left.
“What’s next?” “Ice-cream, surely?!”
A minute later were back in the centre of town choosing which Tip-Top flavour would hit the spot, then back in the van for some shade and chill time before we headed off. Maybe there are some hidden nuggets of trail hidden somewhere in the Domain Reserve (we know there is further up the hill outside of the domain, but our lips are sealed), and given more time to explore – or a local guide – we may have found some, but we would need more time to find that out. The trails have gone the way of the miners in the 1880’s, in that they have been somewhat forgotten about as time has marched on. I’m picking that, as Te Aroha is a small town, with an even smaller riding community, there’s a lack of interested parties to further develop what could be a MTB destination on par with some impressive small-town parks around the country. For now, though, it’s worth a quick stop if you’re passing through, if for nothing else other than an ice cream and a dip in the thermal baths.
Back on the road, we’d decided Whangamata could be the go – again, a spot I’d ridden a number of years ago. With rumours that some trails had been refreshed recently – but also of logging activity in the area – we weren’t quite sure what we were in for. Regardless, the stoke was high. With the trails off limits until 5pm, due to logging, we took a quick drive to check out where our coffee the following day could be found and hitthe supermarket for supplies. Much like our entire trip, we had no plan for food. Fortunately New World had a handful of recipe cards conveniently located by the door. Recipe cards in-hand, the three of us went separate ways, loading up and reconvening at the checkout with our dinner ingredients sorted.... although we still didn’t know quite where we’d be cooking it.
Arriving at ‘Fred’s Carpark’ we unhitched the bikes, checked the map board, ensured we didn’t get tangled up with the logging, and off we went. With limited time before sundown, we figured the best plan was to scope some spots, shoot what we could, hopefully bag a golden sunset shot or two, then return the following morning for more.
Trail names at the Whangamata Ridges MTB Park hark back to the surfing roots of the town, with many having surf related or marine-centric names: Pipeline; Over the Falls; and Aqualung, to name a few. Working our way up the hill, the light was looking a little better than Te Aroha, but photo-man-Cam was still not stoked. I was, though; I’d ridden here before but back then the trees were about as tall as I was, now they’re many times my height (and I haven’t grown at all!). With the tree cover comes better dirt; what was oncerain-rutted and dry-as-a-bone is now nicely packed, at times blue-groove, and on the day we rode, perfect!
The climb up was a cinch; a wide and well-graded trail wound its way to the upper slopes of Causeway Road, which dissects the core trails of the park. Unfortunately, the trails deeper in the park were off limits, so we concentrated our efforts on cutting quick laps up and down each side of Causeway Road. First pop was Tube Cruiser, a Grade 5 flow trail with some sweet jumps and berms, all pretty crisp! The curse of the dappled light was following us around again, so we shot back up Aqualung, this time to check out the view from near the highpoint of Causeway Road. As we climbed, the unsightly pile of logging/the view rolled out over the green of grown pine, across the town and out to sea; a stunning sight ignited by the late afternoon sun. Taking note of the situation, we knew we were on borrowed time and it would soon be sundown.
We hooked into Just Saying, a short n’ sweet number with the main feature being a nice floaty gap jump. With the sun just in the right spot, I got to work trying to make it look like I knew what I was doing on the bike, and Cam got his shutter finger working (it’s just point and shoot right?!). A few hits later and we were done. Popping onto the road, we headed up to No Bull for a gander at its infamous final feature: the rock-roll. Not highly technical, but not entirely straightforward, take the wrong line and you’re in for a rough ride. The rightline was just the right blend of steep and sketchy. “Guys, guys, guys – turn around and ride up that bit again!” You know something serious is going down when the photographer gets this excited. Liam and I did what we were told; riding and re-riding a few sections of climbing trail, unsure what all the fuss was about. Cam showed us some of the shots and we could finally see what it was all about! Like the miners who once explored these hills, we’d struck gold: photographic gold. The light was perfect, as was the scene; Liam and I did our job adequately, and that was a wrap.
Back at the van, we cracked a coldie and reflected on our day: the ground we’d covered, the challenges and the wins. It was dark, we had nowhere to be, but we were hungry, and we did need to find a spot to park up for the night. Fortunately, there are a number of freedom camps around Whangamata and its surrounding areas. We didn’t want just any camp spot, though, we needed the perfect spot.
After operating multiple phone apps, and seemingly an hour of driving around in circles (I did mention we had no plan), we found the ideal spot. Setting up the California for the night was super simple – it took no more than five minutes to get the roof (and extra bed) up with an auto switch. We got the awning out and flicked the driver and passenger seats around inside to give us a comfortable indoor space for the evening. This functionality ensures the California is the perfect base camp in any kind of weather! Mood lighting was the icing on the cake, giving our setup a homely ambiance. The best thing about the campervan is that – unlike camping – we knew we just had to put everything back in its place the next morning when we were ready to head off; no tent pegs to pull out or ground sheets to roll up and repack – that’s a huge win! The nostalgic vibes of this camper may make heads turn, but it’s the ultra- modern specs and features that really make it shine.
We’d be greeted with a perfect sunrise the following morning, and could dive in for a pre-breakfast swim, just a stone’s throw from where we’d sleep. Onemana Beach ticked all the boxes and we settled in. With instructions not to cook curry in the van, we figured some spicy Mexican would be fine, so got to work, recipe cards in hand. We literally solved all the world’s problems whilst eating our burritos and as the clock ticked into ‘tomorrow’ we slid the door shut and drifted off to sleep; the aroma of freshly cooked Mexican still hanging in the air.
The 6am wakeup came as rudely as you’d imagine after a scratch over five hours sleep. Blurry eyed we prepped ourselves for the sunrise; Cam started clicking, and Liam and I prepped the first round of coffee. This was what every morning should be: coffee and good yarns whilst watching the sunrise, followed by a swim (which doubled as a bath) and finishing with bagels and granola as the sun came up. The trails were shouting, so we rolled the awning in, dropped the pop-top, and set a course once again.
We fluffed around for 20 minutes trying to make the most of a bad situation; sessioning the bottom of Over the Falls as the curse of the dappled light once again killed our vibe. Hustling back to the van, we made a snap decision: head over the Kopu Hikuai’s and check out the trails behind Thames. But first, coffee.
Pulling into Thames, it was after lunch time, and we’d eaten all the van food. Walking past numerous secondhand stores – a couple complete with hand- scrawled posters touting numerous Covid-related conspiracy theories – we finally found a spot to eat. After a quick education from the waitstaff that our lunch of a Croque-monsieur meant ‘crispy gentleman’ (I’m still not sure that’s 100% accurate?!) we downed our iced coffees and were off to the trails.
Five minutes up the road, we rolled into the Moanataiari Mountain Bike Trails. One of the best things about the California is that it features 4MOTION AWD, meaning it can handle off-road driving to slightly more secluded spots – and secluded this was.
It was pretty obvious this was an old mining area with mining works visible right from the carpark, and signs warning not to stray from the tracks as mine shafts lurked in the bushes. We had no idea what to expect but armed with the Trailforks app, and a photo of the map at the trailhead, we stumbled around, finding our way. This is one of two key trail areas near Thames, the second a few kilometres out of town up the Kauaeranga Valley road. Given a little more time it would be easy to hit both areas, as well as the single 6km Karaka track, in half a day.
The Moanataiari Trails are accessed off a gravel road which, after a short climb, pops you out at a nice pump track – although why you’d venture this far up the hill with a pump track-suitable bike, I’ll never know. The ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ beginner trail winds its way around this pump track plateau, and a number of trails either drop onto, or begin their descent, from here. The park packs a lot of fun into a small number of trails. There are no big climbs or equally long descents, but there are a handful of flow trails with some super fun sections; pop this, gap that, rail that turn, charge the roots – that sort of stuff. The ‘Pit Fall’ trail has a nice drop at the end; an overhead-height gap over another section of trail. I’d not hit anything like this for a while and, after a couple of run ins, I plucked up the courage to hit it. Such is the beauty of a small-town trail centre – they’re able to build some of these more ‘risky’ features (much like the Whangamata rock-roll) which you wouldn’t find on a regular ‘legal’ trail at, say, Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa for example. I guess with less traffic there comes less opportunity for people to wreck themselves.
Rolling out of the trails and back to the van, we fist-bumped a successful session and loaded the van for our trip home. On the road for only 32 hours, and having no real plan or reservations to turn up for, we felt as though we’d been away for a long weekend – such is the vibe you get from being in close quarters with your travel companions the whole time. There’s no retreating to your room to doom-scroll the socials, or TV to demand your attention. The feeling of having flexibility to change plans at the drop of a hat, go wherever, stay wherever (within the local rules of course) and – if you’re lucky – waking up able to ride trails right from your front door, simply can’t be beaten.
Words: Lester Perry
Images: Cameron Mackenzie