When we think of Waitangi, the birthplace of our nation, we tend to remember the TV broadcasts and headlines reporting the cultural politics that surrounds Waitangi Day each February. For those of us who have visited Waitangi, we also marvel at its stunning beaches and its never-ending farmland. Nowadays, the old lawlessness of the nearby early settler ports has been replaced by a thriving tourist industry. Yet few people know that Waitangi Mountain Bike Park is nestled beneath the tall pines of the Waitangi Endowment Forest, offering riders some 40kms of smooth, feature-filled flowy trails built by Southstar Trails and Ryan Lovett.
In early October I, along with a couple of mates, ventured up to the picturesque Bay of Islands to investigate what this new park has to offer. Although mother nature wasn’t on our side that weekend, the rain didn’t hinder our enthusiasm and eagerness to get out and try riding every trail in the park within the two days we had. Our overall assessment: the little-known Waitangi MTB Park deserves to be on every mountain-biker’s radar.
Location, Location, Location
Waitangi is only a brief three-hour drive north of Auckland. This is pretty much the same amount of time that it takes most Aucklanders to drive to Rotorua, which many mountain-bikers do weekend after weekend. For the same travel time, a trip up to the so-called winterless north is well worth it.
Once we arrived at Paihia we were instantly captured by the slow pace of the place and we quickly adapted to the beach lifestyle. It felt so much like we were on holiday that we almost forgot we had our bikes to ride. Almost.
Me and my mates — John and Amy — are no human compasses as we never have any idea which way is north. If it wasn’t for Johnny, the operator of Paihia Mountain Bike Rentals, we would’ve got completely lost. Johnny was quick to provide the key information we needed, including which were the ‘up’ trails and other important places within the park, as well as recommending which trails were worth riding first.
With Paihia township only ten minutes down the road, we had all the coffee, food and accommodation we needed to get and keep going. The park is well sign posted and easy to find. There is plenty of parking, which is all situated around a highly informative and striking hub / base map station.
The Riding Experience
Although primarily clay-based, the lower parts of the trail network sit on a volcanic shelf, which makes for highly contrasting terrain as we climbed our way through the park. Starting off by meandering through gum trees and rolling over rocks, we then ventured up through young pine and into small pockets of native bush, erupting in bird song.
The park is divided into five zones, each with a different flavour and unique style of trail. Zones 1-3 were the first to be developed and feature 85% of the park’s trails. Luckily for us Zone 5 opened the day we got there: we had the honour of being the first riders to roll tyres over it. Situated at the very back of the park, and within the oldest pines on the property, these trails are built natural, rough and with minimal man-made features. While the trail surface was too soft and young for us to be able to really ride at pace, these mostly Grade 4 trails do have great potential for challenging riders on something other than a ‘bermed’ highway.
Zone 4 is yet to be developed, but is a primarily flat. Sitting on the same volcanic shelf as the lower trails of Zone 1, development will be slow and expensive, as trail building is incredibly laborious through all the rock. Their plans are to focus on building more grade 1-2 family loops and a skills park in due course.
Starting from the feet of the Pouwhenua, we rode through the gentle link trails of zone 1, up into the first trail forks of zone 2. Here, we began to wind our way up via a timid grade 2, 2km climb into the upper areas before dropping down into a section for grade 2 and 3 flow trails, or looping out and around Holland Days, a gentle XC loop than spans the lower, flatter areas of both zone 2 & 3.
Zone 3 is where the serious rider will spend most of their time. Littered with a myriad of fast, flow trails, with native sections and plenty of jumps, it is quite the playground. With all the trails in this zone linking back to the main climb, Te Rangi Hononga, it is easy to crank out laps without getting overly fatigued. Pakonga is the golden child within the park, a grade 4 jump trail that features large table tops and deep berms perched on the edge of a ridgeline. I also recommend riding Hookioi for the best mix of everything.
A Special Place
What really makes Waitangi Mountain Bike Park so special is the fact that it has been 100% community funded. Tiff Holland has really managed to rally the troops and unite the community to bring the park to life. The local ITM supplied all the timber for fencing and the hub area. The local jail provided prisoners to help clear trail, develop the grounds and do construction work. Tiff’s good friend provided a large amount of architecture and consulting free of charge. Everything for nothing — and all because they saw the same goal of creating something special for the local community.
It all started with a family trip to Rotorua some four years ago. The experience and epic trails captured Tiff so much (like it has for many of us), that her husband, Robin, exclaimed “How can we get one of these?” That quick remark set in motion the wheels on the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park project. Like anything in life, though, if it’s easy, then it probably isn’t worth the effort. Over the next few years, Tiff, who is the main driving force and front women for the project, set about scouting the perfect block of land, negotiating with several parties, including the land owners, local iwi, Department of Conservation, forestry management and Kiwi conservationists before starting the all-important fundraising efforts.
Final Reflections of a Happy Traveller
The quality of the park impressed me most. From trail design to signage, from drainage to dirt type, the park has been well thought out. We had to be strategic with our timing when venturing out from under tree cover due to the rain, but not once did we find the trails were drastically effected. Slippery in the odd spot, sure, but still plenty of fun with lots of grip and a big clean-up job after the ride - damn clay! The park does lack big elevation, though thanks to smart trail building, even the series rider will want to keep coming back. The trails are perfect for the family too, and even better for a brief holiday, giving yourself time for off the bike activities also.
Finally, I must say a big ‘thank you’ to Sauce Pizza Bar Paihia, The Scenic Hotels, Duke of Marlborough and Focus Paihia, as well as Tiff and Johnny for hosting us with a genuine friendliness which has always been a regional trait encountered by travellers heading North.
Words & Images: Cameron Mackenzie