Exploring a natural playground

The view towards Ruapehu from Rangiwahia. Photo: Mike Yardley.
The view towards Ruapehu from Rangiwahia. Photo: Mike Yardley.
Framing Manawatu’s eastern horizon, the towering spine of the Tararua and Ruahine ranges lord over the plains like a giant billboard for outdoor adventure, writes Mike Yardle. 

After taking my fill of Palmerston North’s urban enticements, I was itching to explore Manawatu’s natural playground and I first headed to Arapuke Mountain Bike Park.

Formerly known as K-Loop, Arapuke Forest Park is the premier mountain bike destination in the lower North Island with over 30km of well-formed trails, in a growing network. Spanning all grades of difficulty, the grade 2 trails are the ideal option for newbies and families.

From the Scott’s Rd entrance, I struck out on the Icebreaker trail, which threads you through Douglas fir trees, before switching on to the Swamp Monster trail, which looped me back to the car park. I then headed to the Kahuterawa Rd car park to tackle the region’s beloved Sledge Track. Situated in the heart of the scenic Kahuterawa Valley, Sledge Track intimately immerses you in the majesty of our native forest environment, serving up the grandeur of towering ancient trees, plunging waterfalls and seductive swimming holes.

I took a 90-minute return walk to Argyle Rocks, encountering some stunning natural fauna along the way. As kereru whooshed overhead, I spotted numerous kapokapowai, the giant bush dragonfly, bathing in the bright sunshine. After rain, Argyle Rocks creates a dramatic spectacle of cascading water in the Kahuterawa Stream. Just past the rocks, follow the trail to the monster rimu tree, a 600-800-year-old specimen, reaching a height of 25m.

 A rider enjoys one of the tracks at Arapuke Mountain Bike Park (below).
A rider enjoys one of the tracks at Arapuke Mountain Bike Park (below).

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied
If you want to push further, 2.5km into the walk, a swing bridge takes you over a gully and into Arapuke Forest Park, where you can loop back to the car park on the shared tracks. (Just remember to keep an eye and ear out for mountain bikers!)

On a sun-splashed Saturday morning, I joined the hordes of local weekend warriors striking out on the region’s signature Te Apiti-Manawatu Gorge walking trails. Landslips forced the permanent closure of the gorge road more than three years ago and the new highway route is now being constructed over the Ruahine Range. With the rumble of vehicle traffic permanently silenced in the gorge, it’s the cacophony of birdsong that was the soundtrack to my stroll, with tui, fantails and kereru thriving in the bush-draped gorge, coursing through the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges. The mighty Manawatu is unique among New Zealand rivers in that it crosses a mountain range, with its headwaters lying close to Norsewood on the eastern slopes of the Ruahines.

Since a landslip forced the closure of the gorge road more than three years ago, walkers have...
Since a landslip forced the closure of the gorge road more than three years ago, walkers have been able to enjoy the soundtrack of tui, fantails and kereruin the bush-draped ravine.
I made a beeline for the Manawatu Gorge Loop track, an easy stroll of 1.2km through native bush. Branching off it is the longer Tawa Loop track, which is deliciously good. Set aside two hours to knock off this 4km route, which follows a steady gradient and is steep in places. Your huffing and puffing will be handsomely rewarded with a heart-stealing view across the sinuous curves of the bush-wrapped gorge. Keep an eye out for Whatonga, a stirring 6m steel sculpture of the Rangitane chief who captained the Kurahaupo waka when it landed 800 years ago. Eight Maori-inspired information panels also tell the story of the region’s Maori heritage and culture. I adored the rich array of native plants, headlined by the soothing nikau groves and red flowering rata.

A bridge on the Rangiwahia track.
A bridge on the Rangiwahia track.
If you’re up for another challenging walk, head north for an hour and strike out on the Rangiwahia Track. This 4km trail starts at Renfrew Rd, rambling through red beech forest to the open tussock tops of the Ruahine Range. You’ll need a reasonable level of fitness and ample water as this walk is a steady climb which leads you 1327m above sea level. An Insta-worthy highlight is the magnificent arched wooden bridge, before the grade becomes steeper, before the Rangiwahia Hut. If you’re doing the walk as a day trip, allow two hours each way. Alternatively, you can book an overnight stay in the Doc hut. The panoramic views are seraphic, sweeping your eyes across the central plateau and Manawatu Plains.

The view from the lookout on the Rangiwahia Track makes the walk worth it.
The view from the lookout on the Rangiwahia Track makes the walk worth it.
Northern Manawatu affords awe-inspiring views even from the comfort of the car on the undulating hinterland roads that follow the river as the road dips in and out of the valleys. Crowning the western horizon, I found myself swooning over the views of the snow-topped clarity of Mt Ruapehu. Running from Mangaweka to Ashurst, take a drive along the Manawatu Scenic Route, a dedicated touring circuit that accentuates the beauty and charm of the back country, threading together a necklace of scenic gems, rolling farmland, hidden valleys and charismatic settlements. Soak up the scenery at the Ruahine Dress Circle lookout. Early settlers were so inspired by the curved papa cliffs, they nicknamed it the dress circle, because it reminded them of the dress circle in an opera house.

The Apiti Lavender Farm is a beloved small venture run by Helma Hughes and offers accommodation for cyclists and, in summer, the opportunity to picnic in the fragrant mosaic of more than 3000 purple plants. The little on-site shop also sells lavender products — candles, soaps and bottles of lavender hydrosol, a byproduct of the oil distilling process — that will make your laundry smell fantastic. Another local landmark is the Apiti Tavern, a country pub with an excellent beer garden, tasty fare and welcoming hospitality.

The Apiti Tavern & Eatery.
The Apiti Tavern & Eatery.
Heading through the picturesque Pohangina Valley, you’ll be treated to an ever-changing landscape of lush green valleys, stony river terraces and the imperious backdrop of the Ruahine Range. Along the way, there are hidden swimming holes and scenic lookouts to explore. Totara Reserve is a popular picnic and swimming spot, as is nearby Raumai Reserve. For a quick detour, head up to Pohangina Village to visit Cartwheel Creamery, an artisan operation that produces exceptional cheeses that combine traditional methods with modern safe food practices.

The route ends in Ashhurst, where you’ll find The Herb Farm — a family business making natural skincare and therapeutic products on site from plants harvested from the sprawling gardens. I enjoyed a hearty graze from the cafe, where the menu is centred around local, free-range and organic produce incorporating fresh herbs from the gardens. You can’t go wrong with their sweet brioche French toast, free-range bacon and grilled banana served with berry coulis and natural yoghurt, topped with candied walnuts. Bliss! From Ashurst, it’s a very short hop to the Te Apiti wind farm lookout. The sheer size and height of these 55 turbines is astounding.

Makoura Lodge.
Makoura Lodge.
Finally, it’s been named New Zealand’s Most Beautiful Town on 16 separate occasions, so a quick visit to Feilding is well worth the effort.

It is an instantly likeable town, immaculately clean and colourful, studded with impeccably maintained character buildings. Friday is market day, with the largest operating saleyards in the southern hemisphere doing their busiest trade, while the fresh produce and artisan treats do a roaring trade at the weekly farmers’ market, which has been judged to be the nation’s best on multiple occasions. Held in Manchester Square in the shadow of the town’s heritage clock tower and the Feilding Hotel, it has more than 30 stalls offering everything from fromage to sausages.

Where to stay?

Boasting 280ha of farmland in Apiti, Makoura Lodge is a fabulous country luxury lodge, wrapped in natural splendour. Panoramic views greet you at every turn across the Ruahine Range, gullies and native bush. Renowned for its stirring country hospitality, the lodge caters to a wide market, from weddings and a couples retreat to birthdays and business conferences. The range of on-site team-building activities is impressive, spanning 4WD training, horse trekking, claybird shooting and archery.

The Hole in One at Makoura Lodge.
The Hole in One at Makoura Lodge.
Owned and operated by Hugh and Kimberley McIntyre, the property has been a going concern for the McIntyre family since 1896.

The lodge itself was built in 1998, with as many local materials as possible. It features macrocarpa timber, milled from the property, and rocks from the nearby Coal Creek River. An impressive open log fire surround and bar top are made from a totara log that survived a scrub fire on the property. In 1903, the original homestead was built by brothers Hugh and Jack McIntyre and still stands today. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Kimberley and Hugh, who took me for a spin on the incredible 4WD training course, which is widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s best off-road vehicle and 4WD training facilities. They are wonderfully homely hosts who are delight to get to know as you share their authentic, heritage-laden family slice of hinterland paradise.

 

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