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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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.