– WILD WAIROA – NEW ZEALAND’S BEST KEPT SECRET
Take a trip into the Disneyland of mountain bike riding on white-knuckle gravity trails built and owned by a mysterious billionaire.
Have you ever ridden a trail that has a legacy that is passed on by whispers? That is so secret only a handful of people have ridden there? That was created as a personal mountain bike playground for a reclusive billionaire? Welcome to Wairoa Gorge, a stunning hour’s drive from sunny Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. As a writer/rider type, I was given the privilege of a ride at the Gorge to experience all this mountain bike wonderland had to offer. Trundling my brand new test bike out in the darkness of Nelson’s early morning, after two hours sleep due to a missed flight and subsequent midnight arrival, bike build and watching too much Seinfeld, there was still—despite the fatigue—a tingling of excitement. I met our hosts from Nelson cycling adventure company, Trail Journeys, outside the hotel and as a hint of the sun poked through the crisp darkness, boarded the bus to our mountain bike adventure park. “It’s a very special place,” one friend told me. Another said: “Better get some more safety gear.” And a third added: “I hear it’s the Willy Wonka chocolate factory for mountain bikers!” What exactly was I in for? The crew The crew was fierce. We had the Aussie ex-pats, good friends and former World Cup cross-country riders turned gravity diehards Waz and Zoe, Shane from Trail Journeys, George our photographer, and Rachel, fellow bike media and seasoned Enduro shredder and British national who has made Nelson her home. The sun continued to rise and illuminate our surroundings as we headed out of Nelson, opening up the mountainous hillside and lush, green scenery we can only dream about in most parts of Australia. Winding up a dirt road towards our destination, the terrain became steeper and more wild. I joked to Zoe wondering if the sheep get sore hooves from standing lopsided on the steep mountainsides. Turning into the Wairoa Gorge park, through the heavy gate which remains locked for all but a select few who have access to the trails, we
parked the bus at the base where “Robbie’s Hut” is located and where we get a safety briefing and talk through the procedure for the day. When we are in the park it’s in lockdown. It’s all very serious for a while. The looming mountains surrounding us hold promise and mystery, and I wasn’t quite sure what was in store for us. “Robbie’s Hut” is where groups get dressed in their compulsory gear (helmet, knee pads and gloves), given the safety talk, and kitted out with radios. From here we embark in a dual-cab ute, featuring wooden seats and seat belts on the tray, and with a bike trailer attached, ready to climb to the 1200m peak. As child of the mid-1980s with a strong love of dinosaurs, all I could think of while winding our way up the mountain was: ‘This is just like Jurassic Park’. After all, the park was built by a wealthy investor, who hired world-class trail builders to craft a trail network unlike any other in his own backyard. The foliage is otherworldly, it’s hard to imagine finding larger ferns, more dense brush, wilder roots; and this is before we even dropped in. Wairoa’s History The trails at Wairoa Gorge are now maintained by two dedicated builders, spending their days hand crafting sweet ribbons of loam, rocks and roots, and maintaining the 70+ kilometres of trail at the park. Details about the park’s billionaire owner are scant. While it’s known that he is a keen mountain biker that made his fortune out of being an heir to a family worth billions through styrofoam cups, just why he initially built what has been described as “Disneyland for grown ups” is a mystery. Especially since he was the only one able to ride it at first. After years of negotiations, Nelson Mountain Bike Club has been granted year-round admission to the trails. While access is still tightly controlled, Trail Journeys Nelson have the access and ability to co-ordinate The Gorge Experience trips, including shuttles to and from the Gorge from the airport, accommodation on site, and meal options. Riding the trails? That’s up to you with a map, a radio and a keen sense of adventure. With the fear of litigation in such a web of gnarly trails, the club and facilitators of trail days don’t offer guided rides or intel on how the trails are running. Dropping into the wonderland Each group that attends a ride day at the Gorge must head down a mandatory seeding run, to make sure the riders are capable of hitting the narrow technical trails. We launch into the Grade 4 Boulder Dash, and are greeted with a type of flow trail with tight switchbacks, small jumps and metric heck-load of fun. Having conquered the trail, we headed into the Grade 3 trail Florence, then into Quattro, which features sweeping views of the valley as we weaved our way down the mountain. The terrain of the trails oscillated between pine forest, with largely natural rock gardens and slick roots, chutes and drops. These trails were on the milder side of what the Gorge had to offer, but were a whole lot of fun and suitable for a solid intermediate rider. We reloaded our bikes onto the trailer at the creek, and began the shuttled ascent back to the top hut, where we had a quick coffee and snack before heading down on our next run. Waz, one of the riders, said that if they’re really hooking with minimal stops, they can hit seven full runs in one ride day. Seven runs may not seem like much with the motor-assisted ascents,
but with over 1000m vertical drop that’s a whole lot of descending and brake pads to run through! After our coffee and snack break, the fun really started. Dropping into another Grade 3 trail, Creamed Rice, we turned into the perilous Alaskan Pipeline. Slippery roots and tight, awkward gnar greeted us. Though it wasn’t deathly steep, the consistently technical nature of the Pipeline meant that we worked hard to move through the trail; though it’s a Grade 4, or black diamond equivalent trail, it’s good to keep in mind that the trail ratings at the Gorge are quite conservative, and back in Australia this would be considered a very difficult trail. During the Pipeline my limits were pretty maxed as I oscillated between hysterical glee and white-knuckled terror, flipping over a couple of times on the wet, slick, steep roots
The difference between the trail grades was quite significant. We eventually popped out onto the road, the sketchy Pipeline behind us, and turned to Sewer Slide then Chase the Orange, both Grade 3 tracks that still offered plenty of technical challenges. Video coverage doesn’t do this place justice, the steepness of these technical trails was next level; and my Aussie gravity convert mates mentioned that “these aren’t even the double black trails.” If Grade 4 trails were hectic, what could Grade 5 offer? I will return with my own bike, and fully functioning shoulder to find out. We rolled on, pumping, skidding and screeching our way through a few more runs before the body, lungs and legs were spent and we were ready for a big feed and an ale or two. Wairoa Gorge is the adrenaline junkie’s wet dream; a place where more travel is your friend and you can max out your enduro bike on a run. No more using 80% of your 160mm bike, the Gorge demands it all, thank you very much. Even after our first full run, with my heart thumping, body sore and arms pumping, I understood why full face helmets were compulsory. Weary Riders At the end of the day we managed five full runs. We had taken our time, had snack breaks and regrouped at trail heads. I was shattered, my upper body sore with lactic and arm pump, the rest of my body aching from hitting the deck more than a couple of times. And yet… the trails were still amazing. They offered what many trail networks in Australia metro regions lack; a challenge, a chance to work towards progression, a chance to use the full capacity of your suspension and dropper post, and that white knuckled fear you get when you’re not quite sure you can do something - but you give it a go anyway. To say the Gorge wasn’t a challenge would be a lie - through the day there were moments of glee and flashes of terror. Despite this, I vowed to be back, to ride the slippery roots, to push the limits and bask in the amazing Jurassic Park-like* foliage of Wairoa Gorge. * No dinosaurs were spotted in the making of this article