RIDING VEGAS STYLE
EDITORIAL BY DAMON TRENWITH | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARCEL MESSEMAKER
It was 11:30 in the morning; I’d finished my last job for the week. It’s only Tuesday and with less than two hours to catch the Picton Ferry to Wellington I was acting like a madman possessed. Things were thrown into the garage from the back of the ute at breakneck speeds, only to slow temporarily as I placed my new Mt bike down gently in the back. Lobbing two boxes of riding gear, a couple of pairs of undies and my toothbrush into the cab, I turned on the radar detector and was off. Good-bye sunny Nelson, see ya Monday.
I’d heard the Mt biking scene was pretty good at the moment in Rotorua, which is nicknamed Rotovegas due to the main street being lined with hotels and motor inns. New trails had been built, there were now two shuttle buses running riders and their bikes back to the top of Tawa Rd all weekend long, and some hot young riders were stepping it up. Isn’t it funny how we can easily find excuses to get away and play? But I really did need to catch up with old friends and family; besides, the diary was empty for the rest of the week. Um, well, I’d frantically crammed all my clients in to next week after checking the meteorological forecast and ferry sailing times last night. I just couldn’t resist the urge for some primo single track any longer.
“Kaitaki”, a Maori word meaning “Challenger”; This is the largest vessel of the Interislander fleet, and largest ferry operating in New Zealand waters. She has sixty staff and ten decks from the engine room to the sun deck and can carry 1650 passenger as well as vehicles. The vessel is driven by four Sulzer diesel engines, each pushing out 5760 kilowatts of power at only 510 rpm. That’s about ten times slower than your car engine, so these are big pistons doing some hard torqueing.
Anyway, I made it on and was kicking back in the observation lounge when I got chatting with some Wellington XC riders doing a circuit of the South Island trails. I think Mt bikers seem to be able to sniff each other out, or perhaps it’s that distinctive stale smell of sweat-encrusted nylon clothing that’s supposedly designed to wick moisture away from the body and be odour proof, but no matter how many times you wash them…. The conversation led to which track Mt Biking is heading down in New Zealand these days and whether relatively new disciplines such as Free-Riding and Slope-Style riding were going to squash or at least detract from other disciplines such as cross country and trial
riding? I had spent seven years skydiving full time, logging more than 7000 jumps while witnessing the introduction and influences Free-Flying (three dimensional relative work) and High Performance Canopy Swooping had on that sport. It seems the machines just get bigger, original disciplines will always have their place and following and continue to grow, while the new ones branch out and often bridge gaps between two different styles. We like to be protective of our chosen style and can view changes as threats. This is caused by our passion and the enjoyment we receive from something. I love it when people defend their discipline and demote others, it shows they have desire, lust and emotion for their sport.
Our tongue wagging concluded that, the more things change, the more they really stay the same”. Then an announcement came over the ships speaker, “Please return to your vehicles but do not start your engines, we’ll be docking in ten minutes. Welcome to the North island of New Zealand”.
Six hours later the illuminated “Red Stag” sign drifted into view through the heavy mist, my headlights were on low beam as I droned past the Waipa Mt Bike Car Park and into Rotorua. Sulphur fumes sifted through the air vents and “The Nomads” Second Selection CD was playing for the third or fourth time.
A large afro-haired woman swayed across the road in her flannelette dressing gown and ugg boots, grasping a bottle of cheap liquor in one hand and trying to thumb a lift with the other - it was a quarter to twelve on Tuesday night. Ah, it’s great to be back in Rotovegas.
With great weather and very few midweek riders about, I made full use of discovering the new trails in the park. I’d just ridden Spilt Endz, Pondy New and Rollercoaster when I seized the opportunity to catch up with Edd in his Waipa workshop. Edd and Lennore own and operate Planet Bike, a very well equipped mobile Mt bike hire service based in the Waipa Car Park, the gateway to riding heaven. They cater for large groups, individuals and families with toddlers over three. These guys live and breathe the stuff and have basically become part of the forest. They both ooze passion and enthusiasm, particularly Edd, when it comes to making a coffee. Apart from being the in-park Bike Mechanic, running repairs, hiring out bikes, taking guided tours, school groups and essentially, the car park ‘General’, he also creates and sells coffee on site. His coffees aren’t so much made for the $3 financial reward but more for upholding his fine reputation as the best coffee maker in the Whakarewarewa Forest and beyond!
Incidentally the name “Whakarewarewa” is the reduced version. “Te Whakarewarewatango O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao” is the full name which means “Uprising of the Warrior (war party) of Wahiao”. No wonder locals refer to it as “Whaka.”
They’ve raised the bar as far as hire bikes go too, by introducing the Scott Ransom full suspension free-ride bikes to their fleet of seventy or so. You’re lucky to even own one of these rigs, but to have them as hire bikes? Well, I guess that’s just meeting customer demand. This also probably reflects the direction that Mt biking is heading, gravity fed free ride tracks on super-plush full-suspension machines! So when you drop in, visit Edd & Lennore if your bike is in bits or you need that oral fix.
Saturday 9am, two Southstar Adventure shuttles roll through the fog outside the Waipa car park. Like cows at milking time, waiting riders stroll over and slot their rigs onto the trailer like they’ve done a hundred times before. Irene docked our tickets like we’re clocking into some old factory for work. Katchafire was quietly pumping from the bus speakers and I recalled the chilled, hip vibe that’s always been in this local Mt biking scene. When friends here introduced me to it about ten years
ago, the atmosphere was prevalent then. I’d noticed it my very first day back then and it hasn’t changed today.
One by one, both familiar and new faces filled the bus, accompanied by that all too common stale sweaty nylon smell again. There was a kind of chain-gang camaraderie feel in the bus as we rumbled up the hill. Irene had turned up the volume on the sound system. Damp pine needles and sappy fragrances filled the air. We rounded the last corner before the top, packs were zipped up and helmets went on, I likened it to jump-run 12,000ft above the earth just before the pilot yells “overhead now, door up & go”, The pace had picked up a notch or two.
These shuttles have definitely set Rotorua apart from most other Mt Bike destinations in New Zealand. They run every weekend and can do mid-week trips for groups by arrangement. Southstar Adventures started with one bus just before the World Champs here in Rotorua in 2006 and now are set for a possible third shuttle this spring, obviously demand driven and a service second to none. They can load twenty eight riders and bikes on each bus and you can get about twelve or so runs in a day if you bring your mars bar and plenty of water.
There’s no less than five trail options from the drop point at the
top of Tawa Rd, and they vary in grades from 2 (easy) to 5 ( very difficult). The shuttling system provides something for everyone, from the family group to XC rider and Down-Hiller. There are large weatherproof map signs at major intersections to keep you on track. Maps can also be bought at all good bike stores and on site at Planet Bike.
There’s been some amazing trail development here over the last few years, mostly due to efforts of the Rotorua Mt Bike Club and their Trail Building Contractor Crew headed by Murray Avery and James Dodds. The focus here has been on developing quality trails to suit a broad spectrum of riders that visit these tracks - I could fill the rest of this magazine babbling on about the tracks and their unusual names. I will say though, one set of linking tracks called Huckleberry Hound & Little Red Riding Huck takes no more than ten minutes to ride down but consists of well over a hundred jumps, I lost count near the end.
A six pass ticket will set you back $30 and is ample for the day. A day ski
pass would cost you more than twice that, so I think its great value. You can also buy single rides at $10 a pop or get yourself a one hundred ride ticket for $200. Mmm, two bucks a lift, what a steal.
Thanks to the chauffeuring of Irene, Noreen & Slim I managed to clock onto most of the shuttles each day and rode my gluteus to the maximus. Remember I had travelled up from the South Island with only one CD in the car for these few days and I wasn’t going to let any nappy rash, muscle fatigue or blurred vision dampen my fun. A couple of near misses, some “endos” (over the bars) and tree hugging while trying to keep up with some local friends kept me honest as well as wondering what the hell I’ve done with that “Fundamentals of Mt Biking” DVD?. I usually gauge my weekend rides by checking my bike condition at the end. A misaligned rear derailer, and two bent rims, mmm… it just put another smile on my dial.
Every time I’ve turned up here, there have been new trail challenges, the same good vibes and a level of fulfilment I very rarely get at any other riding destinations. I came for my six monthly Mt bike fix, and that I most certainly got. But like a drug dealer offering his victim the first few lines for free, riding Rotovegas Style again has made me somewhat more reliant on that hit. This excursion has only made me want it more. I’ll probably have to join the Interislander “Nautical Miles Club” soon and move some more clients around.
If you’re looking for some lung-busting five hour hill climbs, technical mountainside switchbacks and river crossings along with a three day endurance ride only the true West Coaster could handle, then forget it, and head down the back blocks of Canterbury.
But if you want to go hang out and get down with your mates, huck some lines and chill on the arguably the best network of single tracks in New Zealand, then Rotovegas is the spot for you. The place has atmosphere, down to earth folk and a relaxed vibe, along with professionally operated services and handcrafted tracks made with love. Check out the websites above and sort out a trip - Rotovegas Style.