National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Changing gears in Rotorua

Jump in the saddle to explore Whakarewar­ewa Forest, a maze of mountain biking trails near Rotorua, where tours take in the country’s largest geyser and groves of towering redwoods


Growing up, Tak Mutu’s parents used to prepare dinner using a two-million-year-old steam slow cooker. Each morning on the way to work they’d pass through the geothermal reserve on Rotorua’s outskirts and drop that evening’s meal into a wooden box hanging over an exposed steam vent in the ground, then collect it on the way home at the end of the day.

“The sulphur gave our food a nice, smoky flavour,” says Tak, from our lookout over the reserve. In front of us, dense white steam rises from the geysers and unspools into wisps as it passes over Rotorua township. On cue, Pōhutu — New Zealand’s largest geyser — erupts and sends a jet of vapour into the air like a volcanic kettle.

We’re lucky to be enjoying the vista, given the grey clouds that obscured our views just a moment before. The shifting weather is not all bad, though. Today’s wind and steady patter of rain, or “manna from heaven” as Tak calls it, has also kept the town’s signature whiff of rotten eggs at bay.

This is the first lookout we’ve encountere­d after emerging from Whakarewar­ewa Forest, a mountain biking hub perched at the edge of Rotorua. Over a million cyclists pilgrimage here each year, many pedalling beneath the California­n redwoods, unaware of the forest’s tumultuous history: after decades of community advocacy, it was eventually renamed as part of a historic handback to Māori ownership in 2009. Today the park is jointly managed by iwi (tribes), government stakeholde­rs, and forestry experts. Criss-crossing the forest is a tangle of biking and hiking routes laid out by dedicated outdoor enthusiast­s.

“Having this forest, and all the trails within it, gives us a chance to tell our stories. For years it was illegal for us to speak our language or share our culture, but times are changing and being Māori is cool now,” says Tak, who belongs to the Te Arawa Waka iwi.

Tak co-owns Mountain Bike Rotorua, a bike hire outlet at the forest’s entrance, with his brother. Whakarewar­ewa Forest is free for anyone to access, with bike hire and

shuttle buses there readily available, but today Tak is giving me a personal tour. After saddling up on our e-bikes and a quick tutorial on using the electric settings, we set off into the treeline.

What starts as flat forest floor carpeted in auburn pine needles soon turns into a series of escalating hairpin bends taking us higher and deeper into the forest. Tak stops along the way to explain old tales, like the monstrous birdwoman who used to prey on tribes, or the Romeo and Juliet-style story between two high-born lovers (but with a happy ending). Every mud pool, every tree — and even the wooden fencing — has a story, known as whakapapa. “Once you start to learn whakapapa, you’ll learn everything is connected,” explains Tak. Plans are afoot to add more signage about Māori culture to the park so others can enjoy these stories, too.

Back on our bikes, the mingled fragrance of rain and soil greets us as we zoom along undulating dirt trails through groves of redwoods and pine, then pass beneath giant silver ferns. We skirt a recently cleared pine plantation then plunge back into the woods, occasional­ly glimpsing distant Lake Rotoiti shimmering in the fleeting sunlight.

Between the momentum generated from the downhills and the support of the e-bike, I barely do more than point my bike in the right direction, which Tak explains is why e-bikes have surged in popularity in recent years, although he says he prefers to ride traditiona­l, non-electric bikes for the challenge of it.

It’s still raining when we finish up at Secret Spot, a spa-cum-cafe complex with 12 al fresco hot tubs on the edge of the forest. I don’t have a swimsuit so I simply opt to soak my heavy legs in an outdoor pool. Peering out into the foliage, I’m enveloped by the quiet of the cathedral-like trees, punctuated only by bird calls, while heavenly manna falls from above.

HOW TO DO IT: Mountain Bike Rotorua offers a variety of bikes and e-bikes for hire, including children’s bikes. Prices start from NZ$49

(£25) for half a day. Guided tours available on request. Nearby, Secret Spot offers hot tub hire from NZ$39 (£20) per adult for one hour.

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Great Ride
Left: Redwoods Treewalk,
Whakarewar­ewa Forest
Opened in May 2021, Lake Dunstan Trail is New Zealand’s newest Great Ride Left: Redwoods Treewalk, Whakarewar­ewa Forest

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