Avgas in the morning
18th April 2017
We've previously published a story about the Moerangi Trail, way back in 2011. As awesome as the trail is, it probably doesn’t warrant another story about it just yet when there are so many other exceptional NZ trails to talk about. Except for one thing that has changed the Moerangi experience recently... helicopter access!
Helicopters are a match made in heaven for passionate mountain bikers, allowing us to access more trail time, in more remote areas than would be practical otherwise. Unless a person had a crippling phobia about flying, any mountain biker worth their salt would understandably leap at the chance to sample a helibike excursion. So, we did…
Although headquartered in Rotorua, HeliBike Rotorua’s centre of flight operations is about an hour’s drive South East towards the Whirinaki Forest, in Galatea. Various packages, as well as customised trip versions, generally will see riders driving from Rotorua to the Galatea base. On the lower priced trips that journey is self-driven; on the more comprehensive trips a luxury shuttle is part of the package.
A couple of trips are offered under the ‘Great’ and ‘Extraordinary’ package names, with the Extraordinary encompassing extended ground transport services around the helicopter flight, along with added features. There are multitudes of variations available within each package, including choosing to stay one or more nights at DOC huts on the trail, getting dropped by the helicopter at alternative locations, and having drop bags delivered to huts other than the one you’re dropped at so you don’t have to ride with all your provisions. For our experience, we did a full one-day trip with no overnight stay at any of the DOC huts available on the trail.
Our group was the exception to what most would choose to do though - we were doing it as a ‘work day’. Yep, tough job! The greatest enjoyment will be had by people taking their time and soaking in the beauty and remoteness of overnighting at one or more of the huts.
Flight day. I mean ride day.
Ah, the smell of Avgas in the morning - there’s nothing quite like it. On arriving at the helicopter base the smell was the first jolt to the senses to indicate that a big adventure was about to begin.
Well, that and the gigantic aircraft hangar with a shiny new Squirrel model helicopter parked up on the tarmac. The next event was another that is not a part of an everyday ride for most people - the weigh in. It’s completely practical, of course, to weigh every passenger with all their gear and bikes to ensure the flight is within safe parameters, although given we were travelling in the Squirrel that day we could have been sumo wrestlers on a sightseeing trip and still been safely within the helicopter’s operating limits. What kind of name is Squirrel anyway? It sounds like a zippy little runaround - when in fact it’s more like a luxurious and powerful six seater limousine. It should have been called the Mongoose. Or the Honey Badger, or some other equally impressive critter.
As our group was getting to know each other (some of us hadn’t met before, let alone done an epic mountain bike ride together), we chatted with Tim, our pilot for the day. He lives up to the stereotype of what you’d imagine a helicopter pilot plying their trade in the rugged and isolated forest of the Whirinaki Forest would be: friendly and helpful, while still reserved and with an air of self-assurance and no-nonsense capability.
That attitude was evident when Tim was mounting our bikes onto the racks slung on the helicopter’s skids. Taking great care with each bike, ensuring they were all well padded and fastened down securely - it was a sight to warm the heart of any rider who loves their bike as much as we all do. Chatting with Tim about the racks and saying how professional looking they are, he said, “they should be, they cost $15,000”. We didn’t think there was that much design work in them, but Tim explained that they have to be aviation-certified, so that’s to extremely exacting standards and it doesn’t come cheap.
Once the safety briefing was done and everyone was on board and buckled in with their headsets on the real fun started. Well, it did for four of our group - two of us drew the short straw and drove a vehicle in to be our shuttle ride out from the trailhead at the end of the ride. (Keep in mind we were doing our own tailored trip today, purely to suit our purposes.) So while three of our group got ready for their first flight of the day (bastards), two of us, including me, watched from the ground. If the smell of Avgas earlier in the day prompted excitement, that paled in comparison to the sound of a helicopter firing up: First the whirring of the turbine; then the thumping as the rotors start to gain revs; the buffeting wind when standing close to the helicopter’s down draft on take off; the deep thump of the rotors that you almost feel in your chest like a heavy bass speaker more than hear. It’s all invigorating stuff for adrenaline junkie mountain bikers! After meeting our riding buddies when we parked the vehicle at one of the helicopter landing spots a short time later, all five of us loaded up in the chopper for the second leg into our drop off point, deep in the Whirinaki Forest. Several of us had ridden the Moerangi trail multiple times, but flying over the seemingly endless ranges of heavily wooded Whirinaki forest brought home how expansive and dense the forest is. As we neared our destination we dropped altitude and swooped through some of the valleys on our approach. One of our group hadn’t been in a helicopter before, so for her the 45degree turns with a little g-force as we dropped into the impossibly lush green landscape elicited some excited facial expressions.
Our gentle landing seemed perfect, but our pilot had other ideas. Illustrating his perfectionism, which I must say is an admirable trait in someone flying helicopters in remote forests, Tim indicated that he wasn’t satisfied. After checking where the skids were on the lumpy ground at the hut landing site, Tim told us all to stay buckled in, as we weren’t done yet. We lifted off the ground again, and I swear we moved forwards mere inches. But, that’s why he flies incredibly expensive and complicated machines through the air, and why I ride bicycles. It had already been an awesome day and we hadn’t even got on our bikes yet! For the most part the Moerangi Trail offers a generally easy surface and no notable features above a grade 2 or 3. This helps make it a practical group ride if there are riders with less experience than others in the party - there are no ‘make or break’ technical sections.
o be fair though, on the descents when the speed is higher you have to keep your wits about you and ride within your limits - as with all descending at speed. The surface is mostly comprised of small rocks over hardpack dirt, with occasional loose sections of bigger surface rocks - but all graded smoothly overall. The most notable terrain features occur if there has been recent weather affecting the trail. Because of its remoteness it can take a while for the DOC contractors to get in and clean up windfall and slips after a big storm. When we did it the contractors had recently cleared all the way through, so the trail was 99% rideable. Not 100%, because we had a couple of recent windfalls to navigate our way over, around and under. Although any time you’re forced off your bike is a pain, in this case it served a purpose - our group quickly formed a ‘team attitude’ bond as we set up a chain of people to pass bikes over the most tangled debris.
In places the power of nature’s forces were evident, with obvious slips where you could see the sudden release of pent up water from heavy rainfall had scoured sections of gullies down to the bedrock. One of our stops was at the iconic orange Wairoa Hut - more commonly called Rogers Hut, or The Orange hut because of its glaring exterior paint colour. We spent time there hanging out, taking photos around the hut and the nearby stream. The hut is an old one with heaps of character. There were signs that visitors basing themselves there when we passed through were likely to be hunters: bags of cereal hanging from hooks to avoid rodents and a random assortment of potatoes and bread seemed to make up their pantry in the hut. I’m guessing they provide their own protein from a successful day’s hunting. Or fishing. Or both... it’s that kind of place.
From Rogers we headed onwards to the modern Moerangi hut. It’s a deceptive grind, with uphill sections throughout much of the next section - deceptive because scoping it beforehand on a map and profile makes it looks pretty mellow. Like the rest of the trail, Moerangi seems to punch above its weight for how tiring it can be. At the next trail junction we headed left to the Moerangi hut, 500m away. It’s in a large clearing surrounded by densely forested valley walls - a sublimely serene spot. It’s also an ideal spot for a drop bag, if that’s what you’ve arranged with the heli service.
In any case, it’s ideally positioned to prepare mentally and physically for the next section. Despite the gentle grade, rolling up beside the river took a little wind out of our sails before crossing a wooden bridge at the base of the day’s main climb. It took about 45 minutes for our group to reach the high point of the saddle to regroup. The remaining trail is mostly a fast descent with a few short climbs occasionally mixed in. It does pack a solid sting in the tail though, with a couple of short but very sharp climbs close to the end. At this late stage of the ride we had already stopped multiple times to grab photos of particularly scenic sections. Usually, when everyone is tired towards the end of a ride, our tendency to keep on rolling would see us blasting down the last descent. Instead, with what could be called a mandatory stop for photos we had the chance to just be still and listen to the forest around us. And it’s noisy. Our last stop was under huge Matai trees, which were reverberating with the screeching of Kereru as they swooped around the upper canopy.
After a final few kilometres, the car park at the River Road end of the trail is where HeliBike Rotorua’s vehicle shuttle would be waiting for most guests who arrange it. For us it was another few kilometre's riding to where we’d dropped our shuttle pick up vehicle, ready to relive our day’s excursion on the drive home.
Thanks to www.helibikerotorua.co.nz for arranging our adventure.
Orginally published in the NZ Mountain Biker Feb/Mar - Issue #81. For more exclusive articles and in-depth articles grab the latest copy on-sale today!