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A legacy trail

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April 2020 Issue

Dave Mitchell rides the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka tracks to the fabled Bridge to Nowhere

Servicemen returning from Europe after fighting in the First World War were offered land in the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys. 

The first to arrive cleared the dense bush from their holdings in 1917. With rudimentary access to this hilly and remote corner of the country, life was tough but so were the ex-soldiers and their families. Access was improved with a wooden swingbridge over the Mangapurua Stream connecting the fledgeling community with the riverboats on the Whanganui River, where all their supplies came from. With intense government lobbying, a concrete replacement that was to become known as the Bridge to Nowhere was built and the track was upgraded into a dray road.

Unfortunately for the would-be farmers, the soil in the valleys was not fertile enough to sustain long-term farming and by 1942 most had walked off the land. All had left by 1944 with little to show for the years of backbreaking toil. 

Today, those abandoned farms and the remaining relics contribute to a unique and varied mountain bike journey into the heart of the Whanganui National Park.

Crossing the iconic art deco-styled Bridge to Nowhere. Photo: Dave Mitchell

Mangapurua Track

The Mangapurua Track forms part of the Mountains to Sea cycle trail and begins north of Ruatiti climbing gradually for a few kilometres through partially cleared farming country and small blocks of native bush. There are great views of Tongariro National park to the east.

After reaching Mangapurua (661m), the downhill begins. This trail roams around the true left of Mangapurua Stream through the old Burman farm and then the Walsh farm. Plaques with the settlers’ names mark their homestead sites along with a few farming relics that have survived the decades of sun, wind and rain.

The track leads around a series of ridges to Cody’s farm, opposite the aptly-named Current Bun Bluff. There are good views to the snaking river, which has hewn an alien canal through the valley and where tree ferns dominate the ridges and riverbanks. Waterfall Creek is soon crossed on the way to the indomitable Battleship Bluff. This massive papa bluff steps vertically down to the river as the track makes its way around a series of bluffs with the stream at times a spectacular 70m below. Much blasting was done to build this balcony trail.

Bennett farm stands empty but for an old plough on the final stretch to the Bridge to Nowhere. This steel-reinforced concrete structure with fluted balustrades was fabricated at great expense in 1936. It spans 34m and sits 38m above the water. It is a work of art that carries the Historic Places Trust category one rating and received substantial repairs in 1996. Only a short stretch of track remains between the bridge and the Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui River.

A pre-organised water taxi will ferry bikers down the river, or you can ride out the way you came. There are five strategically-placed campsites along the trail, with cooking shelters and toilets.

Wild file
Access From Ruatiti Road, 6km north or Ruatiti
Grade 4
Distance 32.1km one way
Total ascent 1646m
Topo50 map BH32, BJ32

A bumpy ride over a washed-out section of Kaiwhakauka Track. Photo: Dave Mitchell

Kaiwhakauka Track

This trail provides an excellent alternative route onto the Mangapurua Track, but is a more demanding and technical ride.

At Whakahoro Campsite, a big DOC sign marks the trail head. Ride west beside a huge U turn of the Whanganui River, then south and follow a farm track down the Kaiwhakauka Stream.

There are good stands of tawa and podocarp forest mixing in with open flats.

The national park boundary is soon reached and it’s obvious – the ridges and gullies become coated from top to bottom in thick bush. This is where the single-track begins.

The trail negotiates difficult country above the Kaiwhakauka Stream, crossing many side streams on the way to the end of the valley.

A long 3.5km climb at the head of the valley passes through the last active farm settlement to reach the junction with the Mangapurua Track. Head right here to reach the Bridge to Nowhere as described above.

Wild file
Access From Whakahoro campsite at the end of Oio Road
Grade 4
Distance 15km to Mangapurua Track
Total ascent 1074m
Map BH32