Dave Mitchell rides the Ohakune Old Coach Road and discovers a trail more than 100 years in the making
Mt Ruapehu stands tallest amongst the North Island’s volcanoes, shining like a star when the snow comes to the high country. It serves as a magnificent backdrop to the Ohakune Old Coach Road cycle trail.
The coach road forms one section of the 231km Mountain to Sea Cycle Trail and is described as one of New Zealand’s best half-day rides. The road was used between 1906 and 1908 by horse-drawn coaches to get between the railheads at Horopito and Ohakune on the main trunk line. When the rail line was completed, the road fell into disuse and disrepair until 2002, when it was ‘rediscovered’ by locals and turned into a bike and walking trail.
The trail can be ridden in either direction, but officially starts from the beautifully-restored Ohakune Railway Station and café. From here, it follows the recycled railway sleeper marker posts onto Marshalls Road and crosses a narrow bridge to climb into Tongariro National Park and onto the Old Coach Road.
The track bisects vivid green farmland on the downward slope and lush regenerating bush on the upward slope. It's a rough track in places where the more than 100-year-old original cobbles still remain. It’s amazing to think this route provided a vital connection between the two ends of the Main Trunk Line until 1908 and the age of steam and steel.
At the top of the climb, head right off the main trail at the Hapuawhenua Viaduct sign to investigate the disused Hapuawhenua Tunnel and the views across to the modern 414m viaduct. The new model is no match for the Meccano-like construction of the old.
All steel and rivets, the beautifully restored Hapuawhenua Viaduct is a hand-built work of art that you can not only ride across but ride below to get a full appreciation of its height and grandeur.
Interpretation panels provide valuable insight into the design and construction of the viaduct.
Back on the main trail, and after a few kilometres, there’s a climb to the impressive rusting Taonui Viaduct which is about half the size of the Hapuawhenua Viaduct. It’s surrounded by regenerating forest which has completely taken over the rail corridor beyond.
The track now continues in single-track mode through old growth forest which includes giant rimu, totara, mountain cabbage and a sea of ferns. There’s a brief, but gorgeous and cruisey descent back to the Old Coach Road and this soon emerges onto farmland and eventually Horopito, where the 1981 cult movie Smash Palace, starring Bruno Lawrence, was filmed. The rusting remains of the car wreckers featured in the film still remain and the motors are open for business. There’s a few good spots for a picnic before riding back to Ohakune – riding a track in reverse is like riding a new trail.
The Old Coach Road is just one part of the Mountains to Sea cycle trail with the sealed Ohakune Mountain Road section preceding it and the gravelled Middle and Ruatiti road sections following it. Planning is well underway to build an off-road trail for the mountain road section adding an amazing 17km and 1000m descent to the riding portfolio in the Central Plateau.