Riding the Redwoods | How 'Whanaungatanga' Made Rotorua One of the World's Best Mountain Bike Destinations
We went to New Zealand to ride the Redwoods with the guys who built the trails...
“The trails are awesome in Rotorua but you can’t go past the people. I’ve been lucky enough to ride around the world and the fact that there’s very little ego here and so much whanaungatanga makes our city so special.
“It’s something that’s rarely felt these days in cities and even less so in resort towns due to the transient nature of them."
The words come from Takurua Mutu, a Maori native born and bred in New Zealand who runs Mountain Bike Rotorua, a company who make mountain biking accessible in the area and have played a huge part in the promotion of Rotorua as a riding destination.
Tak explains that when he talks about ‘whanaungatanga’, he’s referring to the style of family kinship in the community, the relationships developed through shared experiences and the sense of belonging that this brings to the town.
We see the term in practice almost as soon as we set out for the trails with our guide for the day, Karl Young, a cheery rider who was also born in Rotorua with a wonderfully tendency to blend insightful history with hilarious commentary when he guides. Karl has been riding the Rotorua Redwoods, or the Whakarewarewa Forest as it’s locally known, since the 1970s. There are few people who know the trails better than he.
Rotorua has been reborn as a bike town in recent years. First impressions may still be formed from a scrutinising sniff of the sulphur in the air and that unmistakable scent of eggs, but with your eyes open you’ll see bike shops in abundance, locals pedalling rigs with suspension loaded and bike racks on plenty of the cars slipping through the scenic roads.
You’ll also see a lot of conversation. Driving through the city to the trails with Karl had been a pleasant process, if a slightly stop-and-start one. Near enough every passing face is another familiar one and a reason to stop and say hello.
“There are a lot of bikes and bike shops around, the coffee is always good and there’s always a scene going on," Karl says as we roll up to the Mountain Bike Rotorua hub at the foot of the Redwoods. “When we first started out there were only maybe five of us and you could tell who was on the trails just by the marks they left on the soil."
It’s a place where the easy-going nature of the natives and the beauty of their surroundings has defined the style of the riding, and allowed a vibrant mountain biking community to form unforced – one where the tight community feel extends and amplifies onto the trails.
In the Mountain Bike Rotorua base, we’ve now got our rides for the day and are listening intently as Karl outlines our route. Watching the guide drag his finger around the 130km-plus trail map, it seems crazy to think that less than 30 years ago it would have been playing host to just a handful of riders, but having gotten a sense for the scene, it almost wouldn’t make sense for it to have started any other way.
While once a well kept secret, the trails of Rotorua are now becoming a global phenomenon; benefiting from the boost in tourism that comes from hosting a Mountain Bike World Championship and the Crankworx World Tour setting up a stop at the Skyline Bike Park 20 minutes down the road.
Mountain biking in the area dates back to the 1980s with Karl and some fellow early-adopters, and the trail network got underway by the sweat and brow of the same guys in the early 90s.
Karl continued: “I started riding in the mid to late 80s. There were only a handful of us doing it in the Redwoods. We were just people who liked getting away from the traffic.
“There were a couple of rogue BMXs, some big units who rode racing bikes, and then eventually we got on these sturdy new mountain bikes of the time, with gears. We hit the fire roads and poached a few of the walking tracks and started gaining momentum from there.
“When we first started out there were only maybe five of us and you could tell who was on the trails just by the marks they left on the soil..."
“The first guy to really start digging was a guy called Fred Christianson. He came on the scene in the early 90s and was really enthusiastic; a very colourful character, really passionate about the sport.
“He started digging a trail called ‘The Dipper’ and some inner-network trails, so we got involved in that with him."
The Dipper still stands today, though it’s evolved and grown with modern digging and now features a flow more commonly seen in bike parks than on forest trails. It remains one of the most iconic trails in the Redwoods; and while not technical, it’s scenic and perfect for families or beginners.
The re-build has retained the original shape and style of the trail, which is largely flat but incredibly flowy, and there’s an abundance of berms, rollers and jumps for you to get warmed up for the rest of the day – and trust us, you’re going to need that warm up.
The Redwoods feature a startling amalgamation of tree variety which has allowed trails to be styled in a fashion that feels like you’re flowing through eucalyptus-laced air to backcountry Britain before turning off into the forests of California, and this means that while there are plenty of trails available for beginners, there’s also an abundance of tricky, technical and downright terrifying options too.
“At the turn of the last century, in the early 1900s, the settlers' livestock and cattle weren’t reaching a full expected stock weight, so the government were looking at another viable industry and they looked at forestry," Karl explains.
“They got all the ships coming to New Zealand and encouraged their Commonwealth agents to put different types of tree seeds on the ships trading from North America and Europe and the UK to bring in seeds and tree species, so as a result of that you’ve got 70 different tree species from around the world in this gigantic arboretum.
“That’s why you’re seeing the Eucalyptus from Australia and the spruces from Europe and the Californian Redwoods and a lot of pines and other trees as well."
The beauty of having such a variety of tree seed is that the terrain and tracks that grow up around them provide something for everyone, in near enough every shape, size and style. After starting off simple, it’s clear that Karl is keen to show us some of the more challenging options as soon as possible.
“The flow trails are cool, a lot of fun, jumps and whips and that, but that rooty, nasty, tiki shit... that’s how some of the old guys grew up," he says. “We were riding that stuff because we were used to hiking and that’s what there was to ride if you got on your mountain bike. So we still like seeing that gnarly stuff!"
We ride through the ‘Tokorangi Triangle’, a ridge facing onto the city which starts in a pine plantation and drops onto the roots and rocks of the forest before joining ‘Turkish Delight’; a descent through taller pine trees with loose soil which Karl tells me drains super quick thanks to volcanic qualities, and as such is perfect for trail building.
‘Down the Guts’ is a shorter track which features a more technical descent and tricky corners, and a look down the double-black diamond run ‘Double Down’ is quite enough for us on this particular occasion.
There’s not only something in the Redwoods for every level and experience, there’s something damn good, and some trails which would really require a whole lot of confidence beneath a full face helmet in order to take on - which is why the area has been attracting professionals year round; the likes of Loic Bruni, Brook MacDonald and Sam Blenkinsop shooting their for Red Bull.
We encounter a few logging trucks and the familiar question of digging permissions and formalities pops into my head. It’s a more interesting talking point than I had anticipated. Karl talks about how the local government have been helpful in encouraging the progression of the trails and highlights how “tribal land owners were very agreeable to let people use the land."
Intrigued, I ask more about the Maori involvement in mountain biking in the area. Of course, Tak and his brother Tu of Mountain Bike Rotorua have played a huge part in the scene. They started Mountain Bike Rotorua with 30 bikes and two staff members in 2011 and now carry around 150 bikes and employ 16 people.
“I’m born and bred in Rotorua and a lot of kids grow up with bikes here," Tak tells me. “It’s a part of our lifestyle. I remember as a 12 year old going out with a bunch of friends for a ride and getting lost for about four hours riding the trails in the Whakarewarewa Forest. It was awesome and I’ve never really stopped losing myself in that forest.
“The mountain bike community in Rotorua is so much more wholesome than other communities I’ve experienced, and Crankworx is another excuse for us to come together.
“The fact we can ride all year round and have so many awesome flow trails to ride anytimes makes Rotorua just a mecca for riding. We’ve kept [the trails in Rotorua] our little secret for long enough and now it’s time to share it with the world!"
Tak did one hell of a job sorting out Crankworx Rotorua in March anyway, and doing so with a jaw-dropping tribal touch. Brandon Semenuk & co. were watched around the world dropping in on kickers and step downs featuring stunning Maori carvings.
“The carvings were gifted to us by the New Zealand Maori Arts and crafts Institute," Tak says. “Our carving are our story telling devices that represent people and events. These people are our Tupuna (ancestors) and/or Atua (Gods). The importance of the carvings are to protect us and also to tell our history, as Maori don’t traditionally have a written language, our stories were passed down by song, storytelling or by our art."
So are there a lot of Maori mountain bikers? No, not yet. But interest is increasing.
“I remember the days when the Maori mountain bikers consisted of either myself, Ra or Eugene – yup, I named all three of us – and now I couldn’t count the number that are going into their forest. There still aren’t that many involved, but it is growing.
“We’re still a minority though and look forward to working on getting more people, including Maori, riding in the forest."
Karl adds: “When I first started riding the only Maori people that I knew who were riding in the forest were my girlfriend at the time and her family, and a few guys that thought that taking their bikes into the forest was a good way to sneak up on animals and go hunting. And you saw what happened today," he laughs, referring to the moment when a wild boar ran out in front of my bike and almost sent me head over handlebars.
Between the boar, the trail variety and the stunning scenery shining under a sky as warm as our welcome, it’s certainly been one hell of a day.
We conclude our day on the ‘Puarenga Stream’ trail, a tame but breathtakingly scenic ride which criss-crosses between banks of a river and weaves under palm trees like a tropical paradise.
“This trail was actually built after Red McCail, a guy from the corrections department, got minor criminals from the corrections department and put them to good work as part of their community profile to restorative justice," Karl notes.
The stories behind the trails in the Whakarewarewa forest really are unrelenting. And from the tales of the tribal landowners granting permission to the encouragement of the government and even that input from the corrections department, it always comes back to community in Rotorua.
Of course, none of it would have started at all if it wasn’t for the likes of Karl and Tak – the guys with a passion for the sport who just wanted to get out there and ride. And at the end of the day, that’s still what it’s about for both of them.
Karl jokes: “I just love the thrill I get from taking people out there for the first time or going out with your mates and seeing your friends in the forest. I really have no interest in the gym! I’m probably over-compensating.
“I love the greenery, I love the smell, I love the trails, and if I’ve got the opportunity to help and teach others then I’m passionate about that too. It’s a good thing for people because it can be a great stress reliever. That’s important and that’s the thread that holds our society together.
“If it’s going to distress a situation in somebody’s life I’ll always be willing to take them out on a bike ride. If nothing else, just to blow off some steam and give yourself a bit of a scare!"
For Karl, it’s always been about the enjoyment, the thrill and the shared experience, values which speak volumes about Rotorua as a whole; the town where mountain biking has boomed thanks to grassroots passion, growing interests, and most importantly, whanaungatanga.