Super-fit riders can finish in less than four hours but mere mortals should allow considerably longer – especially when it’s muddy. Much of the surface is papa clay, which is a dream to on ride when it’s dry.
In the wet, however, it has been known to snap derailleurs, destroy brakes and test the mettle of even the hardiest riders. Pick a fine day to ride if at all possible, and check in with local operators, visitor centres or DOC for the latest conditions.
This is a remote wilderness ride with no facilities other than the odd toilet en route. It is recommended that riders take a PLB (personal locator beacon) or spot tracker.
Ruatiti Road—Mangapurua Trig
12.2km, 2–2.5 hours
From the Ruatiti Road car park, a 4WD track climbs gently for around 6km through private farmland and regenerating native bush, opening up impressive views of Tongariro National Park to the east and the Kaiwhakauka Valley to the north.
Around the 10km mark is the junction of the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka Tracks. Here a carved tōtara pou – signifying the spirit of ngahere (the forest) – offers visitors symbolic protection in this special place.
It’s a short climb here to the Mangapurua Trig from which Whanganui National Park unfolds ahead of you in a series of forested ridges and valleys, with the cone of Mt Taranaki glimpsed way out to the west on a fine day.
At the trig is a memorial to the WWI servicemen and their families who settled the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys more than one hundred years ago. There’s a toilet and water here too, plus wilderness camping for bikepackers and hikers.
The Mangapurua Valley is rich in history, being one of the first areas offered to returning WWI soldiers in 1917. At its peak there were 30 farms in the Mangapurua Valley and 16 in the Kaiwhakauka, established through the back-breaking work of families who cleared and worked the land.
Strong communities formed and thrived for a while despite the arduous conditions and constant physical labour. But just 25 years later, the Mangapurua was virtually deserted following the decision to close the treacherous access road.
Today the native forest is regenerating in this ‘valley of abandoned dreams’ but there are still signs of the original settlements offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into post-war life.
6.8km, 1 hour
Now you’re rolling, because from here it’s downhill or flat virtually all the way to the Whanganui River trailhead. Descending steadily from the trig on a wonderful section of track (when it’s dry, that is), riders pass through a section of virgin forest in the Mangapurua Valley.
After crossing Slippery Creek, the track starts to level out and after another 1.5km reaches the Johnson’s, named after the farmer who collected mail from Mangapurua Landing and distributed it through the valley twice a week. Flat and open, with a shelter and toilets, it’s a great spot to take a break to even camp overnight.
3.4km, 30 mins
As the track continues down the valley it passes various grassy clearings and papa clay bluffs named after the settlers. Their memories live on in wooden signs marking the sites of the original houses and exotic trees and plants that still grow here.
The old Bettjeman’s Farm is Identified by a straight row of poplars lining the road. The family was one of the first to settle the valley, and some of the last to leave when they gave up the land in 1942.
A chimney stack and plants such as holly and cotoneaster are all that’s left of what was once a thriving homestead and bunkhouse that even had its own tennis court. There’s also a toilet here and a good water source from the stream by the old house site.
4.6 km/45 mins
Continuing gently down the valley for 1.5km the track reaches Bartrum’s swingbridge and the end of the quad-bike access on the track. From here it traces a narrow and somewhat precarious route around a series of sheer bluffs where riders should dismount as advised by signs.
Near Cody’s House, keep an eye out for Current Bun Bluff with its spherical boulders sticking out of the cliff face.
Just before Hellawell’s is Waterfall Creek, where there’s a 1.5km side-trip up the true left to see the actual cascade. Hellawell’s was once the site of community picnics and hockey games and still makes a great spot to linger. There is also a toilet here.
Hellawell’s—Bridge to Nowhere
5.7km, 45 mins
About half an hour further along the valley is Battleship Bluff, one of the most striking features along the track. Resembling the prow of an old ship, it presented one of the greatest obstacles to early settlers who spent two years blasting a route across the mighty cliff face.
Today the bluff makes a fantastic photo-op although nervous cyclists might want to get off and push their bikes. Eyes ahead and don’t look down!
After a few dips and climbs as the track crosses streams, the Bridge to Nowhere suddenly comes into view. It’s an incongruous yet impressive sight arching elegantly across the steep ravine with the Mangapurua Stream 40 metres below.
Many of settlers had already abandoned the valley by the time it was completed in 1936, and after a storm six years later the whole road was doomed. The bridge now stands as a poignant memorial to the broken dreams of settlers, and an iconic symbol of Whanganui National Park.
Ironically, the bridge is now used more than it was when it was first built. As well as riders and walkers tackling the Mangapurua Track, it attracts thousands of people who visit on guided tours fro Pīpīriki or as part of the Whanganui River journey, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (that’s actually a kayaking adventure).
Just beyond the bridge is a lookout track that winds up above the Mangapurua Stream for lofty views of the bridge and surrounding bush.
Bridge to Nowhere—Mangapurua Landing
2.7km, 20 mins
In summer, this section gets pretty busy so riders should expect to meet walkers on the track. Winding downhill through the trees this is a lovely way to finish the day’s ride.
There are toilets around the halfway point and shelter just shy of the Mangapurua Landing that comes in handy if the weather has taken a turn for the worse.
The Landing used to be the main supply point for the valley but is now used by kayakers on the Whanganui Journey and jet boat operators running guided trips or collecting riders and bikes for the transfer downriver to Pīpīriki.
2.7km, 20 mins
The only way to Pīpīriki is via the river, so pre-booking a jet boat trip is essential. This 32km river section can also be kayaked; local tour operators can advise on arrangements for this as well as riverside accommodation at two DOC campsites, a DOC hut and a private lodge.
However you choose to travel, the Whanganui River is a highlight of the Mountains to Sea adventure as it passes through dense forest and a scenic gorge, and bounces over the exciting Ngaporo and Autupu rapids.
Your tour operator will give you clear directions of where to go and what to do once you’re on river.