Exploring the geysers and great redwoods of New Zealand's Whakarewarewa Forest by bike

Jump in the saddle to explore Whakarewarewa Forest, a maze of mountain biking trails near Rotura, where tours take in the country's largest geyser and groves of towering redwoods.

Mountain bikers explore the forests of Rotura. 

Photograph by Joel McDowell
By Justin Meneguzzi
Published 4 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT

Growing up, Tak Mutu’s parents used to prepare dinner using a two-million-year-old steam slow cooker. Each morning on the way to work they’d pass through the geothermal reserve on Rotorua’s outskirts and drop that evening’s meal into a wooden box hanging over an exposed steam vent in the ground, then collect it on the way home at the end of the day. “The sulphur gave our food a nice, smoky flavour,” says Tak, from our lookout over the reserve. In front of us, dense white steam rises from the geysers and unspools into wisps as it passes over Rotorua township.

On cue, Pōhutu New Zealand’s largest geyser erupts and sends a jet of vapour into the air like a volcanic kettle. We’re lucky to be enjoying the vista, given the grey clouds that obscured our views just a moment before. The shifting weather is not all bad, though. Today’s wind and steady patter of rain, or “manna from heaven” as Tak calls it, has also kept the town’s signature whiff of rotten eggs at bay.

This is the first lookout we’ve encountered after emerging from Whakarewarewa Forest, a mountain biking hub perched at the edge of Rotorua. Over a million cyclists pilgrimage here each year, many pedalling beneath the Californian redwoods, unaware of the forest’s tumultuous history: after decades of community advocacy, it was eventually renamed as part of a historic handback to Māori ownership in 2009.

Today the park is jointly managed by iwi (tribes), government stakeholders, and forestry experts. Criss-crossing the forest is a tangle of biking and hiking routes laid out by dedicated outdoor enthusiasts. “Having this forest, and all the trails within it, gives us a chance to tell our stories. For years it was illegal for us to speak our language or share our culture, but times are changing and being Māori is cool now,” says Tak, who belongs to the Te Arawa Waka iwi.

Redwoods Treewalk Whakarewarewa Forest.

Redwoods Treewalk Whakarewarewa Forest.

Photograph by Joel McDowell

Tak co-owns Mountain Bike Rotorua, a bike hire outlet at the forest’s entrance, with his brother. Whakarewarewa Forest is free for anyone to access, with bike hire and shuttle buses there readily available, but today Tak is giving me a personal tour. After saddling up on our e-bikes and a quick tutorial on using the electric settings, we set off into the treeline. What starts as flat forest floor carpeted in auburn pine needles soon turns into a series of escalating hairpin bends taking us higher and deeper into the forest.

Tak stops along the way to explain old tales, like the monstrous birdwoman who used to prey on tribes, or the Romeo and Juliet-style story between two high-born lovers (but with a happy ending). Every mud pool, every tree and even the wooden fencing has a story, known as whakapapa. “Once you start to learn whakapapa, you’ll learn everything is connected,” explains Tak. Plans are afoot to add more signage about Māori culture to the park so others can enjoy these stories, too. Back on our bikes, the mingled fragrance of rain and soil greets us as we zoom along undulating dirt trails through groves of redwoods and pine, then pass beneath giant silver ferns.

We skirt a recently cleared pine plantation then plunge back into the woods, occasionally glimpsing distant Lake Rotoiti shimmering in the fleeting sunlight. Between the momentum generated from the downhills and the support of the e-bike, I barely do more than point my bike in the right direction, which Tak explains is why e-bikes have surged in popularity in recent years, although he says he prefers to ride traditional, non-electric bikes for the challenge of it. It’s still raining when we finish up at Secret Spot, a spa-cum-cafe complex with 12 al fresco hot tubs on the edge of the forest.

I don’t have a swimsuit so I simply opt to soak my heavy legs in an outdoor pool. Peering out into the foliage, I’m enveloped by the quiet of the cathedral-like trees, punctuated only by bird calls, while heavenly manna falls from above.

Opened in May 2021, Lake Dunstan Trail is New Zealand's newest Great Ride.

Opened in May 2021, Lake Dunstan Trail is New Zealand's newest Great Ride.

Photograph by Joel McDowell

Four more biking trails in New Zealand

New Zealand has more than 1,550 miles of trails so find a ride that's right for you:

1. Twin Coast Cycle Trail

Threading its way from the Bay of Islands to Hokianga Harbour, this smooth 54-mile trail is dotted with opportunities to be immersed in Māori history and culture, including overnight stays in a marae (Māori ancestral house). Top Trails offers bike hire, shuttles and package tours. 

2. Alps two ocean trail

The 190-mile Alps 2 Ocean trail takes riders downhill from Aoraki Mount Cook to the Pacific Ocean. The nine legs, which cover easy and intermediate tracks, can be ridden in sections or chained together for a week-long trip. The route is well supported by bike hire and tour companies, including Cycle Journeys.

3. The old ghost road

Stitched together from resurrected sections of a once forgotten gold mining route, this track is seen as one of the country’s most difficult mountain bike rides. Those brave enough to pedal it will find themselves riding on narrow gravel paths alongside sheer drops. Helibike Nelson offers basic and luxury guided tours for experienced bikers. 

4. Lake Dunstan Trail

New Zealand’s newest Great Ride passes through Otago’s vineyards, heritage towns and gorges. Ideally suited for e-bikes, this four-hour route links the towns of Cromwell and Clyde, hugging the cliffs of Cromwell Gorge and passing over a 280ft suspension bridge with spectacular views of the lake. 

An active geyser in Te Whakarewarewa Valley, Rotura.

An active geyser in Te Whakarewarewa Valley, Rotura.

Photograph by Joel McDowell

How to do it

Mountain Bike Rotorua offers a variety of bikes and e-bikes for hire, including children’s bikes. Prices start from NZ$49 (£25) for half a day. Guided tours available on request. Nearby, Secret Spot offers hot tub hire from NZ$39 (£20) per adult for one hour.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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