Rotorua to Tongariro

Sitting outside a bar in Okere Falls. Certain strands of the Kiwi accent can be pretty funny:

“Hey bru, you get that dick straight?” says a guy.

“No bru, gotta geet more wood. Wife’s been on me about it, wants to be able to sit on the dick now that it’s summer.”

“Yee, well lemme know yous need help with your dick. Gotta spare hammer.”

How do you find the place where the raft guides live? Check the recycling:

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We surprise the Ickys while they’re carrying in groceries, then set up camp on the kitchen floor next to Giorgio the Italian and his second-hand Bratz mattress.

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The next day, the Ickys take us rafting on the Kaituna, which has a 21 foot-high waterfall, the highest commercially rafted falls in the world.

We pull over at the top of the waterfall, so that our friend can go through raft guide standard operating procedure, which consists of scaring the people who are already out of their comfort zone (us), and getting ready to purposely flip the raft.

“When I say get down, crouch in the bottom of the boat. We’re probably going to flip, you’ll hear the waterfall on top of the boat and everything’ll be dark, just keep hanging on until it stops shaking. If you let go, don’t panic. You’ll probably pop out after a little while.”

“I’m gonna panic,” Colleen says. Me too. Inflatable boat trips aren’t my favorite, but our friends always want to take us. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to stay dry, but now I figure it’s easier just to give in and be damp for a while. So here we are.

He lets suspense build. And build. We’re a few feet from the edge of the falls. Just hanging out. Building suspense.

“I feel like I’m gonna throw up,” Colleen says. Me too.

“Ok, get down!” We crouch, waterfall roars, over we go, just like the Log Jammer at Kennywood (which I also hate), big splash, raft fills with water, hurray! We’re still upright. I’m still not sure if Dickie decided to be nice, or if he just failed to flip us. Later he plows the front of the raft into a some sort of water feature, which gives us the sensation of drowning. Which I guess makes up for it.

Later, at the Icky’s friend’s house.

“Yee, we had 14 bottles of wine and we were playing Wheel of Foreskin, you know you spin a wheel and I geet to bit, like say I bit I’ll punch you in the heed as hard as I can, but if I lose, you geet to punch me in the heed as hard as you can. Sick game, but it’s shit if you miss out you know? So that’s when we stapled Hamish’s belly button.” says the girl hosting the Christmas party.

I’m starting to get a little scared of Christmas. “And then Rob started geeting really aggreasive- we were standing around and he’s like ‘I wanna fuckin keek you in the heed bru. Come here bru, I’m gonna keek you in the heed.’ Then he tried to keek Sam in the heed. And I said ‘Rob, beed.’ And he finally went to beed.”

Leaving. “I hope we don’t get kicked in the head on Christmas,” I say to Colleen.

“Me too.”

At the whitewater-person Christmas Party. I’m crouched next to the gassy smelling fire barrel.

“Montana is it? Oh no, sorry, Montaaaaaaana,” says the guy with the shaved head standing over me (Kiwi’s always have to repeat my name with a heavy and extra nasally emphasis on the second syllable- aaaaaaaaaaa. I guess it’s how to impersonate my accent, talk through the nose and make a noise like a sheep falling off a cliff.)

“Well that’s a good American name. Maybe you can show us how to build a wall since you’re so good at it. Oh sorry, maybe not. I forgot that Americans are all dumb, so maybe you can’t show us anything.”

I stare at him. I’m not sure if he’s trying to be funny or if he’s just an asshole.

“Or maybe you’d like to pick our next president, since you have to choose every other country’s leader,” he says.

“Me personally? I get to pick all the world leaders?” It’s a heavy burden for a man of my qualifications.

He turns to a Japanese girl.

“Oh hurro, you-a-Japanee?” he says, and makes a squinty face at her. Because he’s an asshole. I guess every place has a few.

Next day, after the hangovers subside.

“Who was that bald guy last night?” I ask my friend.

“Oh, that’s Stabby Stan. He’s not very likable.”


“Yeah, he killed somebody a few years ago. It was self defense though.”

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Up in the top of the Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua’s main trail system (pronounced faka-rewa-rewa- the Maori didn’t have a written language when Europeans arrived, so I’m still confused about why somebody chose to spell f with a wh), looking out at big Lake Rotorua, set down in the volcano crater. Town smells real strongly of rotten eggs, because of all the hellish geothermal stuff, but it’s fresh and piney up here.

I start down Frankenfurter Trail, pick up speed, the trail’s dusty through a clearcut section of forest. Little kicker over a log gap, drop off a big dusty root, land in the dust, tires slide. Barely comfortable with moves like that, but in the last few days of riding I think I’ve knocked most of the rust off.

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Into the woods, dirt changes to deep dark loam. Freehub buzzes faster, hard on the brakes into Riff Raff. Steep root drop, then another, swing around tight switchbacks then start Rocky Horror.

The trail’s one of the steepest things I’ve been on, barely wide enough for my tires now. Gets steeper into every descending 180-degree turn, a deep channel cut by hundreds of locked-up back wheels. Just drop the tires into the rut and let them come around, stay way behind the saddle.

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Careful with the brakes- it’s so steep that if I let the tires break loose and skid I’ll pick up speed and be into a tree. Creep to the edge of a big root drop, a near vertical runout below with a jumble of dusty roots and brake bumps, switches immediately into another corner.

Almost trackstand, then roll it controlled- scared, but force myself to release the brakes. Set the front tire in the dirt, let the rear come down, then get back on both levers to reign it back in. Without suspension, I just can’t let the bike go- the front end’ll bounce then I’ll be done.

Arms are getting pretty pumped now, my right calf has that little nervous quiver it gets when I’m riding something on the edge. Off the brakes, drop, guide it around, commit to the move, keep the rubber in the rut. One more huge g-out, another drop, then into the rocks. Which aren’t so horrible.

Trails like that are what keeps me riding- stuff that takes total focus, clears out the head fog.

After being delayed by the holidays (Kiwis officially celebrate the New Year, the day after the New Year, and the day after the day after the New Year) our tires come in the mail.

The rubber of my dreams:

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29×3.0 Maxxis Minions, next to worn out Surly Dirt Wizards. The Minions are an inch taller than the Surlys (the diameter is 30.5″ instead of 29.5″), so they’re the same size as the original Surly Knard. I paired it with a Maxxis Chronicle in the back to keep the rolling resistance low. It’s the tire combo I’ve been wishing for since I built up my first plus bike in 2012.

The Minion is the best tire ever, and the 3.0 Minion is the best 3.0 tire ever. Faster than the Dirt Wizards, lighter, and they corner better. And they’re tall for extra-good stuff rolling over- which to me, is the whole point of a 29-plus tire.

On Colleen’s bike, we went the other way. She was riding big, heavy 27.5×3.0 WTB Trail Bosses, which we replaced with 27.5×2.8 Maxxis Ikons. The Ikons aren’t as grippy, but they dropped 350 grams of rotational mass from each wheel, and have a way faster rolling tread. This isn’t a tire I’d like at all, but I’m finally starting to realize that what’s good for me isn’t good for everybody.

Colleen likes chubby tires because they feel more stable and confidence inspiring, and a 2.8 is wide enough for that. She doesn’t ride aggressively enough to care about having a ton of cornering traction, it’s more important that the tires climb well. And at 850 grams, these things climb real good.

Also, I set up all four of these tires tubeless with a mini-pump, without too much sweat or cursing. Rims and tires have come a long way.

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Following the tire install, I discover the world’s most terrible beer. Damn Russians, they hacked our election, and now they’ve tried to poison me (it was shocking- I’ve bought some other Eastern Bloc beers that have been bad, but this was worse than the time I tried to use Dr. Bronner’s as toothpaste).

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Finally, we’re ready to say adios to the half-broken Ickys (kayaking can be bad for your health, and frozen bread is bad for an ice pack) and keep heading south. Thanks again guys.

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We leave Rotorua for Huka Falls and Taupo. The Great Lake Trail to the Timber Trail.

The usual dead end:

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Ducklings attack Colleen’s leftover fried rice.

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And I take us on another unnecessary detour (Colleen’s favorite).

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I’ve never seen a backcountry trail like the Timber Trail- it’s so reinforced and well drained that it’s like a miniature road. And the Department of Conservation built half a dozen suspension bridges to avoid hike-a-bikes, at almost a half-million dollars a piece.

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Adventure tourism is a big deal in New Zealand, and they take the infrastructure seriously.

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After the Timber Trail, we climb up to National Park, hoping to get a good weather day to hike the 12 mile-long Tongariro Crossing. Colleen was here a few years ago, but it was so foggy that she couldn’t see anything on top of the mountain.

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We get up early the next morning. The weather’s perfect. Hike kinda fast, and we’re past most of the big groups of people.

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Incredible up there, the mountains shoot up right in the middle of a landscape that I thought was all ferns and sheep herds.

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Mount Ngauruhoe, the volcano that played Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.

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A really awesome day- and I typically hate walking up a mountain if I’m not pushing my bike.

We’re waiting out a day of rain, then we’re going to head for Wellington and get the ferry to the South Island, and ride around in the Southern Alps. I’m pretty stoked.

5 thoughts on “Rotorua to Tongariro

  1. You Guys Missed the Best Craft Beer and Technical MTB Trails ever if you passed thru Wellington and did not Stay.
    Trails start FROM the Capital city At some Brewerys and work their way out to 4 MTB Parks well over 4 or 5 Kms from the city……at least 5 .1


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