Framing Manawatū’s eastern horizon, the towering spine of the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges lords over the plains like a giant billboard for outdoorsy adventure. Welcome to the big backyard. After taking my fill of the urban treats in Palmerston North, I was itching to explore Manawatū ‘s natural playground and I first headed to Arapuke Mountain Bike Park. Formerly known as K-Loop, the Arapuke Forest Park is the premier mountain bike destination in the lower North Island with over 30kms of well-formed trails, in a growing network.
Spanning all grades of difficulty, the Grade 2 trails are the ideal option for beginners and families. From the Scott’s Road entrance, I struck out on the Icebreaker trail which threads you through Douglas Fir trees, before switching onto the Swamp Monster trail which looped me back to the car park. I then headed to the Kahuterawa Road car park to strike out on the region’s beloved Sledge Track. Situated in the heart of the scenic Kahuterawa Valley, Sledge Track intimately immerses you in the majesty of our native forest environment, serving up the grandeur of towering ancient trees, plunging waterfalls and seductive swimming holes.
I took a 90 minute return walk to Argyle Rocks, encountering some stunning natural fauna along the way. As kereru whooshed overhead, I spotted numerous kapokapowai, the giant bush dragonfly, bathing in the bright sunshine. After rain, Argyle Rocks creates a dramatic spectacle of cascading water in the Kahuterawa Stream.
Just past the rocks, follow the trail to the monster rimu tree, a 600-800 year old specimen, reaching a height of 25metres. If you want to push further on, 2.5kms into the walk, a swing bridge takes you over a gully and into Arapuke Forest Park, where you can loop back to the car park on the shared tracks. (Keep an eye and ear out for the mountain bikers!)
On a sun-splashed Saturday morning, I joined the hordes of local weekend warriors striking out on the region’s signature Te Āpiti-Manawatū Gorge walking trails. Landslips forced the permanent closure of the gorge road over three years ago and the new highway route is currently being constructed over the Ruahine Range. With the rumble of vehicle traffic permanently silenced from the gorge, it’s the cacophony of birdsong that instantly struck me, with tui, fantails and kereru thriving in the bush-draped gorge, coursing through the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges.
The mighty Manawatū is unique among New Zealand rivers in that it crosses a mountain range, with its headwaters lying close to Norsewood on the eastern slopes of the Ruahines. I made a beeline for the Manawatū Gorge Loop track, an easy stroll of 1.2km through native bush. Branching off it is the longer Tawa Loop Track, which is deliciously good. Set aside 2 hours to knock off this 4km-long route, which follows a steady gradient and is steep in places.
Your huffing and puffing will be handsomely rewarded with a heart-stealing view across the sinuous curves of the bush-wrapped gorge. Keep an eye out for Whatonga, a stirring 6m-high steel sculpture of the Rangitāne chief who captained the Kurahaupō waka when it landed 800 years ago. Eight Māori-inspired information panels also tell the story of the region’s Māori heritage and culture. I adored the rich array of native plants, headlined by the soothing nikau groves and red flowering rata. It’s a banger of a walk.
If you’re up for another challenging leg-stretcher, head north for an hour and strike out on the Rangiwahia Track. This iconic 4km-long trail starts from Renfrew Road, rambling through red beech forest to the open tussock tops of the Ruahine Range. A reasonable level of fitness and ample water will suffice to accomplish this steady climb which zips you up to 1327metres above sea level.
An insta-worthy highlight is the magnificent arched-wooden bridge, before the grade becomes steeper, to reach the Rangiwahia Hut. Welcome to a wondrous, pixel-burning dreamscape! It will knock your socks off. If you’re doing the walk as a day-trip, give yourself 2 hours each way. Alternatively, you can book a stay overnight in the DOC hut. The panoramic views are seraphic, sweeping your eyes across the central plateau and Manawatū Plains.
Northern Manawatū affords awe-inspiring views even from the comfort of the car on the undulating hinterland roads, that waltz with the river as the road dips in and out of the valleys. Crowning the western horizon, I found myself swooning over the views of the snow-topped clarity of Mount Ruapehu.
Running from Mangaweka to Ashurst, take a drive along the Manawatū Scenic Route, a dedicated touring circuit that accentuates the beauty and charm of the backcountry, threading together a necklace of scenic gems, rolling farmland, hidden valleys and charismatic settlements. Soak up the scenery at the Ruahine Dress Circle lookout. Early settlers were so inspired by the curved papa cliffs, they nicknamed it the dress circle, because it reminded them of the dress circle in an opera house.
The Āpiti Lavender Farm is a beloved small venture run by Helma Hughes offering accommodation for cyclists and, in summer, the opportunity to picnic amidst the fragrant mosaic of more than 3000 purple plants. The little onsite shop also sells lavender products – candles, soaps and bottles of lavender hydrosol – a byproduct of the oil distilling process – that will make your laundry smell fantastic. Another local landmark is the Āpiti Tavern, a charismatic country pub with an excellent beer garden, tasty fare and welcoming hospitality.
Heading through the picturesque Pohangina Valley, you’ll be treated to an ever-changing landscape of lush green valleys, stony river terraces and the imperious backdrop of the Ruahine Ranges. Along the way, there are hidden swimming holes and scenic lookouts to explore. Totara Reserve is a popular picnics and swimming spot as is nearby Raumai Reserve. For a quick detour, head up to Pohangina Village, and visit Cartwheel Creamery, an artisan operation that produces exceptional cheeses that combine traditional methods with modern safe food practices.
Further down the valley, at the top of an increasingly narrow gravel road, you’ll find Pōhāngina Heights. It’s a lush expanse of manicured gardens with free range chickens, peacocks, bunnies and sweeping views across the valley. Make an appointment to view the gardens in case the gate is locked, or better, stay the night in one of the two self-contained cottages on site and watch the sunset from the outdoor bath.
The route ends in Ashhurst where you’ll find The Herb Farm – a local family business making natural skincare and therapeutic products on site from plants harvested from the sprawling, slightly wild gardens. I enjoyed a hearty graze from the café, where the menu is centred around local, free range and organic produce incorporating fresh herbs from their gardens. You can’t go wrong with their sweet brioche French toast, free range bacon and grilled banana served with berry couli and natural yoghurt, topped with candied walnuts. Bliss!
From Ashurst, it’s a very short hop up the Saddle Road to the Te Āpiti windfarm lookout. The sheer size and height of these 55 turbines is astounding. Where to stay? Boasting 700 acres of farmland in Āpiti, Makoura Lodge is a fabulous country luxury lodge, wrapped in natural splendour. Panoramic views greet you at every turn across the Ruahine Ranges, gullies and native bush.
Renowned for its stirring country hospitality, the lodge caters to a wide market, whether it be weddings, couples retreats, birthdays or business conferences. There’s a range of accommodation options, but if you fancy an indulgent romantic retreat, the Riverside Retreat cabin. They also offer corporate packages complete with exclusive venue use, delicious meals, wonderful accommodation and private bar use. The range of onsite team building activities is impressive spanning 4WD training, horse trekking, Claybird shooting, Archery and Charlotte’s Web – even Hole in One golf!
Owned and operated by Hugh and Kimberley McIntyre, the property has been a going concern for the McIntyre family since 1896. The lodge itself was built in 1998, with as many local materials as possible. It features Macrocarpa timber, milled from the property, and rocks out of the nearby Coal Creek River for stone work. The impressive open log fire surround and bar top are made from a Totara log that survived a scrub fire on the property.
In 1903 the original homestead was built in 1903 by Hugh and Jack McIntyre brothers and still stands today. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Kimberley and Hugh, who took me for a spin on the incredible 4WD training course, which is widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s best off road vehicle and 4WD training facilities. They are wonderfully homely hosts who are delight to get to know as you share their authentic, heritage-laden family slice of hinterland paradise. www.makouralodge.co.nz
Finally, it’s been a multiple award-winner of New Zealand’s Most Beautiful Town, taking out the gong on 16 separate occasions, and a quick visit to Feilding will reveal why. It is an instantly likeable town, immaculately clean and colourful, studded with impeccably-maintained character buildings. Friday is market day in Feilding, with the largest operating stock saleyards in the Southern Hemisphere doing their busiest trade, while the fresh produce and artisan treats do a roaring trade at the weekly Farmers’ Market – which has been adjudged the nation’s best on multiple occasions.
Held in Manchester Square in the shadow of the town’s heritage clock tower and the Feilding Hotel, feast yourself on more than 30 stalls including fromage from Cartwheel Creamery and sausages from Foxton-based Foxy Bangers. The pork and apple ones are particularly good. www.manawatunz.com
I flew to Wellington with Jetstar for my lower North Island roadie. Score even sweeter deals with a Club Jetstar membership. The programme offers travellers access to special ‘member only’ fares, 20% discount on baggage and seat selection products, and early access to the biggest sales. Bag a bargain fare deal and seat to suit at www.jetstar.co.nz
I picked up my Avis rental car from Wellington Airport to free-roam the North Island. The Avis Safety Pledge allows customers to pick up and drop off vehicles with minimal contact. This has been complemented with the Digital Check In option, dramatically speeding-up time at the counter. To travel with complete flexibility, select the Pay at Counter option, which includes free modifications or cancellations at any time. Or, you can select the Pay Now option, and receive a saving for paying in advance. Until 1 July 2021, you can also cancel for free on Pay Now Rentals if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance of rental collection. www.avis.co.nz