A Packraft & Bike Adventure along New Zealand’s “Forgotten Highways”
Four Kiwis from New Zealand’s South Island journey through historic routes in the North Island in this award-winning film by Deane Parker.
“Forgotten Highways is a story of exploring new country by mountain bike and packraft. The Whanganui River is steeped in history and the jungle trails to and from the river have been used for eons for transport and commerce.
“[The film covers] 6 days of high-quality epic adventure with a good dollop of culture and history using my favourite instruments of adventure to undertake a challenging route under human power.”
Dean wrote: “We devised a plan to paddle the upper river in packrafts carrying our mountain bikes until we reached the Bridge to Nowhere track. There we would transform to bikers and ride over the Bridge to Nowhere trail and paddle to the beginning of the Matemateonga track. There, our packrafting gear would be ferried out by jet boat allowing us to break our gear down for lightweight rigs to take on the predicted grade 4-5 hike a bike.
The “Forgotten Highways” route
“We were a team of four: Muel, Rose and Rose’s husband, Jackson, who was new to the bikerafting thing but had provided the route and some intel from having ridden and canoed some parts. The other 3 of us had done a major bikerafting expedition in the Kahurangi National Park 18 months prior and a smattering of other shorter trips.
“The route was achievable by using the packrafts to stay largely independent with the exception of a food cache and cartage of our packrafting gear by the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge.”
The Biking Sections of "Forgotten Highways"
The Mangapurua or Bridge to Nowhere trail is part of New Zealand’s famous Tour Aotearoa—a bike brevet (for us non-bikers, that’s a bike event—not a race, but a ride along a set course that riders have to complete within a certain time frame).
Parts of it are treacherous enough to have warranted helicopter rescues for a handful of unfortunate bikers!
“The Matemateonga section is defined by most as Grade Hard—steep, technical, jungle singletrack. We spent 2.5 days enveloped by the dense forest, focused on not losing a wheel into the abyss of near vertical cliffs.” (Deane)
Several sections needed to be hiked—carrying their bikes over fallen trees, up steep grades, over narrow swing bridges that spanned deep canyons, and along precarious cliffsides.
Packrafting the Mhanganui River
The packrafting portion of the Forgotten Highways route followed the famous Whanganui Awa (river), the longest navigable waterway in New Zealand.
“The Whanganui Awa is so significant that it has been given the legal standing of a person by the courts. It’s full of history and mythology from its early days as an artery for transport and commerce by the indigenous Maori tribes and then by paddle steamers up until the 1950s. Today it’s floated by tourists in canoes or guided in jet boats.” (Deane)
The upper portion of the river is protected in Whanganui National Park, where Forgotten Highways was filmed. The Whanganui has a many sections of rapids, but most of them are mild. It’s a great waterway for even beginning paddlers to navigate.
Along the way are many huts available for nighttime camping. These are managed by NZ’s Department of Conservation in partnership with local Maori.
Deane wraps up his thoughts on the trip and the film that resulted from it:
“It seemed only fitting to call the film Forgotten Highways. We had traveled six old trails that had been highways at some point in history, be it Maori or European settlers. All had similar enthusiasm for their endeavours, as we were in the modern day to accomplish a challenge we set for ourselves.
“The toil we had endured whilst recreating would have been a drop in the bucket for what these men and women undertook to live off the land—and even just travel through the landscape without the high tech bikes, boats and equipment we had available to us.
“Were they forgotten? That depends on definition I reckon. Maybe forgotten as ‘highways’…but this river and these trails are thick with heritage and folklore, legend and endeavour. In retrospect it seemed fitting to experience this area undertaking a degree of toil and some discomfort giving us the full-immersion experience to the Whanganui District.”
For more information about paddling this river yourself, head to NewZealand.com.
All photos courtesy of Deane Parker. Check out more of Deane's work on his website.
(Additional information courtesy of Whanganui National Park)
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