The Forgotten World Highway was one of the best single day road rides that I have ever done, and this is not an overstatement as I have travelled to many far-flung destinations around the world to ride a bike – including Mongolia, China, USA, Taiwan, South East Asia, to name a few.
The Forgotten World Highway Cycle Route spans 180kms across New Zealand beginning in Taumarunui and ends in the small city of New Plymouth. The remote narrow twisting road cuts through some of the remotest regions of New Zealand and you’ll witness a Kiwi way of life that is virtually unchanged from over 100 years ago; its like pedalling back through time and the whole region really does live up to the name Forgotten World. Highway 43 takes you through stunning crinkled farmland scenery and real virgin native forests, there are many old impressive looking abandoned villas and rustic red wooden farm buildings, with curious cows and sheep gawking at you as you whiz by. You might even find yourself breaking the silence by talking to the animals; during the entire journey I counted less than 100 cars and most of them going in the opposite direction.
It is a challenging road ride for any cyclist and it is required that your fitness levels be decent so you can enjoy the hidden gems in this part of New Zealand. Over the 180kms, there are no less than nine category three and four climbs as categorised by Strava with countless more tiny, but steep climbs. The fact that the highest point is only 300m, but there is over 2,200m of climbing reveals what it’s like. It makes for a tough day in the saddle for even the most hard-core of roadies, but even recreational of riders will enjoy it over two or three days with plenty of stops to enjoy the numerous side-trips from the highway.
When I did this ride I had limited time and since I started late in the day. It was 1pm to be precise, so I knew I had to cover some ground to make it to New Plymouth before dark. I was dropped off in Taumarunui after driving down from Rotorua early the same day. I had loaded up on snacks and fluids and with my D90 Nikon slung over my shoulder, I cycled into a different world which did not seem to operate on time as everyone else, with very little evidence of outside influences. I was full of anticipation about this ride, especially after Venture Taranaki told me all about it and how they are promoting the cycle route to showcase the region. I was immediately attracted to the ruggedness and remote appeal of the ride.
After Taumarunui, you follow the meandering Whanganui River for several kilometers before tackling some punchy climbs, ultimately getting over the first of many saddles – the Paparata Saddle. There is a superb descent down into the picturesque valley before entering the Tangarakau Gorge, offering you a glimpse of what New Zealand looked like during pre-colonization times. The road through the gorge is a unsealed 12km section, but its no problem to ride on the road bike while admiring native Kiwi bush and jagged cliffs dropping out to a river below. Before long, you emerge from this Jurassic Park like scenery back into the crinkly farmscapes dotted with cattle and rustic buildings.
After summiting the Tahora Saddle, it’s a long descent to Whangamomona, the Capital of the Republic. In 1989, this area of New Zealand was declared independent and there are passports available for purchase at the Whangamomona Pub to help with passage should you get stopped by the locals! When I rolled into Whangamomona, the small village was completely devoid of life and the Pub was closed – I was looking forward to the hot muffins and latte as my refuel stop, but as luck would have it I had picked the day that the owners closed early for the first time in many weeks. It was 5pm and I still had another 100kms to complete, so after seeking out water from a tap to refill my bidons, I ate some sandwiches and a chocolate bar before making haste. I had to climb two more saddles – the Whangamomona Saddle and then up to Pohokura Saddle where the Cycle Trail deviates from the Forgotten World Highway onto Junction Road. This is the start of Roubaix style riding for 16kms over some gnarly gravel roads. You also know its Kiwi bird country due to the large number of stoat traps planted along the roadside.
Shortly after the turn-off to begin the gravel section, provided the weather is clear, you’ll see some awe inspiring views of the imposing Mount Egmont in the distance. You have to stop to admire the views, its just too dangerous to ride at the same time – the road at certain points requires all of your focus! This is some very remote country, again a mixture of virgin bush and the green farmland, and there is almost no human life – just animals for company.
Make sure you follow the cycle symbol signs to navigate your way through the countryside to reach New Plymouth. Right around Matau, there is a sign that says, “Road to Paradise – No exit”, if you wish to reach paradise then this might be the road to take, but for me, I wanted to be back in civilisation before sundown and at this point the sun was rapidly sinking and I still had more than 50kms of riding. It was yet another steep gravel climb with some hair raising moments during the descent on the other side.
It was completely dark by the time I reached the famous New Plymouth Coastal Walkway but the moon was out and this gave me enough light to zoom along on the concrete pathway, which felt like a royal carpet rolled out to welcome me into New Plymouth. After spending more than 8hrs in the saddle, stopping for more than one hour to take pictures along the way, I was elated to see the twinkling lights of the city with the dark shadow of Mount Egmont in the background. The ride for me ended at the towering 45m Wind Wand sculpture and it was just across the road where I was staying at the Waterfront Hotel with its superb views of the Tasman Sea.
At present, the Forgotten Highway Cycle Trail is very much only suited for self-sufficient riders as there are very limited accommodation and food supplies along the way. Venture Taranaki is striving towards getting support infrastructure set up so that more riders of varying abilities can enjoy this epic ride. Apparently they are also going to be educating the farmers to become bike repair savvy, train them how to provide roadside assistance should a rider have a puncture. It is planned that the farmers will be given tool-kits, tubes, pumps and puncture repair kits. It is also envisaged that farmers will open up some barns for some overnight accommodations should riders be in need. However, this is still 1-2 years from happening and will require the local community support. For this to happen, they will need to be convinced of the tourism benefits they will receive from helping out cyclists.
• Ensure you stock up on supplies – you will have to ride 80kms before refueling in Whangamomona
• Take your camera – be prepared to stop often to take spectacular photographs
• Don’t count on mobile coverage – there is none for the whole ride
• Be prepared to lose your sanity and start talking to the animals. It’s very remote!
• Watch out for roaming sheep or cows
• Be careful on the steep gravel descents, they require some good handling skills if you are on a road bike
• Book ahead for your hotel accommodation as you will be one tired cyclists after conquering all those steep climbs! Some recommendations along the way include the Devon Hotel, The Waterfront, and the Ariki Backpackers.
Editor’s Note – Daniel was not paid to write this nor were any of his travel costs paid for. He did this out of his own initiative to help promote this area where he grew up near. Full Disclosure: Venture Taranaki bought Daniel a coffee when he met with them in New Plymouth.