At the highpoint of the forest, the plantation stops and the jungle starts. Native foliage covers the terrain in a blanket of trees, ferns, and vines. The bush up there is so totally different from the rest of the place that it’s hard to believe you are in the same forest.
The legend of the young warrior Hatupatu and the birdwoman Kurangaituku took place in the Rotorua region, and evidence of their epic chase can still be seen today. The rock where Hatupatu took refuge is conveniently located on State Highway 1 south of Tokoroa, and the steaming vent where Kurangaituku met her demise is on the horse track near the Waipa car park. But if you really want to get a feel for the way the place was when Hatupatu escaped from his domineering brothers and became the quarry of the birdwoman, go to the network of trails up in the native and be absorbed by the place.
The jungle is dense, and festooned with supplejack, a vine that is incredibly strong and in places impenetrable. The natural growth of the trees creates a mat of surface roots which are exposed on the trails, making long sections with no direct contact with dirt at all.
Tihi-O-Tawa is a downhill run that can be accessed by a short climb from where the shuttle bus delivers passengers. Anybody with the price of a ticket can get to it without breaking a sweat. But a few turns into your trip down that trail and you will know you are not in ‘The Redwoods’ any more.
The contrast when you drop out into the pine trees is very strong. It even smells different!
Tuhoto Ariki is named for the old tohunga who predicted the 1886 eruption of Tarawera.
He was buried alive in his hut by the catastrophe, but emerged alive several days later. His people suspected him of causing the eruption! What he would make of mountain bikers is anybody’s guess, but it is only by the generosity of his people today that the trails are there at all.
Hatupatu is well named, because if you can get down it in one clean run and with all your limbs intact, you can probably evade a demonic birdwoman.
Kataore was the taniwha, or dragon-like creature that once terrified the people of the region. He lived on the slopes of Moerangi, above Tikitapu, the Blue Lake. The trail named for him descends his mountain and drops riders at the shores of the lake. It is about as easy to deal with as a huge scaly monster which can eat people in one bite.
Legend has it that when James Dodds and Rob Metz were making the trail called Tuhoto Ariki, several people tried to follow it before it was finished. As people do. Two thought they could beeline out to the nearest road from the place where the build had stopped.
One guy emerged, an hour or so later, scratched and exhausted, several hundred metres back on the trail from where he had started. The other fellow, in a separate navigational exercise, got so tangled in vines by the onset of dark that he gave up and left his bike in the bush, and escaped without it.
He returned to retrieve it the next day.
Seriously, it’s a jungle up there.