Great Rides - Kaimanawa Descent Alpine Adventure
This thrill seeking ride is incredible!
We are so lucky to live in this beautiful country of ours with its huge range of outdoor activities, and miles and miles of biking tracks. This summer, we loaded up the bikes and hit the road in our motorhome to explore NZ’s latest mountain biking experience.
We booked in to do the heli-biking Kaimanawa Descent at Kaimanawa Alpine Adventures. After five years in the making, this ride opened just in time for the 2023 summer season. The result is a fabulous Grade 3, 22km, primarily downhill mountain bike track. It involves a short chopper ride from the KAA base on Waipakahi Road (off the Desert Road) to the trail head on the Patutu Tops, and costs $350pp. I can promise you, it’s worth the price!
The night before we parked up at the Taupō TOP 10 Holiday Park. Having just spent the day riding at the recently re-opened Craters of the Moon Bike Park, the proximity to DeBretts Hotpools was most attractive. Nothing better than a nice soak after a day of riding. We also had a fantastic meal at The Hilton’s Bistro Lago.
For freedom camping and park over options closer to the KAA base, go to https://www.nzmca.org.nz/ for more information.
In an area as remote as this, safety is paramount. There is no cellphone reception, large drop offs and at times, it can be hostile territory. During the safety briefing, we felt reassured when they explained that every couple of kilometres we would see clearly marked stations containing first aid kits, bike maintenance equipment and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). It goes without saying, being prepared is essential. Take plenty of water and snacks and, as the conditions can deteriorate very quickly up there, clothing for every eventuality.
Don’t let a nasty accident ruin your time on the track. Ensure you always…
- Always be well prepared
- Wear a helmet - always
- Keep to the left, particularly around corners (this ride is one way only, but it’s a good practice anyway)
- Be familiar with your bike
- Ride to your ability
- Pay heed to all warnings (sharp corners, crumbling cliffs etc.)
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
The Kaimanawa Descent
Due to fog, we had a delay of about an hour before it was clear enough to safely ascend. Once the all-clear was given, our bikes were securely strapped to the side of the helicopter, in we jumped and away we went! It’s only a five-minute ride to the top, but enough to see the awe-inspiring size and scope of the stunning Kaimanawa Ranges.
As the trailhead at Patutu Tops was still covered in fog, we were dropped off on a saddle at a slightly lower altitude. We opted to ride the additional kilometre back to the top of the trailhead – which was still shrouded in fog. Instantly, we were blown away by the starkly beautiful alpine terrain with the schist rock a sharp contrast to the delicate alpine flora that grows there. Despite the warm day, it was cold at the top, so it’s advisable to wear an extra layer or two.
The Patutu Tops Alpine Flowers
As we began our descent, the fog cleared and we were treated to the wide, sweeping views of the Kaimanawas and the Central Plateau with Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Riding the track requires full concentration (the rock is really sharp so falling off is not a desirable option!), so we made sure that we made plenty of stops to admire the incredible scenery.
The track itself was good and the Grade 3 rating seems about right. It is so much fun! Loads of exciting twists, turns and drop-offs to challenge every adrenaline junkie, but if you want to take it slowly, that’s cool too. There were also a few decent climbs, that despite the aid of an e-bike, had me breathless (possibly from way too much chocolate and wine over Christmas!).
As the altitude changed, so did the terrain. The rocky alpine track soon gave way to wild and sweeping tussock land, these were quite boggy and muddy in places, but so beautiful! I kept an eye out for the famous Kaimanawa horses, as I could certainly imagine a large herd galloping over these windswept plains, what a sight that would be! Sadly, they remained elusive.
A further climb led us to traverse a steep mountain pass. The most perilous of the drops were safely roped off, but it certainly pays to have your wits about you. The payoff was traversing the dramatic mountainous contours and again, the phenomenal views of the surrounding country. One of the highlights for me was riding across a narrow ridge, where the land just dropped away on either side and the true scale of this unique area could be seen – so impressive! There was the odd rock and dip in the trail, but overall it’s really well maintained and nice to ride on.
The final half of the trail saw a dramatic change in terrain as we rode into Mountain Beech Forest. It’s honestly like entering the land of fairytales. It was all too easy to build up quite a speed on this fast-paced, downhill part of the track. I was grateful for the warning signs when particularly sharp turns were coming up as the beech leaves covering the track did not allow for good traction. Mountain Beech gave way to majestic Red Beech Trees for the final part of the ride. Three hours after we began, we were back at the KAA base.
This is easily one of the most spectacular rides I have ever done. If you are new to mountain biking, I would recommend taking your time on some of the more technical parts of the ride, but as long as you ride to the conditions and your abilities, it’s completely doable. For a reduced rate, you have the option of being taken to the trailhead to do it all again. We didn’t have the time this trip, but we will definitely take them up on this next time. And there WILL be a next time. I honestly think it’s addictive!
Check out a great video of the Kaimanawa Descent here.
Once you’ve had your fill of adrenaline, there are other great places to explore in the area on your motorhome and campervan adventures around Ruapehu and the Central Plateau. Some of my favorites' include:
Waiouru National Army Museum - https://www.armymuseum.co.nz/