A Riding Weekend at the Chateau Tongariro
By Matthew Bennett
I am a believer in hard work, I have been most of my life. I also spent most of my youth practicing frugal living. The reason is simple really. The combination of the two enabled me to accumulate moderate sums of money that through the continued application of frugal living enabled me to amass a vast number of fantastic adventures and expeditions.
I literally spent entire months of my formative years climbing in USA, kayaking across and around Europe, skiing in Canada and caving in Britain. For three years in a row I spent in excess of 200 nights sleeping on the ground in a tent. Luxury was defined by the stars in the sky and the view of the river. Hotels did not feature in my itineraries.
My girlfriend does not share this history. Since the day she graduated from university she also gave up on ever dating someone who earned more than she did.
So it was much to her surprise and my anxiety that I booked us into the Chateau Tongariro. It was only the knowledge that our mountain bikes were just outside the door that I had the confidence to step up to the reception. Sarah, being the master that she is, could see that I really didn’t know what happened next, took control and announced “we have a reservation”. She knows how hotels work.
Chateau Tongariro is an iconic hotel with a long history that sites at the base of an even more iconic mountain with an even longer history. And while many would find the comfort, grandeur and mountain vistas enough, however we had other plans. Because surrounding the Chateau is an outdoor recreationist’s candy store pick ‘n’ mix, an ‘all you can eat’ buffet of play time. Pick a season, choose the toys and a place to sleep. Obviously we had chosen our bed and we had our bikes. And still our options extended beyond what we could fit into the time had available. Compounding the challenge was that the bed was comfortable that high tea service closes at 5pm.
Eventually coffee failed to suppress our desire to ride and we headed out the door. While guests around prepared for a wedding none of the staff seemed to miss a beat as walked through reception with our bikes asking for directions to the National Park and the start of the 42 Traverse.
The 42 Traverse does three things exceptionally well. Firstly, it goes down. It does this with gusto in straight lines. Then it will cross a stream and go straight up, usually with mud. Fortunately it will go up for shorter distances that it goes down and this makes it easy to remember what really is the highlight of the track. Thirdly it traverses Tongariro Forest, providing fantastic views across the valleys, ridges and canopy. With regenerating Rimu, Rata, Totara and Kahikatea it is slowly filling with that returning sound of native birds including (if you’re prepared to go out at night) the Kiwi.
After (yet more) coffee in Owhango we went in search of the Kaiwhakauka / Mangapurua tracks. I won’t do the ride an injustice by trying to use words where a picture will suffice. Except one picture won’t suffice. The trail tells a tale of New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna and adds a slice of our history.
In taking on these two rides in one day made for a long day and tired bodies. And while technological developments in light weight gear has led to greater comfort and better food while adventuring they don’t come close to the Chateau and the Ruapehu Restaurant.
Bear with me on this one. I have spent my entire life considering my mother to be a fantastic cook, and my justification goes well beyond just her being the provider of food whenever I needed it all the way throughout my youth. However when she served up duck one evening I literally had to look out the window to check that she hadn’t used the car tyres. So in my mind if she struggled to cook duck then it must be difficult. Well, I can say with absolute confidence that the Chef at the Ruapehu Restaurant is very good because her Duck a l’orange was superb and was matched by the wine and dessert.
And so it was with tired bodies full bellies and high levels of satisfaction we walked up to our room and sank deeply into the bed and sleep.
The next day we decided to forgo breakfast and headed straight out to Horopito and the ‘Old Coach Road’. This could easily be overlooked by a mountain bike adventurer and that would be a huge mistake. It is an absolute gem. It continues the theme of soaring mountain views, ancient forest and the story of a young country. It builds on it with an extremely well built track that flows and is simply an absolute joy to ride. The trail ends in Ohakune at a cool little pump track then just around the corner is OCR. I really couldn’t tell you what OCR means or stands for, however I’ll be going back there every time I pass through Ohakune because the atmosphere was wonderful, the food even better and the coffee made the wait disappear.
At this stage of our escape away we were a bit saddle sore, so rather than try to chase down more trail to ride (of which there were still many to choose from) we opted for a walk on the mountain. And like the riding, there are almost too many to choose from. Out of the Chateau’s door is a selection of tracks ranging in length and providing options even in Mt Ruapehu’s variable weather. Our intention was to work up enough of an appetite for the next food event. Two hours on the Silica Springs track landed us back at the Chateau more informed of the areas geology and more than read to enjoy ‘High Tea’ looking out the vast picture window at Mt Ngauruhoe. After struggling to decide which of the special tea blends matched the mood we sat quietly contemplating the view, the riding and for me, the value of not camping.