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The plan was simple - leave Papamoa early, drive an hour down state highway 33 to the land of boiling mud pools and funny smell, and run and document all five courses of the Virtually on Track Winter Warriors Strava Challenge. Now 8 hours, 26
kilometres, 3 bananas, 2 apples, 2 coffees, 2 pies, a blue Powerade, 1200mls of water, an almond croissant and an L&P later I can reflect on a pretty unique day of exploring.
Strava is an app that lets you track your rides and runs via your phone or GPS watch and helps you analyse and quantify your performance. You can set up challenges, and courses (referred to as segments) and challenge your friends and others.
The approach I took with the point to point (non-loop) courses was to run the first segment at a good manageable aerobic pace and try to record a half decent time for the Strava Leaderboard (it is a race after all) and then to just cruise on the way back, take photos, relax, enjoy the trail and have a good look around.
Course 1 - Eastern Okataina Walkway
First up was the Okataina Eastern Walkway to Kaiwaka Bay. Access is via Lake Okataina Road off State Highway 30, when you reach the car park look for the psychedelic koru patterned arch to your left and you’re all go.
The only time I’d run this this segment previously was in February where I was 38 odd kilometres deep into the Tarawera Ultramarathon, in a world of hurt with injury and not particularly focused on enjoying the scenery, so it was nice to give this trail a second chance.
Warmed up, a couple of kilometres in and well in ‘the zone’ I was already very much on autopilot by the time I reached Kaiwaka Bay and almost ran straight through it, forgetting why I was there. Although it was overcast and threatening to rain the contrast of the fog on the lake, the green bush covered mountains on the opposite shore and the almost paper white sand on the beach was a sight to behold in an eerie Jurassic Park type of way, a wandering diplodocus or casual pterodactyl would not have looked out of place.
There are some surprisingly sharp little climbs on the 2.3km section through to Kaiwaka Bay and the terrain is rooty and rocky in parts. As with any off-road run or walk it pays to keep your eyes on the track but overall it’s a pretty achievable and safe little piece of single track that will appeal to both novice walkers and hardened trail veterans alike.
Segment Distance: 2.3KM
Course 2 - Okareka Boardwalk
Next up was Okareka Board Walk which was approximately a half hour drive back toward Rotorua from Okaitaina. Throw a left at the roundabout near ‘The Outdoorsman’ and follow the signs toward Okareka. The boardwalk starts at the Acacia Road Recreation Reserve and if for some reason you want to run an extra one and a half kilometres return then park at the similarly named Acacia Bay Lakefront Reserve – like I accidentally did.
As the name suggests much of this track is on a wooden boardwalk and was the easiest and most accessible of the day’s adventures; one I would highly recommend for seniors, families with young kids or pushchairs and ill prepared Regional Sport Trust Marketing Administrators who have yet to realise there’s no comfortable, practical or safe way to run fast while carrying a camera.
I was accompanied throughout by reluctant birds who would make terrible models - difficult ducks, shy swans, private pukeko and another unidentified species of the avian persuasion all of whom I swear knew I was trying to take photos of them and would fly or waddle away with their beaks up out of sheer spite at the last second every time I had ‘the perfect shot’ lined up. Identifying the mystery bird would have been a breeze if I’d bothered to stop and read one of the many information plaques along the way. The budding David Attenborough’s among you could happily multitask, combining an easy 5km run/walk while reading up on local flora, fauna and history.
Segment Distance: 2.5KM
Course 3 - Quarry Lookout Loop Track (Green Track)
Resisting the urge to visit the bakery down the road I figured the sheer thought of an almond croissant and a long black coffee to follow would provide sufficient sustenance to navigate the 4.4KM Quarry Lookout Loop Track (Green Track) which is accessed via Long Mile Road in the Redwoods.
On this particular morning the car park was buzzing with hikers and mountain bikers, walkers with their dogs and busses of foreign tourists – one of which wore a facemask in an almost stereotypical fashion; no doubt to protect from the ravages of the latest incurable incarnation of disease of doom being slung by the media. Either that or it’s the new fashion trend sweeping downtown of one of the worlds major cities; meaning our own homebred masked fashionistas should begin to emerge en masse in Cuba Street cafes in a few months’ time once it catches on here…but I digress.
Start at the information centre, follow the green arrows and you can’t go wrong. The first half kilometre of the Quarry Loop is easy, deceivingly so, as things begin to get steep, very steep just after you’ve reached the almost cartoonishly blue pool - which itself warrants a photo stop. This one will test your climbing legs, not to mention your heart and lungs as the climb is long and stairs feature heavily. But as they say, what goes up must come down and the second half of the loop was really fun, very runnable, wide trail and plenty of other runners and walkers to exchange pleasantries with.
Aside from the start of the Tarawera Ultra which was run in the dark I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this was my first venture into the Redwoods, but it won’t be my last. At the risk of stating the obvious - the place is fantastic, running options abound, people are friendly and the trees are tall.
An important piece of safety advice not to be ignored – if using the bathrooms near the information centre be sure to follow the instructions on the warning and not stand on top of the toilet seat in a squatting position; as the sign suggests - a more traditional seated approach may be advantageous.
Segment Distance: 4.3KM loop
Course 4 - Rainbow Mountain
Re-carbed and caffeined up after devouring an almond croissant a long black and a Powerade, I drove the 25KM down State Highway 5 toward the next stop at Rainbow Mountain with two thoughts running through my head, “My legs are getting pretty sore”, and “Why didn’t I buy two almond croissants?”
The car park is on your left shortly after the Murupara turn off - keep any eye out for the thermal activity (and the enormous spire topped mountain) and you’ll find it no worries.
I’d never run here before and although I’m not one to exaggerate I must have driven past it a billion times. I expected it to be the most difficult course of the Winter Warrior Challenge and I was spot on. This is a tough climb. Really tough. Like, “Why am I doing this, this just sux, there is literally nothing the least bit enjoyable about what I’m doing, man I hate running, I’m never doing this ever again, why would anyone ever voluntarily do this” tough. Fortunately I have some precedence in this regard as the same thoughts enter my mind every Tuesday during our group interval sessions at the 400m track and also in every race that I’ve ever been in.
27 Minutes and 46 seconds later the struggle was over as I reached the summit, took in some much needed oxygen and enjoyed the panoramic views over the Rotorua Lakes, The Waikato, The Bay of Plenty and the Ureweras, interrupted intermittently by plumes of geothermal steam rising from the vents and crater lake below.
The descent down Rainbow Mountain was my favourite part of the day. You can really let loose and get some speed going but the footing is pretty sketchy. The geologists among you may be able to tell me what the surface was, some kind pink volcanic rock/soil combination that was soft underfoot but also quite slippery. I began wishing I’d worn my trail shoes for extra grip and nearly came unstuck a few times, notably when a Saint Bernard-esque dog, and later two mountain bikers appeared from nowhere in the middle of the trail forcing me to an abrupt halt while bounding down at full pace.
Make sure to take a detour at the bottom and check out the crater lakes.
Segment Distance: 2.8KM
Course 5 - Ngongotaha Nature Loop
Driving between trails is a weird way to run; it allows just enough time for the heart rate to drop and the legs to start seizing. It was fair to say I was getting pretty sore, less mobile, significantly less motivated and thoroughly looking forward to going home this point.
The final course and the most difficult to find and spell was The Ngohg, Nongot, Ngongo-Taha, Ngongotaha Nature Loop. Now logic, or in this case assumption, suggests that the Ngongotaha Nature Loop would be in Ngongotaha which is where I drove next. But as Plato said, 'Assumption is the mother of all stuff ups' and I was soon lost, over it and on the verge of a mighty tanty.
This was a classic case of the old ‘Tauranga airport is in the Mount’ scenario and if it wasn’t for the trusty Samsung, multiple google map searches, strava segment searches and all around soul searching I’d probably still not know that Ngoong, Nhgonot, shoot... Ngongotaha, birthplace of Temuera Morrison of Once Were Warriors, Shortland Street and Speed 2 fame and home to a thriving volunteer fire brigade with 2 fire appliances and approximately 20 volunteer firefighters is not only the name of a town but also a mountain, Mount Ngongotaha in fact.
Realising my geographical ineptness I set off in search of the trail and performed a near circumnavigation of the previously mentioned mountain enjoying the many amazing sites of Paradise Valley on the drive such as .… ummm …. the Trout Hatchery and ….. others.
Like an Oasis in the desert and by this point very much back in Rotorua I spotted a little car park that looked promising and then a sign which confirmed I’d finally found the Nature Loop – albeit about an hour and a half after leaving Rainbow Mountain.
There was something really unsettling about the presence of a parked car with a solo occupant, just sort of sitting there. I was convinced the Virtually on Track mobile was gonna get broken into so I crammed everything I could into the Mac Pac and made a note of the other car’s number plate before heading off on the last leg.
Much like the Quarry Lookout Loop Track earlier the first half of this course was deceivingly steep. I went in with intentions of trying to set a fast time but all but gave up after about five minutes and was reduced to a walk for a while; the fallen tree near the end slowed things down considerably too.
This trail actually struck me as a microism of all the prior courses I’d run. The tree cover of the Eastern Okataina Walkway, the flora and fauna information boards much like the Okareka Board Walk and a thrilling descent like Rainbow Mountain. I’d be keen to come back another day and check out the Jubilee track that leads to the summit and intersects the Nature Loop at half way.
Back at the car park I emerged unscathed and my car was perfectly intact with ‘old mate potential car thief’ happily relaxing in the driver seat of his car reading his book; an interesting choice of reading spots but hey it’s a free country.
Segment Distance: 2.7KM
Hell of a day!
The Winter Warriors Strava Challenge runs until the end of August, how many course can you complete over the next month?
Get out there, get active, discover, explore and connect!
Follow Simon on Strava https://www.strava.com/athletes/8662626