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"There is nothing else like this ride" - the remarkable journey of the new Kaimanawa Descent mountain bike track

It was never going to be easy, building the remote and spectacularly scenic Kaimanawa Descent mountain bike track near Taupō. However, the ride has been particularly rocky for helicopter pilot Thomas Orr.

When a near-death accident halted progress on the Orr family’s five-year project, he picked himself up and finished the job on a prosthetic leg.

That meant regaining his pilot’s licence and continuing to ferry people and equipment to the worksite by air. It also involved operating a digger in rugged forest, then hand shovelling and raking sections alongside a professional track builder.

The beekeeping outdoorsman, earth science graduate and former rugby player says constructing the 22km trail and creating Kaimanawa Alpine Adventures has helped him heal.

Good for the soul

In December 2021, Thomas spent just over one hour with his leg pinned beneath a seven-tonne loader on a gravel road. Before rescuers arrived, he removed the belt he was wearing to form a makeshift tourniquet and stem bleeding. While the manoeuvre saved his life, his leg was subsequently amputated above the knee.

Almost immediately, Thomas talked about returning to his recreational playground and workplace.

“I’ve spent my entire life out there hunting, fishing, cutting tracks and building huts,” the pilot says. “Being back in nature, back doing what I love, it’s good for the soul.

“And it’s something I’ve always wanted to share, that feeling you get when you’re in a place like that.”

Nothing like it

The Orr clan are all avid mountain bikers, but it was Thomas and his chopper pilot father who conjured the idea of constructing a downhill bike track in seemingly-impossible terrain. They mapped it out from the air, then brought in professionals to help create it.

Now, thanks to their efforts, fellow riders can load bikes onto the AS350 helicopter that flies them to the trailhead 1673m above sea level. Visitors then ride back to base, about 20 minutes south of Tūrangi or book an overnight stay in a luxurious glamping tent that overlooks Waipakahi River.

“There is nothing else like this ride. You’re in the foothills of Tongariro National Park, right next to the three main volcanic mountains, with a beautiful mix of open alpine tussock country and native beech forest. And from where you start the mountain bike track, you can see right up Lake Taupō basin."

Thomas Orr

“We’d argue it’s one of the best views in the North Island.”

Fly, ride, stay

Tony Orr knows the Kaimanawa Forest Park and neighbouring Kaweka forest parks well, courtesy of countless personal and family hunting trips. He has also spent decades flying fellow hunters and international angler clients into the region.

Thomas joined the family helicopter business in 2017, despite his father’s protestations.

“Dad used to say, that it’s a lifestyle choice and not without risk. But after I did my first training flight, yeah, I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

The Orrs’ partnership with local Māori landowners means their Kaimanawa Alpine Adventures company can offer scenic flights, a glamping business and the only privately-owned grade three mountain bike track in the North Island. The pilots and the landowners -Lake Rotoaira Forest Trust and Kaimanawa Trust - are equally intent on seeing the whenua (land) both appreciated and safeguarded.

Experience beauty

“Protecting the land and helping people understand and experience the beauty of that area is so important to us. When you get to know and love places, you start to look after them.”

Their iwi partners have helped create a dozen large information panels that stand along the trail to relay cultural stories. They are also working with the Orrs to launch a kiwi recovery programme – the area is home to the endangered national bird and also to whio (blue duck). 

“We want to be one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly adventure tourism companies in New Zealand.”

Thomas has another goal, too. He is already managing his mountain bike on the flat but, with some practice and modifications, he looks forward to riding the trail that he and his father dreamed up.


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  4. The remarkable journey of the new Kaimanawa Descent mountain bike track