Tackling the Moerangi Track with a 4-year-old

Words Trevor Worsey Images Trevor and Cat Worsey

From issue 87 2023

How could we not be lost in the moment as we wound under the Mesozoic canopy of the Whirinaki Forest? The thick fern ceiling dwarfed by giant tōtara, rimu, and mataī trees, a forest David Bellamy had described as a “living cathedral”. This spectacular remnant of prehistoric New Zealand had uppercut us into silent revelry, broken only by the gentle hum of our tires biting into the trail and the rhythmic sway of our bike-packing bags.  

A giggled war cry punctuated the stillness snapping us back to the present. “Poo, Bum, Stink Hole, Fart!” Oh yes, we’d brought our toddler along for the ride too. 

As a couple, we love bike-packing; simple and inexpensive, it’s put us at the coalface of many adventures, from zig-zagged whisky distillery tours on the Outer Hebrides to a total sense of humour failure on the Tour Du Mont Blanc.  

We’re by no means grizzled adventurers, the type happy to eat roadkill and drink our pee to survive. Neither are we insta-athletes chasing iconic imagery at the expense of living in the moment. No, we’re probably just like you, chasing memorable experiences, and now, maybe like you too, we’re also parents.  

We had to hit pause on the freedom, spontaneity, and dehydrated meals for a while. But, over the past couple of years, using a Kids Ride Shotgun seat, we’ve created many new adventures with our 4-year-old boy, Brook.

Calling the Scottish Highlands home, we now found ourselves nearly 18,000km distant as the crow flies or 6300km with a drill, on the other side of the globe heading into one of the North Islands’ remote wilderness gems, the Moerangi Track. 

Many have questioned our sanity, but as we ricochet from one parental challenge to the next, one goal has enduredto help our child develop a love for the outdoors. In a world designed to distract, capture and ultimately monetise his imagination, the wilderness remains the perfect antidote. Free from screens and algorithms, we hope to instil a love for the simple joy of adventuring in the wild and growing a passion for stewardship of his new playgrounds. In life, we will help him find his own road. But we secretly hope it involves challenging himself in beautiful places, caring for them, and meeting interesting people along the way. 

To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect from the Moerangi Track. As tourists, we’d done our research, but New Zealand always throws up something unexpected. We’d already seasoned ourselves on the Timber Trail, having a fantastic time riding from Piropiro to Ongarue, 84km of easy-going trail perfection. It had been a blast and almost entirely rideable. 

Brook’s effervescent enthusiasm for the experience filled us with confidence that we could tackle something more challenging. Still, even the drive-in to the Whirinaki, about 90km south east of Rotorua on State Highway 38, had raised the apprehension needle a few points, asphalt quickly giving way to a rough dirt road.  

Brook’s effervescent enthusiasm for the experience filled us with confidence that we could tackle something more challenging. 

Dodging small slips and crossing a small river was light work for our borrowed vehicle, a 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser Troop Carrier named Kevin. After dropping my wife Cat and Brook at the surprisingly manicured Department of Conservation campsite, I backtracked to the Whirinaki Forest Lodge to store Kevin (it’s not recommended to leave your car at the trailheads, Kevin belongs to my boss, and I want to keep my job).  

Given that it was just me, I did some legwork on the road to rejoin the group. Shuttles are available from the lodge if you want to take the sting out of the connection or have a bigger group. 

We were nervous about what lay ahead as we made camp. Would it be too hard with the amount of gear we were carrying? Was it too ambitious for a family bike-packing trip? We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.  

“You could bury a body here and totally get away with it,” said in jest, but all the more impactful when delivered by a man who had just emerged from the bushes behind our tent carrying a rifle. Luckily, our new friend was a salt-of-the-earth good bloke, so we didn’t have to do battle with a spork.  

As he smoked the life out of a damp rollie, we learned that hunting was necessary for him, the land supporting his family through hard times. His knowledge of the beauty of the Whirinkai Forest was encyclopaedic. Where best to hear the shrill calls of kiwi at night time? What to look for when tracking a deer? How best to turn a pig into a backpack when carrying one out? All useless information for me, but A-grade dinner-party small talk back in Scotland. 

Never dull, the Moerangi Track offers enough technicality to be extremely fun to ride—it’s a much wilder experience than the Timber Trail. Axle-deep ruts lie in wait to catch out the unwary and a couple of small landslides need to be negotiated.  

We were glad to be running the ingenious Aeroe bike-packing bags (another Kiwi company), giving us full use of our dropper posts when the trail got spicy. Wilder, narrower and trickier, it brings a more profound feeling of exploration as you wind deeper under the ferns and podocarp giants.  

“Pumice, pumice,” shouted Brook as he discovered another weightless rock during one of his frequent wildlife poke abouts. This hardened froth, spat from a violently erupting volcano, can be found in all the track cuttings. These eruptions would have incinerated swathes of this forest, a testament to the absolute power that rests under New Zealand’s thin crust. Luckily, this volcanic sand and porous rock drains quickly, providing a good grip as we carved smooth lines under the canopy. 

While achievable in one day unencumbered, we had planned to take our time with the Moerangi Wilderness Experience, a three-day trip, using two of the three DOC huts along the way, camping in a tent given the unsociable toddler curfew, but using the huts as a base. However, a typically “Scottish” weather forecast put added time pressure on our trip to make it in two days if we didn’t want to be thoroughly pissed on. 

As anyone who has ridden the Moerangi Track will testify, there’s also some serious exposure in sections. The real puckering traverses marked out with a double cross on the trail, which Brook was on duty to spot from his crow’s nest.

While never narrow enough to be unsafe, if you don’t have a head for heights, expect a few short “don’t look down” sections where your sense of humour will be tested. Given the ultimate responsibility of a co-pilot, we took it super easy and hiked anything high consequence. 

With our kid up front, the focus is always on experience, not challenge. They say the average toddler asks 400 questions daily. After two days in the saddle together, I conclude this number is exponentially more. Often at the crux of a steep climb, breathing out my ears, I would hear, “So Daddy, why do I have two eyes if I only see one thing. Why, why, why? 

They say the average toddler asks 400 questions daily. After two days in the saddle together, I conclude this number is exponentially more.” 

While indeed 100 per cent ridable with a lighter setup and iron willpower, laden as we were, there was a fair bit of pushing the mules. My ride was no anaemic, weight-weenie bike-packing bike, but a full-fat RAAW JIBB, a hard-hitting 17kg of over-engineering. Impractical for bike-packing, certainly, but I could only bring one bike to New Zealand, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to miss the opportunity for some sneakily stolen laps of EVS, Tumeke, and Kataore in the Rotorua Redwoods.  

With too many great riding spots on the North Island, my compromise had been no-compromise. So, hauling the freight it was. We were in no rush, though, and Brook appreciated the opportunity to stretch his legs, hunt for dinosaur poo, and poke stuff with sticks while foot-tramping the steepest pitches. 

About halfway through the route, breaking free of the forest canopy, you cross Rogers Hut, sitting on a grassy bank above a burbling river. A paradise under the open sky, stained glass painting colours over a rustic wood interior. Every surface is carved with countless travellers’ names; however, amid the many initials, a repeated warning is scrawled in desperation. “Beware all ye people; mossies live here.”  

With not a breath of wind, and after a previous night trying to sleep in a tent while hungry mosquitoes hunted, you’ll understand why we chose to press on to the next stop. Our new goal was the Moerangi Hut, located deep enough into the route to leave only a gruelling but short climb out over the water table and into the next valley chain for the final day—complete with a long and grin-inducing descent to finish.  

We were glad of our tent as the Moerangi Hut was surprisingly busy. After an evening exploring the glow-worm-filled forest, we zipped up the tent and listened to the shrill mating calls of kiwi on the breeze. A day well spent. 

After a surprisingly tastycoffee in a bag”, we broke camp and began the slow ride and push to the ridgeline. The long descent to River Road was one I will remember forever; sinuous and challenging, it required concentration from start to finish. High-lines, low-lines, and everything in between. Rolling out into River Road car park, we were all pumped to have completed the trail.  

The Morangi had been the family adventure we had hoped for, a wilderness experience of the highest order. How much of this would stick with the boy? Who knows? But, as memories jumble, it will leave a foundation of confidence and the idea that the outdoors is there to be enjoyed.

For my wife and I, the experience had been timeless. Free from endless grown-up daily distractions, we immersed ourselves in the environment and the many exciting conversations, perceptive questions, and hilarious moments, strengthening the bond that bound the three of us.

The Whirinaki Forest can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the world’s greatest forests and, cutting right through its heart, the Moerangi Track is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest trails. 

For more, here’s the DOC description of the route.