Magic in the mountains
At Smash Palace I'm searching for priceless movie treasure.
My mountain-biking guide, Mike Smith from Visit Ruapehu, thinks the yellow Mini from Goodbye Pork Pie might be stashed among the hundreds of rusted chassis stacked around the legendary wrecker's yard at Horopito, 20km from my base at Ohakune.
We don't find the iconic Mini but Horopito Motors, the location for the garage scenes in Geoff Murphy's 1981 movie Smash Palace, is still a fascinating place to warm up my legs before we tackle the Ohakune Old Coach Rd mountainbike track. We ride past vintage Bedfords, Austins and Karmann Ghias, all in various states of decay.
I'm a novice mountain biker and a little nervous: my image is of extremely fit daredevils flying up and down gnarly mountain goat tracks. But after five minutes of gentle pedalling I realise I have nothing to fear.
Our three-hour, 15km ride is a leisurely, mostly downhill venture into one of the last stands of virgin forest in the North Island and the track, part of the Mountains to Sea Cycleway that was the first of the New Zealand Cycle Trails to be opened, is well maintained by the Department of Conservation.
We ride through lush gullies surrounded by towering ponga, but the trail is not just bush and hills - it is a path into a lost section of Kiwi history, both pioneering and modern.
The trail was built in the early 1900s to ferry passengers by horse-drawn coach between the two railheads of the unfinished North Island trunk line. The cobbled route became obsolete with the railway's completion and was lost to the forest for almost 100 years.
Train buffs rediscovered it and began its restoration in 2002, and when the Government committed $50 million to build cycle trails around the country, the Ohakune Old Coach Rd was ready to seize the opportunity.
From the social history of Horopito Motors to the cobblestones of the original coach road to the soaring curve of the original Hapuawhenua Viaduct, where A J Hackett did his first bungy jumping experiments, the trail offers plenty of stories as well as exciting downhills where I learn to stand over my pedals and let it rip through the mud.
By mid-afternoon Smith and I are back in Ohakune's apres-ski area of The Junction, and stop at the OCR cafe to replenish our burned calories by tucking into delicious open-face steak and blue cheese sandwiches. Smith points out the "Snow is only half the fun" brochure sitting on a table by the front door.
He and a colleague start brainstorming ideas of things to do when the snow on Mt Ruapehu, home to Turoa and Whakapapa skifields, isn't co-operating, and surprise themselves by quickly getting to about 80 activities.
They top it up with an impressive list of restaurants and now the list of more than 100 things to do in the Ruapehu district helps to make Smith's point: snow can be fickle and forecasts unreliable in alpine regions, so people should throw their skis and mountainbikes on the car and come to Ruapehu where, even if the skiing isn't ideal, there's plenty else to do.
Mountainbiking has been a shot in the arm for Ohakune. Smith says that last summer, hotel bed nights exceeded winter bookings for the first time. With its snowboard shops, bars packed with 20-something lifties and restaurants full of families, Ohakune in winter is clearly a ski resort town but mountainbiking has helped to transform it into a year-round destination.
TCB, where I pick up my 29-inch front suspension mountainbike, used to close over the summer but now stays open year round, meaning five more permanent fulltime jobs.
Smith drops me off at my motel, The Peaks Motor Inn, where I soak my tired legs in an outdoor spa pool in preparation for hitting the slopes the next day. It has been a few years since I was last on skis and three hours on a bike is more than I've done since I was a teenager.
The next morning I'm feeling surprisingly fresh and when my host for the day, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts' Bianca Lam, picks me up at 8am, I can't wait to get up the mountain. It is just 20 minutes from Ohakune to Turoa and, on the traditionally busy first weekend after the school holidays, lots of people have the same idea.
Turoa got a good dump of snow earlier in the week after a slow school holidays and the rentals lines are already long. We skip the queues by having breakfast at the Alpine Bar where Lam's eggs benedict and her partner Paul Abbott's creamy mushrooms on ciabatta look just as good as my free-range eggs on ciabatta.
After a few warmup runs from the top of the Giant triple chairlift, we take the six-seater Highnoon Express to the top of the mountain and are soon carving turns down the black diamond Snowbird run. Abbott has worked as a ski instructor and I worry that I'll slow the sporty pair down but if I do, they're too polite to say so.
I try to emulate Abbott's line but usually have to bail out after a few turns and when I venture off the groomed piste, my skis clatter and my thighs burn as I try to hold an edge on the icy snow. When we meet back in the lift line, we're grinning wildly at each other and can't wait to do it again.
As the day warms and the snow softens, we're having too much fun to stop. We ski through lunch when the lines are shorter and by 2.30pm, my legs are shot. We stop at the Snowflake Cafe for their justly famous burgers (I down a spicy chicken burger in unseemly time) and my legs give thanks for the rest.
We have an hour before the lifts shut and we cram as many runs in as we can, following the sun to the western flank of the mountain. For the final run I put in earbuds and take a long cruise to the bottom of the mountain - 700 metres of bliss with a beat in my ears.
At the car park, we watch the sun setting in the west, where golden shafts slice through the clouds over Whanganui National Park. It has been a magical day.
We regroup for dinner at the Matterhorn restaurant in Ohakune, its huge wooden beams and a cast-iron pot of mulled wine over an open fire make it feel like an Austrian ski chalet.
We didn't manage to burn off all of our huge burgers so we share delicious small plates with duck and oyster mushroom spring rolls, rabbit and chicken liver pancetta terrine, and pork belly sliders, washed down with selections from the most extensive and interesting craft beer menu I've seen.
The next morning I drive back to Palmerston North, a two-hour trip past the army museum at Waiouru and Taihape's giant gumboot. A detour south of Taihape leads me into the Rangitikei River gorge, the home of the North Island's highest bungy jump, as well as a 1km long, 160kmh flying fox.
Given the state of my shredded leg muscles, the hike to the flying fox 175 metres above the river burns but what I pay in lactic acid I more than get back in adrenaline.
I drop off my rental car with the friendly folk at Cross Country Rentals in Palmerston North and, as I settle into my seat for the scenic 40-minute flight back to Nelson, I marvel at how much I've packed into two days. My impression that the central North Island was nothing but cows has been thoroughly dispelled and remembering Neil Hawker, who reps Salomon ski gear, telling me that Mt Ruapehu has the best spring skiing in the country, I'm already plotting my return.
Alastair Paulin was a guest of Palmerston North Airport, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts and Visit Ruapehu.