Motu Road Trail: ride the original road through the Eastland ranges

The Motu Road is a magnificent journey through native forest and historic farmland, little changed by the years.

One hundred years ago, the Motu Road was opened. For the first time, it connected Opotiki and Matawai (which is inland from Gisborne) with a road that was passable by stage coaches and cars.

Travellers would catch the train from Gisborne to Matawai and on almost to the settlement of Motu. A service car would then take them on the challenging Motu Road drive, to Opotiki.

There are reports of vehicles having to make three-point turns to get round corners and, well into the 1920s, it would become a quagmire after rain.

As early as 1930, the Motu Road was outdated when a road was connected down the Waioeka Gorge, where the present-day highway runs.

Today, the Gisborne-Opotiki crossing can be driven on the highway in about two hours. But riding the Motu Road Trail is an excellent way to get a taste of the challenges and rewards of travel in those bygone years.

It's a popular ride, part of the Motu Trails. Vehicles can still use the road but it is seldom busy. Both ends of the road are sealed and in the middle there's 48km of gravel.

You can ride either direction. From Opotiki you climb from sea level with three big uphills, whereas from Matawai you start at about 500m altitude and have only one big climb. Either way, you peak at close to 800m, so it's hilly!

Shuttle transport is available for groups from Opotiki to Matawai, Motu or the road's highpoint, Onukuroa/Caesar's hill. Guided trips may also be an option. 

Starting from Matawai, here are the highlights:

0-14km. The road is sealed and slightly downhill to Motu. The railway line (1917-1959) used to go as far as Moutohora, 4km from Motu. There's an old rail bridge at Moutohora, worth stopping at.

At Motu, it's well worth a 5km (10km return) side trip on a flat gravel road to Motu Falls.

At Motu there's a shelter, toilets, Motu-vation cafe, and the Motu Community House, which offers very affordable accommodation.

14-31km. On the Motu Road heading for Opotiki, stop a moment at Motu Scenic Reserve, where there’s a pretty lake and towering kahikatea (white pine) trees. You then have a big climb, rising 300m over several kilometres.

Many get dropped off at the top of the hill (Onukuroa/Caesars). From there it’s largely downhill to the top of the Pakihi Track, where there’s a tiny shelter and toilets.

31-44km. Carry on down the road and you soon cross a small ford, then climb to Papamoa/Toatoa hilltop, where there’s a large shelter with pou whenua (carved poles). This is a great place to rest a bit, just below the shelter there’s a spectacular forest panorama towards the coast.

Onwards down Papamoa is a big descent, 3km long, finishing with a ford at Toatoa. A few small rises and falls and you’re at another shelter at the intersection of the Motu Road and Takupatahi Roads. Once there were tearoons here, plus a dairy factory, post office and more. They are all long gone, but you can stay at the superb Toatoa Farm Stay.

44-46km. The Motu Road rises and falls a few times, then pitches up steeply for 600m distance, to the summit of Meremere hill.

46-65km. Meremere is a 6km long, 400m vertical descent. It’s brilliant, twisting and turning through forest. Remember though, this is a road! 

The last few kilometres to the coast, there are several small climbs, which can be hard if you’re tiring. Soon though, you’re onto the seal at Waiaua, 10km east of Opotiki. Stop at the shelter. You can now ride the Dunes Trail back to Opotiki.

Questions? Ask a passionate cyclist and trail runner who knows the trails by emailing

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