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Makara Peak - Wellington's mountain bike central

The tattoo tells the tale. In a full-page advertisement in a recent issue of Mountain Bike magazine in the US, there features a tattooed arm displaying the words ‘Mt Tam’, ‘Makara’ and ‘Moab’. Mount Tam (Mount Tamalpais State Park in California) and Moab (in south eastern Utah) are well known to mountain bikers as being the best in the world, but Makara? Could it be that Makara Peak in Wellington, New Zealand's capital city, has caught the attention of the world's best-read mountain biking magazine and its advertisers?

You bet. David Zimberoff, Global Communications Manager for SRAM, whose advertisement features the tattoo, explains:

‘Makara was chosen due to the epic nature of the trails. It is becoming legendary. We also wanted to pay a little homage to the globally unknown, yet locally famous. Due to the global nature of our ads, we also wanted to include one cool place outside of the US.’

In the past, most Wellingtonians have thought of Makara as being ‘cool’ in a wholly different sense. For one, it can be damn windy. Secondly, it's home to a lot of very cold people indeed - resting forever at the Makara cemetery.

But it's life, not death, Makara represents these days. Makara Peak has become one of the most popular mountain bike tracks in New Zealand, due to the track building efforts of a group of committed volunteers - the Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park Supporters. On any given weekend, groups of dedicated volunteers and local businesses can be seen out perfecting their mountain biking Mecca. Development began on the dual track (bike/walk) project in 1998 and now 100,000 bikers a year pedal their way up and down its hills, alongside ferns and other native bush and, on a clear day, catching spectacular views of the South Island.

The Makara Peak Park area is situated in south Karori, 10 minutes from Wellington central, and covers 200 hectares. It is owned by the Wellington City Council, which has allowed the community group to develop the park, under the guidance of New Zealand's most famous mountain bikers - brothers Simon, Jonathan and Paul Kennett.

Despite the brothers' biking expertise (and Simon's post-graduate diploma in environmental management), Jonathan admits he is stunned by the progress made at Makara Peak.

‘If you'd asked me even a year ago, I wouldn't have predicted it would be as good or as popular as it is,’ he says. ‘But the work the supporters have put in has really paid off.’

The main biking area is situated between the cemetery and south Karori. The tracks cater for all levels, and Jonathan has noticed a big increase in the number of families involved in what he calls ‘hiking on wheels’.

He attributes a large part of the popularity in the family sector to the actual bikes themselves.

‘The whole reason mountain biking took off is because the bikes are so versatile. People buy them to ride on the road and may ride them in the bush a couple of times a year. But a mountain bike is a safe thing to buy because you can use it for all biking.’

So what makes a mountain bike a mountain bike?

‘The most important thing is the big range of gears - at least 21,’ explains Jonathan. ‘The second is excellent brakes and the third is fat tyres.’ (A note for the novice: mountain bikes are not BMXs, which only have one gear, a small wheel, are essentially for kids and have fallen out of favour.)

Makara Peak has easy tracks, which are benched and have had gravel laid to prevent the hapless novice from coming to grief. Even experienced riders use the easy tracks when conditions are wet, partly out of respect for the environment (skidding does damage tracks); partly out of respect for their bodies. Easy tracks can be ridden any time of the year. Intermediate tracks have some sections of gravel, while expert tracks have none, but can't really be ridden safely when it's wet.

‘There was a statement put out that said that mountain biking has the same effect as tramping [hiking] on the environment, but that's not entirely true,’ says Jonathan. ‘If it's wet, a bike skidding will do more damage than a person walking so it pays to take care or ride gravelled areas during those times.’

Protection and enhancement of the environment is paramount for the Kennett brothers and Makara Peak Park Supporters, whose project wasn't confined to simply laying tracks. Over the past three years up to 300 volunteers, from local businesses to the Salvation Army, have planted thousands of native trees, pulled weeds and helped destroy pests like possums and goats. Much of the area is covered in gorse, which had to be cleared and reforestation begun in neglected areas.

The Makara Peak group has formulated a five-year conservation plan to improve the entire area. Native plantings, aside from being nicer to ride through, are more fire resistant than mahoe and gorse. The group is hoping to re-establish missing or threatened native canopy trees including rimu, rata, tawa, matai and totara; and to encourage kereru (wood pigeon) and other native birds into the park to help distribute seeds by planting such varieties as fuchsia, pigeonwood, cabbage trees, lemonwood, flax and kowhai. The work being done will provide an extraordinary area of regenerated native bush for future generations.

What did the Americans like about Makara Peak? Well there's a lot to like. The park has around 12km of single track (mountain bikers' passion) with all but one hand-built. There are plans to lay another 5km of single track. The rest is dual track, so bikers can give a friendly wave to walkers going by.

The Koru track is 2km long and is a gentle grade up to the skills track area. If the weather is good, riders turn left before the bridge and ride across a small ford. If it is raining, they cross the bridge, turn left and climb a short but steep hill before descending to the Koru. This is the most popular track as it is suitable for novices. There are seven downhill-only tracks - with creative names such as Starfish, Snake Charmer and Leaping Lizard. Most of these are suitable for intermediates. As well, challenges aplenty have been developed for expert and extreme riders. The Vertigo, for example, is a steep obstacle-riddled downhill; while the 1km Ridgeline track, the first built on the Peak, offers the extra challenge of a potential blast of Wellington's famous wind.

In April 1999 the group opened Varley's Track in remembrance of Gareth Varley, a young Wellington mountain biker run over by a car while crossing the road in Canada. Varley was representing New Zealand at the 1998 World Mountain Bike Championships. Varley's Track is a two-way intermediate uphill leading from Makara Hill Road towards Makara Peak.

Jonathan has noticed more international visitors riding the Peak as word spreads, and expects there to be some impact even from the tattoo ad.

‘Mount Victoria became famous with the World Cup race in 1997, but Makara Peak is a much better area now,’ he says.

As well as attracting international attention, the efforts of the park Supporters have not gone on unnoticed by the New Zealand Government.

In August 2001 the Minister of Conservation Sandra Lee presented them with a conservation award in the recreation section, and acknowledged their innovative approach on a tricky site.

‘The Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park Supporters have managed to harness an enthusiasm for mountain biking with the restoration of the Makara Peak Mountain Park,’ Lee told those present at the awards ceremony. ‘The group, led by the Kennett Brothers and Andrew Hollings have killed more than 400 goats, worked on possum eradication and planted more than 8000 trees. They have also completed kilometres of dual use walking and biking tracks in the Park. Recently they have been working to restore the margins of Karori Stream as part of the Wellington Regional Council’s Community Environmental Care programme.

‘The initiators have set a standard for working with volunteers in the supporters group, who remain involved and committed to restoring the park. Their ability to secure and maintain a variety of funding sources and their willingness to share methods has been a motivator for other community groups.’

Jonathan can't disguise the pride in his voice when he reads out the words on the plaque: ‘For restoring the Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park and encouraging environmentally responsible recreation.’

It's been a hard slog but he - and the other Park Supporters - were glad to come along for the ride.

Further information:

Jonathan Kennett
Phone / Fax +64 4 499 6376

Makara Peak Supporters Group
Phone +64 4 499 6376

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