Motu Trails history

This page gives some of the rich history surrounding the Motu Trails. For details of the trails themselves, go to [Trails/Maps/Info] When riding, we suggest you stop at the interpretation boards around the trails. They'll tell you more of the people and events of years gone by.

Dunes Trail

The Dunes Trail starts from Memorial Park, Opotiki, at the [Pakowhai ki Otutaopuku Bridge]. The bridge was a long-held goal, connecting Opotiki to the beach by crossing the Otara river. It was built in 2010, helped by government funding under the $50 million New Zealand Cycle Trail (NZCT) investment.   

The first waka (canoe) arrived in the Opotiki area about 800 years ago. For many generations, and indeed today, the pristine coastal waters and steep hills have been a prized food cupboard.

Hikuwai beach comes after 3km. Hikuwai translates directly as ‘Tail Water’. Oral stories of the Whakatohea iwi recall how the splashing of the waters here would signal the arrival of a large school of fish. More on [Hikuwai here] 

Motu Road

Parts of the present day Motu Road were first built well before 1900. But it wasn’t until 1912 that the final push was made to connect Motu to Opotiki. The first dray cart went through the road in 1914, the first car in 1915. The official opening of the Motu Road was in 1918. More information on building the road here: [Motu Coach Road]

In the 1980s and 1990s the Motu Road was famed as being an awesome stage — called simply The Motu — on the Rally of New Zealand, which was part of the World Rally Championships. In 1993, the late Colin McRae won this stage, and went on to win the world champs for Subaru. In June 2015 the road was used as a stage in the Rally of Gisborne.

[This article] has some of the history of the road.


Toatoa is midway on the Motu Road. During the land wars of the 1860s, Ngati Rua iwi took refuge in this area. By 1884, a horse and cart road connected Opotiki and Toatoa via Whitikau forks/Takaputahi. Settlers moved here from 1895, with much of the towering forest cleared by burning. 

After the present day road was connected from Motu to Opotiki, tearooms at Toatoa offered a popular resting point for travelers. People would take the train from Gisborne to Moutohora, near Matawai, and spend the night at the Motu Hotel, before catching the next day’s service car to Opotiki.  By stagecoach, the trip from Gisborne-Opotiki-Whakatane-Rotorua-Auckland was five days.

Otipi Road (a popular adventure ride but NOT the Motu Trails)

Otipi Road heads off from Takaputahi Road, 10km from Toatoa. Otipi Road was built to [investigate the power potential of the Motu River]. From 1956-1963, a Ministry of Works and Development team explored the possibility of damming the Motu River. Ultimately, four spots on the Motu River were seen as possible dam sites: Houpoto, Mangaotane, Waitangirua, and Mangatutara. Plans of all sites were drawn up but in 1965, the government’s Power Planning Committee recommended plans be abandoned.

There was a second round of hydroelectric investigations in the late-1970s-early-1980s. Afterwards, two huts from Mangatutara were flown to Te Waiti and joined up to form one hut: it is still in use. Today, Motu River Jet explores one of the prospective sites.

Pakihi Track

The Pakihi Track extends from the Motu Road down to the Pakihi Valley south of Opotiki. Originally this formed part of a horse track link that went: Gisborne >Whakarau Road > Motu > Motu Falls > Marumoko Road > Whitikau > Pakihi > Opotiki.

From 1908 until 1918, Francis Jorton Foster, 'FJF', farmed an area in the Pakihi Valley. Each year, FJF wrote an annual Christmas diary. His 1908 entry records, “We, the Opotikites, are agitating for the road past this place to Motu”. In 1910, he wrote “Went to Gisborne and fetched back 500 ewes and 12 rams … we still have to struggle with a [pre-stock track] pack track”.

By 1911, FJF wrote, “the track has made some progress, two contracts for formation being nearly completed”. In 1913, “a stock bridge is being built" and at last in 1914, “I sent my first lot of sheep to freezing works at Gisborne through Pakihi Track.”

By 1916, Mr Foster could use the Pakihi road in a horse gig. But in 1918 came an enormous flood, with 400mm of rain in 12 hours. Much of the Pakihi Track and his farm were destroyed. The bridge was wrecked by a falling tree. He walked off the land.

With the Motu Road open in 1915, the Pakihi track was not fully restored for 95 years. It was used by hunters and trampers. From the early-1990s there were efforts to restore it, and it began to be ridden by hardy bikers (more carrying than riding!)

In 2011-12, as part of the NZCT project, The Department of Conservation brought the Pakihi Track back to life. There were two work teams, one from each end. The official Motu Trails opening was mid-2012.

You can still see remnants of the old Pakihi bridge structure on both banks, right where the new Pakihi suspension bridge now stands. This includes timber framing, bolts into the rock, and a footing hole, where the cables were attached.

Pakihi hut

The 11km upper section of the Pakihi Track ends with a short sidetrack to the Pakihi hut, built for hunters/cullers in 1969 by the New Zealand Forest Service (forerunner to DOC). The hut was originally big enough for six, but in 2013 an enclosed verandah was added. It is worth stopping. You can stay the night.

Whinray Reserve (by Motu Falls)

This is well worth a visit, though you’re not allowed to ride in the reserve. It was named after James Whinray, one of New Zealand’s early conservation heroes. At a time when the towering forests around Motu and Matawai were being razed to the ground, Mr Whinray spoke up.

According to a report in the Poverty Bay Herald of 1912, Mr Whinray made ‘splendid efforts’ in forest conservation. His campaigning was key to the preservation of what is now 429ha of unspoiled forest in Whinray Reserve. The land was made a reserve in 1905, initially named Whinray Park.

Motu Falls

A 42m-long swing bridge (opened 1994) crosses the valley directly below the spectacular Motu Falls. Four bridges have been built here, including the present one. The first bridge was built 1876.

When the horse track went through the Whinray Reserve and Whitikau, Motu Falls was a vital access point. After the Motu Road was connected, its importance was lost, apart from access to the stunning reserve. 


When travellers went from Gisborne via Whakarau road or rail, Motu was THE stopping point.

This importance faded fast after the main road (now SH2) was opened down the Waioeka Gorge (first vehicles c1929). It faded further with the gradual abandonment of plans to link the railway from Motouhora to Opotiki/Taneatua.

Up until the late-1920s though, Motu was a bustling settlement with mills, banks, shops and more. There was even a 100-room hotel, where people would break the journey. The hotel was dismantled around 1934, with sections moved to Ormond and Matwai.

Today in Motu, [Motu Community House] offers accommodation in the old post office building. [Motu-vation cafe] opened in another post office/shop building that dates from as early as the late-1800s.

[This article] has a lot on the history of Motu and surrounds: an excellent historical overview.

Moutohora Railway bridge

About midway between Motu and Matawai, look for the old wooden rail bridge at Moutohora. Ninety years ago, there were ambitious plans to complete a Gisborne to Opotiki rail link, including a four-mile tunnel. But the terrain was too rugged and the dream died. 

When the current SH2 Gisborne-Opotiki highway was connected down Waioeka Gorge in the late-1920s, passengers and freight reduced and the railway line spluttered out. It finally closed in 1959 but the bridge still stands, a silent memory.

Tauranga bridge (Waioeka Gorge SH2)

Tauranga Bridge is the only surviving harp strung suspension bridge in New Zealand. It carries category 1 historic status. 

Tauranga bridge was built in 1922 to access farms in the Tauranga Valley. The valley was subdivided in 1906 and settled under a government scheme. No surprise, the area was unsuitable for farming.

In 1918 a flood swept away the original suspension bridge: the same flood destroyed the Pakihi stock bridge and a bridge at Motu. 

It's well worth a walk (or pretty technical ride) around the 6km Tauranga loop track. There is a full pictorial article on Tauranga and Manganuku bridges [here].

Manganuku bridge (Waioeka Gorge SH2)

The area around Manganuku Stream was farmed around 1919-1930s. Manganuku Stream was a popular picnic spot for settlers.

The present road bridge was built in 1964, but inside the camp area, there’s a wooden bridge from 1928. It’s a standard Public Works Department design, a single-lane truss bridge.

The bridge was fully restored in 2014-15. It carries category 2 historic status. It is well worth seeing.

Opotiki museum and Shalfoon's store

If you enjoy history, these are a must-visit! Ask Opotiki i-SITE for information.