Sunday, 13 March 2016

Ride to the Source – West Wind Windfarm at Makara

Last Saturday 5 March, we took part in an e-bike ride to the West Wind windfarm at Makara. We recently joined a Meetup group called the Wellington Chargers, the members of which all ride electric bikes. Organiser Alastair Smith (yes, he’s also organiser of the Folding Goldies – he gets around!) put it this way on the Meetup site: “Let’s check out where the power for our e-bikes comes from, with a ride to the West Wind windfarm at Makara”. Hence the title “Ride to the Source” (his words).

The West Wind Windfarm (photo by John)

Although the Wellington Chargers group purports to have 30 members, only six committed to going on this ride, and two of those didn’t make it. That left Alastair, our neighbour Sue, and John and me. A little disappointing.

We were to meet at the Karori Park Café at 9 am. The day before, Sue asked if we were biking to Karori, and at what time we would be leaving. Oh, good grief, no! That would have added an extra 30 km and 3 hours biking (15 km and 1.5 hours each way), on top of the planned 30 km ride. No way!

Actually, I was still in “recovery mode” from our 72 km ride in the Wairarapa a few days earlier. Combined with two lots each of dancing and Zumba, and not having slept well for several nights in a row, it had been a very tiring week. I had absolutely no wish to go for another ride, especially one that would involve climbing three big, steep hills, and battling galeforce northerly winds. I would have much preferred a day of dolce far niente – blissfully doing absolutely nothing. But we had committed to it, so we went.

As soon as we set out and crossed Karori Road, I noticed that my rear-view mirror was missing. I thought it had probably been knocked off when John got the bike out of the car, but the others were already forging ahead, so there was no time to go back and look for it. As I am so used to checking it regularly, specially when riding on the road, I found I really missed it.

The route was to go up Makara Road, to the top of the hill, then down into the valley, and up Opau Road to the windfarm. After that, if there was time, we would detour to Makara Beach and stop at the café there, before the return trip to Karori. 

We climbed up Makara Road into a strong headwind. Masochistically, I kept my e-assist level at 3 or 4, and I felt knackered by the time we reached the top. Sue, who had beaten us all to the top, said cheerfully, “Why didn’t you use your throttle? That’s what you’ve got an e-bike for!”. True, but I was anxious to preserve enough power in my battery to help me to get back up the hill on the way home.

The top of the Makara Hill (photo by Alastair Smith)

Down the other side (photo by John)

The headwind was so strong, that we had to pedal even when going downhill! Once at the bottom, the valley floor was lovely to bike despite the wind, and there wasn’t too much car traffic.

Makara Valley (photo by John)

In the valley we met a bunch of very fit-looking guys in lycra, on impressively expensive bikes, getting ready for what Alastair said were “time trials”. One by one they overtook us, at tremendous speeds, bodies hunched over their handlebars, legs pumping furiously. You could hear them coming up behind you, as their wheels were spinning so fast they made a swishing sound.

Time trialling cyclist about to overtake us (photo by John)

But then we had to go up Opau Road, up to the West Wind windfarm. That road is seriously steep! And the headwind made it worse. Even with the e-assist set to 5, and with liberal use of the throttle, I had trouble getting to the top. I had to stop for a breather part of the way up. 

Struggling up Opau Road to the West Wind Recreation Area (photo by Alastair Smith)

At the top, we found the former Post Office Radio Services Makara Receiving Station. Makara Radio Station was opened in 1944. It was the main radio-receiving station for overseas radiotelegraph, radiotelephone and radio-photo services. Apparently the BBC news was received here and relayed on to NZ stations via shortwave radio.

Post Office Radio Services Makara Receiving Station - click to enlarge (photo by John)

On a circular platform there were three information panels – arranged like the blades of the windmills. There was a lot of information there – about the turbines, the radio station, and the Māori, farming and mining history of the site –  but I confess that we didn’t spend very much time reading it all. We should go back there some time, but I think we’ll go by car!

The information panels and the windfarm on the next hill (photo by John)

The way beyond was barred to cars, but a narrow gate allowed walkers and cyclists through. We carried on further up the hill, to be treated to a fabulous view onto Makara Beach. The view was rather hazy because of the fierce wind. It was so strong that it was hard to keep the camera steady.

View down to Makara Beach, Mana Island in the distance (photo by John)

Just round the corner from there, we saw the People’s Turbine, standing on its own, away from the other windmills. It is one of the windfarm’s 62 turbines, but the only one that the public are able to get close to.

The People’s Turbine (photo by John)

The turbines are truly huge. They are 111 metres tall – the towers are 67 metres high, and the blades are 40 metres long. You’d think that with the wind being so fierce, the blades would spin around really fast, but they don’t. They move around rather lazily, and apart from the wind itself, there is no noise from them.

At the base of the turbine I am bracing myself to keep steady against the wind (photo by John)

The massive bolts that keep the tower in its place (photo by John)

The windmill casts a gigantic shadow (photo by John)

We followed a track towards Fort Opau. Built in 1941, it was one of a number of coastal fortifications built during World War II, due to fears of invasion by the Japanese.

The track to Fort Opau (photo by John)

We left the bikes and climbed over a stile and walked a short distance to take a look at the two covered 6" gun emplacements, which are all that remain of the fort.

From left: John, Alastair, Sue

The gun emplacements were surrounded by high wire fences (photo by John)

The views from here were spectacular. Cook Strait, Mana Island in the distance, and windmills on the hills both to the north and to the south. The 62 turbines generate enough power to supply 70,000 households.

Windmills on the hills to the north …

… and yet more windmills to the south. Looking down on Opau Bay (photo by John)

When we got back to the stile, we met a group of walkers (photo by John)

We retrieved our bikes, and Alastair led us up a fairly rough, narrow track, which was to go through a small wooded area, and would loop round back to the car park. However, about 50 metres along, I froze. I nearly keeled of the track, which had a steep slope to the right of it. It scared the bejeezus out of me, and I refused to go any further.

The other three were waiting for me up by a gate, but I couldn’t go to join them. I gesticulated at them to keep going without me, and I would wait for them to come back. John came back to see what my problem was. He told me it was a loop, and they would not come back this way. So I turned around, and we walked back down the track, and met Alastair and Sue at the carpark.

Alastair and Sue at the top of the track. Note the steepness of the hillside to the right of the track
(photo by John)

I think John was pretty disgusted with me, but it was the old fear of falling down a hill or into a ditch, which dates back to my childhood (I wrote about this in another blog). I know it is a very irrational fear, but I truly can’t help it. 

We rode back down to the valley floor, with a tailwind now. Alastair must really revel in downhills, because he whizzed past us like a bat out of hell. He waited for us at the bottom, and we decided to continue down the road to Makara Beach, where we hoped the café would be open. It was. We parked the bikes in the shelter of the café’s outside terrace, but we sat inside, to get out of the wind.

Alastair locks his bike by the café (photo by John)

On our way back, Alastair got us to stop at the bottom of Opau Road, by the sign to the West Wind Recreation Area, for a photo.

The junction at the bottom of Opau Road (photo by Alastair Smith)

It was a nice ride back up the valley to Makara Village, with the wind behind us. However, the hill climb to get back to Karori, nearly finished me off. Even with the tailwind, and with maximum electrical assistance, I barely made it to the top.

When we got home, after this ride of “only” 30 km, I was so tired that I went to bed and slept for two hours!


  1. Desiree, I like dipping into your blog occasionally, living in Whitby it is good to see other views of the local rides.

    With regards the rear view mirror, I have never liked bike mounted mirrors, and my lovely wife and I both use "Rear Viz" mirrors. These are like makeup compacts attached to our arms on velcro straps, and I can't ride without mine now. It's always there, and a twist of the wrist or elbow means it is always pointing where I want it to point. Check it out here
    Keep up the good work, and thanks to your trusty photographer for the great images too.

  2. Hello Dave, thanks for your comments. The RearViz mirror seems like a good idea. I have found your website, and am finding it very interesting. 5000 km on e-bikes puts our 3000 km (or nearly 3000 in my case) to shame. I'll bookmark your blog and check in every so often.