7 mins

New Zealand by bike

Are you a gentle pedaller? Tough offroader? Somewhere in the middle? The North Island has a route for all riders...

The Bridge to Nowhere, New Zealand (Flickr: Evan Goldenberg)

I’m the kind of English wussie that New Zealand makes nervous. A whole country dedicated to outdoors adventure – jumping from high places, cycling up steep places and falling into deep places out of whitewater rafts – gets my adrenalin pumping in the wrong way. The wines, the lamb, the glaciers, yes please… but I don’t want to become Tarzan to get them.

Fortunately, Kiwi cycling is a democratic, even egalitarian affair, with everything from wild, mountain-bike territory to well-paved, wine trails around pretty towns like Napier.

In December 2011, walkers got the 3,000km Te Araora or ‘Long Pathway’ from Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of the North Island, to Bluff, the South Island’s southernmost. Now the government is putting NZ$50 million (£25.6m) into the Nga Haerenga, a cycle trail that will link up 19 major trails and many smaller ones to create a national circuit stretching for 2,300km.

Where the trails are challenging, guiding companies will provide GPS tracking and an emergency locator to ensure you won’t die in the wilderness (of which there’s a lot). Where it’s easy, it’s still New Zealand: so you can be sure the wilderness is only ever a left or right turn away.

I wasn’t planning on turning too far off the beaten track though. With a limited amount of cycling time – just ten days – I decided to stay up north and focus on the rural hinterland, Hawke’s Bay wine country and the less-obvious wildernesses of Whanganui National Park. The climate is often more predictable on North Island, while there are likely to be fewer package tourists about. For me, the well-publicised wonders of the South Island would be there another day.

On arrival I hired a Specialized Hardrock mountain bike with front-wheel suspension and disc brakes, meaning I could use it both on tarmac and on off-road dirt trails. To get around and sort my accommodation in one go, I hired a Britz campervan. Taking a vehicle with the handling of an ice-cream van round the bends and up the brews near Taupo was not the most stylish drive I’ve done, but it meant I could easily attach my bike to the back, and permitted me to sleep next to the ocean, by a river, in a wood and even catch a nap in a winery car park.

New Zealand is a beautiful country to drive through. Kiwi author Lloyd Jones has called it ‘the great folded land’, and as you move along the relatively quiet main roads (which often look and feel like back roads) there are always hills and mountains somewhere in your view. Having a bike means you can actually get out and inside these great folds and travel some distance –cleanly, independently and healthily. In fact, once I’d parked my van I got used to jumping on my bike to go to the shops and check out my local surrounds; it was both my A-to-B vehicle and a way to escape.

The North Island's top 4 rides

Hawke’s Bay 1  

Water Ride
Distance: 96km
Time: 1-2 days
Difficulty: Easy. Mainly on roads and with well-maintained off-road tracks
Bike needed: Hybrid
More information: nzcycletrail.com/hawkes-bay-trails

The lovely art deco city of Napier boasts 187km of dedicated cycle paths. The Water Ride is a gentle, generally level 96km trail that takes in the harbour, port, coast and a linear path along a stop bank – a ridge built above farmland to prevent floods – affording cyclists views over Napier’s vineyards and apple orchards. It’s not a single loop or line so you can create your own itinerary and do as much or as little as you like. I spent a longish morning on it, and clocked up around 30km, about right for a spot of pre-lunch exercise.

Joining me was Paul McArdle, a former bank employee who spent some years in Holland and London but returned to New Zealand for, he said, “a gap year, which has lasted two already”. Far from kicking back and relaxing, Paul is pushing the council to encourage young people to get out and cycle. As well as setting up a not-for-profit organisation to buy bikes for disadvantaged children, he has become an evangelist for cycling as a practical mode of transport.

“I think of cyclists in political terms,” said Paul, after meeting me at my camper park to the north of Napier. “On the right are the 40-something road racers and on the left are the urban cyclists in latex shorts. But I wanted to do something for everybody else, those in the middle, who might want to cycle on the flat or do it just to get somewhere.”

Five minutes south of the campsite and we were on an easy, flat, well-paved path. The trail follows the coast along a dead straight line before turning left onto a path beside the port. Apart from a few joggers and dogwalkers, there weren’t many people about and we could cycle two abreast, taking in the lovely breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean and – as we weren’t out of breath – just chatting.

“The idea here is to bike for an hour or do a ride before you go to the vineyard – or go to the vineyards on your bike. We know there are cyclists who want to come to Hawke’s Bay for a three-day or week-long ride, but they know what they’re doing. We’re aiming this at the other market, including cruise passengers who don’t want to stay on a bus. There are eight or nine bike-hire places around Napier to make it even easier.”

On Napier’s Marine Parade, I caught glimpses of the city’s famous art deco buildings and strips of smart cafés, so I was glad when we stopped at a brightly painted bike-hire place for a coffee – in New Zealand, you have a latte with everything. The name of this shop was Fishbike and the owner, Brian Fisher, was a talented barista with a dry, deadpan wit. I suggested he open a branch in England, where we needed bike rental and good coffee. “Sure you do,” he said. “But I don’t want to go to England.”

It was winter and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Afterwards, Paul and I continued along the front, following a ribbon of hard-top slicing across lawns until we reached an industrial complex, which we skirted on a well-marked roadside cycle path.

Turning right to go under the main road we splashed through a deep puddle and then climbed onto a raised limestone stop bank, which had drained very well. Cruising along above the farmland, we had views of vineyards and apple orchards, both of which were being harvested. A headwind made the still-level ride a little harder and my legs soon began to feel the effort. We passed through a patch of woodland and, after a last dash up a slight incline, reached Puketapu, where we joined Paul’s wife and son and tucked into delicious fish and chips – and local cider.

Painless, pleasant and pastoral, the Water Ride is not only a superb introduction to Napier and its lovely green suburbs, but a perfect workout – you don’t think you’re exercising, but you are notching up lots of kilometres. Later that day I did what the tourists do and went on a tour of the art deco architecture in a sleek 1939 Packard Six vintage car; it was great fun but, to be honest, I missed my bike.

Hawke’s Bay 2

Landscapes Ride
Distance: 43km
Time: ½ day
Difficulty: Easy. Mainly on roads and with well-maintained off-road tracks
Bike needed: Hybrid
More information: nzcycletrail.com/hawkes-bay-trails

Wine and wheels rarely go together so I definitely got my planning wrong by lunching heartily (and having a glass or two of shiraz...) at Black Barn Vineyards before heading off on the 43km Landscapes Ride. This circuit connects Te Awanga, down on the coast, with Hastings and Havelock North, two towns just south of Napier. It does this through a lush, rocky and hilly landscape dotted with well-established vineyards such as Elephant Hill and Craggy Range.

I was being shown the route by Will Coltart, whose dad owns Black Barn. Like Paul, he is a returnee, having spent time in the Gulf. He wanted to show me how accessible the circuit was and so accompanied me on a classic cruiser bike just like the ones he rents out to people at his hire firm, Coastal Wine Cycles.

While we were lunching and chatting about bikes and grapes, the New Zealand Ferrari Owners’ Club arrived for lunch and the car park filled up with red dream machines. I felt all the more virtuous unclipping my Specialized from the not-very-streamlined Britz van.

The journey began with a fast, long descent – always a worry, as you know you have to get back somehow – but this soon levelled off and we were on relatively traffic-free asphalt roads winding between rocky mountains (the Craggy Range made famous by the wine) and low-level vineyards. Most of the climbs were slow – and none were étape-style thigh-busters – but Will struggled on his upscale Chopper and I was glad of the low gears on my model.

“The coasts are more of a soft adventure thing,” Will explained, gasping. “I should really have brought a hybrid bike too, if I’m honest. But much of the Landscapes Ride is on a path beside the Tuki Tuki River and a lot of it is quite flat.”

Happily, we soon came to another stop bank; then we were down by the river, where we slowed down to take in the apple orchards. I’d never seen so many apple trees in my life and, despite an unusually wet summer, the crops looked healthy and ready to pick. I did a fair bit of scrumping as a child and, since my supermarket seems bent on proscribing British apples, I decided I had a right to pick at least one Royal Gala now. It was sweet and crisp, as fresh as an apple ever gets.

As we wound up our afternoon ride with a tough climb back to the car park (the Ferraris had gone), I felt I’d burned off the wine and lunch. I was feeling fit and healthy and upbeat, as you always do after a good ride. I told Will that my next bike ride was to be in Whanganui.

“Wow,” was his response. “That’s deep New Zealand. That’s hardcore. You’re brave.”

The upbeat bit disappeared.

Whanganui National Park

The Bridge to Nowhere Track
Distance: 78km
Time: 2 days
Difficulty: Hardcore. Mud and dirt tracks, some steep climbs
Bike needed: Mountain
More information: www.bridgetonowhere.co.nz

I arrived in Whanganui (also spelt Wanagnui and pronounced “Fang–a-noo-ee” by Maori speakers) after a 250km drive across the lower end of the North Island, to be welcomed by leaden clouds and torrential rain.

I had a night in my van beside the town’s namesake river before heading out for my bike ride, so stretched my calves with a trip to the supermarket to buy dinner. I don’t do urban cycling as a rule – the challenge of taking on cars with my exposed skeleton never really appealed – but in New Zealand the population is rarely dense and there are never many vehicles on the roads.

At dawn, I set out for Pipiriki – a nerve-wracking drive across mountains in the dark and drizzle. As I got further inland, the road began to wind through deep clefts and the ferns became huge. When I eventually arrived, my guides gave me the bad news: the Bridge to Nowhere ride was going nowhere. The problem was that the track, which is self-guided, goes out into the wilderness (Will’s - from yesterday-  ‘hardcore’ New Zealand) and had become waterlogged.

“We had a group doing it the other day,” my driver told me. “But they had to get off a lot because of the impassable mud, and they were serious, experienced cyclists.”

I am not, and I wasn’t in a group. So we agreed I’d be dropped off and allowed to go cycling, but I’d be picked up later on the same day at the same place.

The full two-day, 78km Bridge to Nowhere Track was made famous among cycling aficionados by the Kennett brothers, three Kiwi mountain-bikers who are revered in this nation of action men and women. They rode it when it was uncut, and logged all the features: vertical cliffs, staircase-like drops, barrier-free ledges, horrible climbs and all the other things mountain-bikers adore.

I was doing less than a third of the main forest track, but I still got an exhilarating, one-hour jetboat ride upriver to be dropped off near the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, a span constructed across a gorge in the 1930s to open up native bush. The guides had brought flasks of hot chocolate, which I shared, but as the ordinary daytrippers made their way back to the boat and civilisation, I was left on my own to pedal into the abyss.

From the off I felt a bit nervous – and very alone. I had to dismount about five times in the first half hour, due to roots, steep climbs, and land-slips – some of these had been there ages and were well flagged by signage, but the bad weather had caused fresh ones; in places the ledge was too narrow for my inexpert handling. But gradually I gained in confidence and finally got into a decent-paced rhythm.

I battled with mud, clay, stones, steepness and the bike – at last, I got to try all those low gears, and the suspension did its thing to protect my masculinity. Adrenalin got me riding up and down slopes I’d normally balk at and I even became a little bit reckless, not getting off even when the signs said: “Danger! Get off!”

After two hours I began to think I could do the whole 38km forest section, but there was no mobile phone signal so my plans were unmoveable. In the end, I turned round and rode steadily and calmly back – like a pro now – and started to actually look about me rather than riding with that downward posture of panic you see in the ‘midlife cyclists’ every Sunday morning.

Great ridges of rock were bursting with native trees and flax lilies, wild goats leapt across the path as I approached, and I spotted birds such as warblers and silvereyes in the undergrowth. When I slowed down, I spied stone plaques on the floor marking where pioneering farmers had once toiled, to no avail as it turned out (the ‘Nowhere’ has
won the day). They reminded me of tombstones and I felt glad that I had back-up on this wild track.

The operators give customers devices called Spot Trackers, which have a built in GPS to track each cyclist’s movements and an emergency button to alert the local air ambulance. In recent months, the Department of Conservation has been upgrading the track, adding more bridges and gravel to the sections of the route where mud causes lots of problems.
Though they’re slowly taming the wilderness, it will always be a wilder, tougher trail – certainly one worth revisiting in its entirety. After all, if it gets just too edgy, you can always get off your bike and walk.


The Timber Trail
Distance: 77km
Time: Two days
Difficulty: Medium. Specially designed paths; some climbs
Bike needed: Hybrid or Mountain
More information: tinyurl.com/TimberTrail

The idea of a timber trail might sound pretty offensive to eco-evangelists and the Maori gods. But Pureora’s Timber Trail, winding through a forest park full of podocarp conifer trees, is in fact a triumph of conservation over commerce. A short drive from the popular Waitomo Glow-Worm Caves – but in an area often left off tour itineraries – it’s due to open fully in mid-November 2012.

In the late 1970s, Pureora was the site of the first tree-occupying protest in New Zealand. Conservationists, led by Stephen King (not that one) and Shirley Guildford – now national legends – installed platforms high up in the trees to protest against pulp and wood mills. They won the battle: in 1978 a 190,000-acre forest park was established, and native species such as rimu, matai, totara and kahikatea were protected.

“The idea is to offer something to compare with South Island’s Otago Trail,” explained project director John Gaukrodger. “But we’ve called it the ‘Timber Trail’ because it’s about the history as well as the bush.

“This place got rich when it exported all the wood needed to rebuild San Francisco after the great earthquake [of 1906]. When Pureora died as a commercial venture 30 years ago, the idea was that tourism would replace the milling. But nothing happened... until now.”

Local Maori trusts have been granted concessions to ensure the whole community benefits from the cycle path project. With great signage, a well-cut path and lots of shade, the Timber Trail is an absolutely wonderful medium-level challenge. I rode for around two hours and covered maybe 18km, passing through dense forest, across open grassy meadows and past some shrubland, before finally climbing up a steep series of switchbacks to a vantage point. I didn’t have to get off once, so it wasn’t that tough (I live in West Wales and am always dismounting shamefully on the hills), but if you can measure activity by water intake, I did two litres.

Pitched somewhere between Whanganui’s wilderness and Napier’s well-kempt winelands, of all the bike tracks I’d tried, the Timber Trail was the most family friendly and topographically diverse of my New Zealand cycling experiences.

The trail runs from Pureora to Ongarue, with campsites installed to allow people to do a two- or three-day excursion using only bikes if they want to immerse themselves in it for a weekend.

I would have loved to do the full 77km of the Timber Trail, spending a night out in the bush and taking my time to study the trees that are reclaiming their territory. It’s an ideal bike path, long enough to get you away from civilisation but with a little man-made leg-up in the trickier sections so you don’t have to get off and carry your bike.

As a virgin to the world of off-road cycling, and not a paid-up member of the great army of British ‘midlife cyclists’ that is taking over our roads, I’m glad I chose New Zealand for my induction. The self-styled land of adventure travel knows that everyone – whatever the ability – needs exercise and fresh air, and has a right of access to the beautiful hinterland.

As the bike paths branch out in all directions and open up fresh landscapes, there really is no excuse for staying in your van and watching everyone else have all the fun.

Having covered travel at the Buenos Aires Herald and Time Out London, Chris Moss has swapped trams and tubes for the Welsh hills. Follow him @Traveloguer

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