Fresh trails, fresh air and ever-changing landscapes … when the last of New Zealand’s 23 ‘Great Rides’ are completed by the end of 2015, cyclists will have a choice of almost 2500km of dedicated cycle routes through iconic landscapes - inspiring New Zealand's cycling revolution.
Modelled on the Otago Central Rail Trail - a community initiative that became a tourism phenomenon injecting millions of dollars and reinvigorating a sparsely populated old gold mining region in New Zealand’s central South Island - the new cycle ways have been opening progressively over the past four summers and are already attracting the admiration of freewheeling travellers.
But that’s only the beginning as the cycling revolution is spreading throughout regional New Zealand with the opening of other dedicated cycle trails outside the network.
New Zealand’s outdoor lifestyle, spectacular landscapes and varied terrain set the scene for arguably some of the world’s best cycling and mountain biking experiences.
From north to south - in urban and remote locations throughout New Zealand - there are tracks to appeal to every riding level from novice to experienced riders … whether that’s casual pedalling between vineyards or high country downhill adventures.
Not so long ago, a bicycle was a means of transport and many Kiwis grew up riding their bikes to school, later discovering that cycling was a pleasurable and healthy adult pursuit so that New Zealand now has a thriving cycling community. For international visitors and out-of-towners, cycling the by-ways is a chance to slow down and get to know the real New Zealand - fresh air, unique wildlife, tasty regional fare and friendly locals.
The new cycle network is known collectively as the 'New Zealand Cycle Trail - Nga Haerenga' which means ‘the journeys’ in both a physical and spiritual sense, and each of the 23 trails travels a distinctive landscape with a different story to tell.
In the North Island, the vast central volcanic plateau has a choice of landscapes and experiences ranging from sandy river tracks to meandering forest trails and steamy volcanic pathways. Some trails trace historic routes or follow now disused rail links.
The South Island’s majestic alpine scenery sets the scene for a multitude of shorter outings, multi-day touring routes and hard-core mountain-biking experiences - following the water’s edge of a lake, river or coastal estuary, cruising a food and wine trail, or a grand touring adventure cycling from the mountains to the sea.
NZ Cycle Trail manager Evan Freshwater, who spearheads the government-funded project, says one of the great features of the network is the energy behind each of the trails - "Whenever I visit one of the trails, I am struck by the drive, passion and dedication of the passionate locals who are always excited to welcome visitors to their trails - the very embodiment of kaitiakitanga [caring for the environment] and manaakitanga [hospitality]."
Tourism infrastructure - accommodation, eateries, bicycle hire and tour specialists - is developing to support the trail network, and information about the routes, tourism and hospitality partners is available via a dedicated website nzcycletrail.com.
New Zealand’s holiday parks network provides trail information and secure storage as well as links to cycle hire, transport and mechanical support. Campervan rental company Britz hires out bikes and bike racks that fit on the back of their vehicles. Many trails also have their own websites, and trail providers are reporting patronage that is growing ahead of expectations.
Over the five year period from 2008 to 2012, 318,000 international tourists participated in cycling psort in New Zealand. The original Otago Central Rail Trail recorded a new high of 14,000 people completing the 150km during the peak September 2012 to April 2013 season.
And in May 2013, the New Zealand Cycle Trail was named as one of the best cycle trails in the world - one of three international winners at the International Trails Symposium, hosted by American Trails in Arizona. The Honourable Mention award cited the cycling network as an outstanding initiative that contributes to the international trails movement.
North Island experiences
In Rotorua - New Zealand’s original tourist town - Te Ara Ahi, Thermal by Bike is an easy Grade 2 ride on mostly flat, off-road paths. Te Ara Ahi loops past many of Rotorua’s most popular attractions, meandering into active thermal zones, past Waimangu volcanic valley, Rainbow Mountain and the thermal pools at Kerosene Creek, finishing at the family-friendly Waikite Hot Pools.
Within easy reach of Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua, the Grade 1 Hauraki Rail Trail is proving a popular weekend ride for families and leisure cyclists. Flat and entirely off-road, the trail follows an historic railway line across the Hauraki Plains and through the stunning Karangahake Gorge, and includes a tunnel, bridges, forest and a café. It passes through the small towns of Thames, Paeroa, Waihi and Te Aroha - an old spa town with soda springs, and there are plans to extend the trail to make it a multi-day ride.
In the North Island’s volcanic heartland, The Timber Trail - an 85km trail between Pureora village and Ongarue - is a Grade 2 and 3 (easy / intermediate) well-formed family friendly route through a rural wilderness landscape of ancient podocarp forests via former logging roads and tramlines, and across a series of impressive swing bridges.
The Hawke's Bay Trails - criss-crossing the sunny east coast wine region - are easy Grade 2 to 3 cycling with plenty of added attractions en route, including vineyards and boutique food outlets, and well served with eateries, accommodation and cycle hire companies. There are several shorter trips including the Winery trail exploring the Gimblett Gravels terroir, and the Water Ride following the coastline from Napier to Clifton at the start of the iconic Cape Kidnappers beach walk.
South Island experiences
Stunning Queen Charlotte Track, which is already an outstanding multi-day walk through the Marlborough Sounds, is now open as a multi-day cycling experience. Graded for intermediate to advanced mountain bikers, the 70km track runs from historic Ship Cove to Anakiwa and includes steep climbs to some of the best views over Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. Marlborough Sounds is a popular holiday destination with a well-developed tourism infrastructure.
Nearby Nelson region - on the north-western coast of the South Island - which is on the way to becoming a national and international mountain biking destination, has the Dun Mountain Trail for serious mountain biking thrills and the Great Taste Tasman Trail for easy outings focused on great taste in art, wine, food and culture. The Nelson Tasman region’s superb coastal landscape, dancing light and gentle climate is home to a significant artistic community. This relaxing 175km loop can be ridden in three to five days or as a series of short coastal, country and vineyard rides.
The six-day 300km Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail - in the central South Island - is the longest continuous ride in New Zealand. From New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, the route descends over 2000ft and travels 300km to the coastal town of Oamaru. The Alps 2 Ocean trail includes a World Heritage national park, glacial fed lakes, hydro dams, golden tussock land, limestone cliffs, Māori Rock art and spectacular views from go to whoa. Suitable for all cycling abilities, the trail includes some on road segments and can be enjoyed in sections or in its entirety. Guided cycling tours are available.
The Clutha Gold Trail from Roxburgh Dam to Lawrence offers 73km of Grade 2 easy riding on a meandering well-formed trail following the banks of the Clutha River through a spectacular tapestry of landscapes that was once the scene of a major gold rush. The two to four-day ride is a heritage experience showcasing the history of early Māori moa hunters, Chinese gold miners, European pastoral farming, mining and rail. The trail links with the Roxburgh Gorge Trail at the Roxburgh Dam, and continues on to the Otago Central Rail Trail at Alexandra.
The Queenstown Trail - 110km of easy to intermediate gradients - links a series of popular tourism destinations including Lake Wakatipu, Arrowtown and the Gibbston ‘valley of vines’. It can be cycled as a whole but will also provide shorter excursions and day trips for cyclists who want to explore the region at a leisurely pace - whether that’s stopping for a photo of stunning scenery, tasting a local pinot noir or leaping off the famous Kawarau Bridge Bungy and just one of nine bridges en route.
NZ Cycle Trails guides
New Zealand mountain bikers and brothers, Jonathan, Simon and Paul Kennett have published The New Zealand Cycle Trails - a comprehensive guide to the complete network which also includes the ‘Ultimate NZ Ride’ linking the cycle ways with other on-road country by-ways for cyclists looking to ride the length of New Zealand.
German guidebook writer and keen cyclist Claudia Harfst has written Radfahren in Neuseeland published by hellblau.Verlag - covering the North Island cycle ways, and a second edition covering South Island rides is due out next. The guides - available in English and German - tell of her personal experiences cycling the trails, and include detailed information on the rides and comprehensive listings for accommodation, places to eat and facilities.
"I find the diversity of the trails most stunning: Each and every one has its own character and special scenery to showcase. I find it impossible to choose a favourite one. And it's exactly this wide range of choices which will attract and cater for a wide range of cycling tourists with different interests and expectations. I was also amazed about all the enthusiasm I met on all levels of people involved and the fast progress the project is making," Ms Harfst says.
Background: New Zealand Cycle Trail
When the New Zealand Cycle Trail was launched in 2009, the proposed network was to include 18 cycle trails. The network has since expanded to include other existing off-road trails including the Otago Central Rail Trail. Some on-road cycle touring routes are also being added.
The first new trail opened in late 2010, and by the end of 2012, 10 of the 20 trails were open to riders, with the remainder scheduled for completion by the end of 2014/2015. The 2,340km network will be further extended by already-established trails.
Each trail is a community project between local authorities, tourism and cycling enthusiasts. In February 2009 the government invested NZ$50 million to build the network. In additiion to this, local communities involved generated a further $30 million of co-funding. Another $8 million of funding was announced by Prime Ministeer John Key in February 2014 designated to help maintain the quality of the network.
A complete list of the New Zealand Cycle Trails and associated businesses is available at: www.nzcycletrail.com
Cycling in New Zealand