Richard Leggat, the New Zealand Cycle Trail

Imagine riding through pristine native bush in a remote part of New Zealand. You stand up on your pedals, spurred on by the exhilaration of discovering an area of the country you’ve never seen before: virtually untouched, definitely unspoilt. You’re breathing nothing but fresh air; you’re hearing nothing but birdsong.

This can now be a reality for anyone who wants to experience it, thanks to the New Zealand Cycle Trail (NZCT), a project that has opened up parts of the country previously inaccessible to cyclists.

At the 2009 job summit, the government was looking for ideas to boost New Zealand’s economy and create employment. “That’s when the idea of creating a cycle trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff came up,” NZCT Chair, Richard Leggat, says. “It would be a project that would not only employ a whole lot of people in the construction, but also boost regional New Zealand and provide a really strong tourism asset that fitted in extremely well with the 100% Pure NZ brand. It was decided that Cape Reinga to Bluff was a bit impractical, but there could be a series of Great Rides across New Zealand, with potential for them to interconnect.”

Construction began in 2011 and today the New Zealand Cycle Trail, Nga Haerenga, boasts 22 rides covering most of the country.

“Our Great Rides are mostly off-road, multi-day cycle trails, featuring iconic New Zealand scenery,” Richard says.

“At the moment we’ve got 22 ‘great’ rides, and while they’re all very good, they’re not all great – not yet.”

The Cycle Trail begins in Northland with the Twin Coast Trail from the Bay of Islands to Hokianga as the most northern ride. There are a number of trails through the central North Island, the Rimutaka Trail out of Wellington which goes over the Rimutaka Range and around the South Coast, the Queen Charlotte at the top of the South Island, then down to the Central Otago Rail Trail, the Roxburgh Gorge and around the mountains in Queenstown.

The fact that the trails are spread throughout New Zealand means growth for our regions. “Globally, cities are attracting more and more people, but regions of the world are struggling,” Richard says. “By initiating the Cycle Trail, we’re bringing jobs and activities back to parts of regional New Zealand.

“Right now we are in a golden period of tourism and there is the challenge of coping with the numbers that we’ve got in the main centres. One of the key initiatives of Tourism New Zealand is to encourage people to come outside of the main times and places: to disperse seasonally and to disperse regionally. The Cycle Trail fits really well into the strategy of getting people to come in spring, autumn and winter and into places beyond Auckland and Queenstown.”

It seems to be working. “Last year one of the global cycling magazines ranked New Zealand in the top three cycling destinations in the world,” Richard says. “The Old Ghost Road Trail on the West Coast of the South Island is regarded as one of the best off-road, multi-day rides in the world; attracting attention from keen overseas cyclists.”

While rides like the Old Ghost Road – a challenging grade 4 trail that's steep and technically difficult – may be attracting attention from keen cyclists overseas, the New Zealand Cycle Trail caters for all abilities. “One of the beauties of Nga Haerenga is that it offers lots of different experiences,” Richard says.

“We grade the rides from 1 to 5. Grade 1 is really easy – lots of wide, flat concrete paths that are suitable for beginners and families – to grade 4 or 5 which are narrow, steep and hilly.”

But all of the trails are designed to get cyclists out and immersed in New Zealand. “It’s quite a different way to experience the country from being in a car,” Richard says.

Within the next five years, the goal is to have the route from Cape Reinga to Bluff linked by both on-road connector routes, known as Heartland Rides, and the existing Great Rides. However, the next two to three years will be about upgrading and enhancing the current trails.

“We’re doing things like making sure there are toilets on all trails at sensible intervals, and potable water; that there are interpretation boards telling people the story of the region, and a good range of accommodation.”

In the meantime, Richard encourages people to get out there and have a go.

“The best part about Nga Haerenga is that there’s something for everyone,” he says. “The trails provide a wonderful experience which can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. It’s a really nice way to experience parts of New Zealand that so many people wouldn’t have seen before.”

Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Summer 2017 issue

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