This is the way to go, I thought, swinging into the saddle. To truly appreciate this part of the country, I needed to blaze through the heart of it, on a bike.
I'm in Northland on Nga Haeraenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail. The first segment, which opened two years ago, spans 20km and takes riders from Kaikohe to Okaihau.
Following old rail lines and skirting Lake Omapere, it’s super pretty, with an old rail tunnel dating back to 1915 thrown in for good measure. It’s a moderately easy ride. Another 14km opened soon after my recent visit and, when fully completed, the trail will cover about 80km, connecting the east and west coasts.
Known as the Twin Coast Cycle Trail Pou Herenga Tai these paths are spectacular, showing off tracts of land that, until now, only farmers and hunters have seen. Pulling into Paihia on a Thursday afternoon, our timing was spot on, because that’s when the farmers’ market brightens up the village green. We stocked up on smoked fish, cheeses, artisan breads, eggs and vine-ripened tomatoes in readiness for our jaunt.
Bright and early the following morning, our adventure began in Opua, 10 minutes’ drive from Paihia. At the bottom of the Opua hill, instead of turning right for the car ferry to Russell, we took a left along Baffin Street to the track to Long Bridge. This terrifically picturesque section is easy riding. It runs alongside rows of pleasure boats in dry docks, then breaks out into mangrove-lined avenues.
Thanks to recent king tides, the water was lapping at either side of the trail. Old train tracks and an impressive brick tunnel are still visible; it’s easy to imagine what a thriving place this once was. Fantails flitted across our path in the hope our wheels would churn up some kai.
I gazed longingly at the tucked-away houses and imagined how idyllic living here would be. We pedalled to an old, crescent-shaped railway bridge that marked the end of the line.
By late summer, cyclists will be able to ride all the way through to Kawakawa or, if they time it right, catch a ride on the heritage steam train that operates at weekends and during school holidays. A little under 14km return, this ride is a little beauty and I wondered how the next leg could possibly better it.
We met Ray from Top Trail Hire and Tours, who bundled us and our bikes into his van because the next segment on our agenda was the Utukura Valley Trail that starts just outside Okaihau. Sure, we could have cycled from Kaikohe to Okaihau, but Ray suggested he drop us off at Okaihau itself.
This splendid little town has a cafe, a pub, a dairy and two schools, and, if the vibrant gardens are anything to go by, the locals are an industrious lot. One has created railway-themed boutique accommodation on her front lawn. We rode through town and out into the country.
Ray suggested we do it this way round, starting with a very steep downhill. This segment isn’t on the rail corridor so has a few more twists and turns than the other routes, making the riding a bit more challenging. The loose shingle meant our brakes needed serious bite, but we knew we had the option of getting off and walking if it felt too steep to ride, and we didn’t need to do that.
Thanks to the generosity of six farming families, Utukura Valley Trail cuts a swathe through private land. The rich green grass, the woods, the animals, the river rushing over rugged rocks, and the distant squeaking of lofty pines combined to create some of the finest riding I’ve experienced on Nga Haerenga.
Eventually this trail will continue all the way to Horeke, home to the country’s oldest licensed tavern and those geological marvels, the Wairere Boulders. Ray is confident the trail will have a positive effect on the small towns surrounding the cycleway, and, as it becomes more popular, it’ll improve the fortunes of places such as Moerewa, Okaihau, Horeke and Kaikohe.
“There’s lots of goodwill for the trail coming from various quarters,” he says. “Enthusiasm is growing.”
Many riders will want to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse, as we had with Opua, but the prospect of that big uphill made us grateful to find Ray parked at the end of the track, ready to transport us back to Top Trail HQ, which also meant we had time for a dip at Ngawha Hot Springs.
It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Reported by Elisabeth Easther for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue