If you are a visitor on a bike - even from Auckland - chances are you'll get a few friendly waves from residents of the Far North centre of Kaikohe.

That's even before you set out on a spectacular but easy 14km off-road ride through a former railway line to the one-cafe town of Okaihau, past gently rolling countryside and the large and alluring Lake Omapere.

Although times have been tough for Kaikohe for longer than most locals care to remember, the town appears more welcoming than on previous visits, when a mood of impoverished sullenness stood in contrast to the natural beauty surrounding it.

It may be an exaggeration at this early stage to credit the town's involvement with Nga Haerenga - the New Zealand Cycle Trail - for all the perceived change. Perhaps I was just getting a sympathy vote for my clapped out old yellow mountain bike.


Although there were moves in the community to create a cycleway along the rail corridor before Prime Minister John Key came along with his national vision, it took us a while to find a resident who knew how to reach it.

But something - and it can't be the opening of the nearby prison - must be putting a bounce back in the town.

I got more smiles and waves than in a year of riding the unforgiving streets of Auckland. What a refreshing change!

Novelty value aside, there are signs that the cycleway - of which about 30km of an 83km link from the Bay of Islands to the Hokianga Harbour have been completed - will have an enduring impact in jobs-hungry Northland.

Work and Income labour manager Carol Barnett sees the project, on which her organisation has spent more than $650,000 on employment subsidies to supplement $4 million in construction funds, as the Far North's greatest economic lever in years.

Eighty of the 101 young people employed on it for 26-week periods under the Community Max scheme have gone on to other jobs or alternatives to the dole, and more work is being lined up to complete the trail.

Far North District Council member Tracy Dalton, who entered politics to push the project along, and trail co-ordinator Adrienne Tari hope some involved in its construction will return as guides to acquaint cycling tourists with the area's rich history.

They have also been pleased to see community planting days, and believe there is potential for marae along the way to provide cultural experiences.

As well as providing 14km of track to Okaihau, which can be pedalled easily in an hour, the trail blazers have completed about 6km south from Kaikohe to its airport and 7km from Kawakawa to Otiria near Moerewa.

Next to be covered are a 25km descent to picturesque Horeke at the head of the Hokianga, for which a route is being finalised and the Historic Places Trust must conduct an archaeological survey, and about 21km between Otiria and Kaikohe's airport.

But even in these early days, former local bookshop owner Ray Clarke has taken the plunge in investing in 20 hire bikes for which he has built a large trailer to provide shuttle transport from Paihia to Kaikohe.

Community trust Te Hau Ora has also used health board funding to buy 20 bikes which it has been busy delivering around schools for free use since September, and the Ngati Hine Health Trust in Kawakawa intends doing likewise.

After finding the trail's starting gate, marked by locally carved pou on the side of the main road to the Hokianga Harbour, photographer Greg Bowker and I set out on a gentle climb to meet the rail corridor around the northwestern side of Hone Heke Memorial Hill.

He has the flasher bike, but its suspension coils will prove largely redundant given the smoothness of the compacted shale surface of the luxuriously wide 2.7m track.

The track could easily be negotiated with a road bike, but having wide off-road tyres gives added confidence, particularly over cattle grates which allow cyclists free access without having to open and close adjoining farm gates.

We pass pleasant pastures with ample tree belts before heading through some narrowish rail cuttings surrounded with mixed vegetation and bird-song on the way to a disused 80m tunnel between Kaikohe and Lake Omapere.

The tunnel is in good repair, but its banana-bend shape means we can't initially see any light from the other end, so I dismount while the fearless Bowker keeps pedalling, apparently oblivious to what may be in his way.

Then it's an easy downhill ride to the long-awaited lake, which is a fairly large inland sea and former bread-basket for pre-European Maori, with a pleasant breeze whipping up small white-cap waves.

We follow the lake for much of the rest of the way to Okaihau, passing wide of a few farmhouses and encountering a happy band of 18 students and their teachers from Okaihau College, riding Te Hau Ora's bikes.

Coming into Okaihau, with its short railway tunnel under the main street, provides the only small challenge as we zig-zag down to a creek to find a former ford replaced by a new footbridge and then up a short, steep hill to recover at the cafe.

The trail has good fences all the way and farmer Caroline Flood, who has jogged to the cafe along the trail, pays tribute to planners for looping it close to the edge of her property rather than cutting through her paddocks.

Kaikohe north to Okaihau (14km) along the former route of NZ's northernmost rail line.

Getting there: Cycle west to the end of main street Broadway into Taheke Rd then look for a rest area just past Hone Heke Monument Hill. The trail starts on the opposite side of the road.

Kaikohe south to Kaikohe Airport on Mangakahia Rd (about 6km on rail alignment).

Getting there: Cycle south from Broadway down Station Rd. Trail starts on the left just past the intersection with Recreation Rd.

Kawakawa to Otiria (7km, also on rail alignment).

Getting there: Trail starts down a lane at the western end of town, between the Bay of Islands' vintage railway yard and the Caltex service station to the left of State Highway 1.

* Vintage railway (likely to provide a cycle van for the trail's final 11km link to Opua)

* Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa

* Ngawha hot pools east of Kaikohe

* Kaikohe Pioneer Museum

* Battle sites including Ohaeawai Pa defended in 1845 by Ngapuhi chief Kawiti

toptrail.co.nz - bike hire with optional shuttle from Paihia, and rural B&B near Kaikohe

paheke.co.nz - historic house near Ohaeawai offering B&B and cycle tours