After many missed deadlines the northern-most of the 22 Great Rides that make up the New Zealand Cycle Trail is open all the way from Opua on the east coast to the Hokianga Harbour. Phil Taylor reports from the Twin Coast Cycleway.
There were real concerns this trail might never be finished from coast to coast. And that would have been a shame on more than one count. It's a very nice ride, the only one to cross the country and Northland could do with the dosh.
I've been visiting a family bach in the Maniototo, smack bang on the Otago Rail Trail, every second year for decades and have seen what that bike route means to the region. It's a river of gold.
The 84-kilometre Twin Coast Trail can do something similar for the north, particularly the poorer west where few visitors venture and where jobs are scarce.
Down south, B&Bs, lodges and cafes popped up along the inland Otago route. Pubs shook off their decrepitude. Some literally rose from the dead.
It made enterprise possible at any age. Back when the rails were freshly pulled up, the youngest generation of our family spent many holiday hours collecting rail bric-a-brac, prized booty they arranged for display on a fence made of railway sleepers. Now, on sweltering Ida Valley days, they do a healthy trade as trailside vendors of homemade lemonade.
So it was disappointing two years ago to find Northland's trail was hamstrung. Would it ever be finished? Someone had painted a sign on a fence at a trail entrance that effectively told visitors to sod off.
That was during the "rock star economy" period. I was in the north to write about the economy that was only whispered about in thriving cities and the corridors of power — poor, non-dairying rural (This was a time of peak dairy prices). Though not a panacea, the Otago Rail Trail experience strongly suggested the Twin Coast Trail was too good an opportunity for Northland to miss.
And it wouldn't just be about money. A positive story has its own value in parts where these are rare.
So I went back in early December to check progress, hoping for the best but prepared to be disappointed again. I knew the latest deadline for the trail to fully open (mid-2016) had been missed.
I'm pleased to report that I found it about to fully open. A cycling mate, The Lazy Plumber, and I rode it from east coast to west, hopping over a few locked gates, skirting around a couple of impressive bridges where workmen were adding the final touches, and jumping off the end of a fantastic 1.2km boardwalk — the longest on any of the cycle trails — near Horeke (look it up) where the exit ramp hadn't been built.
It was due to open, coast to coast, before Christmas. The official ceremony is set for late this month. John Key was to have done the honours but won't be now. His office told us last month that as he won't be PM or Tourism Minister when this is published, it wouldn't be appropriate for him to comment.
Pity, because it would have been a nice full stop, as the trails are part of the network that came of the jobs summit in 2009. Proposed by Key, the bike trail was a surprise 21st item — and a rare tangible one.
Check out the headings of the top five summit ideas:
1. Retain and Upskill — the nine-day fortnight.
2. Intra-national migration (something to do with a seasonal work marketplace).
3. Keeping people in education and creating jobs through education and training.
4. Improve matching for supply and demand for training.
5. Redundancy and transition support programme.
Pity, too, because Key had the right words in February 2014 when the trail reached deadlock. All the trails involved negotiation and compromise, he said. "You have to remember that cycle trails are good for economic growth and good for jobs and so it is in the interests of the local community to make it work."
The Twin Coast Trail is one of the last of the 22 Great Rides to be finished. Land access — general annoyance that land taken for the railway was not returned after the trains stopped rolling — was the sticking point.
Talk and compromise (take a bow, Adrienne Tari, the Far North Council's trail co-ordinator) and measures such as building fences as a buffer to private land, got the job done.
The finished trail surface is hard and fast and the route takes you past or through inlets, a lake, a river valley, bush and farmland.
"It feels like you have done a journey — from one side of the Far North to the other," enthuses Jonathan Kennett, cycling guru, author, event organiser and trails consultant.
"It will be a big attraction for people to do over two or three days. I think the Twin Coast Trail has the potential to rejuvenate these small towns in an even more amazing way than the Otago Rail Trail rejuvenated the small towns on its route.
"And I think we will see more people use the Twin Coast Trail because it is so much closer to Auckland.
"It brings the opportunity for people to discover a region that is misunderstood, both its history and its culture.
"It's the western side of this Far North trail that could do with a bit of money, and this trail will help with that."
A patient man, Ray Clarke wasn't thinking of money when he took the punt a few years ago and set up bike hire business Top Trail. Clarke, who owned Paper Plus in Kaikohe for 21 years, selling it in 2001, was able to keep the fledgling bike business going only because he has other income.
He predicts Okaihau will quickly thrive. "It's got the right vibe for a town that is set to do quite well out of the cycle trail, and the right sort of people to pick up from it early on."
"I think the other towns, Kaikohe and Horeke and Moerewa will probably do okay too in time, but they might need to be led a bit more."
Horeke, the destination town if you ride west, has a depth of history and culture, but lacks services.
Destination rides need a happy ending and Horeke, on the upper reaches of the Hokianga Harbour, has the natural attributes. It is a beautiful and historic spot, the site of the first Post Office (still standing) and the biggest signing (at the Mission House on the hill) by Maori chiefs of the Treaty of Waitangi.
With the waters of the Hokianga lapping at its feet, the Horeke pub may have the county's prettiest beer garden. But right now, the town isn't ready. The pub opens limited hours, there is no cafe or shop, or ferry service to Rawene, a bustling town that is near by water but far by road.
"The horse has to come before the cart down there, and for a lot of the trail as well," says Clarke. "Horeke could be such a gem and such a fantastic end to the ride."
"One of our locals who is in tourism up here likened the trail to a river with all these fish swimming up it. All that is needed is for locals to bait their hooks and put their lines in the water."
The Utakura Valley, between Okaihau and Horeke. This section follows the river through kauri forest and farmland. It was made possible by the generosity of private landowners (the Lewis, Lykho, Harrison, MacMillan and Taylor families) who granted easements to allow the trail through their land as the rail corridor didn't come this way. The trail drops into the valley and follows the Utakura River on its journey from its source near Kaikohe to the Hokianga Harbour.
The 1.25 km boardwalk near Horeke, the longest boardwalk built on any trail in New Zealand.
Best place to stay:
Okaihau Rail Stay (09 401 9770, firstname.lastname@example.org) just west of the town. Noelene and Pete Inverarity have turned abandoned rail carriages into striking boutique accommodation. Noelene noticed the bike trail went right past their front gate and took a punt that their investment in sweat and dollars would eventually pay off. If you let Noeline know in advance, she may even cook your dinner.
Railway Station Cafe, Kawakawa. Cute as a button, good coffee, beans roasted in nearby Kerikeri, generous big breakfast.
The New Zealand Cycle Trail was initially conceived as a trail to run through the length of New Zealand. Practicalities and cost saw it adapted to became a network of Great Rides (currently 22).
Proposed by former Prime Minister John Key at the Job Summit in 2009 to help the country through the international financial crisis, it was granted $50 million by the Government to get it started. A further $30 million has come from local government and cycle trail trusts.
Together these trails total nearly 2500 kilometres.
The Twin Coast Trail budget was $13 million in 2011. Central Government has contributed $7 million.
For those wanting to ride the length of the country, cycling promoters and authors, the Kennett brothers have designed a route using back roads and some of the trails.
1. Twin Coast Trail
2. Hauraki Rail Trail
3. Waikato River Trail
4. Motu Trails
5. Te Ara Ahi Trail
6. The Timber Trail
7. Great Lake Trail
8. Mountain to Sea trail
9. Hawke's Bay Trails
10. Rimutaka Trail
11. Queen Charlotte Trail
12. Dun Mountain Trail
13. Tasman's Great Taste Trail
14. The Old Ghost Road
15. St James Cycle Trail
16. West Coast Wilderness Trail
17. Alps 2 Ocean Trail
18. The Queenstown Trail
19. Otago Central Rail Trail
20. Roxburgh Gorge Trail
21. Clutha Gold Trail
22. Around the Mountains