Elisabeth Easther meets the owner and manager of Paihia Mountain Bikes.
We lived near Opua where dad was an oyster farmer, and when I was 4 we moved to Kerikeri for schooling. We had lots of family holidays but Dad gets motion sick so can't fly to save his life, so mostly we drove places. Piling up the car, four bikes on the back, we'd do the East Cape or chunks of the South Island. I'd seen most of New Zealand by the time I left school. Mum always had her little Maori history book, and she'd tell us the local stories or the meaning of place names. We didn't listen too well at the time but I'm thankful now as those things stick in your head and were helpful when I was a tour guide.
Mum had always wanted to do a horse trek and I remember going riding on the beach at Hicks Bay on the East Cape. The guy said, "jump on, it's an ex-racehorse. If you want to go fast, he'll go really fast". And I said "I can't ride". And he said, "just get on, it'll stop eventually, hopefully". It was amazing, running wild, but there was no health and safety like there is today.
After finishing my degree in finance, management and tourism, I stayed in Dunedin to hang out with my partner who still had six months to study. During that time I worked for Haka Tours, putting together new mountain-bike products aimed at more experienced, international riders. Not too many companies do back country stuff or the tougher trails, so they pushed their marketing beast into that area and I led their first summer of tours.
After my fiance, Georgie, finished her degree we went to Asia for about 11 months, starting in Thailand. We loved the Kuang Si waterfalls in the middle of Lagos, such a bright clear blue. And in Vietnam we found this bizarre Buddhist theme park. About five times the size of Rainbows End, it cost $25 to enter, which was huge for our budget, and nobody was there but they turned the rides on for us. Ferris wheels, the love boat, rollercoasters, each took about 10 minutes to warm up. We asked around and learnt they get about 50 visitors each week then, for the national holiday they get 5000-10,000 in a single week. The rest of the time the whole park is empty. There was a water park onsite too - with nobody there either - but all the water was running, there were five lifeguards: they must've been so bored. Then a group of monks from Cambodia turned up and started going down the slides and tubes in their orange robes. That was crazy.
But we knew we'd come home, tossing up between Nelson and hanging out in Kaiteriteri or returning to the Bay of Islands. We moved home for a few weeks to assess our options.
A mountain bike park had been built in Waitangi while we were away, and the Twin Coast Cycleway was about to open so we thought, "let's give cycle tourism a go", and started purchasing bikes, got the van and a couple of buses and it's really taken off.
The MTB Park is awesome. Built by the community, it's been driven by Focus Paihia, a charitable trust who work to add value to the town. The park opened last October with about 25km of track, and there are about 45km now with 10km more expected by the start of summer. In spite of being a complicated piece of land - there are a number stakeholders including the Crown, Tangata Whenua, Waitangi National Trust, forestry companies and even DoC, because it's kiwi country - there are a lot of people to keep on the same page but Focus Paihia keep everyone on track.
Eventually there'll be 70km-80km of track and at least 70 per cent of the tracks have Maori names and stories behind them, because we're trying to market this as a tourism and cultural experience, not just a place to ride. It's going to be huge and we have to satisfy the demand.
And if we don't grow, there are heaps of other opportunities. I think eating insects will be the next biggest thing in the world so I might become a cricket farmer. It's such a sustainable food source. People used to think "sushi, ew yuck", and now there's a sushi joint on every corner. We'll just see what happens, we have a few irons in the fire.
Further information: see paihiamountainbikes.co.nz