There’s the smell of the sea, that instantly recognisable whiff of briny freshness, that hits you the moment you mount your bike in the town of Greymouth, on New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a scent that makes you appreciate where you are, and where you’re going: following a rugged coastal trail, investigating a landscape that’s so pure, untouched and beautiful.
That’s one of the amazing things you discover on a cycling trip in New Zealand: the smells. The scent of fresh-cut grass in a paddock. The waft of fish frying in a nearby restaurant. The smell of wood smoke from a distant chimney. Scents can be as evocative and as memorable as any sight or sound. And you have to be outside to appreciate them – ideally, on a bike.
New Zealand’s West Coast Wilderness Trail is made for bike-riders who love the smell of the ocean, but who also appreciate the mossy scent of dense forest, and the clean aromas of a burbling river. This is a four-day ride that takes cyclists from Greymouth, on the north-west coast of the South Island, down to the town of Ross, mostly via coastal areas, though making a long detour into the island’s rugged interior.
You can take in the peace and beauty of the west coast landscape, cycling through former gold-mining towns, alongside quiet rivers, and through alpine forest with snow-capped peaks far in the distance. There are villages around here, farms dotted along the way, but little else except the natural beauty of the environment.
The cycling is easy, with flat, wide tracks that pass regularly through small towns in which to stop and refuel and get chatting to the locals. And there’s so much to see while you’re on the trail, so much to do as you explore the local environment. There’s gold panning, trout fishing and whitewater rafting in the rivers; dolphin watching on the ocean; traditional jade, wood and bone carving studios to visit; even scenic flights to help properly appreciate the area’s beauty.
Walking in the sky
One of the most popular attractions along the trail is the West Coast Treetop Walk, a 450-metre network of steel platforms strung 20 metres up in the forest canopy. It takes about an hour to stroll through, high in the ancient rimu and kamahi tress, listening to the bird life, taking in the forest from their height. This truly is one of New Zealand’s undiscovered gems, something you’d be unlikely to see if it wasn’t for the time that’s allowed once you find yourself astride a pushbike.
Many of New Zealand’s cycle trails, in fact, are designed to give riders the time to discover parts of the country they may have otherwise raced past at high speed.
The Twin Coast Trail, up on the North Island, encompasses some of the country’s most beautiful scenery in its northernmost reaches, taking cyclists on a two-day journey through the countryside from Hokianga Harbour on the west coast – home of the Wairere Boulders, a geological freak of nature, a “stream” of huge boulders tumbling down towards Hokianga – to the Bay of Islands on the east. Along the way riders have the chance to discover the golden sand dunes around the town of Hokianga, see a pioneer village in Kaikohe, and visit the town of Waitangi, which holds an important place in Kiwi history: it’s here that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, leading to the creation of New Zealand as we know it.
Austrian art in the heart of Kawakawa
There’s another unexpected highlight on the Twin Coast Trail, too: the public toilets in the town of Kawakawa. Known as the “Hundertwasser toilets”, these loos were designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, best known for Hundertwasserhaus in Australia, and are considered a significant work of art. Busloads of tourists turn up in Kawakawa just to see the toilets – for a cyclist on the Twin Coast Trail, however, it’s just part of the adventure.
There are more undiscovered gems to be unearthed further south on another New Zealand cycle track, the Rimutaka Trail near the capital of Wellington. The Rimutaka is a three-day, 115-kilometre journey through the mountain ranges just north of Wellington, following an old rail trail through beautiful agricultural scenery.
Many of the highlights here, the forests, the farms and even the Wairarapa Moana Wetlands, can only be seen without the use of a car. Getting around by pedal power allows access to all of these places, as well as creating time to take them all in without disturbing the nature that makes them so attractive.
Speaking of which, the end of the Rimutaka Trail is worth the effort to arrive at. That’s where cyclists will find Turakirae Head, a unique set of five beaches that have been raised above sea level – up to eight metres in some cases – by earthquakes in the area. Turakirae is also home to New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony, with more than 500 of them calling the area home.
The smell that emanates from a colony of 500 fur seals is not, we would have to admit, the area’s greatest attraction. But still, it’s a reminder that this is nature at its most real and untouched, just the same as it is over on the West Coast Wilderness Trail, or up north on the Twin Coast Trail. If you were sitting inside a car, you’d never appreciate it.
Rich in breathtaking scenery and must-see attractions, cycling trails are an unforgettable way to explore New Zealand. Mostly off-road and traversing a remarkable range of landscapes, the Great Rides offer adventures for almost every age and ability.
Choose to explore a trail for an hour, a day or a week; whichever fits in with your itinerary. They are as diverse as they are beautiful, showcasing a satisfying blend of natural wonders, cultural sights, food and wine.
Spread throughout New Zealand from the Bay of Islands in the north to Queenstown in the south, the Great Rides are a memorable way to reach sights and attractions. Pedal between Napier’s art deco buildings on the Hawke’s Bay Trails, stargaze from an alfresco hot tub on the Alps 2 Ocean, and wind through Rotorua’s steamy geothermal wonderlands on Te Ara Ahi. Explore two contrasting national parks on the Mountains to Sea, and freewheel through golden high country of the Otago Central Rail Trail.
As locals will tell you, there really is something for everyone on the New Zealand Cycle Trail, even for beginners and rusty riders. Passionate tour companies offer advice, guiding, shuttles and luggage transfers, while welcoming accommodation, cafes and restaurants provide home comforts along the way.