Twenty new bicycle trails offer the perfect way to explore New Zealand’s legendary landscapes.

Collectively known as the New Zealand Cycle Trail, these routes are multi-day – but easily broken up into half- or day-long sections – and most follow paths established by early indigenous and pioneer settlers, hence the official Maori name for the trails: Nga Haerenga, “the Journeys”.                 

New Zealand has long been mountain bike mad. Over the last 25 years an increasing number of dedicated cycle tracks and parks have sprung up in both town and country, many developed by bike clubs and other community groups.

Recreational cycling was already on a roll, when in 2009 a 50 million New Zealand dollar government fund was established to create a continuous touring route running the length of the country, supported at a grass roots level by an additional 50 million New Zealand dollars offered up by councils and local organisations.

It soon became apparent, however, that building one continuous route across the two islands was not only too ambitious, but it also would bypass many of the most remote and interesting corners of the country. Restoring and extending historic pathways made more sense, enabling cyclists to visit fascinating historic and cultural sites while seeing natural wonders along the way, and inspiring both locals and people from overseas to ride them.

The first sod of the new trails was turned by Prime Minister John Key in late 2009. Since then, armed with machetes, shovels and diggers, some of the world’s best single-track designers and builders have bush-bashed, benched, sidled and switch-backed their way through a diverse range of terrain.

By the end of 2012, 10 of the 20 trails  were open to riders, with the remainder scheduled for completion by the end of 2013. The 2,340km network will be even further extended by already-established trails, such as the renowned 71km Queen Charlotte Track that meanders through the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island.

Great Rides
The 20 new trails have assumed the moniker “Great Rides”, building on the international reputation of the “Great Walks” through New Zealand’s national parks. John Dunn, a manager on the Cycle Trail project, is optimistic about their potential as a tourism earner. “The numbers of international cyclists coming to New Zealand has doubled since 2008,” he said. “In terms of drawing people to New Zealand and showcasing some of the best scenery we have to offer, we expect the cycle trails to become as important as the Great Walks.”

The routes pass through a variety of landscapes, from the North Island’s central volcanic plateau and high-country grasslands, to ancient forests, farmed plains, river valleys, estuaries and coastal dunes, most following routes once frequented by railway carriages, bush trams, loggers, miners and stock drovers. Along the way, information panels signal stopping points to learn a slice of history or simply to admire a beautiful view.

At the North Island’s thermal resort of Rotorua, the 74km Te Ara Ahi trail threads through a rich vein of visitor attractions, including Maori villages, bubbling mud and natural hot pools. A couple of hours’ drive away, 100km northwest of Lake Taupo, the 85km Timber Trail heads through the peaceful Pureora Forest taking in several important ecological areas, old timber milling sites and super-sized swing bridges.

The diversity continues in the Nelson region at the top of the South Island. Catering to hordes of holidaymakers attracted by its fine weather, the 158km Great Taste Trail loops around bucolic countryside dotted with fruit stalls, cafes and galleries. In the deep south, the 100km Queenstown Trail offer myriad itineraries through the peak-fringed Wakatipu Basin, complete with wineries, the pioneer gold mining settlement of Arrowtown and the historic Kawarau Bridge, where the world’s first commercial bungee jump still operates.

The two longest trails stretch from inland mountains to the coast. The 312km Alps 2 Ocean pushes off from the foot of the country’s highest peak, 3,754m-high Aorangi/Mt Cook, through the South Island’s big-sky Mackenzie Country and the Waitaki River Valley’s surreal turquoise hydro-lakes. The 317km Mountains to Sea Trail is the North Island’s epic, which starts at the lively volcano of Mount Ruapehu and follows a section of old coach road across a 45m-high viaduct. Further along it wends along the densely forested banks of the Whanganui River, with a break in the trail linked by canoe or a thrilling jetboat ride.

Easy rider
Although many of the trails pass through wilderness areas, the majority are grade one to two (very easy to easy), with smooth riding surfaces and gentle hill climbs. While some fitness is required, advanced riding skills are not.

Getting on and off the trails is easy too, thanks to bike shops and other local businesses that are cranking up their cycle-friendly services, such as rental, guiding and mechanics. Specialist tour and transport operators are tackling bike, baggage and passenger transfers, while cycle racks are springing up outside cafes and country pubs.

Accommodation providers are also getting on board, most notably the holiday parks network whose Cycle Hub scheme provides trail information and secure storage as well as links to cycle hire, transport and mechanical support. Britz, a major campervan rental company, now hires out bikes and racks that fit on the back of their vehicles. The official New Zealand Cycle Trails website harnesses the details of all routes, plus supporting services and information hubs.

Veteran mountain biker Jonathan Kennett was recruited as a Cycle Trail adviser early on, and along with his brothers Simon and Paul has published the definitive guidebook to the routes – Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails.

“Up until three years ago, the Otago Central Rail Trail was the only easy, multi-day cycling experience we had,” Kennett said. “These new trails have transformed cycling holidays in New Zealand in that people – people who don’t consider themselves cyclists – can get out and explore new territory. The bicycle is just a really good vehicle, and that’s why we’re seeing a whole bunch of new riders getting in on it.”