(Australian Associated Press)
With an estimated 15,000 visitors a year, the Otago Rail Trail is regarded as something of game changer for tourism in New Zealand.
The bikeway, which runs on disused rail lines in the South Island, has opened up touring to the masses – its flat gravel tracks, mountain vistas and stopping points at cafes and museums have made it cycling catnip for the 50-plus set.
But riding a bike in New Zealand doesn’t just start and finish with the renowned 150km trek from Clyde to Middlemarch.
A national cycling network is gathering momentum in the Shaky Isles and the North Island is a significant part of the equation.
A bit more rolling hill and green pasture than sweeping alps, there are thousands of kilometres of trails in the country’s most populous island.
On a stunning spring day we tackle a section of what’s regarded as the easiest of them – the 80km Hauraki Rail Trail.
One of the designated “Great Rides” of the New Zealand Cycle Trail system, it runs from Thames via Paeroa and splits either east towards Waihi or south to Te Aroha.
It opened in 2012 but it’s already claimed to be the most popular ride in the country with upwards of 7000 cyclists a month cruising along the Karangahake Gorge section of the route.
That is where we ride and it’s not hard to see why North Islanders come here in droves.
Our sample section from the gorge to Wakino station is a stunning amble along the emerald green waters of the Ohinemuri River, the deepset gorge and rocky outcrop more than tempered by the relaxed, flat ride.
While it’s the kind of section cyclists with even fairly modest ability would be comfortable on there are some unnerving moments.
A gorgeous view combined with a narrow pathway winding around the Ohinemuri could leave you in danger of toppling into its brisk waters – a problem easily rectified by getting off the bike.
The second moment also requires some tunnel vision – literally.
Carved out of solid rock and lined with one million bricks, the Karangahake Rail Tunnel stretches over 1.1km and if you are caught without a torch the ride can be a little disarming.
But, as they say, there’s light at the end of it and also a nice open ride to the cafe at Waikino station where you can fuel up and either take the vintage train ride to Waihi or bike the 11km to the town.
At the end of the ride we head to Te Aroha for a soak in mineral spas.
Once the centre point for such activities in NZ, Te Aroha is now dwarfed by the tourist town of Rotorua and is a much more laid-back experience.
Also worth a visit there is Historic Creations, a design studio created by local artist Adrian Worsley.
The life-size sculptures made from locally sourced scrap metal, tools and farm implements are arresting to say the least and it is no surprise Worsley’s work has drawn a cult following.
The next day we head north to Hamilton – population 150,000-plus – and take on part of the Te Awa trail, a distinctly more urban ride on the banks of the Waikato River.
It’s a city that gets a bit of a bum wrap sometimes, dwarfed by Auckland’s City of Sails that’s just 127km north and not quite rural enough be that classic Kiwi countryside.
Yet it’s a pleasant way to while away a day on a bike and within the next 18 months you’ll be able ride all 85km from Ngaruawahia to Horahora.
Ultimately this is all slated to form part of a complete interconnected trail from Cape Reinga at the northern tip of the North Island to Bluff in the deep south (though there is the small matter of Cook Strait in between).
New Zealand is a country that is quickly becoming a go-to biking destination and the promise is it will just get better. Australia has some catching up to do.
IF YOU GO:
PLAYING THERE: Eight distinct cycling regions on the New Zealand North Island are set out brilliantly on the recently launched website: www.ridenz.co Ability required, trail status, accommodation and dining options, hire stores and all the information you’d need for a bike trip is explained. Auckland is the best starting city for your trip.