"There’s no rush to get to the end,” says my guide, Ted Webb, as I join six cyclists at the start of a 47-kilometre off-road ride through the Pureora Forest Park. We’ve spent almost two hours driving here from Taupo, the adventure capital of New Zealand's North Island, and are now strapping on our helmets and cycle shoes beside a mighty tract of native woodland bristling with totara, matai and kahikatea trees. Protected since 1978, this forest was vigorously logged for 50 years by workers for the Ellis and Burnand sawmill, who carved out a formidable network of bush tramways to haul their lucrative harvest out of the hills.
Once a place of plunder, Pureora is now a pedallers’ paradise, with these disused rail tracks forming the backbone of an 87-kilometre, two-day cycle route known as the Timber Trail. Opened in 2013, it is one of 23 Great Rides that make up Nga Haerenga – the New Zealand Cycle Trail, a nationwide network of paths covering about 2,500 kilomettres. It is designed not only to create thrilling rides such as this but also to showcase some of the finest landscapes and heritage spots in the country.
As we head into the woods, I’m impressed by the broad, well-made paths beneath my wheels, and neat route signs placed every kilometre. While some riders feel this is all a bit too manicured, as an overseas visitor I’m happy to know I’m on the right track. “The markers are great for families,” says Janet Prier, who emigrated here from Cumbria two years ago and regularly cycles with her children, aged 14, 12 and 10. “I tell them to stop after the next five kilometres, when they might get another sweet …”
There are lavatories and campsites along the way, and a healthy supply of panels with information about the forest and the story of its exploitation. The first surprise comes after 20 minutes, when we round a bend and meet the massive bulk of the Maramataha suspension bridge – one of eight purpose-built for the Timber Trail. “You put up a huge bridge in the middle of nowhere just for cyclists?” I ask Ted.
A sign points out that it spans 141 metres and cost $NZ459,621 ($A426,660), with its colossal girders and cables flown in by helicopter. Only in New Zealand. Here 1.27 million of its citizens, almost a third of the population, ride a bike and, while this remote and spectacular crossing seems an extravagance, the Timber Trail is part of a laudable initiative to bring life and enterprise to the country’s rural areas.
With ratings from easy to advanced, the National Cycle Trail offers adventures ranging from family-friendly jaunts and saunters through the wineries to hard-core ascents and multi-day trips that include a jet-boat ride. Fifteen years in the making, it was born out of a beat-the-recession summit held in 2009 that drew inspiration from the earlier success of the Otago Central Rail Trail, where a redundant rail corridor was turned into a 150-kilometre recreational route for walking, cycling and horseriding that created hundreds of jobs.
The opening of the Timber Trail is having a ripple effect. Ted and his partner, Erin, set up their company, Tread Routes, to meet the growing interest in bike trails across the North Island. Locals with bikes use his shuttle service to the start and from the end of each ride, while visitors like me can hire equipment, and a guide if desired, and book all-inclusive trips with accommodation that range from weekend breaks to a 10-day coast-to-coast ride from Thames to Wanganui.
It’s not all plain pedalling. Suddenly I’m facing up to a steady three-kilometre climb that provides a decent workout, which is followed by a picnic lunch in a loggers’ clearing rimmed with beautifully plumed toetoe grass. Cycling on, we marvel at the monumental cuttings, some 15 metres high, that the railway workers constructed, then whizz across the 81-metre Mangatukutuku suspension bridge, which rises above the intense green rainforest like some huge, hi-tech harp.
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By now my companions have completed the ride and are returning to do half of it again. Kiwis are like that. Everyone is maniacally obsessed with doing active things outdoors, and Taupo is the sort of place where you find pensioners kayaking before breakfast and children as young as eight competing in mini-triathlons.
As someone used to cycling the fraught streets of London, it is a revelation to find everyone so polite and considerate. Walkers often pause to let cyclists overtake them, with the latter calling “Thanks”, and “I’m the last one”, as they pass by.
Four hours after we set off, Ted and I reach the famous Ongarue Spiral, where the old tramway loops under itself in an impressive feat of railway engineering. Its sharp curves make an entertaining descent, and set us up for a four-kilometre hell-for-leather charge for home. Like all the best adventures, the Timber Trail ends with a good twist.
On the northern tip of the South Island, the Great Taste Trail has six sections of mostly easy cycling near Nelson, while the companion Dun Mountain Trail is an exhilarating, one-day alpine ride.
The Otago Central Rail Trail has 150 kilometres of very easy cycling that can be covered in four or five days; or tackle the four-day West Coast Wilderness Trail following tracks first cut by gold prospectors.
With its Mediterranean climate, thriving foodie scene and vibrant Art Deco buildings, Hawke’s Bay is ideal for some soft cycling mixed with long lunches under the vines. On Yer Bike has self-guided routes through the vineyards.
Mixing trails, roads and a jet-boat ride, the intermediate/advanced-level 317-kilometre Mountains to Sea Trail is a three-day adventure starting on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. On the South Island, the 80-kilometre Old Ghost Road is a still-developing mountain trail for experienced riders only.
Get away from it all cycling into remote high country on the 64-kilometre St James Cycle Trail near Canterbury, which involves a 710-metre climb and river crossings and is best done between November and April.
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This article was written by Nigel Tisdall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.