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Big City to Little River

Little River Trail

Our Trail Story


Christ's church at Cathedral Square is where I park my bike on my first visit to Christchurch since the devastating earthquakes some years before. I peer through the barrier fence at the toppled place of worship … it is clear there is still a lot to achieve. Once the entrance was a meeting place for city folk yet today nature gathers with weeds aplenty; the lofty stone tower and the large rose window now just a dark gaping hole where pigeons perch.


The view to the ruin is in contrast to the landscape of rebuilding behind me. I turn and see plenty of new spaces and pathways that now connect the city like never before. Switching on my GPS units, I begin a journey on one of these urban paths linking the city to the suburbs; offering a safe and green way to explore the blooming beauty of the Garden City.


     In the square I enter my first waypoint for the Great Rides App and start towards the river.  My journey today has me riding 50 kilometres between two little rivers; the Avon of Christchurch, and the Okana that flows through the settlement of Little River. In a few seconds I cross the Avon twice. I am impressed how its banks have modern seating areas, perfect refuges to relax and reflect.


A few minutes later I ride past the botanical gardens and into Hagley Park which is an ideal way to start the Little River Rail Trail. I am enjoying this ride already, despite being in the heart of the city I’m in cycling bliss. I am not alone in my leisure. Also sharing the path are cycling commuters, parents with pushchairs, and joyful joggers on leisurely laps around the reserve. Cities need grand parks like Hagley, a masterpiece of greenspace and a place to unwind in the urban wilds.


     After leaving the park and some quiet lanes I ride the cycleway that roughly follows the route of the southern motorway. This stretch is a wide concrete path and a tail wind powers me along with the effortless joy of those on e-bikes. Hurtling along I soon reach Hornby on the outskirts of the city where I reach the first segment of former railway alignment to Prebbleton.


I don’t mess about in this rural settlement, but push on to the university town of Lincoln which is well placed to stop, walk and sample fine food and drink. Formerly the town was the start of the Little River railway branch and known as ‘Springs’. No railway here now of course and today as I depart Lincoln I visit a peaceful wetland beside the trail then follow the slow meandering currents of a trailside spring.


     I pass the camping area of Waihora Park and reach the magnificent Motukarara Railway Station. I say magnificent because it is the finest, cutest and most extraordinarily well restored railway shed I have seen on my great rides. A wagon is parked up outside but I was blown away with its inside. Inside are the authentic workings of a historic station right down to worn leather suitcases and original NZ Railways trolleys parked ready for patrons.


It’s just like the railway master has gone out for a cuppa and has yet to return. 


This railway relic is a credit to the hours spent by the trust and its volunteers. While I’m no railway enthusiast, I surprise myself with the time I spend reading tales, sizing up tools and examining timetables of this former branch station. Heritage waits here.


     The Little River railway branch commenced operations in 1882, reaching the village a few years later as a timber hauling line. In 1927 and for a few years after, an Edison battery-electric railcar operated quick (69 minutes) twice daily passenger services between Christchurch and Little River. The railcar was later destroyed in a depot fire and was never replaced in the poor economic climate of the Great Depression.


If it had been replaced, how amazing it would be to return via an electric cart! While the line was popular in its time for freight, no tree replanting took place in the area, resulting in falling freight volumes to a point where the line closed in 1962. The line lay abandoned for nearly 50 years before a millennium project opened up walking and cycling access from this station to Little River. The trust worked with several parties and volunteers to open up the entire trail to Hornby, and a few years later it was linked to Cathedral Square.


     Taking several photos and another GPS waypoint at the station, I hop onto the former railway line and pedal straight lines towards Lake Ellesmere. As I ride the scenery changes, the elevated causeway gives me vantage over the flats and down to the marshy shallows of one of our country’s largest lakes.


As I cycle it becomes quickly apparent that if you’re a biking birder then this pedal-pusher’s paradise!


From the saddle I spot several species of wading birds, at times I stop to appreciate their poised position, gangly legs and long bills prodding the mudflats for food. The long wings of herons flap overhead as I reach Kaituna and I’m mesmerised by a flock of birds in the shallows sporting fluffy crests of feathers with funny shaped beaks. These are the Royal Spoonbills.  Like the name implies they have a spoon shaped bill with inbuilt vibration detectors which help them search for prey in the murky waters. I could have watched these birds feeding and in flight for hours. Actually, I did!


     For some visitors … birds are birds, but if you are heading this way it could be good to know the difference between seabirds, shorebirds and waders. Seabirds are pelagic and spend most of their life out at sea, birds such as albatross, gannets and petrels. Shorebirds such as oyster catchers, plovers and stilts are generally migratory birds and scurry along the shore looking for food. Wading birds such as egrets, herons and spoonbills are taller birds with long bills that wade in wetlands looking for a meal.


Lake Ellesmere has the most diverse and populous birdlife in the country with 167 species. A recent inter-agency wildlife survey counted 41,500 gulls, terns, waders, waterfowl, herons and shags. Unfortunately, this shallow lake with an average depth of just 1.2 metres is considered one of the most polluted in the country. A local trust hopes to reverse this deterioration by improving water quality and habitat restoration for future generations.


     I continue my cycle past the lake and make a small detour out to Birdlings Flat on the shores of Canterbury Bight, the Pacific Ocean. This cute coastal settlement is known for its smooth gemstones of greywacke, quartz, jasper and volcanic pebbles. I took a spell and walked along the Kaitorete Spit looking for a gem while keeping an eye out for rouge waves for which the beach is infamous.


Once back on my bike I reach another waterway. Lake Forsyth has a lakeside reserve where I watch rare Australasian crested grebes. Plagued as it is by algal toxic blooms Lake Forsyth didn’t make me want to linger and I finish the ride just a few kilometres away. Rolling into Little River I discover a second lovingly restored station at the terminus of the branch railway. On the main road of this little settlement there is a good café, information centre and quirky grain silos that provide a restful stay for some riders. As for me Little River is a place for a bite to eat while waiting for the shuttle back to city.


     The shuttle van arrives and I find a seat by the window and watch my journey unfold in reverse.  While I found no gemstone on the coast, the trail’s jewel is that it’s big on birds!  The birdlife biodiversity is booming and would captivate twitches for days. Wow!  What a start to a trail leaving the square, crossing the Avon before entering the grand green space of Hagley Park. There are so many trail side attractions I had no time visit such as the botanical gardens, the museum and the art centre.


I am excited to see a city building a green tread (a term I just made up but it’s a bit like a footprint) with 13 major cycle routes popping up throughout the city. In particular, once completed, I am looking forward to the Avon and coastal routes that are likely to be popular with locals and visitors alike. So, thanks Christchurch for today’s ride from the big city to the little river, I will soon return tempted back by your new urban cycleways from the centre city to the sea.

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