Northland's Coast to Coast
Twin Coast Cycle Trail
Our Trail Story
Some people are drawn to books to culture their imagination; others seek the arts for their inspiration; in my spatial memories I seek. Like reading a new book filled with interesting characters, I look forward to riding new trails to build fresh tales and long-lasting memories. So when the latest addition to the NZ Cycle Trail opened in Northland, I was intrigued. This was the perfect opportunity to refresh my senses, explore uncharted territory, and to expand my mind and exercise my body on the fresh gravels of our country’s newest Great Ride.
Before heading north my first task involved casting my eye over a map. There appeared to be a few ways to enjoy this Coast To Coast of the north. The easiest option would be to start in the centre of the trail in Kaikohe and ride downhill to either coast and be shuttled back up to the centre. However, I elected to ride the 87 kilometres over two days from east to west, from the Bay of Islands to the Hokianga Harbour; but first I would catch up with the trail manager in Kaikohe. So after driving north I parked up in Kaikohe and was generously welcomed for the night at the trail manager’s historic family homestead on the outskirts of town. A hearty meal appeared and I was fuelled up for the next day’s ride.
During the evening meal Adrienne, the trail manager, explained the beginnings of the trail’s construction project, from her involvement in the feasibility study through to the trail being picked up as one of the ‘quick start’ projects of the national job summit of 2009. Between mouthfuls, her passion for the project and her drive to leap over the numerous hurdles along the track became apparent. It seemed that she was just the right person to work with the local communities and negotiate land access, as well as having the persistence to overcome construction delays. The success of this cycle trail resulted from the commitment of multiple groups working towards a common goal – it seems the trail is now on the right track. Sleep beckoned and I made tracks to bed.
I awoke to the crow of a rooster and looked with bleary eyes over a country landscape framed by wooden villa windows. If this was the sort of view I was going to ride through over the next few days, I was set for a cracker of a trip. After breakfast, I farewelled Adrienne and met up with Ray of ‘Top Trails’ a bike hire and shuttle service based in Kaikohe. Ray was one of the first outfitters to take the plunge and provide rider and bike transport for this trail. His vehicle negotiates the rolling farmland eastward and I enjoy the company of this trail shuttle pioneer. Ray fills me in about the supercity to the south and how it is fuelling the growth of this new ride. Today, in such a short period of time since the trail has opened, there is no shortage of bike hire and transport operators.
After powering up and checking the GPS units ready to continue gathering mapping data for the Great Rides App I have developed, I took note of my surroundings at Opua; the first port of call for many smaller ocean vessels to our shores. The trailhead starts behind several boat building yards with their impressive white fibreglass creations peeking out of iron sheds.
As I pedal my first stokes of the morning I am struck by a peaceful bliss.
It is just one of those moments that feel fabulous to be alive. The morning light is penetrating the mangrove forest beside the trail. The sunrays filter through the rising plumes of mist, casting long spooky shadows across the former railway line. The shadows become darkness in an instant as I pedal through a tunnel before popping out and heading inland beside the brackish water of the inlet’s upper reaches.
At times I can see glimpses of the old rail irons which give me a sense of the historic context of the former line used to haul coal to port. One of the first rail line in the country, it initially started with horse drawn carts on wooden rails and was later upgraded to steam locomotives on iron. The sight and ride over the graceful arc of ‘Long Bridge’ to the restored Taumarere Station gripped me. It’s a magnificent span over the Kawakawa River and is now in the process of being restored by the local railway trust as a tourist venture. The steam train will once again travel to Opua. Riders are blessed with a transport choice at a station beside the bridge when ‘Gabriel’ the stream train is operating. We can decide to cycle, or just take the train to Kawakawa. The train option is tempting. Being too early for the first train I make my way to Kawakawa under my own steam.
Rolling into Kawakawa I am struck by an odd feature - the main street is shared by both road and rail. Watching the performance of a steam train chugging down the state highway is surreal.
Like a concert conductor during a quick tempo recital, the train conductor rapidly sweeps his arms side to side to direct vehicles in various directions off the tracks, as if shooing flies away from a bbq.
His heightened performance adds to a bizarre yet entertaining show. A group of onlookers is stopped in their tracks. It is one of those unique charms of small-town New Zealand, like sheep being mustered down a country road, that I hope is never lost to ‘progress’. The town’s other claim to fame is the country’s most photographed toilet. The Hundertwasser’s organic complex with its design incorporating recycled materials is a stand out in the architectural world. It’s worth a pitstop, even if you don’t need to go. Down the far end of town is the railway station and café and it’s a perfect place to sit, eat and people watch while the station master and driver do their rounds fine tuning the steam train for its next outing.
Leaving Kawakawa and riding along the Moerewa straights, I get the feeling of leaving civilisation and entering heartland New Zealand. The trail continues to the same good wide standard with a fine gravel surface and a width permitting riding two abreast along gentle gradients. I catch up with a local cyclist and we ride and chat together as we approach Moerewa. The trail then begins to climb into a lushly forested gully with a creek below, the shade and cool air is a welcome reprieve, so I stop on a twin truss bridges to look over the Orauta Stream. Beyond the stream are several kilometres of peaceful riding taking me to Kaikohe - a town that marks the halfway point along the trail. This is where I stay overnight. Kaikohe is one of many towns that the job summit hoped to revive with the national cycle trail … I hope that in time this trail will help the community prosper.
Before heading to bed, I considered having a dip in nearby Ngawha Springs to heal the aches of my limbs. Apart from some lighting, it seems little has changed since my last visit decades ago - it is a bathing experience much like it would have been for ancestors in the past. Several basic pits hold mineralised hot water sourced from three different origins. The water from each spring has a unique hue; one is green, the others grey and black.
Each pool has its own bubbling character too with temperature options much like Goldilocks’ porridge.
Last time I bathed in the pits, the minerals entered my pores and I was blessed with the aroma of Ngawha for a few days.
As dawn broke I pedal out of town to the highest point along the trail - the Tahuna Tunnel. It was one of the last construction challenges for workers of the former railway line, and a quick glance at the GPS tells me I am nearly at 300 metres above the coast. The 80-metre-long curved portal was built a hundred years ago to take passengers and cargo to Kaitaia. However, the line only made it past the shallow waters of Lake Omapere and terminated at the little village of Okaihau. I ride into the settlement … if I thought the last town was quiet then this settlement is deafeningly silent. But there are signs of change here –the Village Café brings some refreshing vitality to town and I devour one of the tastiest homemade pies of my travels. Fuelled by the savoury and getting my legs back in motion I pass a gully of glossy puriri trees, a cute whitewashed church surrounded by the graves of fallen soldiers, and then arrive at Okaihau Rail Stay.
As I pass through the gate, owner Noeline is farewelling some other riders who have overnighted in her reimagined railway wagons. My first question to her is predictable: how did this incredibly quirky accommodation come about?
“The idea was born when the cycleway was planned to go past our front gate. Much to my husband’s dismay – I come up with lots of ‘ideas.’ I wanted a point of difference and the railway theme seemed perfect. There is potential for a lot more accommodation providers to get going as this is only going to grow beyond our dreams. This is fantastic for our little town of Okaihau and all other places on the Twin Coast Cycleway.”
Noeline has gutted the old wagons, and meticulously upgraded the carriages with comfortable rooms, adding railway character and memorabilia into every nook. This is a memorable and fitting night’s sleep on the rail trail. Loved it!
Just out of town is one of the most scenic sections of the trail as it descends steeply to the Utakura River catchment. If you are travelling eastward this section is a bit of a grunt for a few hundred metres, and is worth having your e-bike charged up if you are so …. Inclined! Below the trail is a beautifully meandering river, clad in native forest and a real highlight to ride. Beyond the river, traditional culture is practiced as I pass ornate carvings on several marae buildings and urupa burials dotted on hillsides. Reaching the upper harbour is a triumphant finale as my tyres thrum over the boardwalks that weave between the draping branches of the upper harbour mangrove forest. After passing the quaint village Horeke with its charming buildings extending over the waterfront I reach the end of the trail where the historic Mangungu Mission House stands proudly above the Hokianga Harbour. This category one listed building is the perfect vantage point to rest and await my return transport.
I save the GPS data and turn off the units before sitting on the same grassed lawns that once hosted the largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. While waiting for Ray to shuttle me back to the start, I reflect on my two day journey. What I loved about this trail is the connection between two coastlines, the sense of rural remoteness, to lose oneself on a ride through history as well as through communities that provide an authentic cultural insight within my own country. It is an easy ride, with plenty of highlights and a temperate climate. While I would never attempt the rigorous Coast to Coast race on the Mainland, Northland’s offering of a crossing was more to my liking. New Zealand’s newest member of the Great Rides community is just that; Great!