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As of late I’ve been embracing the idea of a staycation and what better place to do it than beautiful New Zealand.
Northland’s Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail is about as good as it gets when it comes to a taste of the winterless north. In fact, it’s a mini vacation with some of New Zealand’s most important history, visible between the two coasts.
For as long as I can remember, or as long as I’ve been married - which is almost one and the same - I’ve heard colourful stories about my husband’s childhood years in Northland.
The thought that I might experience a glimpse of his halcyon Kiwi summers, while cruising coast-to-coast on a bike, was intriguing. The real buy-in was achieving it without the need to sit on a tour bus. The 84km coast-to-coast journey from Opua in the Bay of Islands to Horeke in the Hokianga Harbour can theoretically be done in a day, but we opted to cycle it over a weekend with friends.
Top Trail Cycle Hire Tours operator Ray Clarke has lived in Kaikohe most of his life and knows the Northland area well. The track is largely off-road, mostly flat and easily managed on a regular all-terrain bike. It’s an ideal trail for all ages, but for those who are less confident or prefer the flexibility of an e-bike, there are plenty to choose from.
A three-hour drive north from Auckland will find you in the heart of Kaikohe, our halfway stop-over to cycle the trail in either direction. My husband describes the town as busy and profitable in its day with lots of nice homes and gardens. However, the town we now see some 50 years later is unrecognisable to him, with many of the retail stores permanently closed.
The locals are hopeful this will change with more visitors to the area. There is a beacon of light in the heart of town on Broadway, with the latest addition of Left Bank. The boutique hotel is the brainchild of Northland couple Di Maxwell and Jack Poutsma, who purchased the former BNZ building in 2016 and supervised the two-year transformation. Stylishly renovated with six heritage rooms and the Safe As backpackers, the hotel runs The Mint restaurant and wine cellar located in the old bank vault.
The trail is relatively new and passes through areas of pine forest and private farms. The accommodation options along the way are somewhat limited, but this appears to be rapidly changing. Given the trail is open year-round and follows the historic rail corridor, there’s enormous potential for development in the region.
The shuttle service can pick and drop off from either end of the trail depending on the direction you prefer to cycle. As the temperature indicated it could hit mid-20s, we elected to cycle from Kaikohe to Opua to avoid the Kaikohe hill.
We were advised there were few places to stop for refreshments on the 34km stretch between Kaikohe and Kawakawa, so I ensured the pannier was replete with necessities such as water, pineapple lumps and peppermint chocolate.
On the southeast edge of Kaikohe, we passed a grass airstrip, purported to be the longest in the southern hemisphere. Built in 1942 as a bomber base for the United States Marines based here, the aerodrome later accommodated a daily NAC passenger service between Auckland and Kaikohe. The train station on the southern edge of Kaikohe was also a vital part of the community and my husband described how he would take the train back home on weekends from boarding school in Auckland.
Cycling alongside native bush with abundant clusters of Toi Toi, we encountered a number of gates, which involved dismounting the bike at least a dozen times. The landscape changed dramatically to dry, undulating farmland with iconic paint-chipped fibrolite sheds. We passed the old railway station at Otiria. The tunnel built in 1915 requires you to ride single file and it’s recommended to use a torch light on your phone. The trail meanders through native bush to reveal the notable Orauta stream suspension bridges and a small waterfall cascading below. If you stop in the forest areas for long enough, you might hear the sound of the Pipiwharauroa, or shining cuckoo.
The trail becomes increasingly desolate as we approach Moerewa. What was once an industrious town now looks like an industrial wasteland, with remnant evidence of the freezing works and a graveyard of dead trees. There’s a total sense of abandonment and I had the eerily feeling I was cycling through the killing fields.
In stark contrast, the town of Kawakawa is colourful and energetic. Stopping for refreshments at the Hunter Star Hotel, there’s an obvious level of pride that radiates through the town. With new cafes, an art gallery, the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway and the quirky ceramic Hundertwasser public toilets, there’s plenty of good reasons to stop.
The historic Opua railway tunnel was closed due to safety reasons, largely related to cracks in the brickwork at the tunnel entrance. A proposed detour takes you over a steep hill, but a few of the group missed the detour and cycled through the tunnel anyway. The council leases this section from the BOI Vintage Railway Trust and there is ongoing debate about who should be responsible for repairing the tunnel.
A short while later, we cycled into the Bay of Islands Marina in Opua to be picked up by the shuttle and driven back to Kaikohe. Our bikes were conveniently stored in a locker at the rear of the hotel where e-bikes can be charged overnight.
The following morning after a large cooked breakfast and two double-shot espressos, we were back on the bikes and heading up a gentle hill clearly marked with a pile of old painted bikes. With just 42km ahead, we followed a 2km stretch through native bush and farmland, much of it looking drought-stricken and in desperate need of water.
A few hungry horses hung out in the paddocks with little to no shade. The lack of trees or any significant planting is perhaps a casualty of the intense milling that occurred here in the early 20th century.
My husband points out Lake Omapere, Northland’s largest lake and we get a spontaneous flashback to the 1970s and his adventures as a boy scout. They would build rafts made from 44-gallon drums and planks of wood bound together with rope. The sails were crudely stitched from sheets or remnant pieces of canvas. They’d paddle them across the 5km lake in a challenge against other scout groups.
As we approached the township of Okaihau, a busy agricultural area in 1862, the farmland had now largely turned to scrub. It has authentic Kiwi charm, with a tiny church and burial ground surrounded by native bush. The imposing Memorial Gates serve as a reminder of local people in the community whose lives were lost in World War 1. The Okaihau Rail Stay with carriage accommodation is a nostalgic nod to the railway line that once finished there.
Dairy farming was a prominent and profitable industry in the region and my husband recalls at age 9 being summoned by his friend after a heavy rain storm knowing the farmers would need to clear the mud and weed from the drains. They’d cycle with several large buckets and wait for the mud to be cleared from the drains. Then they’d opportunistically fill their buckets with long slimy eels. The indigenous eel was a popular delicacy with the locals and the boys would earn themselves $1 per bucket.
We discover a lily pond perfect for a quick rest stop, before reaching the well-constructed boardwalk nestled among lush native grasses.
Finally reaching the Northland town of Horeke, we are rewarded with delicious freshly-blended fruit ice creams from a colourful truck strategically parked nearby.
The last stretch of the trail is on a quiet country road where the only disturbance might be a farmer herding cattle or the odd territorial chicken. A cluster of large ancient basalt rock formations known as the Wairere Boulders can be found just a few kilometres off the trail.
We turn off at the end and head up the hill towards Mangungu Mission House, an area steeped in history. The third signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was right there in 1840. Other than stunning views of the harbour and beyond, there is much to learn about the significance of this site. The cemetery has New Zealand’s oldest headstones and a monument in memory of the Hokianga Missionaries stands starkly in the landscape.
The journey is complete and yet it feels as though we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much to discover in this country and I can’t think of a better way to do it, than cruising on a bike.