Back Roads and Rail Trails

The weather over Christmas was atrocious but we were happily ensconced with our friends Enid and Richard in their Plimmerton home. We needed the break to rest, put on a bit of weight and plan how to traverse the North Island for the final month of our journey. Between storms we managed a few outings to see the area.

The weather stabilized beautifully after Christmas and, well rested, we began the final leg of our journey with a climb over the Remutakas. Richard, who grew up in the area, told us about a route between Plimmerton and Upper Hut through Moonshine Valley, mostly avoiding a busy highway.

Riding along Porirua Harbour

We blasted down the hill from their house to the bike trail on the north shore of Porirua Harbour to Pauatahanui. We were forced to ride along the highway for a short distance before turning off on Moonshine Road. We ascended the narrowing road, in places barely wide enough for a single vehicle, meeting only a handful of cars. Driveways meandered off the road to large houses with horse paddocks as we crested to top of Moonshine Valley and descended rapidly for four kilometres into the town of Upper Hut.

Some nice double track on the Remutaka Cycle Trail

We made a quick stop at a supermarket to stock up on food for the next 24 hours and rode east on the Remutaka Cycle Trail, combining riverside bike trails with a historic rail trail over the Remutaka Mountain range.

Single track on the west side of the Remutaka Range

A Fell mountain railway system, using a third raised rail for braking, used to cross the Remutakas along here between Upper Hut and Featherston. It ran from 1878 until the mid 1950s when a diversion of the line and a tunnel were built to accommodate modern rolling stock. The rail line was abandoned and turned into a recreational cycling and walking trail in 1987. It’s a beautiful ride that weaves around lush, forested hillsides and dives through tunnels in the Remutaka Range before emerging on the shores of Lake Wairarapa and the town of Featherston on the east side of the divide.

Annoying “cycle friendly” gates barring unauthorized vehicles on the Remutaka Trail

The climb up is a gentle incline through tunnels and across bridges, topping out at about 350 metres above sea level. There is a basic camp site at Remutaka Summit where we contemplated spending the night but it was still early in the afternoon and nothing but a downhill run to Featherston so we decide to carry on. The trail looks like a knife cut along the hillside from Horseshoe Gully down to Cross Creek.

One of several tunnels on the Remutaka Trail
Swallows roosting on a branch outside Summit Tunnel
The Remutaka Trail slashes along the hillside south of Horseshoe Gully

From Cross Creek, a fun single track for several kilometres brought us down to Featherston Creek Road and the final nine flat kilometres into the town of Featherston where we made camp on the lawn in front of a motel.

Single track from Cross Creek down

We spend the evening with a couple travelling around by car and camped on the small grassy patch beside us. We chat over dinner, sharing wine and chocolate for dessert. We turn in not long after sunset, tired from a pretty demanding ride. It was a longer day than we had initially planned so we would have a shorter ride to Martinborough.

It’s a place where you just have to stop

Martinborough dubs itself Wine Village and with good reason. There are a dozen vineyards around the town, all within a short cycling or walking distance from the centre of this quaint village. Despite its small size, Martinborough has become one of New Zealand’s premier wine regions. It has a cool climate, long growing season and long, dry autumns, providing ideal conditions, especially for Pinot Noir, but also Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Syrah varietals.

With only a 20 km ride from Featherston, we arrive in Wine Village mid-morning and set up camp in the local Top 10 Holiday Park, another $40-a-night patch of grass that continues to irk us but we have little choice.

Armed with a winery map, we embark on a ride through the surrounding countryside to sample what Martinborough has to offer. We are not the only people with this idea as it is the middle of the Christmas holiday season and the small roads through the vineyards are busy with walkers and cyclists on a bacchanalian quest.

Exploring the vineyards around Martinborough

We sample wine at a couple of vineyards before settling in at Margrain Vineyard for lunch in the shade of an umbrella that barely cuts the heat from the intense southern sun. We enjoy a delicious charcuterie platter with locally sourced goodies, washed down with a Pinot Gris for Jan and a Pinot Noir pour moi.

Lunch at Margrain Vineyard

Our quest continues with stops at a couple more vineyards after lunch before we decide that enough is enough and we better return to our overpriced patch of rental grass before we do something foolish. Armed with a bottle of very fine grape juice and dinner supplies, we return to the camp site and spend the remainder of a lazy afternoon.

The beauty of cycling in the North Island is the number of connected cycle trails. The trails, dubbed Great Rides, and Heartland Rides by the New Zealand Cycle Trail, are linked by Connector Rides, and together they form an extensive network of cycling trails across the country, but especially in the North Island where there is a much larger network of roads compared to the South Island. It’s simply the result of longer settlement and a much larger population. More than 75 per cent of New Zealand’s 4.8 million inhabitants live on the North Island.

The small roads in Wairarapa are great cycling

Not feeling any worse for wear after our vineyards excursion, we chose to go north from Martinborough on the back roads of Wairarapa through Masterton and on to Eketahuna. It’s rolling countryside, sparsely populated with small towns here and there. As a result, the roads are quiet.

A Mexican moment in Masterton
Art gallery and shops in Masterton

It’s a long 100 km day to Eketahuna. We generally don’t like to ride that far but lack of services and camping drove us on to this Kiwi Country town in the middle of the Wairarapa plains. The camp site is run by the town council and set in a lovely forested hollow along the Makakahi River, and costs a reasonable $20, including hot showers and use of a well-equipped kitchen.

They like the kiwi
Kiwi country but we didn’t see any live kiwis
Sadly, this little coffee shop in Pahiatua was closed

We continue north on back roads through the Mangaone Valley in a semi-circular loop to Pahiatua and eventually over the Tararua Range down to Palmerston North, the largest city in this part of the island on the last day of 2018. At the camp site we meet a couple cycling south on fat bikes and we head into town together for a meal and to take in the new year’s eve celebrations. We pass on the Arranged Marriage Indian restaurant and end up at Kapadokya, offering Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine.

Afterwards, we go for a drink at Brew Union for a proper drink. A Highland pipe band emerges out of nowhere to play a few tunes. It’s an oddly fitting way to end the year with this pipe band belting out its traditional airs and reels under a bicycle suspended from the ceiling and strung with lights. The band finished its set and the musicians drown a pint before marching out of the pub on to the next venue.

Pipe band at Brew Union

We wander to the town square where the new year’s eve party is in full swing with a rock band belting out familiar tunes on stage. After a couple of songs, we all have the same idea: sleep is the more preferable way to end 2018 to hearing a mediocre cover band, and so we walk back to camp, wish each other a happy new year and turn in.

Palmerston North is the southern terminus of the Manawatu Cycle Way, a 124 km bike route to Mangaweka via Ashurst. It’s another hot day with a lot of climbing. It’s typical North Island cycling. None of the climbs are very long or high, but there are many of them and by the end of the day we’ve climbed over 1,000 metres and cycled nearly 80 km.

Manawatu Cycleway along the Rangitikei River

In the small town of Pohangina the lone café is closed for the holiday and there is no water tap at the community hall. We’ve already gone through three litres of water and are desperate for more. I see a woman outside in her yard and walk over to ask for water. She happily fills our bottles and says she’s impressed by our mode of travel.

Above the Rangitikei River Valley

We carry on in the heat as tarmac gives way to gravel and we slowly climb the hills above the Rangitikei River Valley before turning west on the Makoura Road that will lead us to Apiti where a free camp site supposedly awaits us.

Makoura Road winding along

It’s a long, dusty, hard ride and by the time we arrive in Apiti, we are spent. Thirsty, hungry and cranky we find the pub in this one-horse town closed a half hour ago and there is no store. Dejected, we follow the directions on the phone to the Apiti Reserve and find a couple of buildings in the middle of a field. Initially, our hearts sink but never judge a book by its cover. There is cold running water. There are rudimentary but clean bathrooms, complete with soap and paper towel, and the adjacent room provides shade from the still sweltering sun as well as chairs to sit on. We make camp, wash up and have cappuccinos with cookies, and before long we feel better. It’s home for the night and beats any of the $40 holiday parks hands down.

Apiti Reserve free camping

The sunset paints the sky orange and purple as we make dinner from the comfort of a chair. It really feels like summer now. The days are hot and long and we linger in the failing light. But sleep lurks not far off and we succumb to the urge to lie down before nightfall.

Apiti sunset

The landscape changes dramatically as we head north from Apiti and cross the Oroua River. Despite this being a “Scenic Route” there is little or no traffic on this small road that wiggles its way through farm land and sheep stations, crossing rivers that have carved deep gorges into the region’s famous papa rock, a blue-grey sandstone that could easily be New Zealand’s national rock as it is found everywhere but is particularly visibly prevalent here.

Traffic jam on the road to Mangaweka
Rivers have carved deep gorges through the countryside
Riding along the Rangitikei River

There is a lovely camp site along the Rangitikei River just outside Mangaweka and we decide it’s far enough for the day. We don’t even go into town. The adjacent hotel has a bar and restaurant where we install ourselves in the evening to quench our thirst with cold beer and cider and satisfy our seemingly never-ending hunger with burgers and fries.

Camp site near Mangaweka
Camped along the Rangitikei River

3 thoughts on “Back Roads and Rail Trails

  1. Hi Jan and Paul,
    This area looks fantastic!!!-what more could you want? incredible scenery, good wine, nice campsites, bagpipes and even a corona…

  2. Hi Paul and Jan. I so enjoyed reading and looking at the photos of this part as they are areas we know well. So happy you enjoyed the Rimutaka rail trail and vineyards around Martinborough as we thought you would. Looking forward to your next post. Cheers, Enid and Rich

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