New Zealand has long been held in high regard as an ideal holiday destination for Australians who are chasing outdoor adventures. New Zealand is close, they speak the same language (more or less) and the culture and climate is similar enough you can feel at ease when travelling to the land of the long white cloud. The place is so popular with mountain bikers we even dedicated most of the features in issue 148 to the two islands to the east.

The 23 Great Rides are a real mix of experiences, some are just bike paths, others are purpose made mountain bike trails. We’re looking at three different ones over the coming issues, each with its own unique flavour. The North Island of New Zealand spans an astonishingly wide variety of terrain from tip to tail, and some of the best riding can be found in the south, in and around Wellington.

THE RIMUTAKA RANGE

East of Wellington, across the harbour, there’s a hulking mass of land. The Rimutaka range runs for 55km from the Hutt Valley down to Turakirae Head in the south. There’s a road pass over the range, and a rail tunnel through it, for access to Featherstone and Wairapapa. But once you’re on the other side of the range, you feel a world away from the nation’s capital. The mountains climb to just under 1000m, there’s native scrub, forests of tree fern, planted groves of pine, and quiet farmlands – its hard to imagine all that is so close to a capital city.

Before the rail tunnel, the railway crossed the range via a series of smaller tunnels, and a long descent known as the Rimutaka Incline. The whole incline runs at a 1:15 gradient, and utilised a Fell Mountain Railways system for safe passage. The Fell system uses a raised centre rail for traction and braking. Wheels that run on the central rail can assist in braking or propulsion. Featherstone actually has the only remaining Fell engine in the world. The rail tunnel under the range opened in 1955, leaving the railroad grading for the Rimutaka Rail Trail.

RAILING THE RIMUTAKA

The Rimutaka Rail Trail is now a key piece of the whole Rimutaka Cycle Trail. At 115km long, the whole trail is a bit of an undertaking for one day, and it is suggested to take two or three days to complete it. Starting on the Petone foreshore, which can be accessed by rail right from Wellington, the trail runs all the way to Orongorongo, and there are plans to loop the marked trail all the way back to create a complete loop of about 145km – which could be targeted as a very big day out for the fit and experienced in the longer daylight hours of summer. Knowing New Zealanders, they will probably run a multisport race on it.

As it is, the route is broken into four sections that start and finish in townships along the route. This way, you can cherry pick the best bits, and tailor the ride to what you have the time for, the legs for, or for what you’re interested in.

MAYMORN TO CROSS CREEK

We visited Wellington in late winter, as the last gusts of a record breaking cool change were passing through the region. The views were nothing short of remarkable. Fresh snow dusted the peaks above our heads, and crystal clear water flowed through the rivers and streams. I travelled with Matt Nauthe, who was testing the new Trek Fuel EX 9 29er and our pro photographer Tim Bardsley-Smith.

Our day started right in the centre of Wellington, and a short ferry ride on the East by West Ferry took us to Days Bay, where Dave Woulfe from Cycle Rimutaka met us. We had our own bikes and equipment, but Dave is setup for bike hire, shuttles, guiding and luggage transfer for your own journey over and around the Rimutaka range. We relied on Dave’s experience and route knowledge, to get an idea of where we were heading. He fed details to Matt, our human GPS for the trip. While the whole route is marked, there is nothing like advice from experienced guides.

Dave was shuttling us to Maymorn, where we were starting the Maymorn to Cross Creek section. At 25km, it’s not too long, but takes in the Rimutaka Rail Trail, its old tunnels, and the long descent down the Incline from the area known as ‘Siberia’ to the rail workers in the 19th century – due to the working conditions during construction.

We did make one stop on the way, at La Belle Italia on Nevis Street in Petone. Packed full of premium Italian products along with fresh New Zealand produce, they run a restaurant and café alongside selling the produce. Luckily for us, they also do packed lunches. We set off with some crusty Italian bread, glorious salami, prosciutto, strong cheese, stuffed olives and artichoke hearts. The aroma from our backpacks was amazing.

There’s a rail station at Maymorn and you could easily catch a train right to this spot – and plenty of people do. The section of the cycle trail before here is mostly on gravel cycle paths, but from here to Cross Creek you’re mostly travelling through the mountains on the old railway grading.

We set off, up a climb to start, and almost right into the first tunnel. As the tunnels are about 150 years old, they’re well nestled into the hillsides, and narrower than you would expect. While they are smooth and easy to ride through – they do have some slight bends to them, and it would be worth having a small light. We used the light from our phones in one tunnel!

This first section also has a few trails off to each side, taking in some singletrack, and it would be worth taking a snap of the map at the trailhead so you know which ones you could take if you wanted those options.

Being a rail trail, the grade didn’t get too steep, but it does climb gradually all the way to the old settlement called ‘Summit’, funnily enough. The stretches before you reach this pass are absolutely stunning. There is nothing else around you, save for the peaks of the Rimutaka range and the river flowing below you. The trail seems like it’s part of the landscape, mimicking some of the bends of the river as it weaves it’s way through the lower sections of the valley to the pass.

You can’t miss the pass and it’s old engines. It’s an eerie location on your own. Abandoned railway engines are parked on the grass, and an area that has clearly had a settlement is now left empty. But it served a perfect purpose for us, and we dug into our packed lunch.

One of the great things about stopping at a high point, is that you start on a downhill run. Once through another tunnel, we came into some of the most interesting parts of the trail, as the railway grading was benched into the hillside of the valley. With the rail bridge at Siberia long gone, the trail dips into the stream and back out, before quite a few kilometres of fast, open descending through the dense scrub and lower forest, all the way to the old Cross Creek station. You could roll this whole thing without any pressure on the pedals. Or you could pedal out your top gear to try to beat your mates down and get into a few nervous moments instead…

Cross Creek sits above open farmland that looks across to Lake Wairapapa, and the singletrack from the old station to the carpark (and toilets) is a great way to finish off the descent.

CROSS CREEK TO OCEAN BEACH

The next section of the route goes to Ocean beach, along 36km of quiet country road. We rode most of it, opting to drop into Te Rakau Birding, who offer accommodation and bird watching tours. Their 14-hectare property is right on the route, and has quaint and comfortable accommodation in some old rail cars. They would be a perfect stop for breaking your trip into two days.

But their location isn’t just about access to the trail. The location, opposite Ocean Beach and Onoke Spit, is regarded as the best bird watching area in New Zealand. Denise and Dougal MacKenzie run the business off their property, and are full of knowledge on the area – plus Dougal’s knowledge of the birdlife borders on encyclopaedic.

We meet Stuart Edwards from Green Jersey Cycle Tours at Te Rakau for a restorative coffee and ANZAC biscuit or three. Stuart runs supported tours on the Rimutaka Trail, with a van and a couple of bike trailers, so he can cater for groups from 2 to a little over 20. There are actually countless places along the route than can offer accommodation. Stuart is able to put a tour option together to get the daily distances just right for your aspirations.

We jump in the van and drive the final stretch to Ocean Beach. It’s a rugged stretch of coastline, being beaten by waves when we arrive. The black sand and rock of the beach meets a strip of grassland dotted with fishing shacks that seem to be snuggling into the ground and marking their territory. As they sit within the Rimutaka Forest Park, these huts cannot be sold, or modified in a major way. Essentially, they can only be passed down through a family.

Behind the buildings, hills that have aspirations to be mountains reach for the skies. The trail makes its way along the gravel section of beach that serves as vehicle access to the beach shacks. We take our bikes off the trailer and explore the wild beauty of this coast stretch of coastline.

With a raging winter sea on one side, and near vertical walls on our right, it was an incredible amphitheatre to ride through, with black sand dunes to play on just off the side of the route.

The trail carries on through perhaps the most impressive section on the stretch, as it climbs off the beach and skirts above the water’s edge on a rocky outcrop. On some sections, you look right across to the Marlborough Sound of the South Island.

With fading light, we didn’t carry on to Orongorongo, and instead called on the services of Green Jersey’s Stuart for a rapid trip back to Featherstone train station. With our bikes securely in the luggage carriage, we were left to finish our lunch packs on the train and talk about coming back on a long summer’s day to complete the whole loop. There’s a satisfaction in completing a big loop, and one that crosses a mountain range has a big appeal. We travelled back under the mountain we had just ridden over, rapidly retracing our steps via fast rail from a rugged, wild environment and farmland barely changed since the 19th century, right back into Wellington’s heart and all its modern comforts – and craft breweries.

YOUR ADVENURE, YOUR WAY

One of the best aspects of the Rimutaka Cycle Trail is the multiple access points. You might plan to do the whole route in 1, 2, 3 or even 4 or 5 days. Green Jersey Cycle Tours have a variety of package options, including a guided wine tour option of the Rimutaka Trail. Be sure to check out their options.

Greenjersey.co.nz

WHAT TO TAKE

The Rimutaka Trail could be ridden on a cyclocross bike, but you might not have much fun if it wasn’t setup tubeless, especially on the long descent down the Incline. A mountain bike in good working order will be fine, you could even hire a bike from Cycle Rimutaka.

Take enough food and water for the day’s riding, and don’t forget to take wet weather gear, even if it’s a fine summer’s day.

cyclerimutaka.co.nz

WHEN TO GO

Spring or Autumn would be magic, avoiding the peak times of Summer. But we rode in late winter and still had a great time. If you do have aspirations of completing the whole route in a day, get an early start. Don’t forget to look at train and ferry timetables for transport at the start and finish if you plan on riding the trail unsupported,

HOW TO GET THERE

The trail starts just east of Wellington. You can fly to Wellington from just about every major Australian city in about 3hrs – which allows enough time to watch a long movie like The Hobbit. Wellington Railway Station is right in the heart of town, and we would suggest taking a train to Maymorn if you want to ride the best bit. Otherwise jump on the East By West Ferry right at the Queens Wharf, to start from Days Bay.

eastbywest.co.nz

SECTIONS OF THE RIMUTAKA TRAIL

There are four major segments of the trail, with nothing beyond a New Zealand Grade 3.

Petone Foreshore – Maymorn: 35km

Maymorn – Cross Creek: 25km

Cross Creek – Ocean Beach: 36km

Ocean Beach – Orongorongo: 18km

The Wainuiomata Coast Road can provide a road link back to Wellington, but there are plans to extend the trail all the way around.

nzcycletrail.com/rimutaka-cycle-trail