Two-wheeled adventures in Nelson
Leisure cycling just keeps growing. As reporter Naomi Arnold and photographer Alden Williams discover on a two-day trip on the Great Taste Trail, it's popular for a lot of good reasons.
Disclaimer: We are not what you'd call experienced cyclists. Alden hasn't been on a bike for about six years, and although a bike is my preferred mode of daily transport, I'm usually haring around town on short trips.
Leisurely, long-distance cycle touring was a foreign concept for both of us when the Nelson Mail decided to check out the newly opened sections of the Great Taste Trail before the summer rush hits - and after two blissful days, we cannot recommend it enough.
We are both frazzled by morning deadlines when Wheelie Fantastic Cycle Hire's Nicky McBride picks us up on a weekday morning. But she's relaxed, chatting to us about the steeds that will ferry us across country today, and by the time we hit Motueka's Toad Hall, we've forgotten the office and are eager to hear what she has in store for us.
"The good thing about cycling is you need to eat frequently," Nicky says as I spoon up cream from a frankly incredible iced chocolate. It becomes a mantra that's easy to fulfil during the rest of the trip.
Nicky and her partner Lisa Mann, from Northern Ireland, are competitive cyclists, triathletes and coaches who are now appreciating the more relaxed aspects of the sport. They moved to New Zealand four years ago and started offering cycle hire in the Nelson region.
They now have 40 bikes at a new shed in Mapua, and the Great Taste Trail's popularity is growing.
A survey early this year found that up to 330 riders a day were using the coastal section from Nelson to Mapua, and were giving it rave reviews, rating the completed coastal section an 8.5 out of 10.
The official trail is helping cycling grow, Nicky says. "But there are so many offshoots that you don't have to be on the trail. It's easy to find a nice day's cycling somewhere."
It's a sport that families can enjoy together - Nicky mentions three generations of a Dutch family who turned up in Mapua once, including a mobility-impaired gran.
She lays out what she has planned for us; we're to see as much as we can in two days. Though we don't have time to tackle the entire 175-kilometre loop of the trail, we'll be getting a good sample of what's available as we ride from Kaiteriteri to Nelson.
We also won't go hungry - there are plenty of eateries along the way. Best of all, riding mostly on trails means we'll barely encounter a car at all.
Nicky drops us off at Kaiteriteri, which is relaxing in the sunshine, with just a few sunbathers on the beach. Soon, we're swooping down the Easy Rider trail at the Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park. It's been recently "downgraded" to make it easier for riders of all fitness and ability levels, but it's still fun, and we're giddy with happiness at being released from the office.
One young man hoons along the trail from Motueka to Marahau - not a bad commute at all. We stop and chat.
"It's a great ride," he says, but his enjoyment at his speed through the trees is more evident. He poses for a photo and then takes off, gone so fast that we don't catch his name.
He's one of the few other cyclists we see, most of whom seem to be commuters rather than through-riders like ourselves.
After crossing the spanking new bridge over the Riwaka River, we scent beer and duck off the trail to the Hop Federation Brewery in Riwaka.
Simon and Nicki Nicholas are Aucklanders, but nurtured a dream to escape the city and open their own brewery to build a better life for themselves and daughter Lily, 2. They met while working at The Sun in the Wood, a country pub in Thatcham in Berkshire, England, and take great delight in once again working together behind a bar.
"We've come full circle. It only took us 12 years," Nicki says. "Right from the beginning, I thought it was ridiculous being called Nicki Nicholas, but I still married him."
Simon was head brewer at Auckland's Hallertau, and the couple have embraced rural South Island life. They have plans to develop Hop Federation further, installing outdoor seats and opening a tasting room with plenty of food.
Both keen mountainbikers, they love the idea of the Great Taste Trail, and have found that their brewery is a natural stop for other cyclists heading home after a long ride.
"We wanted to set up the place to attract cyclists so they can have a bite to eat and sample some beers," Nicki says. They're thinking of commissioning the Ginger Dynamite cafe, down the road, to make steak and ale pies.
"It was a no-brainer, partnering with the cycle trail. It would be awesome to push this area as an all-year destination. Not just summer - it's equally good the rest of the year."
The Nicholases have been "absolutely blown away" by the welcome they've received. "Particularly in Riwaka village; they haven't treated us like Jafas. They've been really sweet."
We're happy to taste their range and relieve them of a sweating rigger of pale ale for our panniers as we head across the road to Thomas Bros' cherry orchard.
"Possibly even better than beer, those cherries," Nicki says. "They drink a lot of our beer and we eat a lot of their cherries."
The familiar old blue Thomas Bros caravan has gone to a new home up north, and the Thomases have replaced it with the former Motueka South School dental clinic as a permanent home for their cherry and icecream shop. The family needed more room to work together - they have a morning to evening roster every day until the end of February.
"It's a bit sad, really," says co-owner Catherine Thomas, as niece Celina works in the icecream shop. "[The caravan] was a little icon."
The old dental clinic now has a big new deck, lots of places to sit and an airy feeling, meaning it would be rude not to buy a bag of cherries and lounge around chatting to other tourists.
We're a day too early for the huge, luscious, dark red samba cherry variety. It's Catherine and Celina's favourite, and so popular that locals ask the Thomases to text them when they're ready.
Other varieties this summer include stella, earlisle, dawson, lapins and sweetheart, but we launch into a bag of rosanns - pale red and sweet - followed by an icecream. With a cherry on top. And perhaps another sip of cool beer.
Stomachs gurgling slightly, we ride back on to the trail and head to the Riwaka wharf, somewhere I've never been before. I instantly love it, the wind scented with mud, salt and someone's tobacco. The tide's out, and the mudflats stretch to the horizon, with the city's hills crouching bluish in the distance.
Isla and Hana have finished school and are playing in one of the boats tied up at the wharf. They hide and jump and collapse with giggles, daring each other to stand up and yell "Fall off the wharf!" at us as we idle close to the edge on our bikes.
"You two are a pair of Giggling Gerties," their grandmother Pamela sighs from the lawn.
We snap a picture of them running maniacally towards the camera, grabbing each other in hysterics. I email it to them, and we ride off through sunny, quiet streets to a raspberry patch in Staples Rd. The fruit is ripe, soft and tart-sweet, and we add a punnet to our panniers along with the beer and the cherries.
Next comes my favourite section - the Raumanuka Reserve, on the edge of Motueka. I have never been here, and it's a beautiful roll along the edges of the estuary. It's obviously well patronised by locals, who are out cycling, riding home from work, walking, running, and taking their kids out to burn off some energy.
Unfortunately, as we hit the Motueka Golf Course we realise that we've been dawdling appallingly, so much that we're not even halfway, with a rather long trip ahead to get to the Mapua Leisure Park. We pick up the pace a little along Wildman Ave and the Lower Moutere Highway, eager to stop at Riverside Cafe for yet more refreshment.
When we pause to check out the river, Alden realises that his camera tripod has bounced out of his panniers. Then I discover I've lost my wallet, leaving us cashless, because Alden's left his at home. My phone is also dead.
We consider bailing, but take on two hours of slow searching instead, and I find my wallet back at the raspberry patch. Apparently, I'm the first customer of the year to leave theirs there. But the tripod is nowhere in sight.
It's now close to 6pm, so we flag dinner in town and notch it up another gear to get to Riverside Cafe. It's closed, so we settle for a litre of delicious raw milk from its vending machine. As we pony up our $2, we realise we don't have a container to decant it into - but local man Peter, who rolls up behind us in a car, kindly offers us one of his.
We drain the cold milk straight from the bottle, then fill another one for the journey, tucking it into the panniers alongside the beer, cherries and raspberries.
The sun is setting as we hit the hills of Tasman View Rd, and we start to question the wisdom of cycling down Aporo Rd without lights.
Unbeknownst to us, the nice lady at the Mapua Leisure Park has phoned Nicky to say we haven't turned up. She would like to go to bed instead of waiting up for us to haul our weary arses into the campground.
In Mapua, Nicky is starting to get a bit worried, and drives out to search the roads for us, hoping she won't come across a couple of battered bikes on the side of the road or find us halfway to Tapawera.
But we are blissfully unaware of this as the sun sinks below the ranges, and the sky is so gorgeous that we can't bear to leave the hills behind.
We spend a long time cycling slowly under the intense sky, which is red from horizon to horizon - an upturned bowl of colour with pink and peach stripes and tinged with lavender and slate blue at the edges.
The rich sunset goes on for a good hour, deepening over the Richmond Ranges, until eventually it fades. We turn left into Harley Rd and speed downhill in the gathering darkness to the coast, leaving the sky behind us.
Nicky catches up with us just before the underpass into Aporo Rd, and we exchange relieved apologies and laughter. We ignore the pain in our knees and go full speed through Ruby Bay to Mapua, Nicky following us with her lights on. We roll into the campground at 10.30pm and collapse, beaten, with cherries and beer for dinner.
The next day, I wake up starving at 5am. Stiff-kneed, with Alden muttering that he's unsure if he'll be able to father children, we manage to board our bikes again and make it to The Naked Bun in Mapua for breakfast, polishing off coffee and enormous plates of eggs.
We meet The Gentle Cycling Company's Rose Griffin at the busy wharf and swap bikes. Rose's venture, now approaching its fifth summer, offers a craft beer tour, and customers can take art, wine or food trips as well, with dozens of options available.
But we have time only for a leisurely ferry ride across the rushing blue waters of the Mapua channel, and when we disembark we run into a pack of excited schoolgirls riding through Rabbit Island back to Motueka.
We take off for the trail, which is pleasant riding on soft pine needles. There's time for a swim in the cool green water, and then it's a great ride across the backyard of Richmond, though pasture and orchards towards the estuary.
On its edges, we meet cyclists Niel and Adi Coventry-Brown and stop for a yarn. The couple, who live in Waimea West, sold all three of their cars and now cycle exclusively, hauling their groceries from Pak ‘n Save in a bike trailer and speeding along the region's cycle paths with ease and relaxation - and even joy, judging by their expressions. They're an inspiration.
"I wanted to hang on to one car - I thought, "What if we need to take the cat to the vet?'," Adi says. But now, if the cat's sick, they'll put it in the trailer and trundle off. "We don't miss the car at all. No regrets."
It's the middle of the afternoon, and we're starting to fade.
We swoop along the edges of the Waimea Inlet, imagining what it will look like when its newly planted trees mature in a few years. A massive cleanup effort and new boardwalks, which are satisfying to clack over, make it a pleasant trip.
Soon, it's on to the wide, gentle trail through the Railway Reserve in Stoke, surely a regional treasure in itself: a wide green swathe of peace between people's back gardens, populated with kids, dog walkers, cyclists, and a grandmother blatting about on a mobility scooter.
But it's a shock to get back to Nelson. It's hardly the big city, but the sound, smell and closeness of the traffic is grating. Cars seem like absolutely crazy inventions after just two days on a bike, which wasn't nearly enough time.
Well before we dismount at the Nelson iSite, I'm planning a new bike and my next trip out on the trails.