Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How to Do the South Island (part 1)

My wife and I host cycle tourists through Very commonly, our guests are on their way south and will stay with us for a night or two before catching a ferry to the South Island. People sometimes head straight for Christchurch down State Highway 1 (which is kind of boring) but most are keen to head for Nelson and then down the West Coast.

There is excellent riding to be had in the Top o’ the South, but most people will just stick to State Highway 6. While this route is still pretty, it typically has a lot of traffic, especially between Picton and Nelson, and there are better routes available which are much more scenic and have very little traffic. Here’s what it looks like:

I’ve described a route which takes in some of the Top o’ the South’s most famous touring routes – the Queen Charlotte Track, the Great TasteTrail, Porika Track, the Braeburn and the Maruia Saddle. These are must-do routes! Some sealed road, some gravel. Don’t worry too much about getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. If the worst happens and you need to be rescued, there is still enough traffic going by to enable you to get help. Even the smallest unpaved backroads (eg the Maruia Saddle) still have milk tankers on them twice a day.
I’ll describe each section in turn.
Getting to Picton
From Wellington, you can get a ferry to Picton, or you can fly via Sounds air. There are two ferry operators, the Interisland Line and the Bluebridge, both doing the same route and both charging about the same price. I have a slight preference for the Bluebridge, as their terminal is closer to the Wellington city.
Picton to Nelson
Once in Picton, you can ride towards Nelson on the road (Queen Charlotte Drive) or you can mountain bike it on the Queen Charlotte Track. If you have a mountain bike, I’d recommend the track. You catch a water taxi to the start at Ship Cove. The water taxi can take all your gear and drop it off where you want to stay, eg at Camp Bay, Furneaux Lodge, or Portage. The track is 75 Km long and is mostly singletrack. It’s one of the best long mountain bike rides in the country.
Ship Cove is a lovely spot, but from there the first thing you have to do is climb a 400m high hill, then go straight back down again to Camp Bay. It’s hard work, and I’m kinda over it. Unless you’re very fit, I’d suggest getting the water taxi to drop you off at Camp Bay instead. You won’t be missing much.
You can camp at Camp Bay, or if you want some luxury, try Furneaux Lodge. It’s a day’s excellent riding to Portage, where you can stay at the hotel or the backpackers, or camp at Cowshed Bay, which is nice. From there, continue on the track to Anakiwa, which is close to Queen Charlotte Drive.
From there, ride to Pelorus Bridge and camp there. You can ride from Picton to Nelson on the road in one day, but it’s hard work (especially in hot weather) and there is a lot of traffic, and three ranges of hills to cross. I recommend stopping at Pelorus Bridge for the night, then riding over the Maungatapu Saddle into Nelson. This is also hard work, and it’s a gravel road, but there is practically no traffic and it’s just one big climb to the top and one long descent into the Maitai Valley, one of Nelson’s most beautiful riverside spots. There are many swimming holes along the river. It’s a perfect way to end a hard day’s riding.
Nelson has lots of attractions, plenty of bike shops, good cafes, pubs and breweries. It’s really busy in summer, and justifiably so. There are lots of urban bike trails in the area. And if you're a mountain biker you could spend weeks exploring the truly excellent tracks in the area. If you like hardcore overnight hell missions, with plenty of history and gnarly downhills, you'll love Nelson.
Nelson and Tasman
From Nelson, you could just head west, but I’d recommend you ride north up to Motueka on the Great Taste Trail. It follows the water and will take you to Rabbit Island, then across to Mapua via a little ferry which takes bikes. From there, head for the award winning Jester House Café. Say hello to the owners Steve & Judy and say Barry and Fiona told you to come:)
From Jester House it’s a short ride into the town of Motueka, gateway to Golden Bay. Golden Bay is gorgeous (and chock-a-block full of hippies;), but it’s a little off the beaten track and unless you’re equipped to do a 3 day self-supported alpine mountain bike ride over the Heaphy Track to the west coast, you’ll have to retrace your route and come back the way you went in. If you have time, Golden Bay is great, but there is more awesome riding ahead of you!
From Motueka, it’s an easy half day to ride up to Marahau (gateway to the famous Abel Tasman National Park) via Kaiteriteri on a very scenic, albeit busy, paved road. On the map I’ve marked the return route coming over the hill road, for variety.
Rather than going south on the busy coastal roads, you can follow the Motueka Rivery Valley on the route marked to Tapawera. From there, you can head up Tadmor Valley along what was once a railway line to Kawatiri Junction.

Kawatiri to Springs Junction via Nelson Lakes National Park
You can ride on the road from Kawatiri to Springs Junction, and that’s cool, but you’d be missing out on some of the best touring riding the South Island has to offer. Take the Porika, the Braeburn and Mangles Valley to Murchison, where you can stay the night. From Murch, head south along either side of the Matakitaki River, then turn west onto beautiful Maruia Saddle Road. You’ll pop out at Burnbrae and from there it’s an easy ride to Springs Junction.

Reefton and beyond

From Springs, you’ll take a deserted highway through the forest to Reefton, an old coal mining town. From there, head for Blackball, another essential must-do in the region. Blackball is full of history and is has a very West Coast feel to it. A stay at “(Formerly) the Blackball Hilton” is a must! (I cannot emphasise this enough. It's awesomely cool.)
It’s an easy ride into Greymouth from Blackball. Greymouth itself is nothing special, but it has bike shops and supermarkets and a railway station, where you can get a train to Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass.

I haven’t been south of Greymouth on a bike, but there are many new routes being opened up to bikes, so a little judicious googling will help you find the coolest parts. The West Coast has a population of only 82,000 and there’s really only one road connecting Greymouth to Hokitika and Haast. You’ll ride with the Tasman Sea on your right and the Southern Alps on your left, past Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The spectacular Haast Pass will take you into Central Otago via Wanaka and Queenstown.

I will write more about that another day.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New Plymouth to Auckland via Insane Back Roads

I like an adventure, and this section of the North Island’s West Coast always delivers. I’ve ridden bits of this route twice and I’m itching to go back again. Here’s a way to get between New Plymouth and Auckland – well, Pukekohe, but you can get a train to Auckland from there. It will take you through the picturesque town picturesque settlement of Kawhia and the pretty surf town of Raglan. There are lots of lovely gravel roads snaking through the bush, with almost no traffic. But take plenty of food and water and expect rain, because the west coast is like that.

You can ride this route in either direction, but I’ve chosen to begin at New Plymouth. This is Taranaki’s only city, a town built on Natural Gas. It has a lovely cycle way which takes you from the middle of town out east to Bell Block. New Plymouth is also home to the Govett-Brewster Gallery, which is the country’s prime repository of Len Lye’s kinetic art. Len Lye was a New Zealand artist about a hundred years ahead of his time and is totally worth checking out.

From Bell Block, you must follow State Highway 3 for a while til you’re a bit north of Mokau. Then you turn off onto Manganui Rd, which takes you on ancient gravel roads up to the turnoff to Waikawau. Waikawau is just a name on the map with nothing there, except for a hole cut in the rock which was used by the local farm to transport livestock and provisions into the farm by ship, before the road was put in. Given the state of the sea – almost always very rough, with black sand – this is quite an undertaking. It’s a bit of a detour, but well worth it for the crash-bang solitude of an empty West Coast beach. 

From Waikawau, keep on slogging until you reach Kawhia, where you’ll probably stay the night. There’s not a lot there – a campsite, a motel, a fish and chip shop and a bit of a jetty for boats. Very pretty, though. The route is hilly, but the lack of traffic and the scenery make up for it.

Next stop after Kawhia is Raglan, a very pretty town with an excellent point break, and so lots of surfers. Good cafes and restaurants, interesting locals. I once saw Shellac play at the Centennial Milk Bar in Raglan, which was a damn sight pleasanter experience than seeing them in a dive bar in Tottenham Court Road in London the year before.

After Raglan, you have various route options, all pretty much of a muchness. On the map I’ve included a slight detour to Waingaro Hot Springs, which has a small campsite attached. [I've just found out it's closed, but by the time you read this, who knows?] Eventually, after yet more hilly, twisty, gravel roads, you’ll reach Port Waikato. I’ve actually never been there, but it’s probably quite nice, in a small town sort of way. From Port Waikato, it’s an quick run up the Waikato River to Pukekohe, where you can catch a train into Auckland. Easy!

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

How to ride the Forgotten World Highway

State Highway 43, known for tourism purposes as the Forgotten World Highway, runs between Taumarunui in the central North Island and Stratford in Taranaki district. It's a great ride, but there are a few quirks it's good to know about, and a cracking destination at the end that's only open for a few months of the year.

That destination is the Tawhiti Museum which is quite simply the best museum of any kind in the world, ever. I like museums, and frankly I don't care what kind of exhibits they have, as long as they're awesome. Well, this museum is about the history of the Taranaki region, and covers a lot of maori/pakeha relations in the 19th century. It's situated in an old dairy factory just outside of Hawera. Words cannot do justice to this fascinating place – you’ll have to check their website and read the reviews. It’s open every day in January, and on Sundays in the middle of winter. Check their website for exact details.

First things first. This route is best ridden from east to west, because it's mostly downhill. Here's the map:

Taumarunui to Hawera via Ohura

Taumarunui used to be a major railways town, but like most central North Island towns it’s now a shadow of its former self. Much of the route along SH43 follows the old railway line from Taumarunui to Stratford, which no longer carries trains – but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unused… 
Your options for getting to Taumarunui are threefold. If you’re coming from the north by bike, I recommend the Pureora Forest Timber Trail, which will take you to Ongarue. 

You can get a train from Auckland or Wellington, but it’s pretty expensive and slow – but definitely worth doing once, especially if you’ve never been to New Zealand before. Get off at National Park, then zoom northwards down the hill into Taumarunui. And of course, you can always catch an InterCity or NakedBus coach from pretty much anywhere. This is always the cheapest option.

Okay, so the first thing to know is that you should NOT begin by starting on SH43! The hills for the first few kilometres are INSANE and no matter how fit you are and how light your bike is, you will be pushing for HOURS (and the views aren't even that good). The best thing to do is leave Taumarunui heading north on Golf Rd, which becomes the Ongarue Back Road. It’s very pleasant riding. Go all the way to Ongarue itself – a settlement which peaked around 1920 – or cut left after 10 Km onto Okahukura Saddle Rd. Either way, you’re heading for Ohura.

Okahukura Saddle Rd is sealed but is quite twisty. I like it, but if you want to go the whole 25 Km up to Ongarue then head down Ohura Rd, that’s probably a little easier and less hilly. You’ll have to ride a few kilometres of SH4, but it’s not a big deal. Ohura Rd from SH4 is lovely, a gentle winding descent that makes you feel much fitter than you really are.

Ohura is the quintessential Town that Time Forgot. It peaked in the 1950s. It once had a population of around 3000, but now there are only about 150 people living there. Most of the houses have been removed (which is common in NZ as houses are generally made of wood). There’s not much there – no shops, for example – but it did once have a prison there, which has been converted into a backpackers. Check to see whether it’s open, as it has changed hands a few times in recent years. Camping in or around Ohura should not be difficult – just ask one of the locals for a suitable place to pitch your tent.

From Ohura, head south back onto SH43. Congratulations, you’ve just skipped a MASSIVE hill with this detour. From here, it’s a pretty straightforward run into Whangamomona. It’s hilly, but there’s practically no traffic and the scenery’s lovely. Whangamomona has a nice old pub and a commercial camping site. Along the way you’ll go through the spectacular Takarau Gorge, which separates Ruapehu district from Taranaki.
After Whangamomona, the lands begins to flatten out into the marshy farmland of Taranaki. Stratford is an actual town, with actual shops and everything. From there, it’s a flat run to Eltham (also an actual, functioning town), Hawera and the Tawhiti Museum.

From Hawera you can take SH3 to Whanganui, but it’s a bit dull and there’s traffic, so when I’ve done it, I’ve taken a bus from Hawera back to Wellington.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How to ride your bike between Auckland and Wellington

For the past few years, I have been looking for the best routes between the two main cities of the North Island of New Zealand. By “best”, I mean a route that is reasonably direct, with little traffic, good scenery, sufficient services along the way and is not too hilly.

Due to the topography of the island, there are certain unavoidable bottlenecks. The most important feature of the North Island is the volcanic plateau, where precipitation runoff from the three mountains Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe and Tongariro form rivers heading in all directions. Further south, between Palmerston North and Upper Hutt, the ridges of the Tararua ranges result in rivers running east-west, which means there are only a few options available when crossing them, as there are only so many bridges. To the west of the Tararuas lies the Kapiti Coast, a narrow strip with really only one road, which is heavily trafficked and is not great for cycle touring.
I’ll write up the routes going from Auckland to Wellington, but they will work fine in either direction, as the hills have much the same gradient either way.

General advice

Use Google Maps. For everything! And use Street View. Almost every road in NZ has been mapped by Google, including some paper roads which were never even built (but are probably rideable). Also, bear in mind that much of rural NZ was surveyed and planned but never properly settled – for example, central Taranaki turned out to be far too wet and rugged for farming, so many roads were started but never finished. Often, only the pilot track still exists. Had the settlement proved viable, the track would have been widened into a road. Sometimes these roads (or tracks) are perfectly rideable; sometimes they’re not. There are many commercial forests in the central north island and some of them can be ridden. Google knows about the roads, although they might not be signposted and you probably aren’t legally allowed to be there, as these forests are private property. Avoid them if they’re being logged, as you don’t want to get run over by a truck, but in some situations they can be worth investigating. For the purposes of this trip, however, there’s no advantage to going through forests.
When I’m looking for new routes, I usually enter the start and end points and see what happens. Then I drag the blue line around to see if there are any alternate routes. I’ve discovered lots of interesting back roads this way.
All NZ topographical maps are available at which makes a good complement to Google Maps.


Unfortunately, free camping is pretty much illegal in most parts of the country. Exceptions can be found along the Lake Waikaremoana road, and apparently the road around East Cape, though I haven’t been there. However, stealth camping is quite possible in many rural parts of the country, and if you ask, many people in country areas will let you put a tent up on one of their paddocks.
I’m a fan of old country hotels. Due to the liquor licensing laws of NZ, which have traditionally been very conservative, most country pubs had to have a hotel attached. Many are pretty run down, but some are perfectly fine and provide good value accommodation. They’ll be about the same price as a modern motel, but in my opinion are more interesting. I also like hanging out in the public bars of old country pubs and chatting to the locals about matters historical.


Most small North Island towns peaked in population around the 1960s and they are all a shadow of their former selves. Hamilton (which is a small city) and Taupo (large town) are the exceptions that prove the rule. Piopio is small but growing, because it’s on a busy highway, but most other little towns are just dots on the map. Some places on the map are just intersections which clearly have never had anything built on them at all. Some towns still have some people living there, but have no shops and most of the houses have been removed long ago. If you’re uncertain about whether the towns you’re passing through will have what you need – food, accommodation, shops – then Google them and Street View them.


NZ back roads and the semi-ghost towns they connect are generally very safe. Also, NZ has no dangerous animals. Your biggest risk is likely to be traffic. Personally, I don’t find NZ drivers to be that bad, but opinions vary widely on this subject. Suffice to say I always take the road less traveled, as there’s less traffic and it’s more fun that way. If in doubt, take the smaller road, take your time and enjoy the countryside.
One caveat, however: be careful around water, particularly crossing rivers. A hundred years ago, drowning was once so common that it was known as “the New Zealand death”. Don’t attempt to cross a river at all unless you have talked to a local person about it first. Also, don’t get lost in the bush. People die in the hills and mountains every year because they get lost. It isn’t like Switzerland, with a village around every corner. But if you stick to the roads, no matter how minor they are, you really can’t go wrong. Every road will get some traffic, and if you’re really in trouble you will be able to flag down a ride to civilisation.
It rains a lot in NZ all year round, and the temperature and wind direction can change rapidly. I recommend you always have a good raincoat and warm clothes with you at all times, no matter what season. Even in midsummer it can snow in the mountains and you will have long descents which will chill you if you’re not well insulated. Don’t get hypothermia!
NZ has excellent merino wool thermals which are available everywhere and are good value for money if you buy on sale and avoid the luxury brands. I always wear a merino singlet and underwear every day, whether I’m touring or just sitting in an office building, and when I’m touring I wear a merino polo shirt and take a long sleeved merino jersey with me too. That, plus a hat, merino gloves and a good raincoat with a hood and I’m good down to freezing point, no matter how much it’s raining.
Mobile phone coverage in rural NZ is patchy. All the mobile phone operators will tell you they have good rural coverage, but in my experience Spark (formerly known as Telecom) has always had the best.

Getting out of Auckland #1: by train

It’s perfectly possible to ride all the way out of Auckland, but much of it is not terribly interesting and there are pleasant alternatives for getting out quickly via public transport. Your options are bus, train or ferry. I often use buses to get out of town at the start and end of a tour, as they’re cheap, and they go to places the railways don’t go any more. InterCity or NakedBus are your main options here.
Auckland’s commuter rail network is growing, having stagnated for many years, and now extends as far south as Pukekohe. So, jump on a train and hop off in Pukekohe, then head down the Waikato River on quiet, scenic roads towards Hamilton.

Riding from Pukekohe to Hamilton

Getting out of Auckland #2: by ferry

There are two good ferry options: Auckland to Pine Harbour at Beachlands, and Auckland to Coromandel. Both take you due east of Auckland city and into great riding straight away. From Beachlands you can amble down towards Hamilton, and from Coromandel Town you’re well positioned to head east, out towards Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. There are lots of back roads to choose from.

Auckland to Pine Harbour by ferry

From Pine Harbour, you can head south east through the Hunua Ranges. I haven’t ridden this myself yet, but I’m looking forward to doing so.

Auckland to Coromandel by ferry

For some reason Google has forgotten about the Coromandel ferry, so the route above shows how to get there by bus. However, the ferry does exist and it’s big and fast. The Coromandel Peninsula is spectacular. The east side is usually considered to be the prettiest, with the best beaches, but it’s also the hilliest, busiest, most commercial, and has the most traffic. I prefer the west side.

Into the Waikato

The Waikato (south of Auckland) is open country, but due to the way the rivers work your route options are somewhat limited by the bridges available. Riding past Huntly on the left bank of the Waikato River is very pretty, and has almost no traffic. That’s because on the right bank of the river is the country’s busiest stretch of road, on State Highway One, NZ’s primary arterial route. SH1 is always best avoided if possible.
Hamilton is something of a national joke in NZ, which is undeserved. The locals are actually quite happy about this – that is, being overlooked – because Hamilton is actually a lovely town, with leafy suburbs, cheap houses, two universities, great cafes, a vibrant art scene and beautiful botanic gardens. If it was more popular it would be less affordable and gentrification might spoil some of its best features. It’s definitely worth taking a day to explore, especially the gullies (ask a local). And you can ride new riverside cycle tracks from Ngaruawahia right into Hamilton.
In recent years Hamilton central has been fading from its former (minor) glory, as the new developments in the region – big-box retail and huge car parks – are now centred in the north of the city. The city is not large, but it’s in the middle of some of the world’s most productive farm land. Hamilton is also the home of Fonterra, NZ’s largest company, company, which happens to be a farmer-owned milk co-operative.

Crossing the Volcanic Plateau

Leaving Hamilton, it’s time to make a strategic choice between going over the Volcanic plateau to the east of Mt Ruapehu (which will take you through Taupo) or to the west (which has fewer towns and less traffic.) Either way, you’ll end up on State Highways on the plateau: there are no alternatives, unless you want to go all the way out to New Plymouth on the west coast or via Napier on the east. I’ve ridden it on both sides of the mountain, and prefer SH4 on the west side. However, I have by choice ridden SH1 from Waiouru to Taupo at night during winter. This was because almost all the traffic on that road is large trucks. They are lit up like Christmas trees, so they’re very easy to see, and the truckies drive it every night, so they are pretty safe to share the road with. The alternative, SH4, is the road snow lovers will take to get to the Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields. This means the traffic will be mostly fast cars from Auckland and Wellington, who don’t drive the road as often as the truckies drive SH1. They’ll be going faster than the trucks, too. All that means that at night, in winter, SH1 is a safer bet (and more scenic, too, if you have a clear night).

Hamilton to National Park village

This route avoids SH4 where possible and takes you through some beautiful farming country, much of it on gravel roads. Waitomo is the home of the famous Waitomo Caves, and the backroads between Piopio, Aria and Taumarunui are gorgeous. Note there are no shops between Piopio and Taumarunui if you go this way. As always, check out the route on Google Maps and use Street View where available. There are houses and woolsheds where you can get water, but you’ll need a couple of days’ food with you.
From Taumarunui, SH4 is your only option, but it’s not too bad – a gentle climb, gradually steepening until you reach National Park, which is at the very northern edge of the plateau. From there it’s an easy run across to Ohakune, a ski town at the southern edge of the plateau. And don't forget to take a left at Horipito onto the Ohakune Old Coach Road, one of the best little shortcuts in the central North Island. It's a detour of maybe 20 minutes, with three distinct changes of terrain and three different disused railway bridges. Really good stuff.

Into the Manawatu

Heading south from Ohakune, your options expand once more. Perhaps the simplest is straight down SH4 to Whanganui, which is a fast, sealed highway, quite pretty, with not much traffic. Alternatively, head west to Raetihi and down to Pipiriki on the Whanganui River and then out to Whanganui itself, but it’s very hilly. I’ve done it once and don’t plan to do it again anytime soon. Or you can head east over to Waiouru and drop down into Taihape, but you’ll end up on SH1 for a lot of it and while it’s a fun descent, I find the traffic spoils the ride a bit.
My preference is to take one of the river roads to get to the Manawatu plains. Mt Ruapehu drains southward via two rivers, the Whangaehu and the Turakina. Each river valley has its road, which you can follow south-south-east to the sea. Both are twisty, gravel country roads, with very little traffic – and they’re all downhill (more or less.)
One of the good things about that, apart from the peace and quiet and relaxed riding, is that if you do need to get rescued, you’ll be able to hitch a ride really easily because the only traffic you’ll find will be local farm vehicles. They are far more likely to stop for you than the traffic you’ll find on highways, and what’s more they’ll almost certainly be able to put your bike in the back and either take you close to where you need to go, or provide mechanical assistance, if that’s what you require.
There are no towns along these river roads.

National Park to Palmerston North via Turakina Valley Rd, Marton and Feilding

National Park to Palmerston North via Whangaehu Valley Rd, Bulls and Rongotea

Into Wellington

At Palmerston North you have two options for getting to Wellington: through Horowhenua to west of the Tararuas via SH1 or into the Wairarapa, to the east of the Tararuas, via SH2. The first option is a very busy stretch of highway with heavy traffic and I don’t recommend it. The east side takes longer but it’s much more scenic and pleasant. It takes you through the sparsely populated Wairarapa region. You can get a train to Wellington from Masterton, or carry on to Featherston, then over the Rimutaka ranges via the famous Rimutaka Rail Trail. And don’t forget to check out the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston, it’s really cool.
It’s easy to accidentally end up on SH2 in the Wairarapa, which isn’t much fun as the roads are mostly straight lines and the traffic is fast. Again, because of the rivers draining from the Tararuas, your options for crossing rivers are few and that dictates where you’ll go. There were some bridges out in the western foothills, north of Featherston, which if you look carefully at the map seem to still be there, but in fact they were destroyed by earthquakes in the 1940s and only the rail bridges have been fixed. Given the low population in the area, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Palmerston North to Wellington via the Wairarapa and the Rimutaka Rail Trail

There are several route options, but basically, keep west of SH2 when north of Masterton, and east of SH2 when south of Masterton and you can’t go far wrong. I’ve included Martinborough in the route. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s a very pretty town, surrounded by vineyards. Good food and wine in the area.
At Featherston, stop at Everest Café (it’s the best!), then do the Fell Loco Museum, then ride the Rimutaka Incline up to the Summit station. After that, you’re on the Rimutaka Rail Trail which will take you back towards SH2, heading into Upper Hutt.
It’s a fast descent into Upper Hutt, but it’s MUCH nicer to go through Maymorn and take the back roads down to Silverstream. If it’s late and you just want to get to Wellington, you can take pleasant back roads from Maymorn directly to Upper Hutt station for a train to Wellington, without having to take SH2.
I recommend you study the map carefully around Kaitoke Loop Rd before you get there, because it’s easy to take the obvious option and just get on the highway, which means you miss out on lots fo good riding. You need to hold your horses and find the right road, which isn’t signposted, and lift your bike over a gate. Check it out on Street View.
You can get a train at Silverstream if you like, or ride the Hutt River Trail to Petone, then carry on all the way into Wellington.
From Featherston, you can get to Wellington by riding round the south coast, from Fitzroy Bay to Palliser Bay, but it’s mostly on a rocky beach and it’s always very windy. The Rimutaka Rail Trail is much nicer.

Riding in Wellington

Wellington is famous for road riding and excellent mountain biking. You can google up your own info on that, but I want to show you a nice day tour which isn’t really documented well anywhere else. It’s a loop which takes you out through farmland in Ohariu Valley. It’s definitely touring country, but right next to Wellington. There’s a big climb to the north of Karori, but you can get a train to start. You can ride in either direction, but I recommend going anticlockwise because that way you have an excuse to catch a train to Johnsonville, which I reckon is one of the best railway journeys in the world: it’s very scenic, very cheap and mercifully short – and it actually takes you somewhere useful. Bikes travel free on Wellington trains.
Start at Wellington Railway Station and take the train to Johnsonville, then follow this route:
That will take you back to Wellington through Ohariu Valley, with a side trip to Makara Beach on the wild west coast. It’s sealed roads all the way. As you can see on the map, it’s possible to head out to the south coast, but it’s rough and very hilly. It’s not possible to go all the way from Makara Beach clockwise round the coast back to Wellington: no road!
Here’s the popular Round the Bays circuit you’ll see roadies doing all the time:
This ride is an excellent way to get to know Wellington and I’d call it a must-do. It’s best ridden clockwise, because it’s easier to get up to Brooklyn from the south, as the gradient is much shallower that way compared to riding up from the city.
Another great ride which isn’t widely known is a day trip across the Akatarawa Ranges, from Waikanae to Upper Hutt. Get a train to Waikanae from Wellington, which takes about an hour and has lots of lovely views out over the sea on the west coast. Grab lunch at a local café, then climb up to the summit of the Akatarawa Road. The descent from the top down into Upper Hutt is brilliant fun – a fast, twisty road, and too narrow for it to be any fun even for motorcycles – but it’s perfect for bikes. Get a train back to Wellington from Upper Hutt, or hop over to Mangaroa and take the back roads to Silverstream as previously described. This ride is best down north-to-south.

Waikanae to Upper Hutt via the Akatarawa Road

Leaving Wellington

Leaving Wellington via the Akatarawa Road (as above) then heading out over the Rimutaka Rail Trail is my recommendation. Alternatives are to get a bus north to where you want to go, or get a train to Palmerston North or to Masterton. You can fly – just put your bike in a cardboard box and you won’t be charged any extra. You can get boxes free from any bike shop, or if you prefer to ride to the airport, Air New Zealand will sell you one for $25. That’s kind of expensive for a piece of cardboard, but it’s what you need, where you need it and it can save you from paying for transport to the airport.
The other alternative for leaving Wellington is to take a ferry. The two operators, the Interisland Line and Bluebridge, are very similar. They both take around three and a half hours to reach Picton (which is the only place they go) and the prices are about $40, plus $10 for your bike. I find the Bluebridge ships slightly more comfortable, but I usually make a decision on price. I like to get a ferry very late at night, so I can sleep on the boat – take your mattress and sleeping bag and find a quiet spot. The ferry will get in around 4 am and you can ride into the dawn and then crash out on the side of the road for a snooze once the day warms up. Lovely!
At some point in the future I’ll write up good touring routes in the South Island. Please feel free to comment if you have any questions.