Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail, with its seven floating bridges wrapped around schist bluffs. Photo: Tourism Central Otago/Will Nelson

Where steam trains once whistled and puffed, cyclists now follow. A recycled rail trail in Nelson and pathways through ancient Otago landscapes are among the top three of the nation’s 22 Great Rides, in which taxpayers have invested $103 million. South Island reporters Jill Herron and Tracy Neal tell us what gives their backyard cycle trails the edge over most others.

The light at the end of the Spooners Tunnel was no doubt an immense relief for those who finished digging it in 1893.

The old concrete rail tunnel hand-chiselled into a hill 50km south of Nelson is today a central feature of Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, which at last count attracted 267,000 cyclists and walkers in a year.

The 1.4km tunnel is a solid remnant of the region’s historic Nelson to Glenhope Railway. It was revived in recent years to form a section of the 174km trail, which is mostly a pleasant pedal through hop gardens and a crossroads in the region’s history.

The end of Nelson’s railway happened in 1955, amid protest, most famously the week-long “sit in” on the line at Kiwi in Tapawera. A group of women, led by activists Ruth Page and Sonja Davies, who would become a prominent New Zealand trade unionist and politician, were arrested and convicted when they refused to move.

The section of railway line at Tapawera where the protest took place in 1955. Photo: Tracy Neal

The legacy of that bitter row almost seven decades ago lingers in the impasse that remains over Nelson’s preferred road-freight route.

Those who knew the late Sonja Davies say she would have delighted in the thought of leisure cyclists now being the sole users of the railway line.

Former Labour List MP in Nelson, Maryan Street, is among those who knew her well, and says she would have approved of anything that opened up the land for public use.

“I remember talking to Sonja about the rail line. She and the others who opposed its closure saw it as a critical part of the region’s economy, and also as jobs for the men – and they were only for men in those days.

“They were mindful of the importance of the railway in terms of economic development, and clearly they were right. It wasn’t a good idea to close it. If we still had rail there wouldn’t have been the decades of argument over Rocks Rd.”

The road around Nelson’s waterfront is part of State Highway 6, which many would like shifted to the former rail corridor through the city that now forms part of the broader regional cycleway.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail – also known as Ngā Haerenga (“the journeys”) – is made up of 22 Great Rides totalling more than 2500km, mostly off-road.

So far, $103.3 million in government funding has been spent on the NZCT. Tourism Minister Stuart Nash recently announced a mini spending spree of $850,000 on sprucing up 13 Great Trails from the far north to Central Otago ahead of an expected boom in leisure pedallers this summer.

Almost two million people cycled or walked the Great Rides in the 12 months to February 2020 – the latest data available. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has asked New Zealand Cycle Trails for an updated report, expected in the first half of 2022.

According to the latest data, the Great Ride trail in Hawke’s Bay carried a whopping 407,774 cyclists and walkers in the year to February 2020. Queenstown attracted close to 371,000 visitors to its trails, and the Alps 2 Ocean, Otago Central, Roxburgh Gorge, Clutha Gold and Around the Mountains trails saw a combined total of 175,777 cyclists and walkers.

A series of cantilevered bridges convey cyclists along the rugged Cromwell gorge. Photo: Tourism Central Otago/Ross Mackay

In Nelson/Tasman, 267,000 people cycled and walked the Great Taste Tasman Trail and a further 82,000 tackled the Coppermine Trail behind Nelson City, which is included among the nation’s 22 Great Rides.

The Nelson Tasman Cycle Trail Trust says while it’s challenging to count the actual numbers, because many tackle just a portion of the trail, by their count there were close to 226,000 people on the trail in the year to June 2020 and just over 199,000 to the end of June 2021.

There were slightly fewer locals on the trail in the last year, more domestic tourists than in the 2020 year, and zero international tourists. Most use is by commuters and local recreational riders.

Nelson Tasman Cycle Trail Trust chair Gillian Wratt, herself a keen cyclist, was one of the key negotiators in securing access to the disused rail lines in Tasman. She says it wasn’t the easiest part of developing the trail.

Gillian Wratt. Photo: Tracy Neal

“Parts of the former railway reserve have turned into various different things – some are now on private land, some have indeterminate ownership, the section through the Spooners Tunnel was under Land Information New Zealand management and some went through Nelson Forests land, which is iwi-owned.

“So, there was a fair bit of negotiating for parts of it, but Nelson Forests was hugely supportive and helped with some of the construction, and most private landowners have also been really supportive by making the land accessible for the trail.”

One more link remains before the loop around the region will be closed, for which funding is secured through MBIE and matched mostly by the Tasman District Council, with support from local businesses.

In Central Otago, a big success story has been the recently opened Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail, with its floating bridges wrapped around schist bluffs, amid the region’s raw landscape.

The idea of building a track through the Cromwell Gorge emerged around the time that the former National government proposed the nationwide Great Rides initiative. The Cromwell and Districts Community Trust noted in its 2008 Community Plan it would investigate the possibility. The Otago Regional Council eyed the terrain and laughed the idea off but independent funding agency the Central Lakes Trust took a punt, and later convinced the Otago Community Trust to follow suit.

The $7.2 million trail, which links Cromwell to Clyde, has taken 13 years to get off the ground, and two years to build. Janeen Wood has been there from the beginning. The executive trustee for the Central Otago Queenstown Trail Network Trust started out as a volunteer, and one of many who’ve put thousands of volunteer hours into developing the trail.

Cyclists take a break en route to Clyde on the Lake Dunstan trail. Photo: Tourism Central Otago/Will Nelson

A decade ago, when the number-crunchers were assessing the feasibility of a Cromwell to Clyde track, predictions were that 7000 people would use it during its first year.

“This was achieved in the first two months, easily, over winter, through Covid-19 and without Aucklanders or overseas visitors,” Wood says.

From its opening in May 2021 to the end of November, 50,000 riders had passed over the track’s clicker-counter. On a single day in late October, 684 riders took to the trail.

“We haven’t completed an in-depth analysis yet, but it would be fair to say our target market of 55-year-old-plus social riders would make up the majority of those using it.

“It’s great to see New Zealanders exploring their own backyard.”

Most of the trail follows existing 4WD tracks with about 2km of newly carved-out trail and 33m of new suspension bridges, which overhang Lake Dunstan.

The journey takes about three hours end to end, with the Cromwell Heritage Precinct a popular starting point. Most traffic – 68 per cent – travels from Cromwell to Clyde.

Geotechnical constraints, such as impossibly steep terrain, presented a few headaches in the construction, but the solutions ensure an element of surprise and challenge.

Tourism Central Otago general manager Dylan Rushbrook describes the new track as a feat of engineering and is equally amazed by its popularity.

“The interest and excitement about the trail have been next-level. It is a challenging ride, taking people into an environment that is almost other-worldly, and there’s that sense of accomplishment when you roll into either Clyde or Cromwell.”

A heritage train tunnel is a feature of the Great Tasman Taste Rail Trail. Photo: Tracy Neal

A handful of landowners and residents resisted the trail’s construction – some rather angrily –  at the thought of losing long-held privacy, but as its benefits became clear, more and more voices supported and advocated for the trail, Wood says.

“Landowners who have given easements have been marvellous and had great foresight. Some neighbouring properties had concerns, which we’ve dealt with as best we could, and I believe we now have an asset that is a benefit to all.”

Cycle hire, floating burger and coffee bars, trackside pizza and other businesses are relishing the opportunity. There’s even an app with which riders can whistle up a bunch of locals dubbed “trailblazers” to relocate cyclists’ cars to the end of the trail.

For Wood, who lives a stone’s throw from the trail on the outskirts of Cromwell, there’s daily satisfaction in seeing the benefits from everyone’s hard work. She is also heartened by stories of people in wheelchairs being able to get out and about on the trail.

The Central Otago Queenstown Trail Network Trust is currently creating 127km of new routes and upgrading 47km of existing track. It will bring the total combined length of the Otago Central Rail Trail, Roxburgh Gorge, Clutha Gold and Queenstown trails, to about 500km.

Consenting is under way for the next section through the Kawarau Gorge to Queenstown and landowner negotiations on a Wanaka link have only “three more links in the chain” to go. **

* Made with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund *

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