If you read the title and thought this was a deep and meaningful about friendships through the years, sorry to disappoint: it’s actually about cycling through the countryside with friends of a certain age.
Above photo by Chocolate Dog Studio
Our decision to live in the Nelson Tasman region a few years ago means we left behind some wonderful people in another part of the country so it was suddenly obvious when having a group chat with some girlfriends to suggest ‘Let’s get together!’
“We’ll drink and eat and have spa treatments at your hotel … and (getting to the all-important psychological trade-off when considering a hedonistic weekend) we can cycle some of the Tasman’s Great Taste Trail – during which we can drink and eat!’ I gushed via keyboard.
Liz – who does half marathons before breakfast – was immediately in. Elaine worried that her husband would want to come too, so started formulating a plan to make it sound as though we would be cycling through a swamp until reaching the conclusion he’d probably fancy that as well. Sue asked if she could have an electric bike for easy passage, and Helen said she’d start knitting the outfits (!).
Once the mammoth task of escaping dependants - who can sniff out a parent disappearing for some fun at a hundred paces – had been sorted, dates were set, excellent accommodation close to the city with on-site day spa was booked (well, why wouldn’t you?!).
There are several excellent bike hire companies based around Tasman’s Great Taste Trail (and other biking options include some seriously good mountain biking trails, but baby steps, thank you).
We wanted to self-guide (although guided is also an option).
We were collected by our enthusiastic bike rental person at 9am (the earliest we could all get up). Liz, of course, had already been for a 10km run around the coastline; Sue needed a full English breakfast because “I don’t normally have breakfast but I’m on holiday”. Elaine was feeling marginal after the many bottles of most excellent local wine we had all enjoyed the night before and Helen – the group’s mother hen – booked us all for massages on our return. If there was ever a time to note the differences in our bodies and personalities, this was it.
We were driven to select our bikes in the very pretty seaside township of Mapua - three of us paid a little more for electric bikes which felt like admitting defeat before we’d started but was actually brilliant – then we drove on to our drop-off point at Tasman. Starting at this point meant we were heading back towards Nelson, generally on flat or gently declining slopes.
We were given a full briefing on the use of the bikes plus maps and lots of tips on where to stop before we were off, down a gentle hill towards the tiny Tasman settlement.
I must admit I was a little nervous because here’s the thing: you can joke about being unfit all you want but when it’s just you and the track and the kilometres ahead, you really don’t want to hold the group up and you really do want to enjoy the actual journey. And I hadn’t been on a bike for any length of time for quite some time. But there I was doing it with my mates whooping it up, the beautiful Kina peninsula and Tasman inlet spread before us and the Mt Arthur range to our left - it really was an exhilarating feeling of delight.
Our first must-stop was the Jester House
I’ve seen this place develop over the years - it’s always been warmly whimsical, but the early ideas have come into their own now with some lovely finishing and a charming eye for detail everywhere you look: accommodation in a huge boot, anyone? But if charming is a little tame for you, feeding the sleek fat eels in the stream with raw meat adds a pinch of salt: the squeals of children and adults alike when an eel clamps its teeth around the feeding stick and rises off the river bed as if it might get you is just plain fun!
Fuelled by Jester House fare (and just a little shrieking) we continued on our bikes, and now, as old-hands relaxing into the bucolic countryside, it strikes us the care and diligence that has gone into creating these trails. The path of small stone is clear and well-tended, the verges trim, little bridges assist across streams, discreet signposting guides us.
A hill pleasantly challenges Liz and Helen while the three of us on e-bikes pedal up and onwards with no trouble. Riding on my brakes down, down, down the other side and across the main road we pedal the flat pathway along Ruby Bay beach looking across the bay towards Nelson city before turning suburban through the backroads of Mapua town.
Next stop Mapua
Mapua is very pretty, with the focal point being the wharf on the tidal Mapua River. Hosting a fascinating collection of cottage businesses, Mapua also offers the quintessential NZ experience of fish and chips on the wharf with seagulls amassed around you. The main thorough-fare around the wharf was in recent times made pedestrian-only and in summer it’s crowded and vibrant, which I personally like.
Art galleries, many cafes, takeaways and restaurants including a wine bar, brewery café, and real fruit ice cream, cottage industry and artisan wares, a small maritime museum and more galleries tempt the visitor and locals alike.
After a delicious lunch, a little craft beer and Sue buying four hats from the straw hat shop (!) I drag the girls out of the local foods store (fortunately our bikes came with handy little shopping bags), we board the Mapua ferry with our bikes. Purpose-built to accommodate cyclists and foot passengers the ferry takes around five minutes to cross and is the only ferry crossing on a cycle trail in New Zealand.
Eight kms of safe sandy beach has made Rabbit Island one of the region’s most popular swimming and BBQ locations, as well as a maze of mountain trails. We take the bridge linking back to the mainland and continue towards Richmond.
Our final stop at Seifried Estate
We stop in for additional wine knowledge at Seifried Estate before riding the boardwalks along the edge of the Waimea Estuary, home to a range of internationally signiﬁcant bird species, including the white heron and royal spoonbill. I noted the group’s mood now: quiet, captivated by the scenery and reflective of the day and all we’d seen. Passing the town of Richmond, we carry on around the coastline by the motorway to our accommodation where our bikes are to be collected at the end of the day.
We’d travelled some 40kms and we finish up in pretty good shape (praise be to the e-bike inventor). Much laughter punctuated the trail, many selfie stops, a few confessions over coffee, lunch and wine as we caught up more on our lives’ details.
The Great Rides are the premier rides of the Trail network, predominantly off-road and showcasing the very best of New Zealand’s landscape, environment, culture and heritage.
What an extraordinarily good idea now I’ve experienced it, although I recall it seemed a bit frivolous when it was first announced.
Words don’t do the feeling afterwards justice- suffice to say a subline day out.
‘Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail’ originated as a partnership project between the Government and the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, kicked off in February 2009. The aim was to build a network of cycle trails that would provide a healthy and enjoyable way for Kiwis and International visitors to see the country, and generate economic, social and environmental benefits for our communities. ‘Nga Haerenga’ means ‘the journeys’, both in a physical and spiritual sense.
The Government invested $50 million into turning this idea into a reality, with additional contributions of $30 million from local Government and cycle trail Trusts resulting in 23 Great Rides being established across the country. These cycle trails are breathing new life into old tracks, offering leisurely travel and so much more than just biking.