This is your guide to blissfully quiet cycling between the art deco city of Napier and Wellington, the departure point for ferries to New Zealand’s South Island.
Forget busy Highway 2 and take the back roads instead, through the beautiful Wairarapa region, with easy detours to some stunning coastal scenery and wine towns like Martinborough.
Your days will include plenty of climbing, ending at a beach more often than not. You’ll be vastly outnumbered by sheep but not by cars, which rarely number more than a few all day.
As for accommodation, bring a tent just so you don’t get caught short but it’s surprising how many campgrounds (often with cabins to rent), B&Bs and backpackers there are, especially along the beach. And load up on food. There are no supermarkets for quite a distance once you leave Napier, just a few scattered general shops selling the very basics..
Distance: 350-500km (depending on if you detour to Castlepoint and cycle into Wellington)
Duration: 5 days for the ‘bare bones’ but up to 10 days if you take it slow
Terrain: Plenty of hills and sheep dotting the pastures. A few beaches to admire as well – great stopping spots in the evening.
Accommodation: As much camping as you want but also quite a few chances to take cabins in campgrounds or treat yourself to a B&B.
Highlights: The quiet, unspoiled rural scenery with hardly a car to be seen. Friendly locals who are forever waving and happy to help you out.
Lowlights: Long distances between shops.
Be sure to bring: Rain gear and plenty of snack foods or anything exotic you might crave.
Section 1 – 112km Napier to Blackhead Beach
Shops: None outside greater Napier
Accommodation: Tukituki River (possible free camping, see notes), Kairakau Beach (campground), Blackhead Beach (campground, NZ$10/site)
Stock up on supplies for 2-3 days before you leave Napier. You’ll probably have to ask the locals to refill your water bottles. We found everyone we encountered friendly and happy to help.
Take the waterfront bicycle path out of Napier. It runs for 25km to Havelock North, passing Clive and Black Bridge on the way. You ride first along the water, then through apple orchards and vineyards on a well maintained, traffic-free track. Only the gates separating parts of the path from the road are annoying. Loaded cyclists will have to perform a few maneuvers to get through them.
Once the path ends, go left onto a small paved road, then right soon afterwards at a T-junction and left onto the lightly trafficked Waimarama Road. Follow this past a winery (with attached cafe) and around the base of a few large hills.
After a few kilometers, and after crossing the river, there’s a fork in the road and you should bear right towards Elsthrope on Kahuranaki Road. A few climbs appear just after this fork but they are easily tackled and for the first 10km the river runs close to the road.
For a good rest spot, watch on the right around the 40km mark for a path and a gate with a sign that invites fishermen and picnickers down to the Tukituki River, with camping by permission. There are two entrances and the owner’s farm (if you want to ask about putting up a tent) is just 500m past the second gate, on the main road. Treat any water you take from the river since cattle and sheep graze here.
It’s a further 22km to Elsthrope and the left turn to Kairakau Beach. If not camping at the beach, go right on the dirt road leading uphill just before the beach, following signs to Omakere and Pourerere. Asphalt returns as you reach a T-junction just before Omakere. Go right and then left soon afterwards, following signs to Blackhead Beach. You’ll pass Omakere School, a friendly place to refill water bottles.
Another hour or so of riding, including a final steep downhill to the water, brings you to Blackhead Beach. No free camping is allowed but the campsite is reasonably priced and has a welcoming manager who will do all she can to make you comfortable.
Section 2: Blackhead Beach to Herbertville (58km)
Accommodation: Porangahau Beach (free camping, campground, motel), Porangahau (rooms in the pub), Herbertville (backpackers, B&B, campground, NZ$10/pp)
Start back uphill for 2km before going left on the dirt road towards Porangahau. There’s 15km of dirt and aside from the odd climb it’s mostly downhill or level as you approach the Porangahau Beach turnoff and the village itself.
A coffee or drink in the pub is a fine treat after quite a lot of cycling in the middle of nowhere and the meals are quite cheap – under NZ$10 for dishes like bangers & mash or a burger, including a beer!
Continue straight out of Porangahau and then take the first left uphill. After 5km you reach the world’s longest place name. The day’s hardest climbing is ahead, to a peak of 150 meters, until you descend just before Wimbledon. Recharge your batteries in the tavern and decide if you’ll carry on towards Weber or go left for the 10km down to Herbertville to stay the night.
If you choose the beach option, it’s a fairly easy run so long as you’re not fighting the wind and there’s a cold beer waiting for you at the local bar. The campground owners are also welcoming to cyclists.
Section 3: Herbertville to Tiraumea (74km)
Accommodation: Wimbledon (backpackers), Pongaroa (domain camping in village, backpackers 9.5km past village), Tiraumea (domain camping, campground, backpackers)
Today’s ascents total up to 1,300 meters of climbing but the ride starts quite flat out of Herbertville. The first large bump in the road comes just after Wimbledon and the rolling hills don’t let up until you’re nearly to the turnoff for Route 52 and Pongaroa.
You get a break once you turn left as the last 24km stretch to Pongaroa is mostly flat along a river. In Pongaroa you’ll find a cafe, general store and a bar. Servings in the cafe are generous (the basket of wedges easily feeds 2-3 people) and this is a well deserved lunch break. There are also picnic tables nearby if you’re self-catering.
Another heart-straining ascent awaits you after Pongaroa, as you reach the highest altitude of the day, about 350 meters. From the peak, it’s an easy downhill for the last few kilometers to tranquil Tiraumea, where you can pitch your tent next to the village hall (toilets and cold water).
Section 4: Tiraumea to Masterton and Clareville (85km)
Shops: Masterton, Clareville
Accommodation: Alfredton (domain camping), Masterton (caravan park, hotels, backpackers), Clareville (cheap camping at showground, B&Bs)
After a few strenuous days of climbing, today is more downhill than uphill. With a bit of luck the wind may even be at your back and you can have a quick run into Masterton.
Alfredton is the only settlement of any size en route but even here there’s nothing more than a school and domain, where you can camp if you didn’t want to stop at Tirumea.
With an extra day or two to spare, consider branching off from Alfredton on the minor road that runs via Castle Hill and Tinui to Castlepoint, which has some of the best coastal scenery on this stretch. There’s plenty of walking and swimming to be done here.
When you reach Masterton, after so many days in the country, it feels like a huge town. It’s not quite that but there is just about everything you need here, including a tourist bureau, a big supermarket and a train line into Wellington if you’ve had enough cycling. Trains (www.metlink.org.nz) leave for Wellington at 5:45am, 6:25am, 6:50am, 10:25am, 3:40pm and 8:20pm. The trip takes just under 2 hours and costs $15.
Masterton has a caravan park but it’s relatively expensive. Our pick is to carry on to Clareville, where just $8 buys you a tent site for two people at the A&P Showgrounds, including showers, a kitchen and free laundry. Bargain!
Section 5: Clareville to Wellington (cycle or by train)
For the last leg into Wellington you have a choice. Get the train or go on a bit of an Easter-egg hunt for a bike path. What you don’t want to do is cycle into the city on Highway 2, at least not over the Rimutaka Range where there are a lot of curves, a steep incline, plenty of traffic and no shoulder.
You will have to use Highway 2 for the run to Featherston, although you can delay this for a bit by diverting out to Martinborough via Gladstone and Longbush, sipping a bit of wine from one of the many vineyards and then carrying on to Featherston on Route 53.
Once in Featherston, seek out an excellent map or ask locals for directions to Cross Creek, which may be off Western Lake Road. We have only seen this on a map and talked to other cyclists but not actually cycled it ourselves.
In any case, from Cross Creek there’s a bike path that links up with the Rimutaka Rail Trail, 9km north of Upper Hutt. Once on the rail trail (which runs from Kaitoke to Summit), you’ve got an easy run for much of the way into Wellington.
A nice alternative to riding all the way into Wellington is to head for the east side of Wellington Harbour and catch a commuter ferry from Days Bay into the downtown (http://www.eastbywest.co.nz).