Nelson National Cycleway Proposal Gains Momentum


Steve Waring was at a small meeting in Richmond this week. There were nine people in the room, and six, it emerged, had ridden the Central Otago Rail Trail.

If you ask around, it might start to feel as if that tiny, unscientific sampling isn't as unrepresentative as it first appears.

Seemingly, every second middle-class family, middle-aged couple and experience-seeker with the ability to stay upright on two wheels has made or is planning a trip to the depths of the Maniototo to trundle along the trail for a few days. Waring quotes the latest estimate that 500,000 people have ridden on the Otago trail since it was officially opened almost 10 years ago. His fellow cycle trails enthusiast and advocate, Peter Bone, quotes another estimate, that the market for such trips is growing at anything from 18 to 30 per cent a year.

Winding its way through what was once an all but forgotten expanse of ghost towns and emptiness, the trail has given "Central" a newfound place in thousands of Kiwi hearts. But more than that, it has helped New Zealanders fall in love with the idea of pedalling their way through gentle, scenic countryside, quaffing lattes along the way and kicking back in a cosy pub or guesthouse at day's end.

Perhaps Prime Minister John Key was cannily tapping into that growing love affair when he came up with his apparently left-field idea of developing a national network of trails similar to the Otago one, to help stimulate the sluggish jobs market. Whether intentionally or not, he unleashed a torrent of enthusiasm and inspiration for new cycleways the length and breadth of the land.

Now that he's followed that up with a promise of $50 million to be spent on selected new projects over the next three years, the torrent has turned into a stampede of groups with winning ideas about how to turn a corner of their particular patch of forgotten paradise into the next great two-wheeled Kiwi experience. And in the thick of it is a Nelson plan.

ON YER BIKE: Nelson cycle trail advocates from left, Bill Gilbertson, Steve Waring, Chris Allison, Bill Findlater and Peter BoneON YER BIKE: Nelson cycle trail advocates from left, Bill Gilbertson, Steve Waring, Chris Allison, Bill Findlater and Peter Bone 

Bone and Waring, both Nelson businessmen and cycling enthusiasts, are central to that plan, along with a small but strategically selected group of others who are determined to put Nelson firmly on the new cycle routes map. Others include Nelson Tasman Tourism boss Paul Davis and Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency chief Bill Findlater, along with Bill Gilbertson a prominent figure in local conservation circles, who comes to the group via his enthusiasm for mountainbiking; and long-time cycling advocate Chris Allison. They are forming the Nelson Cycle Trails Trust, which will include representatives from the Nelson and Tasman councils.

They acknowledge the flavour-of-the-month nature of cycle trails right now, but are certain that cycling is a phenomenon whose time has come, that pedal power is going to drive tourism for years to come, and that their vision of hundreds of kilometres of cycle trails encircling the region will position Nelson at the centre of the two-wheel revolution.

Actually, they say the idea of a Nelson trail has been batted around for several years now, with various individuals and possibilities in the mix.

Interested mountainbikers, including Gilbertson, have been concentrating on the idea of a trail from Richmond to Kawatiri and beyond, following the old railway route.

Bone and Waring have been focusing on a route that takes in the Motueka River Valley, winding up the West Bank to Brooklyn, across to Kaiteriteri and back down the coast to Nelson.

The two ideas have been merged, and the cyclists have sought and apparently secured the interest of the two councils, and brought the tourism and economic development agencies on board the EDA has put some money in to get things moving. They've also talked with a Marlborough group pursuing the idea of a track from Picton, following Queen Charlotte Drive to Pelorus Bridge, which could ultimately carry on to Nelson via the Maungatapu Saddle and Maitai Valley.

The prime minister's enthusiasm and resulting media interest has rapidly brought things to a head, along with the fact that both the region's local bodies are going through their three-yearly review of long-term spending priorities. The time is ripe for dreams to be made reality.

"We've all seen an opportunity," says Findlater. "Both an opportunity for the cyclists in this community ... and the commercial opportunity for cycle tourism."

The group hammer away at the point about their plan being for a community asset for the tens of thousands of local cyclists as much as anyone else. They know they're going to need community buy-in given that, almost inevitably, the councils are going to be asked to stump up a sizeable contribution, probably millions of dollars on current indications.

They see a carrot at least equally as big in the tourism possibilities and the economic benefits from this. Allison, who has prepared a lengthy research document to underpin the Nelson idea, estimates that something like 22,500 people spend a "substantial" period on the Otago trail each year (as opposed to a short, part-day ride), generating something like $7.5m in direct spending and $12m in wider economic activity.

Bone and Waring reckon a Nelson trail could do much better, for all sorts of reasons longer trails, better weather, a central location. Their calculations have the Nelson trail attracting 30,000 riders a year, generating $42m in economic activity.

It's business that no one is capturing right now outside Maniototo.

Bone tells of talking with people who have heard of his involvement in the Nelson plan and have done the Otago trail. "People say, `It's great, are you going to do something similar?', and what I say is, `Yes, but what are you going to do next?'. There isn't an answer in New Zealand. At the moment, domestic tourists are basically directed overseas for their next experience."

Cycle trails, offering a safe, reasonably sedate route away from the traffic, through pretty countryside and with plenty of home comforts scattered along the way, are an international phenomenon. The United States has long since pioneered the idea of using abandoned railway routes for such trails, recognising that their solid foundations and gentle gradients are a perfect fit for a cruisy cycle ride the same principle that has been applied so successfully in Central Otago.

As cross-country cycling has built up a following, in Europe and, increasingly, Australia, vast networks of purpose-built trails are being laid out.

The Otago trail was originally suggested from within the Department of Conservation back in the 1990s, and while its growth has been gradual, it has proved that such things can work. But the rest of the country has sat back. Until now.

As Allison wryly observes, talking of Nelson's hopes of getting a share of John Key's $50m fund: "We hope to be in the queue ... and that probably puts us in the same league as almost anywhere other than the Chatham Islands."

He's only half-joking. Communities from all over have been pushing: south Waikato, east Taranaki, the Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay, South Canterbury and Southland included.

When it comes to self-belief at least, Nelson is right up there. "We've got everything," says Findlater. "If you go and talk to any cycle groups around the country, they'll say they've got the best location. We're pretty sure that we have got it. We've got the climate ... you can cycle all year in Nelson, without a doubt; we've got the scenery ... we've got a rail tunnel to go through (the old Spooner one, between Nelson and Tapawera). Off those trails, we've got mountainbiking, we've got downhill racing this region caters for just about every cyclist that you can come across."

That is not necessarily just a local booster talking. Christchurch-based adventure tourism operator Geoff Gabites also a board member of the Tourist Industry Association and the Cycle Tour Operators of New Zealand organisation sees the Nelson region as an obvious place for a new trail. He suspects those that qualify for government funding will need "an experience that's unique [and] an enormous wow factor" there will be four, maybe five, across the South Island, he picks, and Nelson deserves to be among them.

The tourism marketing man, Paul Davis, is also impressed: "This project is actually pretty much the perfect tourism product development initiative.

"You start from a strong community base; you add excellent local authority buy-in and resourcing; you then add an already successful tourism destination ... add the strong overlay of the scenery and the natural attractions we have here. Put in place the cycle trails and it's really going to take off."

The Nelson group say they have met with a government official who is central to the national cycleways project and were heartened by his response. "He was very positive about what we've done to date and what we're planning to do," Findlater says.

He adds that whatever goes on in other regions, whatever decisions the Government makes, the Nelson project is already happening. It is a question of when, not if, the bits come together.

Bone points out that large sections of the trail from Nelson to Riwaka are already in place "85 per cent" of it he says is already covered by off-highway cycle routes. "Our role is to fill those gaps."

Not that the work ahead should be underestimated.

Among the hurdles is that much of the ideal route lies across private land, including long sections of the old railway route running south of Nelson to Kawatiri. While 100 per cent access to that line is not essential, it reinforces the point that if the thing is going to happen in anything like a straightforward manner, it is going to demand copious goodwill.

They can't talk figures or financial detail yet, but acknowledge the capital cost of forming the trail for the long stretches where no existing route exists won't be cheap. They are intending that the trail will be on a hard-packed crusher-dust surface, not sealed both because it's far cheaper but also because that's what trail riders prefer.

Still, "it's not the capital cost that some people might think", Allison argues.

Bone adds: "When that cost is spread between local government and other people supporting the project and the public, that will break it down."

They are confident of council support the enthusiastic response of the two mayors to a strategy document produced by Allison and made public a couple of weeks ago suggests the confidence is well placed.

Gilbertson says the current plans are in tune with the Tasman District Council's own cycle strategy, including support for completing a Richmond to Wakefield route.

But for all the confidence, it seems equally safe to suggest that cycleways don't happen quickly; Otago's experience (with the trail taking the best part of a decade to be realised, and the best part of that again to reach its current level of popularity) is reflected overseas, where years are spent getting routes to completion.

Findlater argues that it is a case of making progress gradually; that the trust's aim will be to make sure things move ahead "in a staged manner".

And then? Is it a case of build it and they will come? The question is answered with the inevitable stuff about marketing and all that. But the confidence is undeniable.

"It's going to happen," Steve Waring says. "It's going to happen as soon as we can make it happen."

Original Article: