What a delight it was to have Jonathan Kennett in town last week – one of the legendary Kennett Brothers, who have done so much for cycling in New Zealand.
We say “legendary”, because Jonathan and his brothers are a powerhouse – they didn’t just help create many of the bike trails we all now take for granted, but have made a business of publicising the details for everyone to enjoy.
They started out by publishing Classic Mountainbike Rides in 1991, which was a surprise best seller and has gone through many editions. It’s just one of a wide spectrum of bike titles on their list, including RIDE: The History of Cycling in New Zealand (currently out of print, but seek it out!) and their other bestseller, Bronwen Wall’s book about the amazing Louise Sutherland. Jonathan’s book about the 23 Great Rides of the NZ Cycle Trail is likewise hugely popular, and is the definitive guide to the great trails.
And here’s a random fact about Jonathan that seemed awfully timely: after graduating, he went bike-trekking in Europe and Nepal, where he was “part of the first team to mountain-bike to Everest Base Camp without having the bikes carried by Sherpas.” Like we said, legend.
A magic carpet-ride bicycle dream trip
On Thursday, Jonathan had lunch with some of the Cycle Action committee, ventured off to explore the city, then returned in the evening for a presentation at our regular meeting. The presentation was a kind of magic carpet-ride bicycle dream trip, covering all of New Zealand from the far north Twin Coasts to the South Island. Jonathan ran through all 23 NZ Cycle trails, explaining the history of the scheme (launched in 2009 with $50 million in government funding) and giving a description and glimpse of each trail. It was very seductive – in fact, it made us all want to hop on our bikes and spend happy days cycling every beautiful and historic trail!
The past, present and future of Nga Haerenga/NZ Cycle Trail
It was wonderful to get a sense of how the Nga Haerenga/NZ Cycle Trail has flourished across every part of New Zealand since its inception. Jonathan told some great stories of the huge community drive behind most trails – especially the early ones, where landowners were still uncertain about the benefits of the scheme. Each region supports their own local trail(s), and it’s crucial that each trail has a champion.
Naturally, the volume of visitors varies — from 1,000 users per annum on the more remote or technically challenging trails (such as the St James Trail) to 100,000 on easier and more accessible sections (top trails include the Queenstown Trail, the Hauraki Rail Trail, and the very popular Otago Rail Trail). There are some big rural success stories in places like Kumara on the West Coast, where visitors doing the West Coast Wilderness Trail have re-vitalised the town.
It’s paying off on the grand scale, too. Tourism NZ now has a major focus on cycling for both overseas and local visitors, and their own research confirms the economic benefits: a backpacker will spend an average of $101 per day in NZ; for a cycle tourist, that’s more like $136/day. An overall economic evaluation of the trails’ success is on the way, which will hopefully lead to even greater investment from Government.
The next step: developing a real countrywide network, so that bike riders can eventually make a connected journey within each region. For example: Cape Reinga to Auckland and then south to the Hauraki Rail Trail, and perhaps out to Raglan in the west. For some routes, on-road cycling sections may be a necessary reality – this may attract assistance from NZTA, who is now fully aware of the economic benefits of the trails and has its own dedicated cycling team. (A grading system, similar to that used by EuroVelo, could provide guidance and signage towards safer, less busy roads.)
And of course, the ultimate goal: an uninterrupted trail the length of New Zealand.
The final frontier?? Short, easy, urban rides
Jonathan told us over lunch that he reckons perhaps 20% of the population will eagerly make use of his books about mountain biking, road rides, and cycle trails. And there’s probably another 20% out there who’ll just never get on a bike at all.
But that leaves the very interesting 60%, who would cycle if they could. (AT’s Kathryn King, also at the lunch table, said that when the AT Board spotted that figure in the new cycling programme, it had a transformative effect: “Wait, 60% of Aucklanders would cycle if they could? What would we do if they did?”)
Jonathan’s keen to reach these people – those who know how to ride, are keen to get out on a bike, but are a bit nervous about it. Families with young children, say; or riders who aren’t ready to tackle long rides yet, or people who haven’t ridden for a while.
Hence the focus of his new book: short, easy, safe rides of between 1-3 hours. His aim is to encourage people to enjoy short trails, experience off-road safe cycling, and develop skills that might well lead them back to his other books. “Basically, I’m looking for trails that can be managed by little kids on no-gear bikes and their grandparents.”
The criteria: paths must be 4km or longer, with some sort of enjoyable merit to them – like a café, a playground, or sheer natural beauty – and they must be completely safe or entirely separated. “Short book, then?” quipped one of our cheeky committee members, and it was quite sobering to think of how few such rides there are (compared, say, to the 236 mountain bike tracks that have been opened in the last 3 years, for a national total of 1100).
Happily, Jonathan has a working list of 50 short easy rides from all over the country – about 200km worth. In Auckland, he’s looking at the Twin Streams cycle path, the Orewa Cycleway, the Rotary Path in Pakuranga, and the Cascades cycleway. We were able to throw out a few other possibilities (Tamaki Drive? Exhibition Drive? Hobsonville Point’s Coastal Linear Park? Anyone else?).
And hopefully as each future edition appears, there’ll be more and more short, safe rides to include. It’s all part of the big picture: just as the Kennett Brothers have brought biking down from the hills to the regional trails for city folk, eventually those little city kids trundling along on their no-gear bikes with their grandparents will find their way back out to the beautiful NZ Cycle Trail.
Onwards and upwards. Thanks, Jonathan, for your inspiring work and all-encompassing vision!
Reported by Kirsten Shouler and Jolisa Gracewood