Paeroa is not just the home of that famous fizzy drink; it’s also the bubbling hub of the Hauraki Rail Trail. If you’re on a bike, all paths lead to Paeroa… and through it… and from it. And that’s precisely what Warwick Marshall, the energetic force behind Cycle Action Paeroa, wants to take advantage of.
You see, when the rail trail riders arrive in town, they’re currently funnelled along a track that runs behind the main street and along the Ohinemuri river – which is all very scenic, but misses the point: after biking 21km from Te Aroha or 33km from Thames or 25km from Waihi, you’re more than ready to stop, wet your whistle, and take a wander down the main street.
And this is not just any main street. Like many of the Waikato’s small towns, Paeroa has an almost uninterrupted run of charming, museum-quality shopfronts – many of them devoted to antiques.
Frankly, it’s gorgeous, especially for jaded city folk. The main street is anchored at one end by the big famous bottle of you-know-what that you simply have to get your photo taken in front of, and at the other by park with a lovely playground. There are excellent cafes, a pub or two, some decent chip shops and an ice-cream parlour, and a handsome old Post Office (awaiting a new use – it would make a fabulous restaurant!), with an arty plaza out the front lined by lemon trees.
But it’s not just main street, aka Normanby Rd (named for the Governor of NZ 1874-79), it’s also the main road: State Highway 2.
So the rider who ventures off the rail trail and into town faces a paradox. Enormous trucks thunder through every few minutes: logging trucks, milk tankers, car transporters. After the P & Q of the rail trails, it’s enough to scare you off the road. But the huge wide footpaths are labelled NO BICYCLES/ SKATEBOARDS.
If this is tricky for visitors to negotiate, it’s equally hard for locals. And yet as Warwick points out, there’s plenty of space.
His vision: better biking not just for those who are just passing through, but those who live here too. “The locals want to come downtown too. Talk to the elderly people – they’re too scared. They want to bring their bikes here, but they wouldn’t set foot on the main street as it is now. Parents want to let their kids ride to school, but won’t unless there’s something done with the road.”
What’s needed, says Warwick, is a network of safe cycling and walking greenways through the town, plus separated paths for bikes and more traffic calming on the main road. He’s convinced that Paeroa, with its small footprint and community spirit (“Welcome to Paeroa: Proud Winners of the 2012 NZ Community of the Year”, says the sign at the entrance to town), could be the perfect 8-80 village.
“I want to show everyone else that we can do it. And if a small town like Paeroa can do it, it’d be huge for New Zealand, and people from all over the world could see the connection between bike trails, bikes in small towns, and bikes in cities.”
A ride up and down SH2/Normanby Rd with Warwick is instructive. You immediately notice the thoughtful landscaping and traffic-calming around the old post office – and the perplexing lack of a pedestrian crossing outside the main supermarket. On the one hand, you want to be a good cyclist and stay on the road – but then a huge stock truck rattles through, and you scuttle back to the footpath.
Along the way, the car parking alternates between the classic angled parks of small-town New Zealand, and parallel parking. And it’s such a wide street: it’s hard not to start dreaming, as Warwick does, of other ways to parcel it out for the good of everyone.
Warwick’s a passionate advocate for both biking and his hometown. (As a local lad, and the grandson of a former mayor, his pride in Paeroa is especially strong, although he did spend a year in Auckland: “I loved the trains, the buses. I rode my mountain bike around Auckland. It was pretty dangerous, but I loved it.”) He runs a lively Facebook group and a blog, has collaborated on writing submissions with Barb Cuthbert of Cycle Action, and has campaigned for bike stands through town.
Most of the people Warwick meets along the rail trail – more and more of them all the time – come from Auckland. It’s so handy to the big city that you can make a day trip of it. Paeroa is not just the hub of the Hauraki Rail Trail, points out Warwick, it’s also connected to the big city and other cities nearby. And just as the railway used to bring not only people to town, but commerce too, that stimulus now arrives on two wheels.
“We get tourists from all over the world. Some stay in town, some go bike camping. But the Aucklanders – they come in droves, especially on the weekends! Holiday weekends are huge.”
Warwick’s excited about the proposed extension of the Hauraki Rail Trail from Kopu to Kaiaua. Before long, many of the Aucklanders who currently arrive in Paeroa with bikes lashed to the back of their cars could instead bike around the coast to the Coromandel and the Hauraki Plains, via the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre and the hot springs, and make a weekend, or a week of it. And there’s also talk of extending the trail through from the spa town of Te Aroha to Cambridge, which would eventually tie Hamilton into the picture.
“Between the rail trail and the mountain bike tracks, there are all these people on bikes all around us in Paeroa – let’s bring those people right into town. And then more people in town will be inspired to get out on bikes,” says Warwick. “It really feels like we’re on the verge of something.”