Roadtripping Wellington: Exploring the Rimutaka Trail
About 200 metres offshore we see a pod of dolphins and an orca peacefully peering through the top of the deep blue ocean as if they knew we were there. Such a majestic sight would be a rarity on a bike ride in any other place on Earth, but it’s a common sight off the coast of the Rimutaka Trail.
Wellington is located at the very bottom on New Zealand’s North Island and is known for its strong winds and unfavourable weather. But when you talk to locals, you get the sense it’s not as bad as its reputation might suggest. I’ve been there twice in my life, for a total of six days, and I’ve yet to see anything that would make me want to leave.
In my head, Wellington bares an uncanny resemblance to Hong Kong, but on a scale of 1/1000. Maybe it’s something about the towering hills surrounding the harbour with roads and retaining walls built to tame the landscape, the houses and buildings looking down on the world below. But that’s where the similarities end. A bustling nightlife with an abundance of cafes, a high-tech industry and an outdoor culture make it New Zealand’s answer to San Francisco, but without so many people to contend with.
Wellington is also the home of a bustling movie industry (nicknamed Wellywood), much of which is due to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.
We were told that Scarlett Johansson was in Wellington filming the movie Ghost in the Shell. Our photographer Tim went on a little too long about the crush he has on Ms Johansson and so the theme of the week became us asking everyone who looked like they were ‘in the know’ where we might catch a glimpse of her. After a tweet to the film star asking if she wanted to go for a ride went unanswered, we got the hint.
Our main purpose in Wellington was to ride the Rimutaka Trail, a linked network of paved roads, cycle pathways, gravel, an old rail line, and tame singletrack. This variety of terrain made a cyclocross bike the perfect weapon of choice to be able to comfortably and efficiently conquer the 140km loop we were jumping into. That distance mightn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a big bite to chew off when there’s so much to see and so many ‘wow’ moments that force you to stop and appreciate your surroundings.
Let me set something straight. I’m a road cycling purist at heart, and the same when it comes to mountain biking. I’m not into this “let’s ride road bikes on mountain bike trails” just for the sake of it. If you’re riding a road bike where a mountain bike should be ridden, you’re missing out. The same goes when you decide to ride a mountain bike on bitumen. I have almost exclusively ridden cyclocross bikes for racing, but always saw the appeal of extending their use to rougher pathways and smooth singletrack.
There was a time in my cycling life when riding on gravel was simply not an option. It wasn’t the bike technology; it was a state of mind. Riding was for training, and nothing was going to get in the way of my intervals. Nowadays, with racing more or less behind me, I can see that the opportunities gravel roads and pathways provide are limitless. When I think back to my race days, I shake my head thinking about all the fantastic riding I missed out on.
This was my first time attempting a ride with this mix of surfaces. Now that it’s all done and dusted, I can certainly see the purpose of using a cyclocross bike outside of racing and taking it out on an adventure.
Within a 15-minute ride of the Wellington city center is one of the best trail networks I’ve seen within such close proximity of a city. Some locals recommended we do a loop involving the Skyline and Makara Peak trails.
On this opening day of riding we were just fine-tuning our bikes, loosening up the legs, and getting a feel for how our off-road skills had deteriorated after not much cyclocross or mountain bike riding in recent years. As proud as we were with our choice of cyclocross bikes for the diversity of terrain we could ride on, we were already questioning our decision. The trails were certainly rideable – and an absolute hoot at that – but noticing all the gnarly offsoots of singletrack I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d have been better off on mountain bikes.
There’s only so much feeling of adventure we could have with the beautiful Wellington views beneath us, but it did give us a good feeling for the infamous wind the city is famous for. At some points we were completely sheltered from the westerly coastal winds that kept the windfarms working hard; at other times we fought the bikes, trying to keep them upright in what became a comedy of errors. Fortunately crashes on the trails end up in high-fives rather than in an ambulance as often happens on the open road.
Later in the day, when we told a local about how windy it was and the fact we nearly had to lean our bikes sideways just to keep upright, he asked, “Could you actually stay up on your bikes?” When we said that we could, he replied: “Well then, it wasn’t windy.”
We made the best out of it and came away from a 60km ride with nearly 2,000m of climbing. We were completely spent, and therefore satisfied.
Wellington, you’re alright.
View trail maps of the route we took here.
GRAVEL TO GLADSTONE
After shaking out our legs on the Skyline trails outside of Wellington, we headed into territory which felt more unknown on day 2. I don’t even know if this loop has a name. We found the route by looking through various backcountry 4×4 and motorcycling forums and Strava heatmaps. It basically entailed a loop of half gravel, half pavement, and a gravel detour to some wild coastline we just had to explore.
The wonderful thing about saddling up the cross bikes with the aim of adventure is that the ride becomes an entirely different journey to what it would with road or mountain bikes. You can approach it with a road-minded mentality, but roads that weren’t really possible all of a sudden provide an endless choice of loops and detours. For sparcely populated countries such as New Zealand, a goldmine of options opens up when you’re able to ride on unsealed roads.
The route from Gladstone to Admiral to Pahaoa to Hinakura and back has very few services and is 130km on a mix of very well-surfaced gravel roads on the first half and nice pavement on the latter half. It starts out with a decent climb that we settled into at an easy pace and enjoyed the views to our left of towering hills and vastness for as far as the eye could see. Anyone we spoke to from the area offered to tell us about the extraordinary summer they’ve had. Indeed, the lack of rain was apparent in the dryness of the land.
One of the spectacular things about New Zealand is its ability to completely change its landscape and features within such a small amount of space. It seemed that, as we crested the first climb and rolled down into the valley, the scenery changed dramatically around every corner. It was a gravel rollercoaster with both mountain and coastal views, all without a vehicle in sight. When we stopped it was just us and the sound of silence.
View trail maps of the route we took here.
This is what we had come to see. Enough loosening up our legs, getting used to the bikes, and sharpening up our skills. It was showtime.
The Rimutaka Railway was built as part of an ambitious 1871 government plan to construct a national rail network linking agricultural hinterlands with major ports like Wellington. It was an engineering challenge to build over the range as boring a tunnel through its entirety proved to be too costly. It was a temporary solution that lasted 77 years.
The Rimutaka Trail cuts through the bush-clad Rimutaka Mountain Range (with some fantastic singletrack), passing through tunnels on an old rail trail (with some good climbing believe it or not), and skirting around the aptly named “Southern Wild Coast”.
We started our day from a small coastal town called Petone, just 15km outside of Wellington. You can ride the loop from Wellington, but that’s getting to be a big day – 140km starting and finishing in Petone, on cross bikes, was enough for us. Once you’ve visited New Zealand a few times, you begin realise how easy it is to underestimate how many stop and ‘wow’ moments there are.
The Rimutaka Trail is a loop. You can pretty much start anywhere but we decided to start from Point Howard just outside of Petone and ride the loop counter-clockwise. Many of the official trail guides say to ride the loop clockwise, but we knew best, right?
Riding this way we cut straight into the good stuff, and left the easy and less exciting terrain for the end. It was a good choice in the end. Starting and finishing at Upper Hutt might be another good option, but you risk using the best of yourself before making it to the more challenging trails and climbs.
We were expecting a big day in the saddle and didn’t bother reading up on the amenities in the area, so we needed to be self-sufficient. We brought lots of food and water as well as extra clothing, just in case the weather went sour. There was a lot of nothing standing between Antarctica and us and we were fortunately seeing the Wild Coast in all it’s glory. 26ºC and not a breath of wind – those days don’t come along too often from what we hear.
The ride headed south along the coast and quickly turned to a well-groomed gravel road. The towering cliffs to our left and the turquoise water to our right gave us enough “sweet Jesus” moments to realise we were going to have to pick up the pace or else we wouldn’t be done until midnight. I wanted to take in the experience and be present, but taking photos and video to capture the moment was important too. After all, it’s what we were there to do.
The cross bikes proved to be well-suited to the coastal road. The only time we found ourselves yearning for anything more was on a kilometre-long stretch of black sand that only a fatbike could have navigated. We walked, laughed and sometimes muttered profanities under our breath, not knowing how long this was going to last. But it was only enough to throw a mild spanner in the works; just enough to lodge itself in our memory banks.
Soon after – like a mirage – a campground appeared with shade, water, and the familiar feeling of civilisation. We spoke to a guy on a mountain bike who was headed in our direction. He told us what to expect coming up, and that there was a small corner store that we could stop at for an ice cream.
After the smooth gravel roads, black sand, flowing singletrack and a few loose rocky sections, we found ourselves promptly guided back on paved roads heading inland. The only thing that Dave, Tim and I could think of was the promise of ice cream, but after nearly an hour on paved roads and then turning off into the Rimutaka Range, we were left disappointed.
We were expecting an intimidating climb up the Rimutaka Rail Trail which boasts sections of 1 in 15 (about 7%) for 5km, which is remarkable for a train (a Fell locomotive was used). But the gearing we had made the climb barely noticeable. What was noticeable was the vast forest and pitch black tunnels piercing through the hills that extended nearly a kilometre (which is a crazy feeling without lights). Frequent historic sign posts described the rail line’s history:
“The hard-working Fells belched out a tremendous amount of smoke. The embers that flew from the locomotives’ funnels were known to set fire to the hillsides reducing the forest to scrub.”
Fierce winds are known to blast through a section of the Rimutaka Rail Trail that earned the name Siberia among railway workers. The winds are strong enough that they once pushed a train right off its rails:
“The only fatal accident train accident ever to occur on the Rimutaka Incline happened at Siberia. On 11 September, 1880, a gust of wind hit a train broadside, itching three carriages over the embankment. Four childred died as a result and several others were injured … The vehicles hanging like a string of huge beads to the engine, which by the grip of its Fell machinery maintained its lace on the metals.”
The wind on the Rimutaka Incline would normally have been behind us but all we could hear on this occasion was the trail beneath us. There was no wind to speak of.
The Rimutaka Incline is an engineering marvel, but newspapers at the time described it as an “accursed bottleneck” and a “dull, wearisome journey”. If you ask any of us, we’ll tell you it was a cyclist’s paradise.
The summit had a nice place for a rest but it was late in the day and we keep moving. We still had about 60km remaining and we didn’t know what else lay ahead.
The descent down the other side of the range brought a quick change of scenery into pine forests and rivers with the fast flowing rail trail beneath us. By this time we were racing daylight and our sense of awe had been so heightened by this point that stopping for photos at even the most spectacular locations seemed like less of a priority.
As often seems to happen, disaster struck little by little with Tim getting one harmless puncture, then another, then another, until we finally figured out there was a split in his tyre. By that stage we had used all our spare tubes. Still 30km away from the van and with the sun quickly going down behind the towering hills, we headed for the closest train station to call it a day and admit defeat.
Fortunately we only had to ride a few kilometers to find one, but the next train didn’t come for more than two hours. The only thing to do was leave Tim behind while Dave and I rode back for the van and returned to pick Tim up.
Dave and I were shattered by this point but still kept up a steady tempo on the bike paths along the Hutt River all the way back to Petone. It was one of those spectacular dusks that will stick in my catalogue of epic riding day memories as we dipped in between paved bike path, small gravel roads, and the odd bit of singletrack all the way back to the van.
We made it back to Tim who was had found the corner store we were told about, eating an ice cream and reading a celebrity magazine with Scarlett Johansson on the cover.
By this time it was pitch black and we had hoped to get back to Wellington in time for the night market as it was our last evening. Instead we headed straight to our favourite burger joint ‘Ekim’ and efficiently scoffed down a couple thousand calories along with a couple cold beverages. As luck would have it, it was at this time that Tim found an extra spare tube hidden in the bottom of his backpack …
View trail maps of the route we took here.
New Zealand is a long way away for most of the world, but it astounds me how few Australians have visiting this magnificent country and have opted for Europe or United States in lieu of exploring what awaits only a three-hour flight away. The diversity of terrain in such a small area always floors me – we did three rides in three days with none of them bearing any resemblance to one other.
The infrastructure and facilities are top notch for cyclists looking for an adventure that’s delivered on a silver platter.
And what of Scarlett Johansson? Did we ever find her? No luck. We’ll have to wait until Ghost of the Shell is released to see her in Wellington …
CyclingTips would like to thank Scott Bikes and Positively Wellington Tourism for making this trip possible.