Halfway along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the North Island of New Zealand, you come to the Bridge to Nowhere.
As you approach, you see a perfectly serviceable bridge, built for cars. The only thing is there are no roads leading to and from it.
All you can see on the other side is an intense green wall of New Zealand bush. It looks impossible to get through and in bad weather it is, even on a mountain bike.
The bridge was built in the 1930s in anticipation of roads that never arrived because the area was so remote, and now the only people who use it are hikers and cyclists.
‘Nowhere’ is a good word to describe where it leads. You won’t see a lot of people. But it’s a unique and colourful nowhere, with fantastic views of mountains and wildly verdant vegetation you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is 217km in total, going from Mount Ruapehu in the middle of the North Island, to the shore on the west coast at Whanganui and takes three to five days.
The route varies from easy-to-ride unsealed roads through to intermediate and advanced mountain bike trails.
I am not an experienced mountain biker and I fell off five times in one difficult section of route near the Bridge to Nowhere and one of my riding companions lost a shoe in the mud. There are sections where it is too dangerous to ride, for fear of falling down a cliff.
But it’s worth it. While cycle touring on roads is possible in New Zealand, it’s not ideal. In a country of 4.7million, roughly the same size as Great Britain, there are not many minor roads, and the main ones are used by fast moving cars and lorries.
The trail is well planned, with enough places to eat and stay along the way, although in the more remote areas, there isn’t much choice.
New Zealanders don’t waste words, and in underpopulated areas less is most definitely more.
When we stayed a night at the Ruatiti Backpackers’ Hostel, the conversation with the woman in charge went something like this:
One of our party: Are there likely to be mosquitoes around tonight?
Woman (considers her answer for some seconds): Probably.
Our man: Will it be cold?
Woman (again after giving the matter some serious thought): Yes.
End of conversation.
I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
Not that there was anything wrong with the Ruatiti Backpackers’, in fact everything was right about it. It was ideal accommodation after a long day in the saddle. She’d prepared an excellent meal which we heated up ourselves, the cabins were divided into individual rooms, the showers were hot, and the horses provided a bit of company.
And that is what you get on New Zealand’s expanding network of cycle trails. The official guide book had 29 listed, many of them multi-day rides, including the Otago Trail, a 160km route in the South Island I did on a previous visit, along a spectacular former railway line.
You won’t see many road bikes in the shops, and those near the bike trails are set up to provide everything you need for mountain biking, including lifts to and from the start points, and GPS devices to carry so you can be located in an emergency.
The idea is that one day these trails will link up, and you’ll be able to cycle from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South. That’s a distance of around 1,000 miles, not so much further than Land’s End to John O’Groats, although if you want to make the most of it you won’t be trying to do it as quickly as possible.
While some of the off-road routes could be done in good time (I did the Otago Trail in two days, and if you started early, one day would be possible), others would be more, as they put it in one of the bike shop, ‘challenging’.
But it’s a challenge worth taking on.