I wouldn't have thought of us as a cycling family. I'm the only one who commutes by cycle. I'm what New Zealanders call 'a cycling advocate" and it's been hinted to me that I am an obsessive bore on the subject. However, various members of my family cycle in their different ways.
We - my siblings and I - cycled when we were children. We lived near the end of what we called a "metal"(i.e. dirt) road and to get to school we had to cycle about a mile and a half to the bus-stop. We would leave our bicycles leaning against a fence unlocked, as you did those days, and play games - walking along the parapet of the bridge over the big drain was one - until the crowded, superannuated bus picked us up to go about four miles to our country school.
Our house and farm
My first year at primary school I was carried on the back of my sister Claudia's bicycle. Then the next year she went to the High School in town, and caught an earlier bus. The middle sister, L. said she wasn't going to carry a lump like me, so at the age of six I was taught to ride a bicycle, Dad holding the carrier and jogging behind me on our lawn for a week while I learned to balance. The children on our road cycled on a surface which would be an easy mountain bike trail these days, except when the Council came with its loads of crushed rock and graders, when it became hard work for our basic bikes. "The grader's been here," we would howl as we tried to make our way through what seemed like small yellow boulders for the first few days, then the cars and tractors gradually formed two strips, the rocks heaped in the middle and down the sides and we had smooth dirt paths again.
A notable time on this route was when a dead cow lay waiting on the verge for what we called the dead cow lorry. Oh, the stench of that cow - we'd hold our breaths as we went by - and if we met the lorry, My God! Sometimes the dredger came to clear the big drain that made the swampy land farmable. The verges were piled with mud, and weed and on the road would be eels, some as big as your arm, struggling through the dust back towards the water. I was terrified of them and sickened by them, L. was fearless and would make to chase me with one. She rescued a small black one once and kept it in a bucket of water, but it didn't survive, like the baby rabbits, pukeko chicks and other "found" small creatures. Then cars would run over the eels or they would just die and you would dodge and avert your eyes from their smashed and maggoty bodies.
The others left school and went out to jobs, marriages and different countries, and L. said she hadn't been on a bicycle since those early days. Then a few years ago friends suggested she do the Otago Rail Trail in a group. She got a cycle and a pair of cycling shorts and enjoyed the trip hugely. She has done other trails and she lives in the Hutt Valley in Wellington where there are 27 km of trails by the Hutt River where she exercises regularly and looks very fit on it.
Bridge on the Rimutaka trail
She and I did a piece of the Rimutaka Trail. This is an old railway track, so with easy gradients and tunnels. It goes through regenerating bush and with stops at the information boards we headed uphill. It took us about an hour and a half to get to Summit, 10km away. There are a few rusty bits of engine and other signs of its train origins as well as a shelter and the usual Department of Conservation toilets (DoC really is great, setting up long drop toilets and information on trails all over the country).
The Summit, Rimutaka trail
On Wellington Province Day, a public holiday, under a perfect blue sky it was a very popular route, and family groups were out, which are something of a hazard, as small children waivered from one side of a trail to another. As we sat at Summit eating a snack a gang of guys cycled past, including one on a unicycle.
You could continue down to Featherstone in the Wairarapa and catch a train back to Wellington, as you would in the manner of my UK cycling. We, however, cycled back the way we came, getting to the car park at about 12:30 and by then it was hitting 30 degree afternoon heat, which I would certainly have found hard to cope with.
Cycling in a New Zealand summer
Other than the river path in the Hutt Valley I didn't do any more cycling in Wellington. However I saw that cycling had picked up since my day. I was four years in Wellington at Victoria University and I would never have dreamed of cycling. Wellington is a walkable city, its public transport is quite good, and I would have dismissed the idea - the hills are precipice steep and it's famous for its southerly gales.
I love Wellington which reminds me of Edinburgh in being beautiful, hilly and windy, so not the most obvious city for cycling. However the cycleways were marked for urban routes and I saw people on mountain bikes on squally days- and yes, you would need something with very low gears with hills like these. L., whose office is out in Pauatahanui over a steep hill (Wellington is a system of steep hills and valleys) said that some of her colleagues commute by cycle. Evidently it's catching on.
Postie in Devonport. Posties have always gone by bike.
I eventually got to Auckland and caught a ferry to my brother's place in Devonport on the North Shore. A few commuters had their cycles on the ferry and there was a cycleway marked from the ferry stop to Takapuna. Auckland, with its warmer climate and lower hills you would think was an ideal city for cycling. I stayed at my sister's in Mount Eden, near a cycleway through the suburban streets. I did a little of that and also an off road path through Walmsley Park. It was supposed to be a cycle path but it was not sign-posted, and when I got to the end of it, I had no idea where to go, so it receives low marks. I didn't really sample enough of Auckland to give it a fair assessment but I did seem to end up on busy roads a lot of the time, which were not well signed. I would say that a start had been made for making the city more cycle-friendly, but my verdict now would be "fragmented".
Cycleway signs, Mount Eden, Auckland
I also went with my brother-in-law for a cycle along the waterfront. This is marked as a cycle way, and pavement has been divided by a white line, with the half near the kerb being painted with outlines of cyclists. Cycling along Auckland's waterfront is very agreeable in many ways, as you are by the grand Waitemata Harbour among the Aucklanders on a Saturday morning jogging, boating, swimming, taking the kids out in buggies and on scooters and small bikes. A bloke on a wheelchair went by at high speed, doing training for what was probably the paraOlympics. But it is cycling with all your attention on hazards. I was reminded of the Union Canal at its city end in Edinburgh. It's picturesque but the towpath is too narrow and it's too busy with pedestrian traffic to be able to get up speed, and I usually miss out that bit and go along the streets. Auckland's waterfront has all the hazards of a canal towpath in the city, with the addition of cars parked along the kerb and car doors opening out on you while people extract themselves and their children. One door was open while three teenage girls sat in the car or stood on the pavement and hung out.
"I would have sworn at them but I'm a foreigner," I said. later to my brother-in-law later, who was also cycling the path.
"I swore at them," he said.
Reminder to car drivers on Waiheke Island
We were in a cafe at the end of the waterfront run comparing notes, and agreeing that it was more of an obstacle course than a cycle route. I cycled back along it, and another lot had their van doors open and were cleaning out their van, with a vacuum cleaner on the pavement. The bloke training on the wheelchair went past with strong, fast moving arms and I mentally cheered him. I did enjoy my urban cycle, which was really a tourist's potter but this cycleway is not a serious cycle route for commuting.
Cyclists wanting to get somewhere at speed use the road instead and Auckland drivers think that they are being cheeky sods for cycling there because look, don't they have their own cycleway now? rather in the spirit of white South Africans pointing to bantustans. Look! You've got your own state. Why do you want a share of ours?
After this I noticed other pavements that were halved as cycle routes, and on the cyclist side the path would have a pole for a traffic light or something else stuck in the middle of it, and wondered what car drivers would think of a road where suddenly a concrete bollard appeared in their way.
My nephew J. showed me his Norco mountain bike. J. is big, blonde and macho and used to play rugby. Now he has taken up competitive mountain biking and his bike has a special seat where you press a button to change its height. He was due to do some time trials in Rotorua and had been getting fit cycling up Auckland's volcanoes. I had seen groups of mountain bikers on Mount Eden doing this on a Sunday morning. He said though that Auckland drivers are awful - selfish and inconsiderate, which I well believed. (I've heard stories of New Zealander drivers' resentment of cyclists).
As we walked back to the car from J's house, his children followed us, the little girl in a pedal car and the sturdy blonde boy toddler pistoning energetically on his tricycle as he headed along the pavement, obviously dying to be moving fast over uninterrupted tarmac. When he's old enough to cycle alone, perhaps Auckland will have safe spaces for him to do so.
My brother-in-law rides a recumbent tricycle. He had a stroke seven years back, which has left him unable to drive and he can't walk far, but he can use a recumbent tricycle which has been adapted for his disability. He now does regular exercise rides, and goes off to cafes so as well as gaining independent mobility, he has made some new friends. He has found the exercise, upping his oxygen levels, has been good for his mental health as well, with his speech improving (it sounds totally normal to me). He and my sister are now evangelicals for the disabled being self-propelled, if possible.
He also wears very snazzy colours on his bike and has become a feature of the neighbour hood. People recognise him and his bike, and call out greetings.
The only other cycling I did was at Ruakaka in Northland, where the family has a beach house. Ruakaka is a couple of hours north of Auckland, a town that was built for the workers at the oil refinery at Marsden Point. It is very flat, and also has 23km of perfect white sand beach. However far the tide is out, you can swim in the surf, and it is safe. Small children can play in the waves. I went for a ride at low tide along the hard sand, with the waves of the Pacific curling over the bike tyres. This being New Zealand, a beach like this has a handful of people on it. My sister says the biggest number they have seen is seventeen.
On Ruakaka Beach
I only sampled cycling in New Zealand and now when I see new routes being advertised, would like to go back and do some of them. Any organisation who would give me a year's grant to do a survey of New Zealand's cycling infrastructure is welcome to apply