Christ Church at Cathedral Square is where I park my bike on my first visit to the city since the devastating earthquakes some years before. I peer through the barrier fence at the toppled place of worship … it is clear there is still a lot to achieve. Once the entrance was a meeting place for city folk, yet today nature has gathered weeds aplenty while the lofty stone tower and the large rose window are now just a dark gaping hole where pigeons perch. The view towards the ruin is in contrast to the rebuilding behind me. I turn and see plenty of new spaces and pathways that now connect the city like never before. Switching on my GPS units, I begin a journey on one of these urban paths linking the city to the suburbs; a safe and green way to explore the blooming beauty of the Garden City.

Riding the yellow line on the rail trail

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In the square I enter my first waypoint for the Great Rides App before starting towards the river. My journey today has me riding 50 kilometres between two little rivers: the Avon of Christchurch, and the Okana that flows through the settlement of Little River. In a few seconds I cross the Avon twice. I am impressed how its banks include modern seating areas, perfect refuges to relax and reflect.

The nostalgia of Lincoln’s Pioneer Hall

A few minutes later I ride past the botanical gardens and into Hagley Park, an ideal way to start the Little River Rail Trail. I am enjoying this ride already – despite being in the heart of the city I’m in cycling bliss. I am not alone. Also sharing the path are cycling commuters, parents with pushchairs, and joyful joggers on leisurely laps around the reserve. Cities need grand parks like Hagley, a masterpiece of greenspace and a place to unwind in the urban jungle.

The Motukarara Station is magnificent and the finest, cutest and most extraordinarily well restored railway shed I have seen on my great rides

After leaving the park and some quiet lanes I ride the cycleway that roughly follows the route of the southern motorway. This stretch is a wide concrete path, and a tail wind powers me along with the effortless joy of those on e-bikes. Hurtling along I soon arrive at Hornby on the outskirts of the city where I reach the first segment of the former railway alignment to Prebbleton. I don’t mess about in this rural settlement but push on to the university town of Lincoln, which is well placed for stopping, walking and sampling fine food and drink.

It’s just like the railway master has gone out for a cuppa

Formerly the town was the start of the Little River railway branch and was known as ‘Springs’. No railway here now of course, and today as I depart Lincoln I visit a peaceful wetland beside the trail then follow the slow meandering currents of a trailside spring.

Royal spoonbills wading in the shallows

I pass the camping area of Waihora Park and reach the magnificent Motukarara Railway Station. I say magnificent because it is the finest, cutest and most extraordinarily well restored railway shed I have seen on my great rides. A wagon is parked up outside, but I was blown away with its interior. Inside are the authentic workings of a historic station, right down to worn leather suitcases and original NZ Railways trolleys parked ready for patrons.

I watched feeding birds for hours

It’s just like the railway master has gone out for a cuppa and has yet to return – this railway relic is a credit to the hours spent by the trust and its volunteers. While I’m no railway enthusiast, I surprise myself with the time I spend reading tales, sizing up tools and examining timetables of this former branch station. Heritage waits here.

Birdlings Flat, a gem of a place

The Little River railway branch commenced operations in 1882 (running as far as Birdlings Flat), and reached the village a few years later as a timber hauling line. In 1927 and for a few years after, an Edison battery-electric railcar operated twice daily passenger services between Christchurch and Little River in quick time – 69 minutes. The railcar was later destroyed in a depot fire and was never replaced during the poor economic climate of the Great Depression.

Grebes and swans in Lake Forsyth

If it had been replaced, how amazing it would be to return via an electric cart! While the line was popular in its time for freight, no tree replanting took place in the area, resulting in falling freight volumes to a point where the line closed in 1962. The line lay abandoned for nearly 50 years before a millennium project opened up walking and cycling access from Motukarara station to Little River. The trust worked with several parties and volunteers to open up the entire trail to Hornby, and a few years later it was linked to Cathedral Square.

Reaching Little River, the railway terminus

After taking several photos and another GPS waypoint at the station, I hop onto the former railway line and pedal straight lines towards Lake Ellesmere. As I ride, the scenery changes, the elevated causeway giving me views over the flats and down to the marshy shallows of one of our country’s largest lakes. As I cycle it quickly becomes apparent that if you’re a biking birder then this is pedal-pusher’s paradise! From the saddle I spot several species of wading birds, and at times I stop to appreciate their poised position, gangly legs and long bills prodding the mudflats for food. The long wings of herons flap overhead as I reach Kaituna, and I’m mesmerised by a flock of birds in the shallows sporting fluffy crests of feathers with funny shaped beaks. These are the royal spoonbills. As the name implies, they have a spoon-shaped bill with inbuilt vibration detectors which helps them search for prey in the murky waters. I could have watched these birds feeding, and in flight, for hours. Actually, I did!

The quirky grain silos of Little River’s SiloStay

For some visitors … birds are birds, but if you are heading this way it could be good to know the difference between seabirds, shorebirds and waders. Seabirds such as albatross, gannets and petrels are pelagic and spend most of their life out at sea. Shorebirds like oyster catchers, plovers and stilts are generally migratory birds and scurry along the shore looking for food. Wading birds such as egrets, herons and spoonbills are taller birds with long bills that wade in wetlands looking for a meal.

Lake Ellesmere has the most diverse and populous birdlife in the country with 167 species. A recent inter-agency wildlife survey counted 41,500 gulls, terns, waders, waterfowl, herons and shags. Unfortunately, this shallow lake with an average depth of just 1.2 metres is considered one of the most polluted in the country. A local trust hopes to reverse this deterioration by improving water quality and undertaking habitat restoration for the benefit of future generations.

I continue my ride past the lake and make a small detour out to Birdlings Flat on the shores of Canterbury Bight, the Pacific Ocean. This cute coastal settlement is known for its smooth gemstones of greywacke, quartz, jasper and volcanic pebbles. I took a spell and walked along the Kaitorete Spit looking for a gem while keeping an eye out for rogue waves for which the beach is infamous. Once back on my bike I reach another waterway. Lake Forsyth has a lakeside reserve where I watch rare Australasian crested grebes.

Plagued as it is by algal toxic blooms, Lake Forsyth didn’t make me want to linger and I finish the ride just a few kilometres away. Rolling into Little River I discover a second lovingly restored station at the terminus of the branch railway. On the main road of this little settlement there is a good café, an information centre, and quirky grain silos that provide a restful stay for some riders. As for me Little River is a place for a bite to eat while waiting for the shuttle back to city.

The shuttle van arrives and I find a seat by the window and watch my journey unfold in reverse. While I found no gemstone on the coast, the trail’s jewel is that it’s big on birds! The birdlife biodiversity is booming and would captivate twitchers for days. Wow! What a start to a trail leaving the square, crossing the Avon before entering the grand green space of Hagley Park. There are so many trail side attractions I had no time visit, such as the botanical gardens, the museum and the art centre.

I am excited to see a city building a green tread (a term I just made up but it’s a bit like a footprint) with 13 major cycle routes popping up throughout the city. I am looking forward to their completion, in particular the Avon and coastal routes that are likely to be popular with locals and visitors alike. So, thanks Christchurch for today’s ride from the big city to the little river; I will soon return, tempted back by your new urban cycleways from the city centre to the sea.