Māori travelled in waka and navigated by the stars to reach the east coast. Later, Europeans steered tall ships and navigated with sextants, crossing the globe and making discoveries along this coast. Today, I begin to chart the Hawke’s Bay Trails by bicycle and my navigation tools of choice are three GPS units. While transport and navigation methods have changed through the centuries, one thing remains constant: the need to find one’s way in life. I consider my life to be strongly influenced by geography; witness my chosen work path as a cartographer. So it is that I find myself in Napier ready to plot a course along this extensive network of cycle trails, to make maps for the Great Rides App and to help other lifestylers find their way.

The trail wraps around the harbourside – a perfect place to both dine or play

My first discovery takes place upon opening the car door. Parked at East Pier I’m immediately taken aback by the heat. It is a welcome warmth after the cool autumn rides I’m used to in the deep south I call home. The climate here seems so idyllic, and the relaxed charm of harbourside al fresco dining puts me in a holiday mood straight away. Although this is no recreational trip, I decide on a slower pace to survey this trail. Onto my bike I go. My first trail companions are not fellow riders but burly men crossing the path carrying seafood crates off their docked fishing boats. I smile. I like how the Great Rides has you crossing paths with people from all walks of life.

The Westshore strip of Norfolk pines and leisurely riders

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The path winds its way along the harbour edge where assorted pleasure craft are moored, and I enjoy the nautical start to the pathway. I say ‘path’ because this part of the trail has a wide concrete surface, so smooth after my other recent gravel rides. I feel like I am floating along like the boats bobbing beside me on the water. So far the other cyclists I pass are on upright comfort bikes, and my mountain bike beast feels a little out of place – it is still a little soiled from my last off-road adventure – like a pig-dog among pampered poodles. I pass under several Norfolk pines that provide shade on the Westshore strip and help guide me parallel with the coastline ride. The path passes picnicking families and others soaking up the sun on the grass; the only noises are the gentle waves sloshing up the beach, some gulls cawing overhead, and the hum of my knobbies on the pavement.

The beacons dwarf you as you ride past

Soon I reach Bayview and head inland, up to the carpark and the base of Rorookuri Hill. This prominent mound sits alone like a sandcastle on the beach with the tide out, which is not far from the truth. As I ride around this ancient pā site with its midden caches of shells, the geological origins of the hill are slowly revealed. Rorookuri was once an island surrounded by a vast lagoon, but during the Napier earthquake of 1931 the land rose and drained most of the lagoon and the island became part of the mainland. The trail, which takes me on a little loop around the former island, is now sitting on the old shoreline.

The wildlife hides are portals to views of wetland waterfowl

Leaving Rorookuri Hill behind, the so-named ‘Water Ride’ starts to literally become watery. The high king tide has formed puddles that spill across the path from the neighbouring wetland. While dodging these water hazards, I spy a tall structure off to my right that I assume is a watchtower for the airport. As I get closer though, I can see it’s a beacon tower for watercraft not aircraft, and I soon spot another beacon located out to the east. In the days before modern navigational aids existed, ships used prominent landmarks to guide them into the safety of the harbour, and from the trail I can still see a few tall Blue Gums (known as the Admiralty Trees) on the skyline ridge, which were planted in 1878 as a navigational aid. In 1907 these natural navigational aids were superseded by the two beacons that now stand tall beside the trail. The beacons were the first of their kind made of reinforced concrete and used incandescent oil burners that were serviced by lighthouse keepers. It is hard to imagine that where I am now resting my bike next to one of the towers was once, a few generations ago, under a metre of water!

Picking produce right below the trail

Onwards I ride, past the airport and under a tall silver birdlife art piece before reaching the Ahuriri Lagoon and a viewing platform for real wildlife observation. Here in the hide, I peek through round portholes that look much like the windows on the side of a ship, and I quietly watch the waterfowl going about their day. I’m loving this Water Ride and continue on my way to suburban Taradale.

The Wineries Ride makes a glorious loop around the vineyards

From Taradale, I reach the Puketapu Loop, a simple circuit of the Puketapu River. The ride starts near the Otatara Pā which I take a quick look at before starting the trail. The defensive pā is impressive as its elaborate terraces work their way up the hillside. It’s thought to be one of the most outstanding pā in the country and I can see why. There are fortifications, pits and gardens. The site was strategically placed to overlook the area, close to the river for navigation and the lagoon for food and flax collection. After the short walk, I’m once more on my bike and I make my way upstream.

The celestial star compass sits right beside the trail and ocean

The trail here has lovely twists and turns, and at the top end a tavern for a drink before returning via the opposite bank. At times the track passes orchard workers who are harvesting apples – and giving me friendly waves as they work their rows. Later in the day as I ride on a nearby trail, one of the orchard managers calls me over and offers me a sample from one of their trees. They are harvesting a small apple destined for the Asian market. They are sweet and crisp. It is incredible how crops are now grown specifically for a single overseas market and bred for their taste preference. After this refreshing bite, I head to the processing shed where whirring machines transport apples on conveyors, and dexterous staff busily sort and pack these sweet tasty fruits.

Mini marae features beside the trail

The following day I return to the trail and decide to give the Wineries Ride a go. This is a large loop of the Gimblett Gravels and I start at Roy’s Hill Restoration Area beside the vineyards. Soon I’m riding past rows of bountiful grapevines, all just an arm’s length from the track. Like the previous day’s trails, this one too is flat, and the limestone surface makes for easy riding. With over 20 vineyards on or close to the trail, this is a ride for those who like pedal-turning and tasting. Picking which places to stop, I think, might be the hardest part of the ride. The Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District is an area on the former Ngaruroro River riverbed. The presence of the gravels has lowered the water table resulting in a heat sump and micro-climate from the cool sea breezes. I am told that this gives the grapes the ability to thrive and develop their unique flavour. I can attest to the localised heat. As the day warms up on the gravels my pedalling slows down – I need to get back to the ocean to get some cool air. Fortunately the Clive to Clifton trail along the Kidnapper Coast should be a refreshing finale.

The Morris Minors collection is quite a sight

Just before I reach Clive (a town, not a guy on a bench!) I stop in at the Waitangi Regional Park. Here on the foreshore is another culturally significant site. This is the landing place of the Takitimu waka that brought the first Māori inhabitants to the area 600–700 years ago. The site is celebrated with a large celestial star compass of 32 carved pou which are set in a circle. It is designed to educate visitors on traditional navigational techniques used by Māori when they travelled by waka from the Pacific Islands to Aotearoa. I am fascinated by the large celestial star compass. As a cartographer, I have never walked inside a compass. It’s surreal to look past the pou cardinal points from the perspective of a compass needle. The site also has cross-cultural significance; the first mission station was located here, and a ship offshore from the park was where local Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

Rock armouring in Clifton – it’s hard to hold back the ocean

My internal compass now points south-south-west to Clive, a small town where the trail wraps around the edges before passing a coastal wetland. Here I find some walnut trees that have just dropped their shells; I scavenge around and find my handlebar bag has room for a few handfuls to enjoy later. After crossing the Tukituki River bridge the trail runs through a beautiful wetland area before reaching the coastal settlement of Haumoana. This is a sweet place to have an ice cream, sit on the beach, and enjoy the striking white cliffs of Cape Kidnappers. While I am here, I also visit the British Car Museum – while not much of a car buff myself, it was hard to bypass a sign claiming to have ‘the world’s largest collection of British motorcars’. Collector Ian Hope (who has sadly passed away recently) welcomed me through the door to view his incredible man-cave containing all things English motoring. My particular favourite was Dennis the fire engine as well as the vast number of Morris Minors. It takes some time to walk and view the 500 stacked vintage and classic British cars … a real lifetime’s passion for collecting that I hope will continue to live on.

Powering on beyond Haumoana I head along the coast with the Cape now close. The smell of the sea and the occasional sand drifts on the trail give it a real coastal flavour. A cluster of holiday homes mark the entrance to Te Awanga and just beyond is the trail’s end. I stand and watch both a local and global battle being raged; the telltale signs of the damage from the fight are evident. The Pacific Ocean is on the eastern front while the shoreline retreats inland. The coastal erosion from sea-level rise has resulted in this stretch of coastline losing 0.3–0.7 metres per year. Reinforcements arrive in Clifton in the way of rock armouring to try and save the road, while some buildings up the coast have had to be relocated. A recent council report suggests a ‘planned retreat’ and they are unlikely to fund any future barriers from this continued onslaught. How this plays out is anyone’s guess (although it ain’t easy to hold back the ocean) – like most wars, there are few winners in this environmental campaign.

Driving back to Napier I pass some of the places I visited on my bike. I am surprised and delighted by how many trailside cafés and open cellar doors have bike racks to welcome weary riders. I feel enriched by the cultural and historical navigational sites the trail took me past. I am impressed by the quality flat trail that occasionally sent me high onto stopbanks that overlook rivers, orchards and ocean. My experience of the Hawke’s Bay Trails has been an enticing offering of gentle rides that combine culture, cuisine and cycling. With additional funding already granted to expand the trail network, I will surely conduct a future expedition to chart the routes out east.