Golden Bay, in the Nelson Tasman region, is a remarkably beautiful part of New Zealand. The area has long offered rich opportunities for tramping, rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, caving – a vast range of outdoor activities to be enjoyed within a stunning natural setting.

All were catered for bar one notable exception, one that has also arguably become New Zealand’s most high-profile recreational exercise: cycling. Winding, narrow and surprisingly busy roads (particularly in the summer season) often turned road biking into a dangerous sport, while opportunities for mountain bikers were virtually non-existent.

When Wellington software developers Phil Castle and Beth Burdett moved to Takaka in 2002 they quickly became aware of this shortcoming.

“I strongly believe there should be places close to where people live where they can go and enjoy the outdoors, and go for a walk, or ride,” says Phil. “We need to have chunks of land that we can put aside, protect from development, and keep as wild spaces.”

Beth Burdett and Phil Castle hacked their way through head-height gorse to create tracks among stunning scenery (Jonathan Kennett)

Phil and Beth set up the Rata-Tui Restoration Trust and bought their own ‘chunk of land’ in 2010, a 48-hectare tract of Motupipi Hill. They wanted to use the heavily wooded terrain to demonstrate their strongly held belief that a conservation ethic can coexist with a recreational focus.

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“Especially biking,” says Beth. “At that time, the Department of Conservation were opposed to mountain-bike activity on DOC land. So we felt you could create sensibly rideable trails and still have a conservation area unaffected by that. And now of course, DOC fully support mountain biking, and throughout the country they’re working on good trails.”

Buying a large tract of land and spending many years of hard work creating trails, just to make them all available to everyone free of charge seems like an incredibly altruistic gesture. But it is an observation that Beth and Phil quickly shrug off.

“We were wondering who to leave our inheritance money to, as we don’t have kids,” explains Phil. “We thought about a conservation charity, and then the next step we took was deciding to not wait until we’re gone, but giving it now, and that way we can guide the use of that money.”

A spectacular view across Motupipi Estuary to Golden Bay beyond, from the top of The Knoll trail (Jonathan Kennett)

Beth provides an additional reason: “I believe a community is as strong as the commitment that people put into it. Developing Motupipi Hill was something that we were in a position to do as our business was going well, so we decided to do something good from that.”

Having purchased their hill (protected in perpetuity as a charitable trust), the couple then had to literally start making tracks. There were existing logging roads, which at least gave Beth and Phil a starting point for their exploration. “We didn’t actually build the first track for about two years,” explains Phil. “We felt we needed to get a feel for the terrain, so we developed a few walking routes through to get an idea of the lie of the land, and think about where tracks might go.”

The first track developed was ‘The Knoll’, an ascent through native forest to a headland that rewards with a spectacular panoramic view of the Motupipi estuary and the entire sweep of Golden Bay beyond. Fortunate cyclists pausing here would never realise that Phil had to bash his way through above-head-height gorse to create this path. The conservation ethic that he and Beth hold, helped to decide the route.

“We were planting a whole lot of rātā and needed a good track to bring a wheelbarrow in. This is why a lot of conservation and recreation can be complementary: to get into an area and plant it out, you need good access.” The tracks created for planting can then be adapted into cycle trails, but this is no simple feat. “People think we just charge through the bush with a spade, but an awful lot of planning is involved.”

Beth and Phil take a corner on one of the hill’s many tracks (Jonathan Kennett)

Phil consulted Top of the South aerial maps of the area. “I could see right away where the contours were the most easy and was able to plot a track. But I also spent months walking back and forth with an inclinometer, placing tape around trees at eye height so that I could measure the distance and angle.”

Beth also emphasises the importance, when planning tracks, of preserving native trees and (after an expensive digger experience) avoiding large pines. “So we’ve refined our technique as we’ve gone on.”

Another important element in planning the trails of Motupipi Hill was help from mountain-biking legend Jonathan Kennett, who pioneered the sport in New Zealand along with his two brothers back in the 1980s.

As well as spurring on Beth and Phil with the development of the nearby Project Rameka mountain-bike trails, he provided invaluable technical advice. “Jonathan gave us this wonderful little A4 sheet with pictures and diagrams on gradients, and how to build a corner. This became our bible,” says Beth.

Phil Castle believes chunks of land should be kept wild, and protected from development (Jonathan Kennett)

Many years of hard work have resulted in eight cross-country trails ranging from grade 2 to 4, covering a distance of 8km through regenerating native bush and bringing into reach a pristine wetland, the estuary shore and a range of stunning views. Possum traps are maintained to keep the marauding marsupials at bay. Runners, walkers and cyclists, ranging from lycra-clad devotees to families with young children in tow, regularly enjoy Beth and Phil’s gift to the community.

And indeed, everyone who benefits from Motupipi Hill is given an opportunity to help, as Beth and Phil hold occasional ‘planting days’. Volunteers can spend a happy few hours maintaining tracks, clearing ground and bedding in plants which will eventually become future forest as part of Motupipi Hill’s legacy.

“I can’t imagine being part of something, and not contributing to it,” Beth explains.

“Also, seeing areas of land where forests are disappearing; we’re doing what we can to reverse that in a small way on Motupipi Hill,” Phil adds. “And besides, we love riding there!”