What causes two reasonably sane people to fly to another country with their 11 month old baby, strap her to the back of a bike and ride 70-odd kilometres across the countryside for two days?
On paper it sounds overly ambitious and kinda nuts, right?! But earlier this year my husband John, baby Coco and I did it – and it was fantastic! Far from losing our minds, as many feared we would, we embraced being “out of control” on the road and ended up loving every minute. Keep reading to find out how we did it and my top 5 tips to enjoying a bike adventure with your baby…
In February our little family embarked on a two-week trip to New Zealand and the Cook Islands to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday. You can read about more of our adventures here!
One of the absolute highlights of our trip was our bike hike across the Coromandel region of New Zealand. Attempting a multi-day bike ride with a baby probably sounds crazy to most people. Our friends told us we were adventurous and brave, but also joked that we’d most likely end up holidaying with an exhausted, wailing banshee of a child. “Bet you can’t wait!” they said.
I can see why they were sceptical though. You see, we’d never taken Coco on a bike before. Had never put a helmet on her little noggin or forced her to endure hours of bumping along a dirt track. Yep, there was every chance we’d have a very unhappy third wheel on our hands.
But as dire as it could have been, we were optimistic it’d all work out. Mentally, we accepted that while we could plan for all sorts of eventualities, how the baby reacted to the whole thing was absolutely out of our control. All we could do was give it a go and hope for the best!
With that in mind, we arrived in NZ ready and raring to take on one of the country’s most picturesque and family friendly trail rides!
Hauraki Rail Trail: how, what and where
The Hauraki Rail Trail comprises 82km of bike trails across the Coromandel region of New Zealand. Following the route of an old railway line, the trail is made up of three sections linking Thames in the north, Te Aroha to the south and Waihi to the east. You can ride the whole thing over the course of a few days, or settle for just one or two sections of the trail in a day or two. We decided on a two-day ride from Thames to Waihi, which would take us past some of NZ’s gorgeous rural countryside and through the Karangahake Gorge to the gold mining town of Waihi.
Here’s why we loved the HRT (and you will too!):
- It’s flat, making it one of the easiest rides in NZ. Perfect if you’re lugging 10kgs of baby weight behind you!
- There are heaps of awesome places to stop for a snack/ rest / nappy change / play time.
- The trail passes mostly through grassy fields rather than following the road, so there’s little fear of being hit by cars or trucks.
- It’s fenced on either side so there’s also no chance of stray cows knocking you off your bike.
- Lots of signage = no getting lost or having to constantly refer to maps.
Booking was also super easy. We simply emailed the folks at HRT (www.haurakirailtrail.co.nz) and they organised pretty much everything! Bike hire? Tick! Baby seat? Tick! Accommodation? Tick!! Luggage transfers and a shuttle pickup at the end of the journey? Tick tick!!! In the end all we had to do was show up at the main office in Thames, get fitted for our bikes and collect a map. Too easy! Plus by booking through HRT, 15% of what you pay goes to the HRT Trust to help pay for trail maintenance and expansion (and it’s the same price as booking everything directly with the service providers – win!).
Day one: Thames to Paeroa
Thames was once a busy port town. The area here was a centre for mining and logging throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with loggers practically decimating the local kauri forests. Today Thames is a quieter place, but the kauri timber cottages built during those heady logging days still proudly line the streets in and around town.
As we left HRT headquarters and headed out of town, Coco started whooping with excitement and flapping her arms like a little bird – an auspicious start! But would it last?!
We rode for an hour before coming to our first stop at The Cheese Barn in Matatoki – a delightful little cafe/cheese shop with wooden tables pitched up under the trees in the garden. Alpacas watched on from a neighboring field while we sipped our coffees and sampled the house-made cheeses (the cumin-infused gouda and blue cheese, especially good!).
Already feeling guilty about keeping our energetic whirlwind of a kid immobilised for lengthy periods, we let Coco roam free to work out her pent-up energy. She went wild, crawling all over the place and introducing herself to the rabbits and guinea pigs housed in hutches on the lawn. Then, thoroughly exhausted, she was happy for us to plonk her back on the bike and set off again.
Legs pumping, we continued through picturesque farmland for another hour or so. We rode in sunshine even while dark clouds loomed on the hills to the east, threatening to catch us up. Inevitably they did; fat drops hitting our warm skin before settling into a fine drizzle.
To our great surprise Coco loved riding in the rain! As she squealed and held her arms out to catch the drops, we found ourselves amazed at just how resilient and adventurous our kid can be. It was one of those moments that seemed to vindicate our crazy gamble of a holiday. For John and I, those memories of speeding through the rain with our screaming, joyous bub on the back will stay with us as one of the highlights of the trip.
It started bucketing down just as we made it to The Convenient Cow – a cafe/convenience store in the tiny town of Hikutaia. The $7 burgers were awesome value, bursting with beetroot and pineapple (seriously, what’s a burger without beetroot and pineapple?!). Coco ate part of our burger and a squeezy pouch, then wore herself out again chasing the resident pooch around the cafe for about 20 minutes or so.
Arriving in Paeroa in the late afternoon, we checked into our motel and promptly got Coco fed, showered and put to bed (in the pram, so we could walk to dinner). We’d brought our pram with us from Sydney and the HRT guys had made sure it and our bags were waiting for us in Paeroa. Awesome service.
Paeroa is a funny place. One of the first things you notice when arriving in town is the large, brown “L&P” bottle erected proudly on the roadside. L&P (Lemon & Paeroa) is the “world famous in NZ” lemony soft drink that’s been produced in NZ for almost a century. Originally made using the bubbly mineral waters from a nearby spring, L&P is everywhere in Paeroa. We made sure to grab a couple of bottles for the next day’s ride, along with some L&P flavoured Whittaker’s chocolate (ohmygod amazing!).
Day 2: Karangahake Gorge to Waihi
We awoke on day two with a good appetite and, in my case anyway, a slightly tender bum. Today’s riding took us through Karangahake Gorge towards the coastal town of Waihi. Leaving Paeroa, calm brown cows lined the trail and looked at us curiously as we stopped to “moo” at them. Coco took up the call, mooing and banging her helmet whenever we passed another one of these intriguing new creatures.As we moved beyond the outskirts of Paeroa, the scenery changed from rural pastures to lush forest. Towering tree ferns lined the trail on either side while clusters of butterflies and dragonflies swirled overhead. The Ohinemuri river down to our left wound its way gently towards the sea. We crossed it a couple of times, rolling over steel truss bridges with the river far below.
Then we hit the old railway tunnel, which passes straight through the mountain range. Cycling through darkness for over a kilometre, water drips from the ceiling and plinks into puddles below. Tiny ferns grow in cracks between the bricks on either side as we whizz past. Our voices echo off the walls as we “coo-ee” and Coco joins in, squealing with excitement and adrenalin. Gradually the light ahead of us grows bigger and bigger, until suddenly we’re back amongst the greenery and sunshine.
About to enter the darkness: this section of the trail sees you cycling through an 1,100m through an old railway tunnel.
Just beside the tunnel exit is a loop track called the Windows Walk, which leads to old mining tunnels and other mining era remains. These relics hark back to the gold mining industry that flourished here between the 1880s and 1950s. We ditched the bikes and headed on foot along part of the track to take in views of the river and the road swooping up and over the mountains, over the tunnel we’d just passed through.
The HRT continues on to Waikino, another small town and lunch opportunity. Then it passes Victoria Barracks – a ruined quartz-crushing facility, its stone walls collapsed and overgrown in the grass.The bright green tree ferns and mossy undergrowth gradually gave way to oak trees and grassy, rolling hills peppered with sheep. Here the trail became windier, closely following the bends in the river. A few small rises and falls had me puffing on the uphill and Coco squealing happily on the downhill, arms flapping ecstatically.
Having missed her nap again, Coco began to get a little cranky as lunch time approached. We gave her a squeezy pouch and she fed herself as we continued rolling along (we usually go for Only Organics and Bellamy’s ones, but on this occasion we’d found yummy Heinz ones in the Pack n Save in Paeroa). I’d also packed sultanas into the back pocket of my shorts so Coco could grab them as and when she pleased. Sultanas – as a parent you can’t go anywhere without them!Before long, the quaint little railway station at Waihi came into view. Waihi remains a gold mining town to this day and, if you’re up for more physical activities, you can do a walk along the rim of the mine. There’s also a historic train that operates regularly between Waihi and Waikino (the Goldfields Railway) if you want to experience some of the old mining era charm. The beach is close by if you want to take a dip too.
We found a cafe for a quick lunch (Ti Tree Cafe – yummy seafood chowder, which Coco loved, and a pretty courtyard for her to explore too) then returned to the station for our shuttle bus pickup.
Then at 3.30pm the HRT “Sherpa bus” collected us, our bikes and a few other riders, dropping some of the group back in Paeroa and the remainder in Thames. As we drove along Coco was once again whooping and squealing with excitement. Perhaps she was just relieved to be off the bike, but I like to think she was still on a high after her amazing two-day adventure. It was an incredible trip and I’m certain that the lessons we learned – embracing being out of control and just going with the flow – will inspire our future travels and adventures as a family!
Top 5 tips for biking with your baby
So for those of you keen to embark on a bike hike with your bubba, below are my top 5 tips to help you on your way!
- Squeeze in nap time: Coco was still on two naps a day and we knew it would be near impossible for her to fall asleep on the bike (the kid has a massive case of FOMO). So, even though we’d be itching to get started each day, we did the responsible parent thing and let her have her morning nap. That way we started each ride with a chirpy, smiley bubba!
- Work it out: let the kid have plenty of breaks and work out all of that restless energy. Regular stops are essential!
- Snacks: pack lots of snacks, especially ones that your bub can hold and manage on their own while you’re riding. For example, I had sultanas packed into the back pocket of my shorts so Coco could grab them whenever she wanted.
- Don’t overpack! I made the mistake of packing our day bag with all sorts of “necessary” items. Rain coats, food for Coco, loads of nappies, spare clothes, bike locks, heavy duty camera and spare lens, head torch, etc etc… A lot of this stuff proved very unnecessary (and definitely contributed to my tender backside!).
- Don’t underestimate your baby or their ability to surprise you: if you let them, your child will surprise you with their resilience and adaptability. By all means plan for every contingency, but don’t be afraid to be adventurous and push the boundaries! It’s liberating to let go of control and see where life (and your baby) takes you!
Have you cycled the Hauraki Rail Trail? Do you enjoy biking with your baby? What are your top tips for baby- or family-friendly bike adventures? Please share your story in the comments below!