Opening the doors to Northland – Waitangi Mountain Bike Park

August 12, 2019

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Tiffany Holland grew up in Paihia before moving to live and work as a producer for Fashion Week in London, New York, Milan and Paris.

Tiff Holland, Project Driver of the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park

Tiff Holland, Project Driver of the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park.

The beauty, lifestyle and community of New Zealand’s regions brought her back home 15 years ago, and it was the Paihia community which backed her vision to create a world-class mountain bike facility as a major tourist attraction to create employment and opportunities in the region.

About $45,000 seed funding secured from 45 local businesses kicked off the project, which also gained support from the Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust and other bodies. Coupled with $490,000 funding from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) towards the overall $2.1m cost of the programme has now enabled the project to enter its final phase.

The community-owned Waitangi Mountain Bike park opened in October 2016 and now has over 43km over trails, weaving through spectacular Department of Conservation (DoC) controlled forest, and graded for all levels of experience and ability.

During its first two years of operation, the park attracted 16,000 visitors a year – far exceeding the goal of 10,000.

With a new hub, funded by the PGF and featuring a café, park office, toilets and bike hire facilities launched in December, visitor numbers are already tracking to grow significantly in 2019. Some of the PGF funding will go towards building more trails.

Tiffany, who now manages the park, says the new facilities are beautiful and there is a significant increase in visitor numbers since the hub opened. The PGF funding has been enabling and it’s made a huge difference, she says. “The future is looking very exciting.”

“You can already see the difference the mountain bike park has made for the area. It is very well used by people in the region – from Kerikeri, Whangarei, Hokianga, Kaitaia and Russell, but a lot of our visitors are from further afield. Biking clubs from Auckland are booking out entire campgrounds or other accommodation, and we have had people from Australia.

“The park itself has created 14 full and part time jobs but the roll-on effect is much bigger. You see bikes everywhere around town now. We had one bike hire facility with about ten bikes. We now have several bike hire businesses and the bike shop in Kerikeri has tripled its floorspace and doubled its staff numbers. Cafés and accommodation are putting in bike storage facilities. We have a lot of families coming from outside the area. They bring the kids, use the park and go to the other local tourist attractions too.

“We have excelled user goals to date without any marketing – but we have now employed our first marketing person.”

When Tiffany returned home from overseas, “dragging my then English boyfriend, now husband, Robin”, she maintained her fashion career for some years, continuing to travel until their eldest daughter was born.

Tiffany says finding work in the regions is difficult for many – so creating opportunities was a huge part of the mountain bike park vision.

“Growing up in this region, I saw so many wonderful people and wonderful businesses leave the area because they could not sustain a living.

“Our regions have so much beauty and such diverse communities. People come here and they can’t believe we live in such an amazing place. People want to stay and they want to move here and for people to do that the regions need to be better funded and better resourced.”

The goal of improving quality of life for local people in the region was another driving force, she noted.

“For me, that has been the most rewarding part. Northland has some of the worst health statistics in New Zealand. We have an obesity epidemic and we wanted to bring a more active culture to the region.”

The park is free to use, although it also has a popular programme whereby users donate $40 a year for adults and $25 for children – getting tags for their bikes which entitle them to discounts at other businesses and facilities around the area.

“As soon as we opened, we started getting people through on health rehab’ programmes,” says Tiffany. “We have trails that cater for all abilities. A lot of people who have not been on a bike in 20 years are hiring bikes and having such a great time that they are buying bikes and coming here regularly. We have low decile schools bringing students here on enviro-programmes and the kids have never done anything like this before.

“I’ll be working on a track and a bunch of great big guys will go cycling by and they are laughing and singing and you hear them whooping as they head down the slopes and it makes this journey all worthwhile.”

That journey began some years ago with a visit to the Whakarewarewa mountain bike park at Rotorua.

“Our children were aged six and four then and they absolutely loved it and so did we and we looked at one another and it was, ‘wow. Can we get one of these for the Bay of Islands?..

“Back home, Robin began researching a possible location identifying the site for the trails, which now weave in and out of the Waitangi Endowment Forest.

Focus Paihia got behind the Hollands’ vision and so did the region. As well as business, it has won support from the Waitangi National Trust, the local community board, local councils and Northland locals. Over 160 local people are registered as volunteers to carry out maintenance.

Along with sourcing start-up funding, gaining consent was, understandably, a long process.

“That took two-and-a-half years,” says Tiffany. “The forest is incredibly special. It was part of Lord Bledisloe’s gift to the nation along with the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It is owned by the Crown, administered by DoC and has its own Act of Parliament constituting its governance structure.”

Tiffany – who has worn ‘multiple hats’ throughout the process, has worked closely with the hapū for the area to ensure every aspect of the park reflects the tangata whenua of the region.

“The design of the local marae is reflected in the design of the new hub and all the trails are named to represent significant Māori place names and Māori values. We want to give people riding the trails a real sense of place and connection with this land and its history.”

When fully completed, Waitangi Mountain Bike Park will offer mountain bikers 72km of trails catering to all abilities – developed around the forests’ logging harvest programme. It is expected to attract 15,000 new visitors to the region within three years and create 160 new jobs after 10 years.

It complements Northland’s other major cycling attraction, Pou Herenga Tai Far North Cycle Way (Twin Coast Cycle Trail) and the long term plan is to connect the two. It is also expected to earn a silver rating from the International Mountain Bike Association, putting it on level with some of the most popular mountain bike parks in the world.

Paihia Mountain Bike Rentals owner Jonny Martin has no doubt those goals will be achieved.

He is a long-time mountain bike enthusiast who has worked leading mountain bike tours all over the world. The launch of the park provided him with the platform he need to launch a business back in Paihia.

“Waitangi Mountain Bike Park was 100 per cent the factor in enabling me to set up a business back in the Bay of Islands,” he says.

Launched nearly two years ago and initially based in Paihia, the company won the tender to operate bike rentals from the new hub.

“I have ridden a lot of world class trails and I believe this is the best in New Zealand and will be among the best in the world,” says Jonny.

“Growing up here, I was really into mountain biking and have ultimately made a career out of it, but there was nowhere to do it. I had to ride on the road - or go all the way to Rotorua for a proper ride. I heard about the park while I was still overseas and that presented a very exciting opportunity. Before I’d left New Zealand, there had been no need for much in the way of bike rental here because there just wasn’t the demand.

“We employ five to ten people depending on the season and have 70 to 100 bikes at any one time, and that will not be enough in a couple of years. We are hiring out world-class bikes for world-class trails. The career potential directly associated with biking is really exciting – if people want to compete, if they want to lead tours or if they want to train as bike mechanics, but it goes far beyond that.”

“This has been awesome for other local businesses and for our region – as someone who grew up here I can really see the difference. Not only has it increased visitor numbers – we see a lot of families coming through our business and using other local facilities too, but a lot of people from across the region are getting into riding. It isn’t just mountain biking either, e-biking is really taking off too - there are bikes everywhere now. This project has opened the doors to Northland.”