Tales from the Trail
Hand-cycling On The Kawatiri Coastal Trail

Many of us incorporate cycling in our everyday journeys, for transport, leisure, and exercise. Historically cycle trails have been designed around two wheeled bikes, and with able bodied cyclists in mind.

In recent years there’s been a growing demographic of cyclists with a disability. And with improvements to trail builds, technology and equipment, they now have a world expanding opportunity to explore trails like never before.

For cycle trails to be accessible to the disabled community, it requires a continuous and uninterrupted journey, where riders feel safe and comfortable. Trails need to be step free, barrier free and spacious.

These considerations are also important for children, novice riders, and seniors riding our trails. They foster inclusion and a sense of independence, ensuring more of us can access the physical, emotional, practical and social benefits of cycling.

We caught up with local adventurers Sarah and Mel, to learn about their bikes, why cycling is so beneficial to the disabled community, and of course hear about their experiences on the Kawatiri Coastal Trail.

Sarah Victoria Horner, was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, but spent her first 13 years of life in San Diego, California. Returning to Halifax as a teenager, Sarah contracted Meningococcal Septicemia, and lost both of her feet as a result. Already a keen athlete, Sarah was fitted with two artificial legs, and so it was a natural process for her to become involved in wheelchair sport for the disabled, as well as amputee sport.

During the Pan American Games of 1978 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sarah met Melvin Leo Fitzgerald, known as Mel. Born in the small village of Trepassey, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada, at the age of two Mel contracted Polio. Mel was fitted with a brace, and occasionally used crutches, or a wheelchair for accessibility. 

In his early 20’s, he learned of sports for the disabled, and became a keen track athlete, eventually becoming involved in racing and marathoning at a highly competitive level. He travelled all over the world with his sport, Japan, Italy, South America, and eventually at Olympic level. It was this love of travel which led him to New Zealand.

A couple of years ago, when considering where they would settle, the west coast of the south Island suited most of their needs. Sarah’s sister had lived in Westport, and with her niece still in Cape Foulwind, there was a pull to stay in the area. The pair fell in love with the rugged beauty, amazing ocean views, and the Trail. They’ve since purchased a house in Carters Beach, and feel lucky to cycle from home, straight out onto the Trail.

What kind of cycles do you use, and how has the technology improved your experience?

We use three-wheel hand-bikes, which are front wheel drive, and have 27 gears. They’re a Top End brand which we were lucky to pick up second hand here in New Zealand. These kinds of bikes have been available for some years. This technology has enabled us to go many places we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to walking or using a wheelchair. The bikes have opened many doors for us.   

How important is the social aspect of your bike rides together?

There is the social aspect for us, but it also applies to meeting others in the community and visitors from outside of the region. Cycling has become our main form of exercise, so it’s particularly important and special as a couple, to have an activity we can both take part in and enjoy together. 

Our abilities are quite different. Mel can cycle many more kilometres than I can. Sometimes I meet him on the Trail after he’s already ridden 10 km. He’s been involved in the sport of cycling for 10 years or so, and I’m a relative beginner. Some days we bring the camera and take our time, and others we get in a good workout. The fitness aspect is a huge benefit for both of us. 

The ability to meet folk from the community on the Trail has been a really special side of our involvement. Obviously, the bikes are different, and so they catch people’s interest. They often want to stop and talk and ask questions about the bikes or us. We both love that side of our rides, and there are folk we see most times we ride. Some we now know by name and give us a hello. There’s a wonderful mutual respect for those getting out there and having a go.      

What are the benefits of cycling for you, and for the people in our communities living with a disability?

There’s no doubt that being involved in an everyday activity like cycling is hugely beneficial to anyone, and especially to folk with a disability. It comes down to accessibility.  When a special place becomes accessible to many, when its beauty is available to all, it’s even more special for everyone. It’s good for the able-bodied to see those with disabilities enjoying the pleasures of nature, experiencing the stunning beauty of the natural environment.

We love to glean knowledge from the interpretation panels. We try to remember a new bird, or tree name, that we hadn’t been aware of prior. We love learning about the local history. We appreciate how the Trail leads us into areas of the Coast, otherwise only appreciated through photos. The boardwalks through the bush, and bridges over the river are incredible. It makes me proud of New Zealand for investing in these structures and ensuring they’re accessible for so many. 

The benefits to mental health are huge. Getting outside, into the sun, mist or rain. Getting out of the house and into nature. Disability or not, it’s good for all of us. It’s positive for people to see those with a disability participating in life, just like they are. And it’s good for those with a disability to have that recognised. We’ve loved the reaction of the school children on their return from Westport to Carters Beach. They think the bikes are ‘so cool’, and don’t see the disability. They see the bikes, and that’s fun. They’re happy to talk, and ask questions, just accepting someone sitting low on a cool bike, rather than high on a standard bike. It’s a very special feeling.

Photo credit: Pūwaha Boardwalk – Nomad Audio & Video

Which Sections of the Trail have your ridden so far, and do you have a favourite?

We started our Kawatiri Coastal Trail experience whilst staying on Lighthouse Road. So the route from the Lighthouse to Tauranga Bay became our first challenge. Hand-bikes are wider than standard bikes and don’t handle sharp, narrow turns as easily.

Parts of that section of Trail are too narrow for us, and visibility around some of the corners feels a bit dicey. It’s a shame, because parts of that Section are stunningly beautiful, and feel like they’re cut right out of the most natural piece of bush. Very special. 

We’ve done the trail from Westport to Ōkari a number of times, but as far as favourites go, there’s no doubt the Tauranga Bay section is our favourite. Its beauty is without comparison, and all of it is very manageable for our bikes. We’re looking forward to experiencing the Charleston connection, and hope to do that soon!

How does the Kawatiri Coastal Trail compare to other cycle trails you’ve ridden?

Comparisons are definitely tricky to make amongst the different trails. We’ve had a fair bit of experience on Newfoundland trails. They’re made to be wider, handling more people coming and going. Some of the new Kawatiri Sections are narrow, and whilst they allow us to be on stunning spots, when someone’s coming from the other direction, there’s a need to be careful, stop, and go quietly when passing. 

One aspect of this Trail compared to others is the peace. We love that it’s not alongside the main road, which means no traffic noise, just bird song, or oncoming bikes, or bikes coming from behind. The bridges and the boardwalks are a wonderful aspect, and we’re very grateful they were budgeted into the Trail.  

How important is the trail’s terrain, and what was your experience of the Kawatiri Coastal Trail?

We understand this is a trail for everyone, through a part of the country that is hugely challenging and varied. We’re glad those involved have been able to get into areas that are incredibly different, interesting, natural and beautiful. For the most part the terrain is great for us with our hand-bikes. 

The gravel tracks are tight and firm, so we have traction, and get through most of it. Hills and dales are part of what make it so interesting, and we wouldn’t need or want it to be flat all the way. It’s what makes it challenging, and it may be we just need to alter our tyres.

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