Zealandia is in a deep gully in the hills above Wellington, and the area has lots of trails through native forest, some of which connect to service roads and farm tracks leading to the south coast. Northeast of the sanctuary, in Polhill Gully, trail builders have been busy in the forest.
The Aro was one of Wellington's first hill suburbs. Close to the harbour, the lower part is a former marsh and the upper slopes were covered in rata and rimu forest. An earthquake in 1855 raised the low lying land and settlers, followed by a forest fire, put paid to the original forest, which is now mainly mahoe with a few imported pines. Dodo has seen newly planted trees near some of the newer trails which I think are rata. At the Aro Street end of Holloway Road are some stunning Pohutakawas.
Although the Aro was run-down for years, most of the houses have survived and the place looks completely different from the south end of the CBD it backs onto. In recent years most of the Aro has been gentrified, the houses tarted up (and insulated; how anyone lived there before I'll never know), new businesses opened including a good LBS, three coffee shops (all good) and a modern village feel. There's still a few hippies about, and some of the older residents do still stalk about in the trees muttering, but the Aro today is a lovely place. While all this was going on, trail builders went into the Polhill Gully and started building new trails, and linking up old ones.
The deep narrow gullies of this part of Wellington are very atmospheric to ride in and the best parts of the trails are the bits where parts of older paths have been re-used and incorporated into the route, particularly where these go through, or overlook, small hidden valleys (like the Manawa and Waimapihi) and clearings in the upper part of the gully. Not all of these are open to bikes, but they're definitely worth exploring - sometimes in the seemingly deepest parts of the forest, you'll see the sunlit area just a few metres away, scramble through the trees for a look, and see something you'd never have guessed was was there.
Another thing you'll discover on the hill trails around Wellington is the answer to a question I often asked myself when I first saw the place - where are all the streams? There's plenty of water, how does it all get down from the hills? The answer is: underground, mostly, in the town, since the streams have mostly been built over. But go into the green areas and you'll find them. The Waimapihi stream rises somewhere at the south west end of Zealandia, and used to flow down part of Holloway road and down the Aro. You ride beside a branch of it at the start of Transient, where it leaves the little picnic area in Aro Street - my favourite part of Transient. But you'll also find it, and cross it, on Clinical. And if you ride to the end of Holloway Road, into the little park, you'll see one of the places where it disappears underground.
Recently a new petrol station was built in Vivian Street in town. When digging out the tanks, they discovered the Waimapihi running underneath the site. The course of the stream is marked on the apron of the station.
Single track from George Denton park in Highbury to Ashton Finchett Drive in Brooklyn. This trail is easy hardpack, well graded, which roughly sidehills away from the Sanctuary predator fence at the north end to the start of the two alternative routes up to the Brooklyn wind turbine. Pretty, sheltered and easy in both directions.
4WD track running from Ashton Finchett Drive up to the sanctuary fenceline. Exposed to the elements, but easy in both directions. Has the best views from any of these trails, over Wellington Harbour to the Rimutakas to the east and the Tararuas to the north.
Doubletrack running right round the sanctuary (though some sections on the northeast side are unrideable because of gradient). The rest is rideable but not a great deal of fun - much of it is steep, the surface is pretty rough, and some of the steepest corners are, well, the opposite of cambered. It's a great workout though, and very pretty. Bikes are not allowed in the sanctuary itself, so this is as close as you can get. Paying your money and walking round the inside of the fence, and around the two reservoirs, makes a great afternoon out.
Singletrack, one of my favourites, running from a few metres west of the entrance to George Denton Park through to Waiapu Road, the vehicle entrance to Zealandia. This track had no name that I knew of, so I call it Goldmine after an engineer told me about an old goldmining project down near the weir. The first part of it seems to be a continuation of the fenceline track, whereas the second part veers off north (right) on a downhill section where the fence has almost reached the main Zealandia building. It zig-zags down through the trees right behind this building (much fun if you can sideslip) and comes out behind the scout hall above Waiapu road. Caution - A concrete staircase going down on this trail right behind the Zealandia building is not visible until you are right on top of it. So, the first time I explored this trail, I proved the stairs are rideable. I believe skill had very little to do with this, and would expect to be able to repeat this feat perhaps one time in twenty, probably requiring medevac after the other 19.
This is a favourite for two reasons despite being so short - the smell of coffee coming up at you as you pass the Zealandia building which has a coffee shop with a balcony on the far side; and the fact that the middle part of the first section, where the trail runs along the fence, is one of the best places in Wellington to see large numbers of Tuis all in one place. Every so often they have to cut back the trees beside the fence on your right as you descent the track, otherwise predators can use them as a launchpad to jump the fence (apparently). For some reason after they do this pruning, the Tuis come and just sit there on the freshly cut branches, singing. Highly recommended. They're all crazy, but no more than me.
Singletrack climbing to the wind turbine from near the top of Sawmill. Well graded and mostly hardpack, holds up well in the wet, but can be heinously slippy with leaves in fall. Very steep short exit up to the turbine, but usually rideable. I think this trail is up-only.
Descends the route that Windmill climbs. Can be a bit slippy and there are a couple of off-cambered sections where the trail has worn. An extension runs south from the top of Windmill to the end of Barking Emu, meaning you can ride trail all the way to Tip Track without using the road. Take you much longer, though.
Runs south to Tip Track from the end of Car Parts. This track is pretty rough and I never ride it now. It parallels the radar dome road most of the way - at points it's only a few metres away. The trail is named for the emus on the farm on your right at the lowest point of the road when heading south, and for the dogs that will howl at you from inside the grounds of an absurd fenced papier maché castle farther along. Are they hiding something in there? Do we know?
Surfaced road running south from the Brooklyn wind turbine to the radar station on Hawkins hill. A great ride, fantastic open views on both sides over southern Wellington (east) and Long Gully station (west). It's usually windy. The surface is badly weathered in places. If heading south, bypassing the worst of the wear on the road involves riding on the wrong side of the road on a steep descent, but take it easy - vehicles do come along in the other direction both from the farm and from the radar station, at quite a speed.
Beyond the radar dome, a gravel road continues south toward the coast, passing Te Kopahau (a hill on your right). This road is well worth riding because of the elevation - the views are fantastic, particularly of the Kaikoura ranges in the South Island. It's exposed and often incredibly windy up here. At the far end you can descend into Long Gully and then to the coast, or if determined, you can force one of the smaller tracks leading off south east. Beware though, these aren't recommended - many of these trails sidehill for some distance then disappear at the top of a cliff.
Note: Long Gully is privately owned. I've ridden there a few times. They blow hot and cold on access; best to check with Wellington City Council, which will also help to keep this issue front of mind for them. Signs occasionally appear along this road warning that there is no public access to it; ignore these. There is a right of way all the way along the road to Te Kopahau. You are quite within your rights to climb or round the gate and carry on, provided you stick to the road or the land to the left (south) of it.
Doubletrack heading steeply downhill toward the floor of Happy Valley from a point near the radar dome. The start is signposted. I've ridden it a couple of times and have no particular desire to go there again - it's really rough and not much fun. I wouldn't even consider riding up it.
The fact that you can ride from almost the center of Wellington to the south coast on trail is pretty special. This is probably the best way to do it, an alternative to the Long Gully option above. Head for the Hawkins Hill radar dome as above and take the same signposted turnoff as for Tip Track - down, and to the left. Shortly after that, Tip Track veers left and Red Rocks goes right. The track is a little rough in places, but mostly good fun with great views. The slog back along the beach to Owhiro Bay is the opposite - tough going, and not very pretty. The south coast at this point is in a poor state, which could also be said of some of the humans you will encounter here - vehicle access to this beach needs to be stopped.
Single track running from the Highbury Fling down to the little park in Aro Street. Very pretty. Getting a little rougher than it used to be, but still fun. Transient uses a section of the old Durham Street access road about 2/3 of the way down. Take a sharp left at the end of this section to avoid going down the downhill trail. The prettiest sections are below this point along the stream, and immediately above this section. Transient sees a lot of use, and there are always riders on it in both directions (plus hikers and people with their bloody dogs). The surface holds up well for the most part, but I do recommend avoiding it at the start and end of weekdays as a lot of people seem to use it for commuting and you'll often encounter large groups of riders setting off uphill after work hours. This includes after dark, in winter. All of which (large group, uphill singletrack, after dark, winter) pretty much defines the opposite of my kind of riding.
Downhill-only trail running from the north end of the old Durham Street road to the park in Aro Street where Transient comes out. It's higher grade than Transient, and though I've ridden it a few dozen times, I don't anymore. It's covered in tree roots and has one drop off with no bypass (there are two drop-off options, the one on the right is not difficult, it's basically a very steep bank). I never use this trail now and always go down Transient when going this way.
One of the newest, and the peach of the singletracks in Polhill. Beautiful short trail running up from the end of Brosnahan Terrace to George Denton Park. Near the top, an option running east leads to the top of Mount Pleasant Road. There's also a downhill trail (mostly separate). These trails re-use parts of old walking tracks.
If you ride right round the sanctuary from Polhill, staying on the predator fence, on the northern side you'll end up sidehilling Wright's Hill, where during the war a huge cannon was installed at the summit. It's a great place to visit, with stunning views. A wide 4WD road branches off to the north (left); immediately after that, a steep singletrack trail goes off to the east (right) up through dense scrub to the summit. That's the short way up to the top. For a slightly longer route, stay on the 4WD road past the grassy area on the left (a former parade ground for the soldiers who manned the cannon and munitions store; it was imperative they continued to drill while up there) and about 1km later take another 4WD road heading up to the right. It immediately bends left then right, servicing two more old buildings, and comes out at the top.
Sweet singletrack running down from near the summit of Wright's Hill through native bush in the Wright's Hill Reserve, almost all the way to the Mountain bike park at Makara Peak. An accompanying and somewhat extreme downhill track taking a similar route has... not been reviewed.