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Heart of the Waikato

Waikato River Trail

Our Trail Story


I grew up in Hamilton at a time when the city (like teenager me) was struggling with its identity. Most locals would say the most appealing feature of the locality was that it was ‘close to everything.’ It was close to Auckland, the coastal beaches and the mountain for skiing. Sadly the city was known as a place close to elsewhere. Keeping up with the slogans for the city during the 80’s was like trying to remember the Rocky sequels, each one blending into the other.


What was firstly the ‘Fountain City’ became ‘Where it’s happening’, ‘Hamilton more than you expect’, ‘Hamilton – City of the Future’, ‘hamiltON’ and now unofficially ‘The Tron.’

I have long considered a more apt name would be ‘Heart of the Waikato.’  The locality is central to the region, and the timeless flow of the Waikato River pumps right through the place. At the time it felt like the locality resisted embracing the river, building bridges to overcome it, and the urban footprint turning its back on its foe. Oh how this has changed! On arriving in town I was spoilt for choice with two outstanding trails that embrace and celebrate the river. The newly formed and still expanding Te Awa trail that runs from the north through the city to Cambridge, with the Waikato River Trails Great Ride which nearly links with Te Awa. Today’s trip was to experience the more southern ride: the Waikato River Trails.


     My wife and I travelled through to Mangakino which we chose as a base for our multi-day adventure. This backwater town was left behind by workers (including my grandfather) as a former dam construction settlement. It is now starting to get a breath of new life thanks to increasing rider numbers visiting town. We chose to stay in the Mangakino Hotel  – I like their slogan of ‘in the middle of everywhere’ as it’s on the trail, not far away from the Shire set of Middle Earth (Hobbiton) and other local attractions all delivering its lifeblood.

Attaching three GPS units on the bars of my bike, I then start the now familiar warm up sequence of them finding us in geographic space while we prepared our riding gear. With a simple push of GPS play button times three, we headed off northbound on a grey heartland day. The GPSs are gathering the essential mapping data for the Great Rides app project. Before long we reached the purpose built trail there is a surreal transformation with the forest canopy enveloping us as we rode along exploring our new surroundings.


     Heading deeper into the green forest canopy an ivy clad Inca fortress appears like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie set. What?!  


I am half expecting to have to turn my bike to outpace a rolling boulder.


Alas the overgrown site is merely a lone reminder of the concrete batching (mixing) plant and trail side locomotive line that used to transport concrete to dam construction sites in years past. This otherworldly temple is quite the discovery all the same and captures our imagination before we descend back down to the river. There we stand at a viewpoint overlooking the Maraetai twin hydro power stations mesmerised by the scene of the river and the giant structures. In the background the tallest of dams stands wedged tightly into the river gorge. The foreground reveals five gigantic penstocks dropping water 100 metres down the terraced cliff to the power station below - it is a massive feat of engineering on the grandest of scales, at least by New Zealand standards. 


     Leaving the tumultuous waters of the dam we pedal through the remote section of trail that hugs the banks of Lake Waipapa. It is a superb traverse through native and exotic forest in the river canyon and is a real highlight of the trail before reaching the next dam. Waipapa is another of the five hydro-electric dams near the trail and is also a restful lunch stop for us to watch birdlife before crossing the river. Unknowingly we need the energy to fuel our next feat - to summit the Tumai Steps.


     I would class the Tumai Steps as a fascinating trail feature; some might use a selection of other choice words! To climb out of Tumai Stream we scale nine flights of stairs around ten steps each to arrive on top of the river terrace. It was a slog and a memorable moment looking down at my wife’s red face as she tirelessly pushed her bike on a tyre running strip up the flights.  She is a legend.

These steps may not be compulsory for much longer with trail manager Glyn Wooller informing me of the massive plan to span over the Waikato River below Waipapa Dam with a bridge giving users the option to avoid the legendary and infamous steps. In due course the new bridge might be the path of choice. I actually loved the steps and the memorable challenge, but to cross the river on a massive suspension bridge would be equally a thrill. 


     From here it is not long before we cross the Mangarewa suspension bridge elevated above a small bush clad gully carved by the stream far below. I waypoint this feature in one of the GPSs as a great place to stop before enjoying afternoon tea of crackers with cheese and tomato on top – our standard sustenance on backcountry trails.

We push on with undulating riding following the course of New Zealand’s longest river, an impossible journey a cycling generation earlier. We’re lucky. Ahead we spot a quarry where the trail takes a dog leg and heads up … and up. By now my legs are tired and the succession of 30 plus switchbacks to the Waotu lookout is tough. We arrive and rest overlooking the river, and cast our eyes back upstream to where we have come from. It’s hard to see up here though, what with sweat and sunblock burning our eyes.


     It’s a quiet country road that welcomes us into the Jim Barnett Reserve on the last leg of our first day.  The reserve is a trail gem. It’s a remanent of forest surrounded by green pastures. Riding along the gloomy leaf lined trail we are serenaded by a chorus of song from the flourishing birdlife. It is pure delight

The trail managers can be proud of what they have achieved in bringing the trail through this neck of the woods. We loved it.

As the birdsong fades behind us we approach Jones Landing though more pasture land. Upon reaching the landing there are a couple of options to the township of Arapuni. A longer but easy road ride, or a short but challenging riverside ride. We elect the short path and grunt into the steep climb out of the river catchment gaining elevated forested views to reach the Arapuni Dam and township. For those that love heights, it’s worth a stop to check out the 152 metre suspension foot bridge downstream from the power station, the trail passes right next to it. The bridge is one of the longest in the country. Built 90 years ago it allowed workers of the ‘top camp’ (present day Arapuni) to travel to work when constructing the hydro-electric facilities. The bridge gives breathtaking views over the river allowing you to peer into the swirling dark currents below.


   At Arapuni, just a few hundred metres from the trail, are a couple of shops and our pickup point for a bike transfer. They will take us back to Mangakino. In fact we had a little misadventure trying to find the village as we continued north a little too far, and doubled back via a local road – it’s not a good look being a lost cartographer. Don’t tell anyone, ok? On arrival at Arapuni village our legs were spent and the reward of ice-cream was well deserved. 

After a few licks of the cone we are picked up by Steve, the owner of Lake District Adventures to return to Mangakino.  Steve and Sally have been in this game for a few years and for this ‘off the beaten track’ journey they offer both bike hire and shuttle services. Their visitors have commented how varied the terrain and surrounding area is as well as the sheer challenge encountered – visitors relish the idea of simply following the course of this majestic river.


     I reflect on Steve’s words and consider what trail manager Glyn had earlier mentioned about the strong number of users walking and running – there is also a growing presence of ebikers enjoying the river experience. I think it’s fantastic the bike trail is being so well utilised for all forms of exercise and exploration. The trust has long term plans to connect with other Great Rides such as the Hauraki Rail Trail to the north-east. The thought of leaving the outskirts of Auckland and being on dedicated cycle trails through the Hauraki Plains and up the Waikato River to the interior is enthralling. If you have been reading other stories in this series you will by now be noting a pattern emerging... many of the trails are planning on linking with or creating cycle trails that will carry riders further and further. Excellent news!

     When I first considered riding this trail my expectations were quite low. I expected a trail beside a river that I grew up near might hold little appeal as it passed through open farmland. How completely wrong I was! Just like the first peoples and the settlers who plied the river for transport, the trail beside the river gave me an unexpected insight into Waikato heartland. This is a trail that takes you on a journey, transferring you out of your daily life and depositing you into a scenic and forest corridor that affects your very core as the deep dark waters accompany you down stream. No longer is the locality close to everywhere, but everywhere is close to these remarkable riverside trails in the heart of the Waikato. All the goodness is now freely shared via the Great Rides App.

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