Where Cycling's Happening
Te Awa Trail
Our Trail Story
Growing up in Hamilton I cycled to school on busy roads in a time before cycleways, lanes or trails … dedicated bicycle routes were only a twinkle in the eye of the future. Spending time in the Waikato recently I found the future is now! Cycling is booming in the heart of the Waikato. No other northern region has such a choice of official Great Rides, can claim Cycling NZ’s HQ, or has such long river-hugging rides.
In the Waikato, cycling is where it’s happening and the Te Awa (The River) Trail may have helped make the region ‘Cycling Central’. Known as the Great New Zealand River Ride, the newly formed Te Awa has emerged quicker than a taniwha rising onto a riverbank. In due course, the cycle trail will not only link Ngaruawahia to Cambridge but may meet up with the Waikato River and Hauraki Rail Trails becoming a truly glorious bicycle network.
Before starting, with GPS in hand, I considered how I might ride Te Awa. The easy river ride currently consists of two sections. The northern section between Ngaruawahia and Hamilton Gardens is 27 kilometres, while the southern section of 15 kilometres travels from just north of Cambridge to Lake Karapiro. A country road route connects the two parts which will likely be an off-road section by the time I next return. I decide to ride from north to south; to Hamilton today and Cambridge tomorrow. But first I need wheels, so I visit River Riders in central Hamilton who fit me out with a sharp looking e-bike – the first time I have properly used one of these newfangled wiz-bang bikes. Help me – I’m sounding like my dad!
I start my journey in Ngaruawahia at the base of the Hakarimata Range, the junction of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers – the Waikato River’s largest tributary. Looking at the forested range across the river, I elect not to scale the 1,349 steps to the lookout and instead save my energy (and e-bike battery) for the ride ahead. Studying the map and powering up the GPS unit I head off upstream beside the river.
Upstream might conjure an uphill climb but I do not fret. The only gradient is that of the undulations as the trail negotiates the river terraces. The map contours show the swirling eddies of the river following the 20 metre line all the way to the base of the Karapiro Dam over 50 kilometres away. As I turn the pedals the bike eats up the trail. Fun! In the first few minutes I enjoy the elevated vantage over the river, the trail well designed to navigate the gentle bends of our longest river.
Around the next bend, appearing like the neon green legs of a giant grasshopper stretched across the river, is the magnificent span of the Perry Bridge. This new 130 metre long pedestrian and cycle bridge has bling. Mosaic art jewels adorn its approaches and the green deck patterns represent woven flax.
While the pink path of Te Ara in urban Auckland is striking, the Perry Bridge is stunning!
My cycle helmet is off to the Perry Charitable Trust that has been instrumental in the funding and management of the trail. Despite only being on the bike a few minutes I stop here to enjoy this engineering marvel. It’s the first of 12 major road/rail/foot bridges that I would cross or pass by on this trail. While I’m no night rider this remarkable bridge is stunning at twilight with its various structural members highlighted. This is the highlight of my ride so far!
I continue riding on the opposite bank of the river before crossing back via the Horotiu road bridge. The trail then skirts farmland and pockets of forest. I reach a trail fork and elect to make a short detour to the top of the river terrace.
Here I am welcomed by the carved faces of four chiefs positioned on a large crossbeam shaped like a spar of a tall ship.
The chiefs that once lived here at the historic fortified Mangaharakeke Pa site picked the perfect spot. It’s not hard to imagine how this prominent pa, coupled with defence trenches would provide ideal vantage to warring parties. The river and dendritic gullies circle and protect the site. Despite the past conflicts, today the lawn surrounded by forest is peaceful, private and protected. I take a moment to enjoy a walk around the site reading the plaques before retracing my steps back to the junction where I began this detour.
As I ride, I see urbanity starting to reappear. At first it’s just a scattering of lifestyle blocks on the opposite banks of the river, and then I enter the town belt which has grown since my youth, it has to expand a few belt notches to cope with its bulging girth. I love how the trail helps support this growth, connecting the residents with the river. I am surprised of how the landscape beside Te Awa changes every few moments. In less than an hour I ride past pastures, pockets of scrub, open city reserves and tunnels of dark forest. Then the trail narrows and is squeezed between the river and its steeply incised bank, it is dark and damp here. I curiously ride on.
Just ahead I spot the familiar and graceful span of Fairfield Bridge – its three arches look much like the rhythmic humps of a roller coaster ride. The bridge was built in 1937 in the Waikato County outside the city at the time, it was thought that it would seldom be used, so much so that it was periodically was used by drovers to drive cattle on the way to the Frankton saleyards. In my childhood fifty years later 40% of the city residents lived north of the bridge. The vehicle congestion at the bridge at the time was later eased after the completion then expansion of the Pukete Bridge four kilometres downstream. Bridges are a real feature of this trail.
Not feeling the need to tempt fate with my own stint riding, I continue upstream, occasionally powering on the e-juice to raise me from the riverside onto the elevated terrace where the CBD lies. I note that now the heart of the city is finally starting to embrace the river; opening its doors to the view. I pass the museum and duck under the tall arch of hundred year old Victoria Bridge. As I ride south, I enter a park-like setting as the trail meanders through recreational reserves and over Cobham Bridge before entering the grounds of Hamilton Gardens.
It is incredible how this former rubbish dump has been transformed into a landscape of creative beauty and meaning. It’s the city’s showpiece and most popular attraction. Here I stop and save my GPS data and appreciate the surroundings. There could not be a better place to end my day and to enjoy a café, stroll through themed gardens or take a cruise on the Waikato River Explorer that departs from the river edge. Here too I depart for the day, choosing to skip the local road route and bed down for the night.
Awaking in Cambridge, the ‘Town of Trees’ and now of champions, I soon reach the trailhead beside the home of high performance cyclists – the Avantidrome. Given the morning’s rain showers I take refuge and enter this flash looking velodrome. After scaling a couple flights of steps, the building’s cavity opens up into the pumping heart of Cycling NZ.
Here athletes pinned low on their bikes ride circuits that seem to defy the natural laws of friction and gravity.
I am in awe of their pace and athleticism as they stick to such a steeply sided timber surface. I discover that you don’t have to be an athlete to give it a go on the track as there are public lessons during the week. One day I might return for a spin, however, the showers have eased and I make my own tracks back on Te Awa.
Leaving the giant oval behind I descend to the cliff edge beside the river, the trail is now a wide concrete path that snakes its way to Cambridge. At times there are glimpses of the river, another pa site and the lofty green limbs of the town of trees. After navigating the streets, I pop over Cambridge’s version of Victoria Bridge. This equally aged and incredibly narrow structure was designed for horse and cart. Thankfully there is a path for cyclists and pedestrians, as the vehicle lanes are barely wide enough to squeeze two small cars past with little room for wing mirrors.
I leave the suburb of Leamington and am lead into well-kept countryside, past Karapiro Dam to reach Lake Karapiro – the home of Rowing NZ champions. Today the place is humming. Crews of muscular youth walk to the water’s edge with their boats perched on one shoulder, while others row on calm water in graceful pulses of effortless energy. I know they’re working hard. There is a new café on the hill which could be a welcome break from riding and plenty of places under oak trees for a picnic lunch. I continue along the lake edge and reach the last segment of the trail - 400 metres of timber boardwalk that mimics the gentle curves of the river bank. Here Te Awa ends but the river journey could continue 10 kilometres (via country roads) upstream if you started at the Waikato River Trails.
Returning back to Karapiro Domain I save my GPS data, watch the scullers in the sun, and reflect on my experience of Te Awa – the River Ride. I found the ride was easy, enjoyable and entertaining with the various stopping points along the way. It’s exciting that soon Ngaruawahia and Cambridge will be connected by a scenic off-road trail. It is great to see places embracing the river and rediscovering it along the trail.
The ride explores the river, culture and the heartland interior. Like the waka and settler vessels that once used the waterway to access the route inland, Te Awa plies` the river edge connecting riders and riverside communities. In the Waikato, cycling is flourishing and trails like Te Awa and Waikato River Trails are right on track leading the peloton.