Wonders of the Waikato River

Wonders of the Waikato River

I started the day riding through glorious Hobbit country. Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans drive here in their hoards to visit the Hobbiton movie set just southwest of Matamata. The town's visitor information site looks like it belongs in the movie as I head south along lovely quiet roads.

Matamata, near Hobbiton

I'm headed for Mangakino and then planning on making a detour east to Taupo, riding the Waikato River Trail which follow New Zealand's longest river through native bush, exotic forest, over boardwalks and suspension bridges.

Riding the Waikato River Trails

I join the trail at Pokaiwhenua Bridge car park and start the first section to Arapuni village. Riding alongside Lake Karapiro I'm greeted by a swarm of large dragonflies all buzzing around my head in what I'd like to think was an invitation to the trail. The terrain is undulating and I start to wonder just how hard the riding was going to get. The views of black swan families floating serenely down the lake take my mind from the ache in my muscles and I smile.

Black swans

I had thought that this section of the trail was graded for beginners and so I start to wonder what the rest of the day has to offer as I struggle up some of the steeper, loose parts of the track. Passing Arapuni village I see the Arapuni swing bridge and stop for a breather.

Arapuni swing bridge

From here I take the road as the section from Arapuni Dam to Waipapa Dam is closed until further notice. The section is graded as advanced and so given my current lack of leg power I'm happy to take a longer, scenic road and gravel option. At Arapuni Dam I spot Eric, a brevet rider having a coffee and so I stop to chat. I met Eric in Apihara general store after my ninety mile beach experience as he was about to make his way to Cape Reinga to start the TA brevet and had last seen him in Miranda Springs campsite. It was good to see a friendly face and so I joined him for a brew as we chatted to the coffee guy. Before I knew it a group of motorbikers had gathered around BB - she's certainly a head turner is our Betty! Eric told me that his bike was named Harold after his 'old man' and we took the opportunity for a photo together before we set off riding together into the unknown.

Me, BB, Eric, Harold & the coffee woman

The beauty of my timing on the TA route is that I'm always meeting lots of other brevet riders along the way which when you're travelling alone is a real bonus. Chatting with Eric the hills didn't seem so tough and the miles didn't seem so long and we had a lovely chat for an hour or so before I decided to stop in the shade for a bit of lunch. I wished him good luck and waved him goodbye knowing that I wouldn't see him again because of my detour off to Taupo. The afternoon ride was lovely, tarmac turning to gravel road and wonderful countryside scenery. A few rumbles of thunder threatened in the sky as a large storm broke out nearby but luckily the wind was blowing it in the opposite direction to where I was headed.

One short sharp shower did catch up with me though and I hunkered down under a large oak tree as hailstones rained on the parched land. I was joined here by Rod, a journalist for the Financial Times that had moved to New Zealand years ago and had never looked back. We chatted and admired each others bikes - he had a Shand Stoater with a belt drive, very very nice, it's the first time I've seen a Shand bike in the flesh. He's got a great blog about his time on the TA, I'll be reading his posts as he forges ahead down-country.

Reaching Waipapa Dam I had thought it was only 3km to ride into Mangakino but the guide book was a bit misleading. Instead I was presented with a 19km advanced graded section of the trail that made my heart sink. It was just after 3pm and I knew that this would take a few hours and when you think you're nearly at the end of the day it was a bit of a blow. Nevertheless I forged on and committed to the challenge ahead knowing that there was no easy road way out along the route. Within the first ten minutes the adrenaline was pumping and I was on cloud nine. Tight switchbacks leading down though exotic forest to Lake Waipapa followed by smooth flowing singletrack - wow this is some heavenly riding.

I'd guess I was around the halfway mark when I started to flag. The uphills seemed steeper and tougher on the knees, the riding more technical with rocky sections and fast rooty areas. It could have just been that I was tiring that it seemed to get harder but all of a sudden the thought of another ten kilometres (five miles) of this seemed like torture. I was blown away by the trail, it was like I'd been transported into another world, the tropical feel to the forest, humid and secluded, it was both exciting and scary at the same time. The singletrack and descents continued to drag a smile from my weary face but the uphills became a monstrous battle of wills between my legs and my head. The point of getting off and pushing had arrived and now my body had accepted it, all uphill sections seems unachievable by pedalling. I was willing my way up the hills but the loose gravel was plotting against me and as I shouted out in frustration another rider coming from the opposite direction appeared. I apologised for the shouting and he told me that I wasn't far from Mangakino now, a dangerous thought for someone who was already willing every mile to disappear.

It turns out that he was a bare faced liar and there was still a long way to go. Thunder overhead reflected my souring mood and I was officially 'over it' before I finally appeared out by the roadside again. As the heavens opened all I could do was concentrate on getting to the store to console myself with yes, you guessed it, a wonderful chocolate milk. Arriving there rather drenched I was very pleasantly surprised to see Eric again and Michael, another brevet rider. Feeding my face with food was my sole concern for the next half hour whereby I threw caution and my budget to the wind and ate a mince beef pie, 2 snickers bars, a couple of german sausages and a double cheeseburger washed down with a bottle of chocolate milk. I was feeding my muscles the protein they'd been craving in the hope that I'd awake the next day with the legs of Geraint Thomas (his 2018 Tour de France winning legs of course).

As the rain continued the number of riders arriving wet and hungry increased. Quite a few of them had opted to take the road option instead of the Waikito trail and I felt rather happy with myself for taking on the trail. It had been thrilling and exasperating but I was proud that we'd made it. After waiting for the rain to die down I headed for the lakefront campsite with a few other riders to setup for the night. A two dollar, four minute hot shower was a great way to end the day as the sky turned pink with the setting sun.

Pink sky at night, cyclists delight

Another day dawned and I had a leisurely start to the day riding just after 9am. Today was the day that I'd split off from the TA route and continue to follow the Waikato River Trail east towards Atiamuri Dam before going south to Lake Taupo where I'd planned a little holiday from my holiday to see one of my good friends Claire. Backroads the travel company that we work for run trips around the Taupo area and Claire has been working there for the last four months so it would be awesome to catch up with her as it has been nearly a year since we last saw each other.

Riding over the Mangakino suspension bridge it was strange to think that I'd be branching out on my own away from the TA trail. The comfort of knowing that others are ahead or behind me on the trail had disappeared but in it's place crept the excitement of solo adventures.

Mangakino suspension bridge

It wasn't long before I was back to weaving my way between the trees and rocks alongside Lake Whakamaru. This section was around 15 miles and I was clocking those miles pretty quickly until the inevitable happened and I hit the deck. A little too much speed on a bend on damp rock and I was down on my right side. Jumping up like a jack to release my trapped right thigh from the handlebars, my heart was going like the clappers with adrenaline. It wasn't a big deal, no open wounds or blood but boy there were going to be some corking bruises develop after that one. I felt it was a quiet prod by the trail to remind me who is boss and that I'm riding solo and I took it onboard as I got back on the bike to continue the ride.

Deciding to hop off the trail before reaching Atiamuri in order not to have to take the horrible highway 1 south to Taupo I bade farewell to the river trails, pumped up my tires and hit the hot tarmac. I'd guestimated a three hour ride to Taupo and feeling a bit tired from my off-road exploits those hills felt big and real. The headwind was brutal, having to pedal downhill always provokes the anger within after being robbed of the reward of a hill climb. A very impressive horse postbox was enough to lift my spirits on the final miles into Taupo.

Impressive detail

A quick dodge down to Lake Taupo to enjoy the view and grab some water and then I rode the few miles north to the Hipapatua Reserve camping ground for the night. With no shower facilities I took a dip in the very fast flowing Waikato river to cleanse my sweaty body. From the reserve it's less than a mile until the river goes over Huka Falls and so even lying in the river on a shallow rock I had to keep a grip to avoid the strong currents. It felt good to wash away the dirt of the day and of course see the pedal medals from my earlier unscheduled dismount!

Vital Statistics:

  • ‌Number of microwave postboxes: 11
  • Number of squashed possums seen (for the record they were not squashed by me): 49
  • Number of dogs I've been chased by: 2‌‌
  • Number of Kiwi's seen (the birds not the locals): 0‌‌
  • Number of sandfly bites: 0 (and long may it continue)‌‌
  • Number of factor 50 sun lotion bottles used: 2 (1 x 50ml, 1 x 100ml)