Riding The Waikato Bike Trails

Another year, another adventure, another trail but which one this year? It was time to put our ten heads together and decide which bike ride we would tackle in 2018. Which cycle route in our beautiful country of New Zealand had we not yet completed?  We decided we wanted to stay in the north Island this year and chose the Pureora Timber Trail (2 days)  and the Te Are Ahi thermal trail in Rotorua (2 days). Nine of the group were committed for a mid March start.  Then I came across a really good package by a shuttle Group called ‘Blue Tui Shuttles’ for the Waikato River Trail.  Would any of the group be interested in this as an add-on?

Six of us decided we would like to do this trail before going on to do the other ones,  so I booked the three days Waikato River Trail Bike Ride with Blue Tui Shuttles run by Wilhelmina Gilbert. Wilhelmina runs a really efficient and friendly service with great food and is totally reliable – she was always where she said she would be!  The package ($630pp NZ) included three days riding our bikes, three nights accommodation and most meals.  Each accommodation was so very different but each had its own charm and the service from Blue Tui shuttles was really amazing. 

A few days before our ride began we had an email from Wilhelmina letting us know that NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) had closed a section of the trail but she put forward several alternative suggestions. She suggested we decide when we met her at ‘Out in the Styx’, our first night’s accommodation.

Pukeatua Peak in the background
Lavender Hedge around ‘Out in The Styx’
Road up to Sanctuary Mountain – 5 mins from ‘Out in The Styx’
Art in the garden in ‘Out in The Styx’

We drove down to ‘Out in the Styx’ guesthouse on the day before our first ride – about 3+ hours drive from Auckland. ‘Out in the Styx’ sits at the foot of Sanctuary Mountain and lies midway between Rotorua and Waitomo in a tiny village called Pukeatua. Great atmosphere, remote, and very comfortable. We had plain comfortable rooms with ensuite and a room where we could relax, make tea and coffee and do our washing if we wished.  The guesthouse has a variety of accommodation from ensuite to bunk rooms and cabins

Lance & Mary run this establishment, Lance is a wonderful front line host and Mary’s a great cook – her food was tasty, plentiful and varied.  There is no menu – you get what is set out on the service table – but there is something there for all dietary requirements and taste.  And so much to choose from ……You will definitely find something to suit your tastebuds! 

Day 1:  Waotu South Road to Pokaiwhenua Bridge – 29.5km

After a great breakfast Wilhelmina arrived with her mini-van and bike trailer full of enthusiasm for the trip we were heading out on.  After greeting us all and loading our bikes we drove to Waotu South Road, the highest point on the trail to begin the days’ 29.5 km ride. The section heading north from here was mostly on road with a beautiful ride through Jim Barnett Reserve – full of birdsong and a 1000 year old Totora Tree.  This reserve, (25 hectares), was rescued from the axemen of the last century by a forward thinking Walter Barnett and his son Jim who owned the land.

Jim Barnett Reserve

Our first stop of the day was following a enjoyable downhill ride to Jones Landing where Wilhelmina was waiting with the ‘billy’ boiled for a cup of tea and home-made baking!

Welcome sight of the Blue Tui Shuttle
Local school children practicing their rowing skills at Jones Landing

We learned that the next 2.5 kms of the trail was advanced – which we did not know earlier.  There is an 11km alternative route via road but we were committed to this section as there was also a fantastic lookout over Jones Landing – 10 minute walk up hill from the trail,  but first we had to lift our bikes up 30 steps – The dreaded Tumai steps this was very cruel especially as I and my friend Marcia had electric bikes each weighing 25kg. 

View from the top!
Looking back at Jones Landing
Left the bikes & Marcia to walk 10 mins up to the lookout – well worth it!

Wilhelmina walked with us and helped haul the bike up the steps – this was above and beyond the call of duty but we were sure glad of the help. 

John, Marcia, Lucy, Helen & David on the trail.
Marcia, John, Lorraine, Helen & David

Nine kms further on was the Arapuni swing bridge (152 metres long) said to be New Zealand’s longest swing bridge!) and once we had all ridden over and back across the bridge with photos to prove it we headed to the ‘Rhubarb Cafe’ for a well deserved coffee.

Looking down on native bush from the Arapuni Swing Bridge
The New Zealand Punga Tree
Arapuni Dam & Powerhouse
Arapuni Swing bridge constructed to give access to workers living in Arapuni
David on swing bridge
View of swing bridge from trail

Arapuni, is one of a chain of man-made lakes on the Waikato River, which were formed as a result of the Waikato hydroelectricity scheme. The 64-metre-high Arapuni Dam was the first of eight to be built on the river. Construction began in 1925 and by 1929 the power station was operational. The station now has a category one listing on the Historic Places Trust. There is a great view of the dam from the massive swing bridge that straddles the river near  Arapuni Village. It was originally built to allow easy access to the dam for the construction workers.  150 meters below the bridge is the Arapuni Gorge and the fast moving waters of the Waikato.

Along the last enjoyable part of the trail by the Waikato river

From Rhurbarb cafe we headed back to the swing bridge and turned right to head off on a 13.7km ride to Pokaiwhenua car park.  After 6.2km alongside Lake Karapiro we arrived at Little Waipa Reserve where we were greeted with more tea/coffee and refreshments by Wilhelmina. Next a very easy 5.3km along the road to the car park and our day was done!

Home to ‘Out in the Styx’ for a well deserved wine, chat about our day and a scrumptious meal and bed!

Day 2: Waipapa Dam to Mangakino Lakefront 19.5km

The day dawned with a spit of rain which soon disappeared. Wilhelmina arrived on time, loaded our bikes and we were off to Waipapa Dam to start todays ride. The section that was closed was between Waipapa dam and Waotu South Road. By the end of the day we decided we were glad it was closed as our biking skills or fitness levels would not have coped!!

When we arrived at Waipapa Dam the notice said this section was advanced????   Other maps and information about this section claimed it was Intermediate – even the oracles of NZ cycle trails – the Kennett Brothers and the Nga Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trail had it listed as Intermediate.

Relieved to be over the worst part of the 2nd day ride!
Nice smooth going at the beginning of the 2nd days ride
Puffed after riding 10kms of steep rutted hills

The first part of the track was a breeze riding alongside the road but then the trail turned into the forest where there were many steep climbs and descents most of which were so rutted that we had to dismount and push our bikes up and down so we would not get stuck in the ruts and fall!  What we did not know then but learned later when we got to Mangakino was that 600 bikers had been through the day before on their cycle from Cape Reinga  to the Bluff which was probably why the trail was cut up so very badly but they also told the patrons at the Mangakino Hotel that that section was one of the hardest they had encountered!. The trail became easier as we got closer to the Maraetai Dam near Mangakino.  This dam began operation in 1952 and is the largest one on the Waikato river.  It can deliver up to 30 per cent of the annual output of the Waikato Hydro System – enough to power 170,000 homes.

The last 3-4 kms of this ride are gentler and so one can stop to read the information panels near the dam area relaying facts about the dam. I was ‘dam’ glad to arrive at the gentler part of the ride as the last bar on my battery was flashing at me telling me its time was nearly up.  I just hoped it would get me to Mangakino Lakefront – which it did, but after coffee and refreshment at the lakefront I then had to cycle back up the hill to the village to our accommodation and as I drew level with the hotel my battery died!

Making the most of the wonderful facilities at Lake Maraetai,on the Mangakino lakefront

Wilhelmina was waiting for us at the Mangakino Lakefront with a slight concerned look on her face and I did sense she was a little worried when we had not arrive by a certain time. She thought we should have been quicker but our average age was 73+….what did she expect?!   We did arrive in dribs and drabs, very weary but relieved and were very pleased to see Wilhelmina waiting for us with refreshment before she took us to the Mangakino Hotel which was our accommodation for the night. My first action when I arrived there was to plug in my battery ready for the following day!

What a beautiful place the Mangakino Lakefront reserve is.  As we arrived we noticed several people busy putting up tents and parking trailers in preparation for the NZ water skiing championships that were taking place on the Lake Maraetai the following day.

We wandered over to the ‘The bus stop cafe ’ which is situated right by the lake. It is a uniquely converted 1972 Bedford bus with amazing views across Lake Maraetai.  We all had a well deserved coffee from the cafe and helped ourselves to wonderful food from Wilhelmina’s truck!

I had never heard of Mangakino until I started researching Waikato Trails but what a gem it turned out to be. It is a haven for watersports, scenic lake cruises, trout fishing, mountain biking, hiking and golf.  What more could one want on a weekend away from the rat race.

Our hotel was clean and comfortable and staff were great – even provided an indoor room to lock our bikes away for the night.  A prominent sign in the hotel read “ Mangakino Hotel – In the middle of everywhere!”  The hotel is currently up for sale and has been for some time, in the meantime it is been very well looked after by two local women who take pride in ensuring their guests receive good service.  Both women have their own full time jobs as well as looking after the hotel but luckily their jobs have flexible hours which is how they manage the hotel so very well.

We had booked into ‘Mucky’s’ restaurant for dinner on the advice of our tour guide which turned out to be just thee minutes walk across the road – tasty food and good value!  This was also up for sale we discovered speaking to the owners daughter while ordering a wine from their well stocked bar.  The locals call it ‘Manga’ and it certainly is a lively little town especially the weekend we were there because of the championships. It seems many people have holiday places there – mostly boaties and keen water skiers.

We hit the sack early as we were all shattered after todays ride  – our shortest days ride!  One member of our team described the ride as 19.5km of sheer brutality….I think I have to agree!

Day 3 Mangakino Lakefront to Whakamaru Dam 13km one way

Today there was division in the team. Two of us decided to ride to Whakamaru Dam have coffee at ‘The Dam cafe’ and ride back. Four others decided to ride there and meet Wilhelmina at the Dam car park and come back with her but were still undecided.  Nothing phased Wilhelmina – she told us we could change our plans anytime and she would meet us at the dam carpark  with our lunch.

Yet another swing bridge!
Looking back to Mangakino Waterfront
Taking a break on the 3rd day from Mangakino to Whakamaru dam
Lovely picnic stop
Between Mangakino and Whakamaru dam
Viewed from above!

I really enjoyed this 13km ride which included yet another 70 metre long swing bridge called the Mangakino stream suspension bridge. There were some great views back towards Mangakino and several speed boats testing out the water probably preparing for the championships.  We arrived at our now familiar van – ‘Blue Tui Shuttles’ with the familiar ‘billy’ boiling and some sandwiches and cake.  Of course there was also fruit and biscuits – one could choose. 

Wilhelmina waiting with the ‘billy’ boiled and lunch by the Whakamaru dam

Wilhelmina suggested we ride on a little towards Atiamuri maybe as far as Lake Whakamaru Reserve, a popular summer camping destination. Myself and Lorraine who had planned to ride back to ‘Manga’ decided we would ride as far as the reserve and then ride back to ‘Manga’.

We really enjoyed the 3km out to Lake Whakamaru Reserve and passed a bird hide along the way well positioned for the many water birds visible on the lake.

Bird Hide on the way to Lake Maraetai Reserve
From Whakamuru Dam towards Atiamuri

On our return to Mangakino Lakefront it was teeming with people, boats, skiers and children.  We called to ‘The Bus Stop cafe’ and sat and had a coffee watching skiers reach speeds of 160kph, the whole waterfront was humming and there was a steady volume of traffic ordering food and drinks at the cafe.  We negotiated being able to come down later and order six pizzas could they do this??  “If I survive the crowds today and am still alive I can” said the owner of ‘the Bus Stop’

Our Blue Tui Tour was over but we still had one more night to enjoy ‘Manga’!