Phil Taylor, with friend Jackson Foster, cycled the section of the Waikato River Trails from Karapiro to Atiamuri.
Phil Taylor, with friend Jackson Foster, cycled the section of the Waikato River Trails from Karapiro to Atiamuri. Christine Cornege

Backcountry with hidden beauties

THE Waikato River Trails section of the New Zealand Bike Trail opens up a beautiful tract of backcountry North Island.

Made up of five trails that follow the Waikato River, it takes in five lakes, four hydro dams, three swing bridges (two built for the trail, one towering 45m above a gorge stream) and lengthy sections of wetlands boardwalk.

Two of the five trails in the 100km route make for easy riding while the middle and most remote section (north and south of Waipapa Dam on the Arapuni and Waipapa trails) is demanding mountainbiking terrain.

In this part is a stretch of 26 hairpin bends as the track drops quickly from a plateau of farmland to the river's edge.

Opened in November, this is the second section of Nga Haerenga - The New Zealand Cycle Trail - to be fully opened.

A bike trail running the length of the country was the big idea of a Government-led jobs summit in 2009 and enthused Prime Minister John Key.

The concept has since morphed into a series of 18 "Great Rides" throughout New Zealand.

Most of the Waikato trail is not ideal for touring bikes, and New Zealand still needs a mapped and signposted network on quiet roads to steer riders away from busy highways.

Development of the Waikato River Trails began in 2003 as a walking route and was adapted to cater for cyclists after the bike trail idea gained traction. Its origin can be seen in the middle, with a short series of stairs, and on many tight bends where the camber slopes the wrong way for cyclists.

But these minor quibbles are more than made up for by the spectacular views and mostly excellent trails.

The NZbyBike website rates the Waikato River Trails as one of the most demanding of the planned great rides, while the official NZ bike trail website describes it as "advanced".

Taken as a whole, I'd agree, but the easiest sections are not much more demanding than the Otago Rail Trail, require no more than moderate bike-fitness and would suit families. But it has a few sharp little climbs.

These easy trails - the 15km Maraetai section from Mangakino Lake Front Reserve to Whakamaru Dam, and the Karapiro leg to Arapuni - are in the southern and northern parts of the route.

The Karapiro leg starts at Pokaiwhenua Bridge, 5km along Horahora Rd off the main highway. Be watchful, the sign is easy to miss.

From here it's 14km to the cute hydro town of Arapuni.

My riding mate, Jackson Foster, and I were initially bemused as the first 5km of the trail is beside the road (because of land firmness issues, we were told). But from Little Waipa Domain, the route follows the river through lush bush on a well-made trail right into Arapuni.

Highlights include 500m of boardwalk through the Huihuitaha wetland, and the Arapuni swing bridge and power station.

The only other person we saw on the section was a fly-fisherman on a promontory, engrossed in a languid dance with an unseen trout.

The bike trail may be just the tonic to breathe new life into these forgotten gems set in stunning landscapes, just as the Otago Rail Trail has done for the gold towns of the Maniototo.

Arapuni is already awakening.

Bryan and Louise Samuel have established the excellent Rhubarb Cafe in the village, while several doors away Steve and Lorraine Gaunt are converting two sleepouts into Arapuni Backpackers. Just 10km down the road is Lance and Mary Hodgson's sumptuous Out In The Styx guesthouse.

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