Enjoy great cycling and campervanning through the North Island’s rural heartland
Jones Landing campsite
Stretching 425 kilometres, the Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest, born of streams trickling down Mount Ruapehu, draining into and out of Lake Taupo, before wending through the countryside and meeting the Tasman Sea. Walking and cycle paths follow it for much of the way, including the Waikato River Trails, one of NZ’s new ‘Great Rides’. Along this trail are numerous riverside spots to camp and ride with Britz Bikes, all within close range of friendly rural towns offering all necessary services including trail shuttles.
At times smooth and gently undulating, at others steeper and a little rugged, the 100-kilometre-trail has something for cyclists and walkers of most abilities, and can be easily bitten off in chunks. It also offers much more than picturesque scenery, for the mighty Waikato River flows through eight dams to power nine hydroelectric power stations, generating 13% of NZ’s electricity.
The dams and powerhouses stand testament to the region’s fascinating industrial heritage, none more so than at Arapuni, the perfect setting off-point for the northern section of the Waikato River Trail. There’s plenty of campervan parking outside Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni, where you can kick-start with espresso and a scrumptious brunch, and hire extra bikes if required.
The 26km there-and-back ride follows shores of Lake Karapiro, along a wide and well-graded gravel path. It starts at the spectacular Arapuni Suspension Bridge, one of NZ’s longest at 152m, built to facilitate construction of the adjacent hydropower station in the late 1920s. Spanning a bushy gorge 50m high above the river, the bridge affords a grand view of the starkly simple but nonetheless beautiful powerhouse. An informative interpretative display here is typical of the Waikato River Trails, the signage being excellent throughout and leaving little room for navigational error.
The Karapiro trail takes in varying river views as it dips in and out of a variety of vegetation, from regenerating bush to farm fringe. A handsome, 500-metre-long boardwalk passes through Huihuitaha Wetland, one of many areas undergoing riparian restoration – more than 30,000 native trees have been planted since the trail opened in 2010.
Fantails chirruped and flitted around us as we carried on to Little Waipa Reserve, a lovely riverside camping and recreational area. The trail then continues along a dedicated cycleway beside a quiet country road before reaching Pokaiwhenua Bridge. This might have made for an anticlimactic end were it not for the surprising story of the ‘hidden’ Horahora Power Station retold in another information panel. The return journey took us around an hour, with the whole outing taking around three.
Our second day-ride on the Waikato River Trails took us along two consecutive hydro-lakes, Whakamaru and Maraetai. With a grading of ‘intermediate’ and covering around 36km, this was a five-hour outing requiring a bit more puff.
Having parked up overnight at campervan-friendly Mangakino Lakefront Reserve, we were collected early morning by the Waikato River Trails shuttle and deposited half-an-hour’s drive away at Atiamuri – the southernmost end of the trail – for our ride back to Mangakino.
The starting point is marked by Mt Pohuturoa (520m), an ancient rock steeped in Maori history, from where the trail flows through pine forest with plenty of lake views. Perfect conditions made for sparklingly clear reflections, the stillness broken only by the flapping of birds as they skimmed and skedaddled their way across the limpid water. Birds popped up the whole way, ranging from water-loving paradise ducks, swans, crake, herons and shags, to forest-dwelling fantails, bellbirds, quail and soaring hawks keeping an beady eye on proceedings.
This first 24km section along Lake Whakamaru proved the most scenic of all our Waikato River Trails riding, with frequently changing vistas enhanced by brief climbs to lookout points. Sweeping corners, undulating terrain and tree roots required a reasonable degree of effort and vigilance overall, so we were happy to reach The Dam Cafe in Whakamaru village and rest in the sunshine over a toasted sandwich and coffee.
Beyond Whakamaru Dam the next hydrolake is Maraetai. Not only much shorter at 12km, this section of trail is wider and smoother, although gently undulating the whole way. The 70-metre-long Mangakino suspension bridge is a highlight, as are big-sky views due to extensive breaks in the lakeshore pine forest. Extensive weed control and new planting is a heartening sight here, and will see the banks of the wondrous Waikato really flourish in the years to come.
With easy access, plenty of support services, and peaceful riverside camping areas, the Waikato River Trails are perfect Britz Bikes territory.
Hire bikes with your campervan with
Waikato River Trails
Discover Hamilton & Waikato and the
South Waikato Region
Stock up in Tirau, Putaruru or Tokoroa
Stay at Jones Landing, Little Waipa Reserve, Dunham’s Point Reserve, Whakamaru Recreation Reserve or Mangakino Lakefront Reserve
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NZ Cycle Trail