Scenic ride a challenge

The stunning view from Mangakino Suspension Bridge. PHOTOS:  ELEANOR HUGHES
The stunning view from Mangakino Suspension Bridge. PHOTOS: ELEANOR HUGHES
Eleanor Hughes goes off the beaten track in Waikato.

I've  always whizzed through the outskirts of Putaruru on the way to somewhere else. This time I stop. My accommodation for the night is the 1950s Art Deco-style Putaruru Hotel. The rotary dial phone in the telephone cubicle doesn’t work, nobody is writing in the writing room. The grass-green carpeted staircase sweeps up to rooms, one of which is room 10, created for the possible stay of the Queen on her 1953 New Zealand visit. But she whizzed by. In my black-and-white tiled bathroom, a chrome plaque reading ‘‘used razor blades’’ on the yellow-mottled tiles has a slot to pop them into above the white china hand-basin. I wonder where they go. The hotel isn’t fit for a queen anymore, but it’ll do me. It’s the start of an experience cycling the Waikato River Trails.

Next morning, we head an hour south in Waikato River Trails’ shuttle to Atiamuri Bridge car park on Ongaroto Rd, just off State Highway 1. Thirty-five kilometres lie ahead.

It’s flattish riding following the green Waikato River but I don’t take my eyes off the trail for too long with roots and small boulders jutting up along it. A flitting fantail criss-crosses in front of me as dappled sunshine, like light glinting off a motionless disco ball, shines through gaps between native bush and the pine which scents the air. The roar of a boat motor occasionally disturbs the peace and as sweat drips down my front, I wish I was the wakeboarder I glimpse, water spraying up behind them.

The Waikato River from just above Jones Landing.
The Waikato River from just above Jones Landing.
Isolated houses across the water look perfect summer spots, cream water lilies bask amongst lily pads, a few cyclists overtake us as we leisurely ride viewing farmland, steep cliffs and grassy islands. Lake Whakamaru Reserve is peaceful even though a few camper vans and tents, in the shade of towering pines, are parked up for the Easter break. Further north, blue water lies still on Whakamaru Dam’s south side, but opposite, far below, the sun turns ripples silvery as it rushes northwards. On the 70m Mangakino Suspension Bridge we do the childish thing and rock it.

It’s nearly 4pm when, after skirting the golf course, we arrive at Mangakino lakefront, busy with swimmers, boaters and campers. The Bus Stop Cafe, a converted purple Bedford truck, tempts us but we’re all yearning for a shower and a cold beer at the Mangakino Hotel, our accommodation.

Disappointingly the bar is not operating. And it’s Good Friday, the shops are closed.

Luckily, Mangakino District Services & Citizens Club, once the RSA, is open and it’s just a 20-minute walk to the outskirts of town. Beers and cider go down a treat as we watch pool-playing locals who want to know if we’re there for tomorrow’s school reunion. It’s back to the ’70s in its restaurant with yellow tablecloths and red sparkly placemats, and the chef wears a bright yellow tunic with gold buttons. The pizza and steak meals are huge, the apricot chicken sauce a little grey.

Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni is a welcome stop for cyclists.
Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni is a welcome stop for cyclists.
Farewelling Mangakino around 8.30am, 40km ahead, we ride the first few on the main road before entering forest. I squeeze the brakes on downhill not fancying careering into trees. The trail narrows after an undulating pine-needled, road-width track and bad words are mumbled on steep twists as I again grip those brakes. On a mostly distant river, we glimpse blue sky reflecting in its tranquil waters. I breathe a sigh of relief when the tight downhill turns finish. Close to the tar-sealed road, I’m fearful of shooting out on to it approaching Waipapa Dam where four people, the only ones seen, cycle past. Patchy cellphone coverage has us worried Steve, our shuttle driver and host for the night, won’t get our message that we are hours behind time. Never having ridden an e-bike before, one of our e-bikers has walked much of the narrow, advanced-graded trail.

Mangarewa Suspension Bridge crosses a deep gully and leads us to an area recently deforested where signposts lie scattered on the ground. Surely, a steep, inclining dirt road looking newly cut can’t be the trail. We take the flat option ... to a dead end. Retracing our tyre tracks, my thigh muscles burn, tyres skid on mud, and I manage maybe 50m uphill before pushing the bike.

At the base of a hillside, I read about Harry Watson, the first New Zealander to ride the Tour de France in 1928. It’s meant to inspire. Inspiration doesn’t last long. Short steep switchbacks — maybe 10m long before turning sharply, zigzag for 2km climbing 200m. I give up riding and push. Calves burn instead of thighs, heart thuds. I stop numerous times so it doesn’t explode. Between the trees, far below, the river and a quarry are quiet. It’s late afternoon before I arrive at the dead end of Waotu South Rd where Steve finds three of us huddled, trying to stay warm in the cool breeze. It’s bliss to sit in the van waiting for our e-bikers.

A quick stop at the Waikato River Trails sign at Lake Karapiro.
A quick stop at the Waikato River Trails sign at Lake Karapiro.
I feel like I’ve cheated not riding to Jim Barnett Reserve, 6km on, but it’s getting too late by the time they arrive. We take the shuttle to Arapuni Backpackers.

Thirty kilometres and an advanced-level section lies ahead on our final day to Pokaiwhenua Bridge. Steve drops us at Jim Barnett Reserve where a short bush ride leads us to a quiet, mostly downhill, tar-sealed road to Jones Landing. The riverside is busyish with boats and campers.

It’s not easy hauling a bike up two flights of stairs. Sweat trickles, muscles scream. Riding the steep, muddy, uphill trail, I’m astounded at the appearance of a unicyclist coming down. Scary. Another two cyclists pass but otherwise we’ve got the forested trail to ourselves again. Booming music from an unseen boat dies away, others glimpsed leave dark V-shaped lines behind them.

Back in Arapuni, we leave the trail and ride to Rhubarb Cafe on the main road. It’s doing a roaring trade, around 20 cycles in the bike stands outside. Vanilla milkshakes are delicious out in the back garden.

Across the road, far beneath Arapuni Swingbridge, lies a carpet of green punga like giant sun umbrellas. I discover Arapuni Dam Powerhouse, listed Category 1 with the Heritage Places Trust, was once camouflaged with bush from possible Japanese airstrikes during World War 2.

There’s quite a few walkers and cyclists on our last 11.5km but there are long stretches to ourselves. The river narrows and widens, and is eerie in places where reflections of pinkish-white cliffs and bush cover the river width. A noisy, orange tinny disturbs the peace as I worry I’ll go over the edge of Huihuitaha boardwalk and end up in the water ... although it’d be great to join the swimmers at the boat ramp at Little Waipa Reserve where lots of camper vans and caravans are parked up.

Not much further on, in Pokaiwhenua Bridge car park, our shuttle awaits. Waikato River Trails, 105 scenic, sometimes challenging, kilometres done!

We head back to the Putaruru Hotel ... Maybe we can discover where the razor blades go.


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