Every time I leave Auckland and head south, a little more of that magnificent Waikato Expressway has been built and the southern transport jigsaw puzzle inches closer to completion. On my latest road trip, we even bypassed Huntly and there was lots of newly planted, wonderfully lush native greenery along the way. It will be a delight to watch the foliage grow over the years, and I even think I saw some cycle paths in among it too, which I suspect will link up with the Te Awa River Ride that connects Ngāruawāhia to Hamilton Gardens, and then goes on to Karāpiro beyond Cambridge.
Arapuni humming in June
But even though we had our bikes on board, our sights were set on cycle trails further afield, and our first proper pit-stop of the day was the Waikato village of Arapuni, 40km from Cambridge. I always stop at Rhubarb Café when I’m passing this way. Not only do they do great food and excellent coffee, they also rent out bikes if you’ve not brought your own. You could also stop for a few nights at Little Waipa Reserve, a free campsite managed by South Waikato District Council, then cycle or walk the picturesque 6.5km to Rhubarb if you’d rather.
When we pulled over, the tiny township was humming for a Friday in early June so we shrewdly placed our orders with Lou in the kitchen for a 2pm plate-up, then saddled up and rode through town to the Arapuni Suspension Bridge. This impressive structure was built in 1926, and it and the historic power station are worth the detour alone.
The Waikato River was like a mirror the day we rode, so smooth and calm, and we were thrilled to enjoy the beautifully groomed trails, boardwalks, and impressive river planting. We learned that the trust that manages Waikato River Trails (a total of 107km from the Southern end of Karāpiro to Atiamuri Village) is committed to planting over 12,000 trees a year as well as culling stoats, rats and possums, which means the forest and bird life is thriving. And with Maungatautari Sanctuary Mountain within cooee of this neck of the woods, the spillover from that amazing 3400-hectare pest-free paradise, really enlivens the birdsong.
What a perfect pre-lunch pedal and, within an hour, we were back at Rhubarb, where lunch was served.
The cafe is run with great energy by lively Bryan – a former fitter-welder – and Lou who was, until recently, a police officer, but the only arrests Lou makes these days is stopping traffic with her baking, because everything that comes out of her kitchen is criminally good.
A new addition to the cafe since I’d last visited is Inside Out, Outside In, a gift shop where you can pick up wonderful homeware to jazz up the camper, souvenirs you can actually use like cushions, candles and things that smell good.
We could have stayed in Arapuni all day but, after a restorative lunch (focaccia bun burgers with extra beetroot and cheese), and with a shuttle to catch at 5.30pm in Ōngarue 125km away, we had to press on. So it was ka kite Arapuni, with me clutching a tasty collection of Lou’s baked goods for the road.
The road less travelled
Word to the wise – when taking SH30 to Ōngarue be sure to get petrol either in Cambridge before you get to Arapuni, if you’re running low, or Mangakino, as ideally you won’t see your fuel light come on out these parts because there are long stretches between gas stations. A paper map won’t go amiss either as a lot of these roads are outside cellphone coverage areas.
The countryside here is ridiculously rural, so keep your eyes peeled for gallivanting goat families who dart out when you least expect it. But, in spite of how often we had to brake for them, we arrived in Ōngarue just in time to board the shuttle that would take us to Timber Trail Lodge, where our cycling odyssey was to begin.
Let there be lodge
After an hour of driving along dark rural roads, we arrived at the Lodge, an elegant oasis in the middle of the 85km trail, and we were ushered into the toasty-warm dining room as the smell of dinner emanated from the kitchen. When you stay at the lodge, all your meals are provided - and it is so agreeable not to have to think about what to order or what to cook.
You don’t have to be a cyclist to enjoy the lodge either; you could simply stay a few nights and walk the forest trails or read your way through the extensive library of books, where the themes focus on adventure and wilderness. There is a profound sense of peace to be found in this forest.
Time to saddle up
Following dinner and a deep sleep in a bed the size of a football field, we woke to a choice of breakfasts: cooked and/ or cereal and fruit; both if you fancy, provided you don’t mind too much extra ballast. Once fortified, we picked up our packed lunches, filled our water bottles and piled back into the van to be shuttled, with our bikes, to the start of the ride at Pureora.
Day one is 40km of grade two to three riding, and everyone who’s done the ride before seems to delight in telling you that the trail starts with a 14km climb. To compensate, we paced ourselves gently does it, but the reality wasn’t too steep or relentless. The tracks are well crafted and the combination of sweeping views and snug forest provided the perfect distraction. Every time we emerged from the cosy confines of the bush, we’d be rewarded with vast landscapes, a rolling topography studded with rocks and far-off mountains.
Being a studious cyclist, I stopped at all the information panels. One of them told the story of an accident where a logger was trapped by machinery. His friends fed him whisky till help arrived, although he said he would have happily stayed trapped longer, thanks to the medicinal spirits.
Another panel pointed out a short stroll to a 1940s crawler tractor, a relic from times past that today rests peacefully in concrete. As for the many suspension bridges along this trail, they are marvels of engineering; more than just practical, they’re works of art. When you come to the first one, the Northern Suspension Bridge, at 115 metres long, you have no choice but to say “wow”. It’s also an excellent location for lunch, and it was here we chomped on tasty wraps and brownies laid on by the lodge.
With lighter bags following lunch, much of the rest of the day was downhill, and we whizzed through ancient woodland that bustled with birdlife. Mud flew from our wheels like chocolate cake mixture until we arrived at the lodge, where well-earned showers (and a hose down for our bikes) rendered us clean enough for company and another hearty meal.
History, bridges and birds
Day two, and with our bags packed and popped outside to be returned to our vehicle in Ōngarue, we set off in our own time on a crisp winter’s morning.
Frost still iced the ground at Piropiro Flats – there is a campground here, but I’m not sure I’d like to pilot the camper up this road. People do, but I know where I’d rather be. Today’s 45km section isn’t terribly hard either, but it does start with a fair climb at a decent gradient, although any moderately fit and confident cyclist should be able to take this on.
The grade two trail follows historic tramways and old logging tracks and is a delightful change of tone from the previous day. I loved every blissful second we spent in this enchanted forest and the birdlife was abundant, with tūī, kākā, kererū and pīwakawaka cheering us along our way.
On this leg you’ll also find the Maramataha – at 141 metres it’s the North Island’s longest suspension bridge.
There’s also the restored Ōngarue Spiral, a gem of a feature, restored to its former glory as part of the trail’s development.
But, rather than describe every single detail of this trail, it’s better that I simply whet your appetite for this wonderful ride.
With its elegant design and excellent maintenance, The Timber Trail deserves all the accolades that are heaped on it.
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