Waikato River Trail -Off Road Aotearoa- Part 5

Hamilton to Cambridge

After a few false starts I found the Waikato River Trail, it starts a smooth concrete foot/bike-path. A real family friendly track with lovely views of the river on the left and away from the traffic and the hustle and bustle of the morning rush. The busy roads of yesterday and the heat become just a memory. It was a clear blue morning and my sore bum was the only sign of the 140km ride from the day before.

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The Waikato river slowly trundled along, the air cool as it drifted across the glassy surface. The waters still murky from flood water.  The smooth bike track lead right to the river’s edge and weaved through the willow trees and the native plant life. I coasted along a warm sunny boardwalk right over the river before rising gently up the bank. Rewarded with a great view of the sun reflecting off of a big slow curve in the landscape, the mighty Waikato snaking through the countryside. Just after this the bike track finishes and I was back to deathly quiet back roads and only the sound of crickets and birds.

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I got to Cambridge by early morning and popped into a bike shop for them to take a look at my gears which were slipping and ‘ghost-shifting’. They looked in a pretty bad way, the cogs were worn down to needle points and sprinkled with red from rust, the chain was sticky from the WD40 and had dust and grass mixed in to make something resembling a mechanical hairball.

It was a whole drivetrain replacement; chain, cassette and front cogs too. $300 approximately and I would have to order the parts in and wait a few days for them to arrive. I had no intention of stopping and was advised to find a bike shop further along the road and order them in ahead of time. Which may I add I thought was very nice of the mechanic to offer, sending the money to another shop further down the line. He told me exactly what parts I would need to replace and wished me luck on the ride. Legend!

At this point the bike and I were both starting to look ‘well-travelled’ shall we say. My bottle cage fell off as the screws had gently unwound through the constant vibrations. My shoes were caked in mud and dust and had a huge dark smear on the inside sole, where I had worn the paint off the crank arms. One of the zips had broken on my bike bag and was replaced with some string. Everything was still in working order but just looking that little bit shabby. As was I, my beard had got past any facial grooming standard and started to look decidedly homeless. Not fully homeless just yet more like spent-a-few-nights-sleeping-in-his-car homeless.

Cambridge to Arapuni

I followed the Waikato as best I could, like a furtive fish swimming in the wake of a whale, I was close and would duck and weave just out of sight, hidden by a small patch of trees or the occasional hill. After taking an ice-cream stop at a roadside ice-cream truck I mulled over the mind-boggling directions from the truck owner. His directions went against everything my guide book (Kennet Brothers Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails) was saying. I was looking forward to my first bit of tough technical riding and I wasn’t going to miss it for some bad directions. My chosen route lured me down an abandoned road that was being slowly reclaimed by the surrounding bush. The tarmac was being buckled and cracked by tree roots, tufts of grass valiantly broke through with bursts of vibrant green against the grey.

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I came across my first swing bridge, soon to be a regular part of my life. The long steel cables suspended a narrow wooden bridge maybe 30m above the river below. I could peer through the sturdy raw steel mesh that bordered the narrow creaking wooden boards. I found that they tend to wobble a little but are actually perfectly fine to ride over. Over the next few weeks I would encounter dozen or so of these bridges. I never stopped being impressed by the technical marvel of them, all the hard work it must have been to set up a bridge over such steep terrain is incredible.

Arapuni to Jones’ Landing

On the other side of that first bridge was the ‘technical section’ of the days ride. This was what I wanted to really get stuck into. I enjoy road riding but I love hitting the mud and the steeper and more demanding trails. This was why I went for a lightweight mountain bike over the much faster road touring bike. I wanted to be able to ride and enjoy these tougher off-road sections.

I was not disappointed, the track was tight, certainly one bike wide and a roller-coaster up and down the river bank. Through a forested section the lattice of roots drifted up through the dry dusty trail, like the veins on an old person’s hands. My wheels skipped and bounced along the rough track. Through the dust and the frequent flares of light in my eyes, as the sun flitted through the trees, a smile crept across my mucky face. In the final section of a 90km day (the day after my Personal Record breaking 140km day) I was flying legs pumping and lungs roaring. I whooped as I tucked into every corner and attacked every little hill.

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The views from high up on the side of the valley was a bird’s eye view of the pink hue of the dying sun reflected from the river below. After a few pictures at the lookout I swooped down a tight series of switchbacks, my rear wheel sliding in the dry dust. As I dropped back down to the river I looked for spots to set up camp, hoping for a refreshing swim as well as a nice spot to watch the sunset. I was wary, however, of sleeping so close to the river for fear of sandflies and mosquitoes so the search took a while.

Jones’ Landing

I turned a final few steep tight turns, again the smile plastered all over my face and pulled suddenly into Jones’ Landing. Here there was a free campsite with drinking water, toilets and best of all a river side view to watch the end of day fanfare in the full colour spectrum . There were one or two other people there but I had set my eyes on a little island just off the river bank with a rope swing on it. I threw up my tent in no time and jumped into the refreshing waters to cool off and wash away the grime of the day.

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The water was shockingly cold and took my breath away. I dunked my head in the slow swirl and floated on my back. Sound was numbed into a fuzzy blur, I stared up at the tranquil sky and the vivid orange light playing on the few clouds. My muscles relaxed as I paddled gently over to the island. My legs felt heavy and my feet were stark white and wrinkled from the hot day in shoes, there was a clear border-line from my ghostly ankles and my murky tanned/dust covered shins. I loved the feeling of safety and security in New Zealand as I confidently left my bike and tent with all my possessions on the shore as I went for a paddle.

I climbed the knotted roots of a tree, wrapped around the rock like a gnarled bird standing in its nest. The gentle river glaring the sunset back at me from the tranquil surface. I sat for a while on the rock, content and excited, I would be riding more track than road for the next few days and some good technical riding along some stunning trails.

Meeting a fellow Bikepacker

As I ate my wildly too spicy chickpea curry I could hear another cyclist squeaking and skidding down the track. I gave him a little while to get set up and then headed over for a chat. He was riding with a full bikepacking rig and looked like he was carrying a lot of gear. Clearly, he was riding a long way. I chatted to Ashwin as he started cooking his evening meal. He was also riding Cape Reinga to Bluff. I felt quite amateur and envious looking at his well packed and fresh-looking bike.

ashwin

Ashwin was a small diminutive guy but had the wiry frame and intense energy of long distance athlete. His chestnut skin looked slightly dusty and grimy and he looked pretty tired out but that energy was still there.  Standing there after my half hour swim in the river, I looked practically pampered. He told me his load including the bike was around 50kg! In comparison, I was carrying under 40kg including food and water. The extra weight became clear though when I saw his Facebook page. Not only was he carrying plenty of camera gear but also his laptop to edit the pictures. I thought my electronics bag was too bulky and that just had my kindle and a charger in it!

Though fairly new to bikepacking/cycle touring he had done plenty of long distance hikes all around New Zealand. This was his second foray into long distance riding. Fair play to him, the track he had just ridden was pretty tough and he admitted to having taken a tumble  We chatted for a little while but both of us were clearly very tired and headed to bed not long after.

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Jones’ Landing to Waipapa Dam

Next morning and I took pride in being up and ready before Ashwin. It was a dull overcast morning, a fine mist hung over the river. The island was a silhouette in the dawn light. There was a cool moisture in the air and rain looked imminent the whole day.

The route followed a short road before veering towards a steep uphill, rock-strewn path. Climbing fast to warm up I cleared the hill and l gazed upon a vast open. Work was already underway and there was plenty of truck moving about. The beeping and general work noises drifted through the morning mist to my vantage point. What captured my attention though, was the steep track back down to the river.

A sign warned of the steep trail ahead and the 37 switch back corners! This was going to be fun. I took off at pace, that smile again spreading across my face. I took the first 5 or 6 corners quickly. The bike was feeling a little sluggish with the extra weight but I was feeling confident after the ride of yesterday.

That confidence was falsely founded.

Corner 10, I came in quick and braked too late. My front wheel slid on the smooth packed clay. A fine coating of morning dew had left a residual slime on the path. As the wheel slid I tried to correct but the extra weight spun the bars and over I went. A quick stumble and a lucky hop removed me from the bike as it writhed beneath me. My momentum carried me running towards the edge of the track and a very long fall. Flailing out at a tree branch I arrested a potentially very painful shortcut.

I dusted myself off checked over the bike. I was pleased that everything was still looking good if a little mud smeared. Taking off again a little more cautiously, my thoughts going out to Ashwin, and his 50kg bike.

Waipapa Dam to Mangakino

Once back down to river level the track boasted tight, root-strewn tree sections and long switch-backed climbs. It lead to deserted, pine infused fire-roads. steep gravel tracks of various upkeep but curtained by deep rich forest. The smell was epic and the trail got faster and smoother I was flying along. I crossed over Waipapa Dam and according to my guide book more climbing was to come on the other side of the river.

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On the other side the trail was equally as stunning. It would have been great fun but the sudden climbs and rough descents were wreaking havoc on my damaged gears. I bombed around corners but as soon as the track rose my gears would slip. And, with a mighty crunching sound, my pedals would jump, knocking my feet off. I couldn’t put any serious pressure through the chain for fear that it would spring off or snap.

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The grey clouds sporadically gave out to a gentle sprinkling of rain. This made the track treacherous and even pushing my bike up the moss-covered sections became a chore. Being on the shaded side of the valley the trail was a clammy like the inside of a cave. The air was still and cool and every leaf glittered with baubles of water beads. Brushing past a fern leaf sent a cascade of water droplets bouncing through the sullen silence. I enjoyed the view and even more so the descents but progress was painfully slow. Even my shoes were slipping on the damp rocks as I pushed my bike up the stubborn hills. It took me 6 hours of riding, sliding and trudging to get just 50km (admittedly with 2000m of climbing).

I pulled into Mangakino looking more homeless than ever. Mud-smeared after my crash and my shins caked in blood from slipping off the pedals. Dribbles of dried blood crisscrossed with splatters of chain oil and mud. I asked around for the nearest bike shop and made a few phone calls but to no avail. I found a spot just outside of town to camp and got into my tent dirty and exhausted. A great trail and amazing to be riding off road but I wish my bike wasn’t so badly beat up. Waikato River Trail I will be back!

Waikato trail waipapa
I hope you enjoy my Mental Health T-shirt made into a vest for the North Island heat!