Get out of town! A new bike commuter tackles the Hauraki Rail Trail

May 26, 2016

Originally published on BikeAKL

Vivian Chandra recently blogged about how the Auckland Bike Challenge got her back into bike commuting, and now she’s extending her range by venturing out onto the rail trails. Here’s her story of a great weekend ride, close to home… 

If there was one quick way you could describe to tourists what being a Kiwi means, it’d be the Hauraki Rail Trail! The official website bills it as ‘the easiest riding trail in New Zealand’. I rode the Trail for the first time last weekend with four other people from a range of biking backgrounds, which was a good way to test the ‘easiest riding trail’ theory. The fine print: that’s definitely true as long as you’ve had some riding experience – and you don’t have to do the whole trail in one weekend as we did; there are sections that are totally manageable and fun even for little kids and newer riders.

To set the scene, I ride daily to work in Auckland, and have done so for about a month now. It’s only a teensy 5km ride each way, but it means I know how to use gears and am comfortable on a bike.

Me and Annal on a bridge on our bikes
Having survived the thrill of the tunnel, you get to enjoy one of several cool bridges.

My husband (pictured above catching up with me) rides recreationally, often clocking 10-20km on the days he gets on his bike. So this was a walk in the park for him (well, maybe a bike in the park). Two of our other friends had done lots of stationary biking and were familiar with biking in a previous life… and then we come to my last friend, who, in her own words, hadn’t been on a bike since she was 10 years old (well over 15 years ago!).

The good news is that with mutual support and encouragement, all of us got through it and learnt a bit more about this land we call home.

Day 1 – Thames to Paeroa to Waihi

We picked up our bikes nice and early on Saturday morning from the Thames Base at 407 MacKay Street. The guy was super nice and took the time to make sure we got the right bikes for our height. (It’s only while writing this blog and looking through the options that I discovered that e-bikes were an option. That might have been a great idea for my newbie friend – sigh, live and learn!)

We spent about 10 minutes hooking up our own stuff to the bikes (my partner and I are telemetry geeks, so the phone cradle with Strava needed to be set in a prominent position!), and playing with the gears and things in their big car park.

… and then we were off!

Our morning route before lunch was Thames to Paeroa, and it was great. It’s a 33 km ride, and there is a tasty stop at the Cheese Barn in Matatoki, about a third of the way to Paeroa.

Somewhere along the way I met a robot on the road… (he was surprisingly quiet, being a mailbox and all…)

me and a letterbox that looks like a robot
Letterbox robot selfies are the best selfies.

This was quite a bit of riding, and all before a late lunch. In retrospect, I’m glad we got the longest leg over and done with first; we were all at our freshest and even my newbie friend managed okay. Upon arrival in Paeroa, we were a bit worn out, and we didn’t bother looking around for a lunch spot, as the rain was starting to come in a bit. So we stumbled into the first bakery/diner we could find, and pies and caffeine were consumed in copious quantities.

The next leg was Paeroa to Waihi, through the Karangahake Gorge. Once you’re out of Paeroa and into the gorge, a nice flat wide gravel path runs along the south side of the river.

The first big excitement is the 1.1km long Karangahake Rail Tunnel… We had a few in our group that were a teeny bit claustrophobic, which you don’t realise in day-to-day life, but you do in a 1.1km dimly lit tunnel. (Check out a video taste of the tunnel here). Two of our bikes, mine and my husband’s, had super-powered LED torches, and so one of us went ahead and the other brought up the rear. When we returned the next day, we did the tunnel in a tighter group, whooping and cheering each other on.

We all agreed that the first trip through the tunnel felt much more solitary and nearly resulted in a panic attack or two – maybe because you don’t know how long 1.1km takes till you ride it – but once you know what to expect (and remember there’s a light at the end of the tunnel!), the return journey was actually kind of exhilarating. [Ed tip: Take bright lights, and watch out for walkers!]

What no one had mentioned was that the route from Paeroa to Waihi takes you steadily UPHILL… which we only worked out the next day on the return trip, when the ride felt surprisingly easy. It’s not steep, though. And we knew there was a train that you can catch from Waikino (halfway through the gorge) to Waihi, so we had that up our sleeves if we got tired. But somehow in the drizzly rainy afternoon we missed the sign, so when we got to Waihi in the late afternoon we all wondered about the mysteriously missing train. (Perhaps it was like in Harry Potter, and we merely didn’t know how to get onto platform 9 and ¾?)

Ed note: to get to the train station (and its excellent cafe in the old station building, with a roaring fireplace and great food), you need to cross the river. Access is via a pedestrian bridge just past the spectacular Victoria Battery, if you’re coming from Paeroa, You can’t miss the Battery – which is the remains of a massive factory for crushing gold out of quartz, great for photo ops and full of clambering potential – but obviously you need to keep a bit of an eye out for the bridge! The train has a special carriage for bikes and is a very popular option for families. Be sure to check the timetable as it varies by day and season.

We also somehow missed the turn-off to the Owharoa Falls, both times past the Victoria Battery (d’oh!). We’ll keep a better eye out next time.

The Victoria Battery: like Roman ruins, NZ-style: Artsy photographs galore if you want to get up close and explore. There are also several great walks you can do along the gorge to explore what’s left of the once massive gold-mining industry.

By late afternoon, we made it to our accommodation in Waihi: the Bularangi Lodge, which is super huge, and would easily accommodate a bunch more people than our small party. Our initial plan for dinner was a Thai restaurant that a friend had told us about, but we were so tired and muddy that we decided an impromptu smorgasbord from New World, eaten while sitting around the heat pump, was a much better deal. (Also, I hadn’t packed anything except active wear, and dinner in your yoga pants is something I just couldn’t bring myself to do.)

Day 2 – Waihi to Te Aroha

The next morning we headed back to Paeroa, i.e. the same route as the previous afternoon, except downhill all the way, a great start to the day.

We had a quick pause in Paeroa to snack on our remaining cheese and crackers and fruit, picnicking in the car park of the Child, Youth and Family office. (Sorry to the incredibly nice K9 and security guard team, I honestly do not know how we set the alarm off – possibly while climbing in the garden posing for this photo??)

It’s compulsory to drink L & P in Paeroa. Don’t ask; just do. (And if you want to double down by posing with a little bottle in front of the big bottle, it’s at the south end of town next to the bridge).

Then we headed off on our final leg – to Te Aroha and the hot pools!! This section of the ride was really amazing. As you ride, you’re getting nearer and nearer to the looming Mt Te Aroha, which makes it all feel a bit epic; the last 10km is basically a long straight path along the old railway line beside fields of cows and the odd farmhouse. If you’re more about twists and turns it might feel a bit samey, but I found it really meditative.

Then as you come into Te Aroha, with thoughts of spa pools and then home, the last couple of kms couldn’t go by any faster!

Me in front of a sign that says Te Aroha
Achievement unlocked!

We chose to go with the public pools option (walk PAST the private pools and you will find the big public pools), which was much cheaper and friendlier for a bigger group like ours. We even had time after the swim to have a (very early) dinner at Ironique in Te Aroha – the shrimp salad is amazing by the way.

How did we get back to where we started, you might be wondering? Our bike hire people have a shuttle service (called the Sherpa Shuttle, how AWESOME is that!?) and they’d packed our bikes onto the trailer even before we got back to the shuttle. It was a quiet ride back to Thames where we’d parked our van (well, I was quiet, because I fell asleep).

All in all, the Hauraki Rail Trail was an awesome trip for beginners. You could also easily pace yourselves more slowly than we did, or do just a short section of it, like Paeroa to Waihi and back, or use the train for a Waikino-Waihi shortcut. But as relative newcomers to the trail experience, we stuck to our goal and managed fine. It was a really nice way for a bunch of friends to take ourselves out of the city and off the commute loop, see some new things from a new perspective, and cheer each other on.

Goat on a building
Lots of serendipitous surprises along the way, like this goat on a hot tin roof…

PS for those enthusiastic cyclists who crave something a bit more demanding than ‘the easiest trail in all of NZ’ – my challenge to you would be to do the whole thing in one day. Or perhaps start cycling from Auckland!

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