The Goldilocks Waters
22 February 2022
A big day out looping the falls and rapids of the Waikato River plus a peaceful ride along the shores of Lake Taupō
Story Gary Patterson
Just like Goldilocks testing beds to find her preferred softness, my feet found their soothing ‘just right’ warm waters beside the Taupō Trails. Fortunately reaching this natural hot spring along the cycle trail did not involve encountering three bears but instead was rather an enjoyable journey through the woods on a big ride. Yes, it’s going to be a big day, as the 50km Taupō trails consist of riverside loops and a lakefront ride forming a network of potential track data for the Great Rides App. I need to capture this data on my bike-mounted GPSs, but doubling back to map for the app will have me completing an 80 kilometre, eight-hour ride.
The idea of riding this trail had been in the making for a few years after some riders asked for the Taupō track network to be included as a bonus ride on the app I built. Today I am one pedal stroke closer to fulfilling this request. However, this was not going to be all work and no play. I couldn’t wait to experience these cycle trails for the first time, to pass beside the Huka Falls, Aratiatia Rapids and the great lake. What cyclist wouldn’t want to ride along our largest lake, longest river and biggest falls in one go? I start my ride at the Hub – appropriately named as it’s the cycling centre for the river rides and the access point to the Craters Mountain Bike Park.
In front of me is Four B At The Hub – this a well-equipped local bike shop that rents a range of bicycles for all kinds of riders heading out to the bike park or other rides. The riverside and lakeside rides I will visit today are a mix of easy to intermediate cross-country trails. So Jonny, the owner of Four B At The Hub, meets me in the early morning and fits me out with a full-suspension mountain bike – a bit of comfort for the long day ahead. Leaving the Hub I turn on the GPS units and plot my way north, keen to reach one end of the river loop at the dam before the day’s first release of water to the Aratiatia Rapids. The trail start is far from rapid; my pace is initially slow as the vegetated track is narrow, tight and winding. Soon the trail straightens and heads along the top of the riverbank nearing Wairakei, but the straight is only brief as the trail then descends down into a creek catchment that feels remote. Here steam wafts through the forest as if in some enchanted fairy tale. I stop and bend down to touch the creek’s gentle flow. “Ouch, she’s hot!” I say out loud – feeling a little silly that I am surprised by this fact. I ride on, following the super-hot waters upstream through the scrub and onto the main road. Crossing a bridge I am instantly taken aback by the massive pipes passing under me. Like an outdoor industrial-scale artwork, they rise vertically upwards in unison before plunging back down to convey hot steam to the Wairakei power station. I soon pass the historic power plant that just over 50 years ago was only the second in the world to harness the earth’s geothermal potential and the first to use wet steam for electricity production. I leave the white wafting vapour clouds of Wairakei behind me as I am about to experience another dramatic outpouring of renewable power just a few kilometres downstream.
It seems time’s middle hand is turning faster than my pedalling. ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ runs through my head. Delays while taking photos and marking waypoints for the app have put me behind time to reach the Aratiatia Dam before the scheduled water release. What is more alarming is that I haven’t yet heard the pre-warning dam release siren and have yet to see the river widen into a lake! A few minutes pass as I push hard to make it on time, and with the river over my right shoulder beginning to widen into a lake, I reach the dam walls just in time for the 15 minute spectacle. While I am the only rider, I am not alone here. Beside me are family groups and other visitors leaning over the rail watching the dam release enormous volumes of water into the relatively dry river canyon. Mere moments later the pool below the dam fills with water and overflows into the rocky gorge before swallowing the riddled honeycomb hollows. Watching the calm blue hue turn into pounding white water is mesmerising and a real highlight at the far end of this trail network. There is power in that water. I cross the dam. Now I am on the opposite bank of the Waikato River and start to head back upstream – destination Lake Taupō. The trail here is a little rough but enjoyable through the forest with the river beside me. The day is starting to warm up too, and at one point I detour to access the river. I consider a short dip to cool off. Nope … I test the water and admit it’s just too cold for me. I pedal on. Soon after a couple of hill climbs, I reach an elevated lookout over the river. Here there are views across to the Wairakei power plant and the prawn park that uses geothermal heat to keep these critters warm. Unlike me, they seem to have found the perfect waterhole. After dropping down the terrace via a series of switchbacks I pass under the highway bridge to the Huka Falls. They say you can hear the falls before you see them, and they are right. I find myself alone at one of the downstream viewing points, but just a 100 metres upstream of me people crowd the viewing platforms, straining for a view of the gushing water. From where I stand the people look the size of shrimps compared to the thundering mass of water that squeezes through the volcanic chute and into a pool below. With a quarter of a million litres of water gushing out per second, (per second!) it is understandable why this is our country’s most popular natural attraction.
Away from the crowds and cascading waters, I continue to cycle along the Rotary Ride that is full of surprises. This bit of the trail excites me as I enter a creek canyon which becomes a lofty steep-sided ravine. In a moment it consumes me before spitting me back out onto the river terrace like some discarded cherry pit. This is cross-country riding at its greatest; however, the best is yet to come! The trail forks just past a climbing track and the one-way trail suddenly drops, so I let Jonny’s bike loose and hang on tight to the reins. What an exhilarating narrow gulch. Plummeting down the trail eats me up again, swoops me through a series of dramatic turns deep into the bowels of the earth before rocketing me out onto the flats at the loveliest of clear springs. Still panting from this wild, bucking ride I get some recovery time on this wide, flat path that gently follows the spring guiding me to the Thermal Spa Park.
Looking over at the Thermal Spa Park, I get a sense that it is a wonderful oasis for the community. My eyes follow the flow of the hot stream that cascades down the hillside into a series of bathing pools before flowing into the Waikato River. I can see that the recently refurbished Spa Park has been sympathetically designed with a modern changing area and toilets, deck platforms and landscaped rocky outcrops with lush plantings. I observe locals and tourists quietly mingling between the private nooks along the water’s edge while others relax in the pools, some of which are fed by the hot steaming waterfall. I drop down the hill and test the waters near the bridge – some enjoy it but for me it’s too hot. Goldilocks! Then I cross the bridge and reach the outlet where others swim in the cold river. Going just a few paces upstream I test the waters and find it is just right to rest my weary legs in. With the quiet background chatter and the sound of splattering and falling water, I could have easily drifted off here, my feet dangling in the warm stream and the rest of my body sprawled on the bank in restful bliss.
Reluctantly I drag myself away from this paradise and continue upstream to drop into Taupō Bungy – not literally dropping though! I wait, but it is lunchtime so no one is jumping for me. In the past, back home in Queenstown, I have seen some take the plunge on bikes. For me, I prefer the safe connection of tread on terra firma. I bike down some switchbacks with views of the river canyon and the cantilevered bungy platform which is now supporting a number of jumpers. I am liking this scenic section of trail that drifts along beside the swirling river currents only parting company when volcanic canyon walls close in. Like the river, I slowly drift toward civilisation. Moments later I reach the river control gates which double as a bridge supporting a continuous flow of vehicular traffic, and my focus changes from trail hazards to social interactions. It is a refreshing contrast and I embrace it in full by posing in front of the #LoveTaupo human-sized hashtag sign which sits just above the beach. I have some challenges. The full text of the sign is long thus hard to take the obligatory selfie for social media, and picture-perfect timing is needed not to photobomb others. I approach some tourists standing nearby and ask them to take a photo of me. English is obviously not their first language; things get lost in translation and they kindly posed for me in front of the hashtag. Not quite what I had in mind. Funny though. I try again with an elderly gentleman, but my idea to ride beside the text doesn’t work as I am already out of the picture frame before his finger pushes the button. Finally, I succeed with some social media savvy mums out walking with strollers who successfully take a couple of photos that are worthy of posting. I find that this human-sized hashtag is a good way of being social while making social media.
Along the wide promenade, I ride slowly taking care to avoid others who flock to this scenic spot. As I turn the corner of the bay the trail users reduce in number. This is now the Lion’s Walk and I wave to other cyclists, ding my bell to alert walkers of my approach and otherwise ride on carefree between the bays. I leave Two Mile Bay to then ride through Three Mile, Four Mile then the innovatively named Five Mile Bays – simple distance names for each curving cusp of the shoreline. Did you know that the word ‘mile’ comes from an old English term ‘mīl’ which is derived from the Latin term ‘mille passus’ or a thousand paces? As my big day recedes, my cycling pace slows as I reach the outskirts of the lakeside settlement of Waitahanui. Here I stop and watch the peaceful castings of several lakeside anglers as I save the data on the GPS units.
It’s been an enjoyable day on the bike following our country’s greatest waterways. The trail network I encountered here is diverse; twisty yet wide, quiet yet quite popular and never far from a bridge joining the loops together. As I return the hire bike via the redwoods, weariness sets in. I don’t think it will matter if tonight’s motel bed is too hard, too soft or just right. I will sleep well after this journey where I found an idyllic hot spring and captured data through a fairy-tale forest which was an absolute joy to bear.
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
- Book Reviews
- Community / Sponsorship
- Journey ON
- Product News
- Recipes / Food
- Travel / Lifestyle