I grew up in Hamilton at a time when the city (like myself as a teenager) was struggling with its identity. Most locals would say the most appealing feature of the locality was that it was ‘close to everything’. It was close to Auckland, the coastal beaches and the mountains for skiing. Sadly the city was known as a place close to elsewhere. Keeping up with the slogans for the city during the ’80s was like trying to remember the Rocky sequels, each one blending into the other. What was firstly the ‘Fountain City’ became ‘Where it’s happening’, ‘Hamilton more than you expect’, ‘Hamilton – City of the Future’, ‘hamiltON’ and now unofficially ‘The Tron’.

I have long considered a more apt name would be ‘Heart of the Waikato’. The locality is central to the region, and the timeless flow of the Waikato River pumps right through the place. At the time it felt like the locality resisted embracing the river, building bridges to overcome it, and the urban footprint turning its back on its foe.

Overview map following the mighty Waikato River

Oh how this has changed! On arriving in town I was spoilt for choice with two outstanding trails that embrace and celebrate the river. One is the newly formed and still-expanding Te Awa trail that runs from the north through the city to Cambridge, with the Waikato River Trails Great Ride (which nearly links with Te Awa). Today’s trip was to experience the more southern ride: the Waikato River Trails.

My wife and I travelled through to Mangakino, which we chose as a base for our multi-day adventure. This backwater town was left behind by workers (including my grandfather) as a former dam construction settlement but is now starting to get a breath of new life thanks to increasing rider numbers visiting town. We chose to stay in the Mangakino Hotel – I like their slogan of ‘in the middle of everywhere’ as it’s on the trail, and not far away from the Shire set of Middle Earth (Hobbiton) and other local attractions, all delivering its lifeblood.

Lakes District Adventures offers both bike hire and shuttles for the trail (Credit Lake District Adventures) Ivy-clad Inca temple-like fortress of the old cement batching plant (Credit Waikato River Trails Trust)

Attaching three GPS units on the bars of my bike, I start the now familiar warm-up sequence of them locating us in geographic space while we prepared our riding gear. With a simple push of GPS play button, times three, we headed off northbound on a grey heartland day. The GPS units are gathering the essential mapping data for the Great Rides App project. Before long we reached the purpose-built trail; there is a surreal transformation with the forest canopy enveloping us as we ride along exploring our new surroundings.

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