A trout jumped out of the water just in front of where I was reclining, possibly attracted by my freshly unwrapped egg sandwiches. A flotilla of swans cruised snootily past, looking down their red noses at the grubby boots I was resting on the grass. Out in the middle of the lake a speedboat made countless attempts to get a young woman up on her skis, but, like me, she seemed happier lying down.

Behind us lay a 12km stretch of the Waikato River Trails from Whakamaru Dam along the shore of its lake. Ahead, if all went to plan, was a further 14km of walking, mainly down the actual Waikato River, as far as the Atiamuri Dam.

But just for now, the Dunham Creek Reserve, on the shores of Lake Whakamaru, was the perfect spot to take a break and ponder what a beautiful country we live in.

This was the first serious hike I had done since having a heart attack and bypass surgery last year, so I wasn't sure how I'd cope, but the gentle terrain of these trails down the shores of the mighty Waikato and its numerous hydro lakes made them a pretty good place for a trial run ... or should that be walk.

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The route is also extremely picturesque, mostly running through strips of attractive bush, full of birdlife, and with constant vistas of sparkling water and mysterious volcanic outcrops.

The trails don't yet run the full 425km length of the Waikato River from Lake Taupo to Port Waikato, but that's the vision.

It's a big vision, of course, but it's being achieved in bite-sized chunks. The first trail, built under a job creation scheme and opened in 2004, was a 3km length from Jones Landing to Arapuni Dam. The second, a 2km stretch from the dam to Arapuni Village, was finished the following year.

We actually did those two routes the day after our big walk and they're probably the most attractive trails developed to date, with great views of Lake Arapuni, its dam and the powerhouse deep in the gorge carved by the untamed river, plus a viewing point offering a superb panorama over the adjacent Lake Karapiro. As a bonus, you get to cross the historic swingbridge, built in 1925 to provide a link between the workers' village and the dam site.

My resting place at Dunham Creek was roughly at the halfway point of a longer cluster of trails which the trust completed last year, running between the Whakamaru and Atiamuri Dams.

Our start-point that morning was Whakamaru Village where, on the advice of Kelvin Hainsworth, chief executive of the trails trust, we left our car in the safety of the cluster of shops, pausing to fortify ourselves with a cup of tea and a rock cake at the Dam Cafe.

Then we crossed the Whakamaru Dam, where river water was thundering down the tailrace, spotted the trail sign and set off through the dew-damp grass.

The first stage of our walk was pleasant without being stunning.

Often Lake Whakamaru and the surrounding volcanic peaks were obscured by pines or kanuka, and the trail frequently took us unromantically up along the edge of the road before eventually swooping back down into the bush on the water's edge.

But there were some great views, particularly from the top of the towering Ongaroto Bluffs, which provided one of the few real climbs, where I stood, panting a little, pretending to watch a couple of speedboats performing graceful pirouettes across the lake, before I descended a giant wooden staircase back to the road.

The birdlife was amazing, with a flock of bellbirds singing right over our heads at one point, and plenty of fantails, grey warblers, waxeyes, tui, once maybe a tomtit, and other small birds I couldn't identify flittering in and out of the bush.

There was also plenty to see out on the water, from swans and shags to trout fishers and water skiers, and from jumping trout and hovering dragonflies to pink water lilies and reflected landscapes.

The route was even better after our lunch stop at Dunham Creek - apart from a few tricky moments with trail signage - as the path veered away from the road and we strolled in shady tranquillity along what at this point was a fast-flowing river rather than a lake.

In the distance we could see the impressive shape of Pohaturoa, a huge plug of volcanic rock, on top of which there was apparently once a pa whose inhabitants were trapped and slaughtered.

Unfortunately, an hour into this trail I was running out of steam and, with no mobile phone reception and no obvious road access until we got to the end, I decided it would be sensible to turn back.

By the time we reached the nearest road I was definitely feeling the effects of not having done any serious hiking for about eight months ... when who should we bump into but Hainsworth and his wife who had driven there on the off-chance of catching us as we passed through.

Exploring the Atiamuri end of the trail by car mightn't have quite been what I planned but it was an extremely welcome option.

It also provided a chance to catch up on the trust's plans for the future. Hainsworth reported that an extension of the trail from Arapuni to Jones Landing along the shores of Lake Karapiro is under construction and should be opened later this year.

Consultation with landowners and other affected parties is taking place over more trails to run along the shores of Lake Arapuni, Lake Waipapa and Lake Maraetai.

The target is to have a 100km route, from Atiamuri to Karapiro, completed in time for the World Rowing Championships which will be held on Lake Karapiro in 2010. Those sections look even more exciting than what has already been developed.

And after that? Hainsworth says the trust has received indications of particular interest in extending the network of trails northward the full length of Lake Karapiro and southward all the way to Lake Aratiatia on the doorstep of Taupo.

There's also the possibility that the river trails - which are open for cycling as well as walking - could become part of Prime Minister John Key's national cycleway (though personally I'm not convinced that walkers and cyclists are a good mix).

But the long-term dream is for a trail which stretches from the mountains to the sea. Hainsworth explains, "You know, until 20-30 years ago when the Tongariro Power project was built, the Tongariro River was generally known as the Waikato Stream.

You could say Lake Taupo is a hole through which the Waikato River flows. So, one day, who knows, the Waikato River trails might extend from Mt Ruapehu to Port Waikato."

Services there if you know where to look

If you're going to walk the Waikato River Trails you probably need to organise somewhere to stay overnight, plan where to eat and organise transport ... and that can be a problem.

Because the trails are very new the sort of infrastructure that exists around most well-known walks isn't established yet.

But Waikato Trails Trust chief executive Kelvin Hainsworth says accommodation is starting to spring up - the trust's website lists three places - and there has been an expression of interest in providing a transport service.

From my own experience, what is available may not be flash but it certainly is cheap.

We stayed at the Mangakino Hotel which, though it has obviously fallen on hard times, provided adequate and, most importantly, restful accommodation for just $30 a room (one had three towels and no soap, the other had no towels but did have soap... so maybe take your own).

The hotel's restaurant is used as a living room these days but we had a good feed at the fish and chip shop next door for just $8.50 apiece and with a couple of pints of Waikato in the hotel bar - where the locals invited us to share their fish and chips as well - we were well satisfied.

The promised breakfast at the hotel didn't happen so we drove to Whakamaru where the very nice Dam Cafe had yet to open, but we were able to get a substantial all-day breakfast for $11 at the local dairy.

In other words, most of the services you need to walk the trail are there, but not always where you might expect them.

Further information

See waikatorivertrails.com.