Elisabeth Easther tackles Te Awa – The Great New Zealand River Ride by e-bike.
Day 1 - Ngāruawāhia - Hamilton Gardens (27km)
When sleepy little Ngāruawāhia was bypassed by the Waikato Expressway, the riverside town became even quieter.
However, having visited recently to cycle Te Awa – The Great New Zealand River Ride, I gained a newfound appreciation for the place.
At the foot of the Hakarimata Range in the heart of Ngaruawahia there's a park called The Point. It's serene and clean with a fabulous play area and skate park, the loo even plays music.
It's also the start (or end) of the freshly minted Te Awa Ride, a 75km trail that hugs the Waikato River, taking cyclists (and walkers) all the way to Karapiro in the south.
Saddling up on the Kingitanga Heritage Trail - Ngāruawāhia is a hotbed of history - Jennifer from Cycle Cambridge set us up on electric bikes, providing maps and snacks before pointing us in the right direction.
Riding beneath the railway bridge - the river and Tūrangawaewae Marae on our left – it was such a buzz to have a bit of battery powering the pedals. Stopping to read the information panels, we were also in awe of the many elegant bridges.
As a child, all I knew of Horitiu was the freezing works and that when the wind blew in a certain direction, it was smelly when you drove by.
Now I also know it's a significant wildlife area where freshwater mussels help keep the river clean, and long-tailed bats roost in the trees. You won't learn that in a car.
Wide concrete paths cut a swathe through lush countryside and, being a bit of a home and garden perv, I enjoyed taking a gander at the fancy houses; plus with spring in full swing, the gardens were blooming beautiful.
Checking out segments of river that were previously off limits, and with my old school buddy Tene along for the ride, it was also a trip down memory lane. The leg from St Andrews to The Hamilton Gardens was especially evocative.
The Fairfield Bridge where daredevils ran or rode along the humps. The leafy glades where teens would park to pash. The boat club where we held my mother's funeral - so many memories flowing like the river and before we knew it, we'd arrived at The Hamilton Gardens, a 54ha botanic wonderland. If you've never been, you've such a treat in store.
After a quick cuppa at the Lakeside Cafe, we declined the offer of a shuttle to Podium Lodge – with e-bikes, that would've been way too lazy - and we pedalled along Matangi Rd towards Cambridge while lambs and baby alpacas frolicked in the fields.
A ride of approximately 50km, and barely a bead of sweat upon our brows.
Day 2: Riding high at Avantidrome
Tucked away in the rolling Cambridge countryside, Avantidrome is a purpose-built wooden velodrome. Heading there on a Saturday morning, I had to stifle my nerves when I met my mentor, Sarah Ulmer.
Happily she's more than an Olympic track cycling gold medallist, she's also down to earth and delightful, and before I knew it, I'd signed up for Stage 1 Velodrome Accreditation.
Fitted with bikes and helmets - my fellow riders ranged from primary schoolers to a grandmother – it was only on the track that it dawned on me, these super light Avanti bikes don't have gears or brakes.
My heart was in my mouth, and I promised myself I wouldn't ride beyond the "apron", the lowest flat section of track. As my confidence grew, I gingerly eased on to the blue ribbon known as the Cote d'Azur while Sarah called instructions from the sidelines, and took pictures like a proud parent.
As I warmed up the aroma of motel moisturiser came off me in waves, a heady combination of fear, enthusiasm and synthetic frangipani.
Over two hours and many laps, with each circuit I went higher, thankful to physics and centripetal force. It's exhilarating to be so far from one's comfort zone and I could have ridden all day, but outside the sun shone and my e-bike was all charged up again, so I thanked Sarah for her expertise and bid my track cycling career farewell.
The second leg – Cambridge to Karapiro, 17km each way
Goodbye Avantidrome, and hello to a bike with gears, brakes and a battery. Passing the Gallagher Bike Skills Park, I wound my way through the bucolic countryside to Cambridge.
Through the historic town centre I rode - bustling shops and cafes all vying for my attention but I had other fish to fry – over narrow Victoria Bridge I pedalled till I was back on the trail, with its lavish horse studs and fences festooned with wild roses.
A flat, friendly path, it leads to Karapiro, the heart of New Zealand rowing, although I just trundled by on Armistice Day because you could barely move for tents, tanks and jeeps.
On other days cyclists would find more peaceful scenes, but being a sensible cyclist, I knew to keep pedalling and being electric, I followed my nose until the battery was virtually flat. A mighty fine ride beside a might fine river, Te Awa Trail is a little beauty.
• Podium Lodge: Providing fresh and inviting accommodation, this social enterprise gives 100 per cent of its profits back to the community
• Cycle Cambridge: Another fabulous non-profit, Cycle Cambridge rents out e-bikes and regular bikes, provide maps, guides, shuttle services, breakdown assistance – everything you need to ride in the Waikato with all proceeds going back to the community.
• Te Awa – The Great NZ River Ride: At 75km and planned to expand, riders are advised to allow time to explore the area's many charms from cafes to shops, picnic spots and cycle-centric side attractions.
• Avantidrome: Cambridge's world-class facility, fostering high performance sports, health and good fun.