Tim Roxborogh tackles the famous river's bike trails with far more ease than he could have imagined.
I'll never go back. Not Waikato, I love New Zealand's most misunderstood province. But to riding a normal bike? Never again. As soon as that first little surge of power through the pedals of the e-bike hit, I heard myself say out loud to Glyn, my guide, "I shan't ride a conventional bike ever again!"
Possibly not with the word "shan't", but the initial thrill came with a good dash of poshness and smugness. To think I'd been a doubter about the validity of e-bikes. It sure helped that we were riding somewhere as deceptively attractive as the Waikato River Trails. "Deceptive" because ever since seeing a poll a couple of years back placing Waikato at the bottom of the list of provinces Kiwis most wanted to take their domestic holidays, I've been on something of a crusade. You don't have to want to immediately up sticks to Hamilton to come round to appreciating this part of the country. Again, I love Waikato.
Back to the e-bike. I was on a travel writing assignment for two nights where I'd be cycling a swanky battery-rechargeable e-bike alongside New Zealand's longest river, the Waikato. Until you've sat on one of these bikes, in this case, brand new bright yellow models that very much resemble top-grade mountain bikes, you can fall in the trap of being sceptical. Non-believers seem to swing between the opposing misconceptions of it either not really being exercise, to questioning how much of a difference the "e" really makes.
Well, with the Waikato River Trails being just over 100km of excellent, recently established riverside tracks, I can tell you it most certainly is exercise. Sure, you'd burn more calories if you did it all unassisted, but don't kid yourself you'd cover anywhere near the distance.
So yes, you do still have to do a bit of pedalling but you'll also find yourself enjoying the ride so much more. At the same time, you're able to see so much more too. And if a hill presents itself, you're unlikely to be in the embarrassing position of having to dismount and push. Like full-face snorkels, e-bikes are the future. Pollution free too.
For my two-day, two-night jaunt I began by leaving my car at the foot of the Maungatautari eco-sanctuary in Pukeatua (30 minutes from Cambridge) at a guesthouse called Out In The Styx. I'd be reuniting with my 2001 VW the next day to spend my second night here, but first it was into the van of Glyn, my guide. With e-bikes attached at the back, we drove south to Atiamuri, across the river from the several-hundred-metre tall, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-recalling Mt Pohaturoa.
Abruptly jutting out of the farm, forest and riverside landscape, there'd be something cinematic about this volcanic formation irrespective of it resembling the mysterious mountain from one of the great early Steven Spielberg films. Its Maori history is both compelling and brutal with no less than 31 whare sites atop a peak where many died in tribal battles. I've been transfixed by the sight of Mt Pohaturoa going back to childhood road trips to Taupo and would love to see the commercial pine forests that have dominated its slopes since the 1920s one day replaced with native trees.
Regardless, this was a visually stunning place to start the e-biking adventure. It also set the tone for the two days: beautiful scenery with more than a few stories to tell. Adjusting to the reality of easy pedalling like I'd never known (with different levels of ease depending on how much a workout you want), my first day of riverside riding would take me across more than 30km of trails.
Following the river through tracts of bush with mightily photo-friendly hills across the water reminded me just how underrated Waikato is by Kiwis. International tourists flock to it for attractions like Hobbiton and the genuinely world-class Hamilton Gardens, but it seems too many domestic tourists (from outside the province) think it's little more than dairy farms and a coastline-obsessed country's largest inland city.
The fact most of us have driven through rural Waikato at a 100km/h on the way to other destinations is the blessing and the curse. It's the central province of the Auckland-Hamilton-Tauranga triangle, where roughly half New Zealand's population lives, so it's location couldn't be more convenient. This means we think we know it when really - as the until recently largely unknown Blue Spring near Putaruru attests - we may not.
Ramming home the point, a photo I took a couple of years ago from Lake Karapiro Lodge of the Waikato River, the different shades of trees, the winding roads and the Maungatautari eco-sanctuary had Facebook friends asking if it was Italy. "Waikato!?"
People couldn't believe it, even the ones who'd regularly driven the highway visible in the bottom of the picture.
For my first day on the Waikato River Trails, the ending point was the lakeside community of Mangakino. Established as a purpose-built town during the construction of the Maraetai Dam in the late 1940s, the population was once as high at 5000 in the 1950s.
The cute houses remain, as do 1200 residents with the town being a popular summer retreat for people into water sports and bush walks. Or now, bike riding. By this stage I'd taken in wetlands and a swing bridge to go with the native forest and riverside views.
There'd also been sheep, cows and hopping bunnies with plenty of stops for photos, including several minutes watching the pounding waters at the dam.
After a night recharging the legs and bikes at the Mangakino Hotel, Day 2 was a shorter 15km of pedalling, with the undoubted highlight being Glyn showing me the Arapuni Power Station from the spectacular 152m Arapuni Suspension Bridge. Spanning a gorge of lush forest, the power station below was built in 1929 and is a handsome Art Deco structure with a Category 1 Historic Places listing. It is still in operation but its grand architecture and unique setting instantly had me wanting to convert at least part of it into a luxury boutique hotel. One day.
Clicking the bikes back on the van, Glyn dropped me off at Out In The Styx, where I would spend the afternoon exploring (on foot) the fence-proof forest of Maungatautari. At 34sq km, this community project has been nothing short of a triumph for the involved locals and should be on your list if you love our native forests and birds.
As for where to stay if you're visiting the sanctuary or needing a base for the Waikato River Trails, it's not fair to call the Out In The Styx guesthouse a "B&B" when your room rate is inclusive of a three-course, home-cooked dinner.
It is run by Lance and Mary with their adult son Nolan and this is a family who can really cook. I'd got wind that this isn't just a nice place to lay your head - reports filtering through that this entirely unpretentious establishment serves some of Waikato's best food. And that's no slight on the region's finer restaurants, more just that the family's chicken, eggplant and tomato terrine, coupled with such as their homemade spreads and rosemary-baked potato slices had me struggling to remember the last meal I'd enjoyed so much.
With eight ensuite rooms and three bunk rooms, the 30 beds at Out In The Styx are welcoming enough for families and stylish enough for couples on romantic getaways.
Lance and Mary will even drop you off in the morning if you want to do the full day's hike across Maungatautari. Once you're done, the soak in the spa with the night sky above and ferns around you will be the perfect recovery. And you'll wonder how any New Zealander could have overlooked this remarkable corner of their country.
E-bikes are available for hire on the Trails for $100 per day, or with a 50 per cent discount for Mercury customers. Your hire fee goes to the Waikato River Trails Trust to help maintain the trails.
Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's The Two, Coast Soul on Coast and writes the music and travel blog RoxboroghReport.com.