Tackling the Te Awa River Ride cycle trail as a family: What to expect

23 February 2024

An NZ cycling holiday with the family looks idyllic on Instagram – but how much does it hurt in real life? Alexia Santamaria jumps on the saddle to find out.

I’ve always had a lot of questions about family cycling holidays.

They seem like a wholesome, active way to spend a few days with your nearest and dearest, but behind those smiling Instagram pictures, are there tired, grouchy off-camera faces? And what about the important stuff? Are there places to stop for coffee? Toilets? Will I get bored after the initial novelty wears off? And most importantly, just how sore will my backside be by the end of it?

There was really only one way to find out.

Not wanting to take on too much on a first attempt, our family of four decided to dip our toe in the cycling scene by riding the 65km Te Awa Trail from Ngāruawāhia to Lake Karapiro on e-bikes. I’d heard it was incredibly picturesque and – importantly – relatively flat, so it seemed like a good first experience.

My first question was around the logistics of the whole experience, and that’s where the lovely team from Riverside Adventures came in. We were given instructions to meet our driver, Richard, at a midpoint – Punnet Cafe in Tamahere – at 8.40am (we won’t talk about the morning scenes as our family attempted to be on the road from Auckland by 7am). We’d already supplied our heights and weights, so he arrived with a trailer of four e-bikes that were perfect for us. We left our car safely at the cafe – after grabbing a flat white to go, of course – and headed for the start of the trail.

Richard got us orientated and adjusted, and we were off. The start of the trail was stunning – our first river views, mirror-like in the morning stillness. I remembered just how much I loved e-bikes as we breezed along with minimum effort, a sentiment I would re-echo numerous times over the next two days. And that “breezing along” continued – following the mighty Waikato past the Ngāruawāhia Golf Course, crossing at the lovely Perry Bridge then back over at the Horotiu bridge, marvelling at the ever-changing views of this beautiful awa. Sometimes it was a keyhole peek through wild bush and toetoe, sometimes an unobstructed sweeping view, but it was ever-present. Reassuring, vast powerful.

Riding on purpose-made paths made it easy and relaxing, far from motorists and fumes. We passed the back of Hamilton East – noting the balcony of new, exciting food market complex, MADE – and continued along the river, grateful for a canopy of trees in the 27C heat. The great thing about the path running parallel to the main street of Hamilton (even though you can’t see the shops and restaurants from your much lower riverside path) is that you can pop up at any point for a food or toilet stop or even to check out attractions along the way.

Richard had given us a lock to secure all our bikes together, so we headed up to the main road when hunger set in and a toilet stop was needed. Riverbank Lane was just the ticket with a coffee from Cafe Kopi, and some delicious handmade pastries from Rudi’s – this was definitely my kind of cycling

Refuelled, we followed the trail signs (these lime green beacons of hope had become our best friends when our internal compasses failed us) to Hamilton Gardens. We didn’t stop for long but a lengthier visit would definitely be an option if you fancied it. Our brief peek at the Indian garden was a riot of colour, and groups of smiling folk marvelled at the Italian statues, surrealist animatronic trees and other fascinating perfectly manicured floral spaces that have earned this place deserved international recognition.

Then it was back on the trail all the way back to Punnet. More beautiful scenery followed (do they ever run out of it in these parts?) more varied perspectives on the river, then a brief departure away from the water and through some truly charming countryside areas. Five hours from starting (including a million photo stops and two decent-sized breaks in Hamilton and for the Gardens) we arrived – vaguely fatigued but elated at what we’d experienced on our first day. There’s a freedom that cycling brings, that’s hard to describe without cliche, but that feeling of the air rushing by as you whizz past beautiful vistas definitely has meditative qualities – even with two teenage boys in tow! Huge bonus, they appeared to have called some temporary truce on their usual levels of bickering.

Richard picked up our bikes and made arrangements for the next day, and we spent the night at Podium Lodge after a fabulous pizza dinner at Pijjas in Cambridge (the real Italian deal). No one had any problem entering a deep slumber that night.

The next morning we drove two minutes to the Velodrome (defintely worth a look inside) near Podium Lodge and embarked on the second, slightly shorter, day-two section. Starting back from Punnet, we couldn’t imagine how the scenery would top that of the day before, but the section from the cafe past dreamy rolling pastures, on a path down the middle of a working corn field, winding through gladed green bush, back out towards the river, past cows looking thoroughly unimpressed at the heat, through scene after scene of Waikato magic, was truly spectacular. We tried to resist stopping every 15 minutes for more photos, but the vistas were something even the teens wanted to preserve in digital eternity.

As we rolled through the final section past vast paddocks and beautiful boutique BnBs with long hydrangea-clad driveways in horsey Cambridge countryside and on to the majestic waters of Lake Karapiro (the last 100m are virtually on the water itself) we definitely all felt some sense of small accomplishment. It wasn’t the Tour de France, and it wasn’t the longest ride in New Zealand, but it still felt good to arrive at that final sign and complete a totally new experience for our whānau.

So are we converts, ready to become a lycra-clad cycling family? Absolutely – we are already planning the Hauraki and Otago rail trails as our next adventures. E-bikes really might be the greatest invention ever, and I can hand-on-heart say that on a regular mountain bike, there would have been tears, tantrums and at some point a refusal to cycle any further (and that would not have been from my husband or kids).

While we did the whole package (as we don’t own e-bikes), companies like Riverside Cycles also do shuttles and can tailor their services to wherever you’re at in your cycling and gear acquisition journey. And even though Te Awa is an entry-level cycle trail, it has plenty of appeal for experienced cyclists, too – impossibly gorgeous scenery and the opportunity to view it from a totally different vantage point make this ride a Kiwi must-do.
Article by Alexia Santamari, extracted from the NZ Herald, 22 February 2024