Waikato Times reporter Matt Bowen cycled the new track along the shores of Lake Maraetai, ahead of its grand opening at the weekend.
An anecdote told in the cab of Taupo resident Trevor Stark's ute illustrated the kind of magic people can expect when the Waikato River Trails officially open on Saturday.
Mr Stark's story emerged in the afternoon, more than an hour after he greeted us on the Mangakino waterfront, handed us mountain bikes and helmets, pointed us along a gravel track bordering Lake Maraetai, and promised to collect us 6km upstream.
We set off for a small taste of the 100km of tracks stretching along New Zealand's longest river, from Atiamuri in the south to Lake Karapiro in the north. The spring air was clear, warm and calm; a thin layer of high cloud softened the sun. On our left was the lake and the big forest country beyond; on our right, the undulating Mangakino golf course, soon replaced with cows and lush green pasture.
We cycled on up the freshly cut route. Here and there cleared scrub rested off trail – a sign of the $9 million construction that's spanned eight years and is now at an end. We peddled on. Most of the easy path wound along Crown land on the water's edge; now and again it zig-zagged up and down small hills exposing breathtaking views till now reserved for farmers and their families.
About 3km in we caught Ali Van der Heyden, chairman of the Waikato River Trails Trust, and trustee Katie Bayes. They had set off earlier, and were evidently tired of waiting – we were late. Ali, 51, was proof that any age group could enjoy the ride. And Katie, who had never straddled a mountain bike before, was further proof.
Our foursome rolled on and were soon faced with a 70-metre-long swing bridge. It swayed. It was narrow. And a sign warned "Maximum load 20 people at a time". We ventured one at a time, hearts fluttering in chests.
Waiting for us on the other side were South Waikato District Councillor Herman Van Rooijen and Raukawa Trust's Stephanie O'Sullivan – two big supporters of the Waikato River Trails project.
Mr Van Rooijen said a record is kept counting the value of all volunteer and in-kind work on the trails – last year it amounted to $132,000. All up it totalled about $1.5 million.
"South Waikato is losing population so we have to look at what else we can do other than forestry and dairy farming," he said. "We've talked about tourism for many years. I'm in my fifth term and now it's happening."
Ms Van der Heyden has been involved since then and admitted overcoming near-calamitous financial challenges and sleepless nights, puffing her chest out at the accomplishment.
"It's the pride we have because we always said it's not just about building a trail. This is the longest river in New Zealand and basically all the trustees are dairy farmers. If we get people out on this they'll be aware that people have to start protecting it more and looking after it.
"People don't realise how darn good it is down here, and it's untapped – there are five hydro lakes and each lake's different."
Ms Van der Heyden said 60 per cent of cyclists who use the popular Otago Central Rail Trail come from Auckland and Waikato; during the next five years the trust will target that domestic market. A conservative estimate puts the number of visitors rising to 20,000. Visitors will be able to ride independently, take a tour or use shuttles to and from start and end points. Marketing the trail begins at the grand opening at Whakamaru Reserve on Saturday. Mayors, dignitaries and supporters will give speeches and people will get shuttled down river to navigate the trail back on foot or wheel – an experience similar to ours. With tiring legs, wide smiles and fresh air in our lungs we arrived at the end of our short journey.
True to his word Mr Stark was waiting for us patiently.
He recently got the trail's environmental management job, but before that he spent weeks plotting and digging the path we had just ridden. As we drove back to the Mangakino waterfront he told the story.
Some days, Mr Stark said, the mist would settle low over Lake Maraetai while he toiled away on the trail.
Now and again he'd take a breather, gaze across the water and see the Utunui paddle boat emerge. He'd think, "Where am I?" before pinching himself – just to make sure he was indeed in New Zealand, on the banks of the Waikato river just 1.5 hours from Hamilton and two more from Auckland.
Waikato River Trails grand opening When and where: Whakamaru Reserve, south of Tokoroa, 10am Shuttle registration: Call 078833720 before noon tomorrow or sign on from 10am till 11am at the opening. Bring: Cycling gear, including a mountain bike, or walking attire. Visit waikatorivertrails.com for information.