South Waikato: Hike and Bike in the Most Underrated Area of the North Island
The glowing maggots put on a good show.
Floating between the narrow walls of the bush-covered canyon, our paddles resting on our knees as the current carried us through the growing darkness, we were suddenly surrounded by pinholes of brilliant white light to match the starry sky above. we.
Nothing disturbed the peace and quiet except the gentle trickle of unseen mini waterfalls. Even the talkative kids in the group seemed to have been silenced.
I had arrived at the Riverside Adventures base on the shores of lower Lake Karāpiro that afternoon, not quite sure what to think of my next adventure. The evening kayak trip to a hidden glowworm canyon seemed magical, but I wondered if the old body would be up to it. The only real workout my arm muscles get these days is lifting cans from the kitchen cupboard, and I’m weirdly intolerant of the cold – my fingers bleed and go numb when my body temperature drops too low ( thank you for nothing Raynaud’s syndrome).
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Fortunately, the team is prepared for delicate customers like me. Our group of eight were given waterproof pants, splash jackets, gloves and beanies before heading out – there were even thermals available for those not already wearing theirs.
I didn’t need to worry about the microscopic muscles in my arms either – our guide Caleb stopped frequently to fill us in on the history of the area. We were paddling, he told us, above the submerged village of Horahora, flooded in 1947 when the Karāpiro hydroelectric dam was completed. My kayak, he said, was placed directly above the ruins of a three-story power plant – a popular dive site today despite the eels which Caleb said were about as thick as her thighs.
Turning into the Pokaiwhenua stream, it was easy to imagine we were traveling back in the days when the local iwi posted bodies along the river to ward off would-be invaders. Walls covered in creepers closed in on us and overhanging trees partially obscured the blushing sky as we made our way to a clearing to stock up on pineapple chunks and wait for the darkness to descend completely.
The upcoming light show, Caleb informed us, was courtesy of the larvae (maggots) of a fly known as the fungus gnat. Or more specifically their bioluminescent poo. Luckily, learning that — and that maggots eat their siblings to shine energy — didn’t detract from their beauty. Coming back through the canyon was a bit like what an astronaut has to do when floating in space – exhilarating and utterly fascinating.
Based at the historic Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel, just outside Tīrau, I had started my mini-stay south of Waikato with a hike to the top of the highest waterfall in the North Island. As a travel writer I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Wairere Falls until I Googled walks in the area and the three hour return hike did the subject of rave reviews.
The 45-minute trail to the lookout follows a swift stream through a fairy forest of tree trunks and moss-covered rocks, passing a series of impressive waterfalls before climbing steeply to the top of the falls. .
The second half of the trail is a natural Thighmaster – my muscles still ache after three days – but the view from the top was well worth my clumsy new step. Standing beside – or if you’re brave – a natural infinity pool overlooking thick bushes and emerald fields, you can’t help but feel like you’re living life on the edge. And lunch at the edge of white water gushing from a 153-meter escarpment is a real rush.
The next morning, I drove to the Riverside Adventures base to tackle a section of the Waikato River Trails, which pass through farmland, native bush, pine forest, and a series of hydroelectric dams on more 100 km from Ātiamuri to Lake Karāpiro.
With lots of ups, downs, and tight turns, it’s a more adventurous option than the nearby Hauraki Rail Trail, but there’s plenty to satisfy easy riders like me—the five sections range from easy to expert. With shuttles available to transport you to the section of your choice and quality coffees along the way, they make for a great day – or days – out.
I like a good bike ride, but I hadn’t ridden in about a year, so I rode the scenic but hilly section from Jones Landing to Arapuni before taking my e-bike for the rest of the Karāpiro section easy to intermediate 15 km. After rediscovering my inner speed demon on the downhill sections amid fragrant pine trees, I took a break at the 152-meter-long Arapuni Suspension Bridge with its dizzying views of the dam and raging river below before returning at the base.
I would have stopped to refuel at the popular Rhubarb Cafe had it been open, but, as it was, I relied on Em’s provided chocolate peanut bar to propel me along for a walk. through wetlands, gravel trails with views of Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, and riparian reserves that are temporarily home to what must surely have been very happy campers.
No first-time trip to South Waikato is complete without a visit to the Blue Spring near Pūtāruru – and it’s well worth the long journey. It’s a 15-minute walk to the source from the Leslie Road entrance, but the 4.7km Te Waihou walkway from the Whites Road car park traces a river that’s at least as stunning as the star attraction, would be is that because it goes on and on.
I envied the ducks gliding through water so clear and blue it seemed almost too pure to exist on this planet, but it’s a good thing that humans are forbidden to swim in it – the spring provides about 70% bottled water from New Zealand. Flowing over underwater plants, the swirling blues and greens of the river look like something Monet might have painted – and the colors become more vivid as you get closer to the source, whose clarity reflects its optical purity absorbing red light.
If there’s one thing that goes as well with cheese as it does with wine, it’s outdoor exercise, so treat yourself to a visit to the nearby Over The Moon Dairy when you’re done. Collector of international awards, the dairy turns milk from local cows, goats and buffaloes into all manner of creamy delights – from black truffle infused brie to earthy blue. It’s a high-calorie work that explores the many natural wonders of the Waikato. You deserved it.
Getting there and staying there: A good base for exploring the region, the Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel is about two hours’ drive from Auckland. Double rooms start at around $170 a night and include use of the private natural hot springs. See okohotel.co.nz.
Play it: Riverside Adventures offers bike, kayak, and custom tours along the Waikato River and beyond. A three-hour guided bike tour along the Karāpiro section of the Waikato River Trails costs $99 with your own bike and from $129 if you rent one. The four-hour glowworm kayak tour costs from $125. See riversideadventures.co.nz. Over The Moon Dairy offers free tastings of its gourmet cheeses from its Pūtāruru base. See overthemoondairy.co.nz.
Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Follow the instructions on covid19.govt.nz.
The writer traveled courtesy of South Waikato District Council.