The Great Lake's Great Ride
Great Lake Trails
Our Trail Story
Using a superlative to name this trail is a no-brainer. While the Great Lake is not on the scale of the Great Lakes of the Americas – it is our country’s biggest lake and nearly twice the size of the next largest. I was expecting a lot from this trail when I visited the area as it is one of the New Zealand Cycle Trail’s ‘Great Rides’ as well as being on the scenic shores of Lake Taupo.
My adventure on the Great Lake Trail started at the Waihaha carpark about 30 kilometres west of the Taupo township. The trail is divided into three sections. The Waihaha on the Western Bay is the most remote, with most riders catching a water taxi to reach the section that follows it. I arrive at an empty carpark and read an interpretation panel; behind me is the sound of water racing through a series of river rapids.
My heart was racing too!
I know little about this ride and I feel a little apprehensive about what I might encounter as an approaching front bears down. Looking up, I can already see a sweeping veil of mid-level cloud blanketing the sky; I think the rains are just a few hours away. No time to delay. I check my bike, prime the GPS units and start to collect track points - positions pinpointed by distant satellites in the murky heavens above to aid in mapping this terrestrial trail.
Just metres from the carpark I cross a suspension bridge over the Waihaha River; a sort of gateway to the gorge. The ride starts gently enough with the rhythm of the river. As I cycle east the trail slowly parts ways with the river as I traverse consistently along the 500 metre contour line while the river cuts down deep into the ignimbrite volcanic walls, which also start to close in around me. The trail is wide, but around the corners the drop-offs get more pronounced, giving the feeling of a more precipitous, narrower track. On one outside edge on one corner, the trail is bunded by large rocks; I suspect it’s a deliberate barrier built for those that lose control of their bike on this tricky bend. It’s just a few minutes into the ride yet I love the way the trail already hangs onto the incised gully walls and how the rocky outcrops penetrate through the forest.
Then as I round the digit of a narrow finger ridge it points my eyes to the Tieke Falls.
There, on the other side of the gut, the river squeezes between a crack in the cliffs. A spurt of whitewater cascades 37 metres into the most idyllic lagoon blessed with a white sandy beach shaped like the flittering tail feathers of a fantail. If there is an easy way to visit this lagoon I would have been there in a heartbeat. There’s not. Instead, I sit on the bench, read the trail supporters names etched into its timbers and watch nature’s unreachable falls cascading majestically and mesmerisingly below.
Leaving the viewpoint I continue along the trail and soon lose the river as it spills into the lake 150 metres below. Here the trail turns north high above the lake, often skirting around bluffs that offer both elevated and stunning views over the mass expanse of blue water. The trail ducks and dives around stream catchments only to return again to more prominent viewing areas of the lake. I reach Echo Rock - a large overhang beside the trail suitable as an emergency bivy or as a test site for your repetitive voice ability. It’s strange to shout alone, normally left to those who are distressed and lost in the wild. I set up my camera to take a selfie; recording my attempted echo in my own (I hope) forest of folly. I make a pitiful sound more like a greeting call across a busy bar than a real no holds barred shout. ‘I am alone, there are no eyes in these hills, so leave the awkward self behind and try again’ I tell myself. With more strength and feeling less self-conscious, I let out a louder holler and receive a few replies. It’s a weird sound hearing your own voice calling back.
After I cross a gently flowing creek, the trail plunges down a ravine -
a near impossible feat only made possible in my reckoning by mythical trail builders with feats of magic and bravery.
Here switchbacks cut deeply into the bank, negotiating a way to return to the creek that cascades down a small gut. Each time the trail returns to the spray it offers another glimpse through ferns of how steeply the water is falling. It is sweetly refreshing and energising. How the trail clings to the cliff is perplexing. The descent enlivens me; the smell of the dark damp forest, the mist from the falls and the visual richness of the turbulent whitewater makes me grip my bars even tighter. I’m Loving it! Just as I think it can’t get any better the trail pops onto a timber viewing platform at the base of the Kotukutuku Stream waterfall. Wow! Here in this gloom, the vapour is as refreshing as the deep waters it soon flows back into.
I watch the white, swirling surface foam being propelled downstream through to the nearby bush-clad cove of Waihora Bay. While most riders catch a water taxi from here to the next section of trail, I double back. I need to collect a second set of GPS track records as the drizzle that has started to fall in this steep country can play havoc with my satellite tracking data. The maps I build into the great Rides App need to be highly accurate, so amidst cold rain showers, I return with mud from headset to toe all the while looking forward to a hot shower back in the comfort of the resort.
The next day I start the second section of trail at the Whangamata Road carpark which is out west but closer Taupo. Here, after switching on the GPS units again, I start to pedal, but not for long as the trail is almost all downhill through pockets of scrub before it ducks under the forest canopy at Kawakawa Bay. Here I reach a shelter tucked into the undergrowth beside the bay, a good place for a snack and the landing point for those that take a water taxi from yesterday’s trail section. A quick nibble provides the energy I need to propel me uphill to a lookout ahead as I leave the bay behind.
I reach the prominent rocky knob that overlooks the sweeping bay in the caldera lake. The lake is both placid and peaceful. In this tranquil setting, it is hard to imagine the volcanic violence that once occurred here. Incomprehensible is the day of destruction caused by a pyroclastic flow 200 metres tall. Two hundred metres TALL… It doesn’t bare thinking about! The most recent eruption 1,800 years ago (thank goodness!) was the world’s largest in the past five millennia… the flow reached 80km/hour - fortunately at a time when no humans walked (or biked!). I have never seen a real tsunami; however, my mind boggles at the thought of trying to outpace a massive wave of superheated magma. I quietly left the outcrop, cold, leaving past events behind and letting my body warm on the flowing path into Kinloch. Not Magma warm though… just…warm.
Reaching Kinloch I find it’s a striking resemblance to home. Kinloch on the edge of Lake Taupo could easily be a sister village to Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the South. The similarities shared are that both are small lakeside communities nestled into forested hills, both on a NZ Great Ride, and both a short drive from a tourist mecca just around the lakeshore. For locals, it’s a commuter trip respite from the tourist resort and a haven for lifestylers. I take respite on the waterfront too, having some lunch with my wife who is running shuttle duties for me on this journey. Just minutes pass before I bid her farewell and start the popular W2K or Whakapiro to Kinloch – the third section of trail. A climb onto a peninsula covered in trees leads to views back to Kinloch and the grand mountains of the Central Plateau. I reach a trail junction to the Headland Loop and take it and thereby gain extra views of the lake along this circuit. Back on the main trail, I traverse before climbing around a bluff, the trail sneaking its way through this challenging cliff line before dropping to Whakapiro Bay. I reunite with my wife here and enjoy a few moments together at this lakeside reserve.
As we head back to the tourist town I save my GPS tracks and in my head, I endorse the title of the Great Lake Trail. What makes the trail so great for me is the way the lake is your trailside companion. In my case it was just over my right shoulder, this immense waterbody fed by impressive waterfalls and tumbling creeks which I passed by or crossed over. One of the best aspects of these cycle trails is the exposure to places away from the road. Places I thought I knew having grown up in the area. The trail on my two-day journey coupled with the Waikato River and Te Awa trails offers an offroad cycling rediscovery of the shorelines of our greatest lake and longest river. When mountain biking this trail you can run out of superlatives. I think it is our country’s Greatest Lake’s Greatest Ride. Try it!