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Riding the Great Lake Trail
"We're finally here!" says Nicky as the Tread Routes van pulls up at the Waihaha River carpark. "We've talked about it for long enough!" It's a common thread. Virtually on Taupo's doorstep, the westernmost sections of the Great Lake Trail are so close, but in the case of the second part of the track, seemingly so far away.
There are roughly four sections of the Great Lake Trail. The first two, the W2K (Whakaipo to Kinloch) and Whangamata to Kinloch sections are both easy to access and you can ride them there and back or leave a vehicle at each end.
The other two sections are the Waihaha track, which runs from SH32 along the Waihaha River, and the Waihora track, which starts at the Waihaha Road end and traverses 17km along the cliffs above Western Bay before dropping steeply down beside the Kotukutuku Stream waterfall to Waihora Bay.
These two trails, which join together, are the most scenically spectacular sections of the Great Lake Trail, but they are where the logistics become tricky. While Waihaha can be done there and back, Waihora is intended as a one-way ride, with a boat pick up at the end. Add in the cost of a shuttle from Kinloch plus the boat ride, and you can see why locals generally opt for something easier.
Which is a great shame. You can ride all around New Zealand and these are still two of the best tracks you'll find. Manageable lengths, incredible scenery, a variety of bush and open trail plus bridges, boardwalks and lookouts really do make this a special ride.
Autumn is a great time to go biking in the Taupo district and Sunday April 8 was a classic example. A crisp start rose to warm temperatures and calm conditions that showed Taupo-nui-a-Tia at its best. It's a perfect day for a girls' riding trip out and with this part of the Great Lake Trail a new experience for most of us, there's plenty of appreciation and reaching for the phones to capture the scenic shots.
Ted from Tread Routes drops the five of us at the Waihaha car park at 9am, passing on advice about the trail and issuing a helpful tip sheet on points of interest before we head across the suspension bridge and onto the trail.
Morning tea is taken overlooking the Waihaha waterfall, and lunch at a spectacular lookout across the lake at the 17km mark where an angler in a boat below is in the process of playing a trout. Here, we're joined by a group out-of-town male riders who do an annual boys' trip tackling the New Zealand Cycle Trails. Yesterday they did the Whakaipo, Kinloch and Kawakawa sections, today they're ticking off the rest - and they're impressed.
This is a grade 3 trail, so expect some stiff climbs, some rough surfaces where the track has been blasted out of the solid rock, and more than a few switchbacks. You'll need reasonable fitness and some mountain biking skills, but because it's built to New Zealand Cycle Trail standards there's nothing unrideable. The bush ranges from classic Taupo five-finger trees to manuka forest and the birds chatter away as we bike past. I see quail in the undergrowth, startle a pheasant which flees down the track before swerving off to the side, hear bellbirds and fantails and spot tomtits.
The last bit, if you haven't heard about it, is by far the best. The trail plunges into the Kotukutuku Stream gully and from there, in a feat of engineering, the track winds down the side of a waterfall to a small bay. Stopping at the lookout platforms for photographs before remounting, we emerge suddenly from the bush, blinking out onto the silvery sand of Waihora Bay, where Cat and Dan with the Bay2Bay boat are waiting to pick us up.
The trip back to Kinloch on the smooth lake waters is a chance to enjoy the spectacular cliffs and bays of the Western Bay and after only half an hour we're being unloaded at the Kinloch Marina.
If you're a local who hasn't yet ridden these two tracks, you're missing out on something special, and the scenery repays the effort and expense to visit this untouched corner of Lake Taupo.
Check the forecast, get together a few friends and give it a whirl. It's definitely worth the ride.
Originally printed in the Taupo & Turangi Weekender / NZME in April 2018.
Laurilee McMichael rode the Great Lake Trail with the assistance of Destination Great Lake Taupo.