Great Lake Great Ride
Saturday, February 13
Today was the last day of our week-long stay in the Taupo area. With the completion of our successful but fairly long Tongariro Alpine Crossing the day before, the general mood seemed to be one of relaxation. I wasn't quite ready to let the day go by that easily, so I proposed another bike ride - the nearby "Great Lake" Great Ride.
Pu and Brian - who were turning out to be my trusty cycling companions on this trip - were up for it. This once again meant we could take advantage of the three bikes in the rental house's garage, so no bike rentals required.
The "Great Lake" Great Ride is a hilly cycling route adjacent to Lake Taupo's Western and Northern shores. The ride is not continuous; there are two main sections separated by water, along with some spur trails. One can hire a specialized bike transport boat to take you out onto Lake Taupo, transporting you and your bike from the end of one section to the start of another. We eventually killed the idea of using the boat transport owing to overly complicated logistics and a probably too-hard bike ride. Instead, we opted for a shorter ride that would reduce our commuting time and the difficulty level (and which didn't require the water taxi).
Assembling the bikes
Lori graciously drove the three of us out in one of the rental vans to our start trailhead, along Whanganata Road about 25km outside of Taupo. From here, we would ride along two or three different segments of the Great Lake Great Ride. When we were finished, we'd call up either Lori or Andy and we would get picked up and transported back to town. Service!
As Lori drove off, we turned to the large maps posted at the trailhead's info kiosk. We were some distance away from Lake Taupo itself, at the start of one of the Great Lake Trail's spur segments. Known as the Oarakau segment, it would take us on a mostly downhill 10km track to the shores of Lake Taupo at Kawakawa Bay.
At roughly 10:30 a.m., we had the bikes assembled and ready for the beginning of our ride. Happily, we seemed to have the trail to ourselves: no one else was at the trailhead, and we saw no one on the track.
The smooth dirt track of the Orakau segment initially led alongside open farmland, occasionally winding through segments of forest between pastures. We were mostly parallelling a small unnamed stream that meandered down towards Lake Taupo.
For the most part, the track was superbly constructed - free of roughness and debris and nice and wide. After a few more open farmland bits, we crossed under a farm road on a dedicated underpass, then plunged into a forested ravine. The general downhill grade of the Orakau segment meant we mostly glided, getting into a fun rhythm of back and forth along the trail's many little sweeping curves. A few sharper hairpins were thrown into the mix to keep you on your toes (or rather, brakes).
As we neared Lake Taupo, the track veered away from the ravine we had been following, and a short uphill stretch brought us to a nice but limited lookout over Lake Taupo - our first glimpse of the lake so far. From here, another fast downhill segment brought us to the thickly-forested flats adjacent to the lakeshore. We turned off the trail at the virtually the first opportunity to gain access to the shore itself, and discovered a completely secluded, private spot. Perfect for lunchtime.
As we sat having lunch, we reflected back on the first part of our ride. Not only had it been a fun downhill run over good trail, we realized that we had not seen a single other person - cyclist or otherwise. It seemed strange that on such a prominent route - on a Saturday, no less - that it would be completely deserted like this. Not that we were complaining, of course.
Our idyllic little lunch stop on Lake Taupo's Kawakawa bay, complete with headland cliffs and azure waters, was too much for Pu's aquatic sensibilities. Soon, he was taking a long swim out into the cool waters of the lake. Nearby, a couple of ducks attempted to nonchalantly waddle past us, seeing if we had any food to offer.
After a relaxing half-hour lunch stop, we continued on. We were finished with the Orakau route, and it was now time to embark on the next chapter of our journey : the so-called K2K segment. Presumably named for the fact that it connected Kawakawa Bay with the lakeside town of Kinloch, the K2K segment climbed up from Kawakawa Bay, across the headland of Te Kauwae, and down to the next bay (Whangamata Bay) and the town of Kinloch. It was roughly another 10km of distance.
Unlike the Orakau segment, the K2K segment did not have a net elevation loss. Additionally, it climbed across the neck of a headland. All of this meant, of course, that we had some work to do this time, ascending well-graded curves and switchbacks towards the height of land between the two bays. At the height of land (roughly 1630' / 500m), we were nicely sweaty and appreciative of the rocky lookout back over Kawakawa Bay, now almost 500' (150m) below us.
Soon after the rocky lookout, the trail flattened out as it crossed over the neck of the Kawakawa-Whangamata headland, then began a descent down towards Whangamata Bay. This descent was distinctly steeper and twistier than the grades on the Orakau Route, and required a bit more skill and concentration to negotiate. Still nothing beyond what New Zealand cycle riders would call a Grade 2, though. The trail was again in excellent condition throughout, winding downhill through native forest and bush, largely free of debris, and of a nice, grippy consistency. And, once again - no other riders or walkers. Fantastic.