So you are heading out on the great road south from Auckland towards Taupo and beyond. Why not take a road less travelled and enjoy drop-dead beautiful rural landscapes, an environmental success story, a bit of history and some great photo ops for Facebook or the ‘Gram?
Instead of the crowded, and dare I say it, perhaps too-familiar State Highway 1 south of Cambridge, take the back roads that follow the Waikato River and the hydro lakes along it. Slower, no doubt, than the sprint down SH1 but you will be richly rewarded for the extra 20 minutes or so.
Actually, I lie. It will be more like 45 minutes because every few km you will be out of the car getting the kind of photos that usually pop up on TV One’s weather presentation.
Arapuni translates roughly as the Hidden Path, and how apt is that? It’s a road that few even know about, let alone enjoy.
Start your exploration 19.4km south of Cambridge on SH1 by turning on to Mangatautari Rd.
For the next 20km or so your journey will be dominated by the towing presence of Maungatautari, which translates, according to the NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage, as “The Mountain of the Upright Stick”. Whatever.
The mountain is surrounded by a predator-proof fence 47km long, enclosing 3400 hectares of wildlife reserve, making it one of the world’s largest pest-proof fenced sanctuaries.
Since its completion in 2006 a massive attack on predators has cleaned out all introduced mammals except mice, and they are working on those pesky hard-to-kill critters. The Manugatautari Ecological Island Trust, which administer the reserve, has since reintroduced a wide range of native species.
Maugatautari . . . but the “upright stick” seems to be missing.
A side trip to Arapuni
You’ll come to a T intersection 22km from the start point. Turn left to visit Arapuni.
You might wonder why I’m giving you such detailed directions. Because, hopefully, you won’t get as lost as I did. Finished up in Te Awamutu, miles off course before I realised I should have zigged, not zagged. Problem is the signposts are not all that helpful.
Take the four minute side trip into Arapuni. It started life as the dormitory town for the construction of the Arapuni Dam in the late 1920s.
The dam is one of eight harnessing the power of the Waikato River as it falls from Lake Taupo to Cambridge.
What is now Arapuni village, known back then as the Top Camp, was on the wrong side of the river so to get the construction workers to the work-site a 152m suspension bridge was built to span the river.
Crossing the suspension bridge is nowhere near as scary as it looks and the view from the middle makes it worthwhile with the power station on one side and a deep, bush-lined river gorge on the other.
It’s well worth the visit. Signposted as you enter the village.
Arapuni Suspension Bridge
Looking down river from the bridge.
During World War 2 the power station was considered such a strategic asset that it was painted in cammo colours to hide it from any marauding enemy bombers that might just come by.
Arapuni Power Station – no longer camouflaged.
Arapuni is close to a section of the Waikato River Trails so get on yer bike or take a hike.
The trail north towards Karapiro is classed as easy going so if you are in need of a little healthy exercise this could be the go. It’s also notable for a 500m boardwalk through the Huihuitaha Wetland – home to many different bird species.
You can hire cycles from Arapuni Backpackers. http://arapuni.co.nz/cycle-hire/
And if the caffeine urge is too strong to resist, Rhubarb Café in the centre of the village is highly popular.
There’s freedom camping at nearby Arapuni Landing and Bulmers Landing (self-contained motorhomes only).
Have a navigational care
Continuing your journey south, return to the intersection where you turned off for the side trip to Arapuni and turn left to stay on Arapuni Road through to Rotongata Rd.
Have a care a kilometre after that left turn. To continue south towards Mangakino and Whakamaru you turn left on to Rotongata Rd. If, instead, as I did, you take the obvious choice, cruising around the right-hand curve and not reading the road signs, you’ll finish up, as I did, in Te Awamutu.
(Captain to navigator: “We seem to have a problem here”.)
A quick nav. check to make sure you are on the right road south: Immediately after turning left on to Rotongata Rd there’s a brown-and-white signpost to Bulmer’s Landing and Arapuni Landing.
Visit Sanctuary Mountain
Take the road westward signposted towards Te Awamutu, however, for a side trip to the Sanctuary Mountain Visitor Centre on Tari Rd, 6.4km away. Along Tari Rd you can also visit the Tautari Wetland and Tuatarium to get up close and personal with these living survivors from the dinosaur age.
You can explore the reserve on the many walking tracks. Find out more at https://www.teawamutu.nz/info/attractions/maungatautari/
The Trust also runs a variety of guided tours of the sanctuary. Find out more at https://www.sanctuarymountain.co.nz
Tuatara . . . a relic from the age of the dinosaurs. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
I said I got lost. Not just once. But some losses are serendipitous. About 3km from the turn on to Rotongata Rd back there I threw a left hook on to Mangare Rd.
Now, if some of the passengers are prone to car sickness this is definitely not an option. It twists and curls its way 18km south to rejoin the road to Mangakino but it is a stunning slice of rural countryside, with dramatic limestone rock formations. Like this one that looks for all the world like a sentinel guarding the northern approaches.
This is the kind of back country road where people look out for each other. While I was taking that shot a battered, spattered Hilux pulled up and the good bugger driving it called out “You all right, mate?”
I assured him I was . . . “just stopped to get a picture of the old man rock here”.
Or just stay on the “main” road
Or of course, instead of repeating my mistake you could just stay on course and truck on down Rotongata Rd to the junction with Waipapa Rd, the “main” road south. That will take you through to the intersection with SH30 at Whakamaru.
Along the way take a quick diversion into Mangakino, another of the hydro construction towns that has found new life as a holiday destination, especially if you are into fishing, water sports or mountain biking.
The Waikato River Trail runs right along the lakefront in the village and Mangakino Shuttle Service https://mangakinoshuttleservice.com/ will pick you up or drop you off at any point along its length.
Not far away is the Timber Trail which follows old logging tracks and tramways from Pureora on State Highway 3 85km to Ongarue on SH4. It also includes some adrenaline-boosting swing bridges like the 141m long Maramataha suspension bridge –
Pureora Forest was the scene in 1978 of one of the early environmental protests. Conservationists, concerned at the felling of the last remnant of lowland podocarp forest in the North Island, occupied tree-top platforms until the government of the day agreed to end further logging.
As a result you can now bike or hike through a world of ancient giants the like of which once covered much of the North Island.
Find out more at https://www.timbertrail.nz/
Journey’s end is at Whakamaru, set on yet another hydro dam.
If you are one of those folk who likes to go to extremes – northernmost, southernmost etc – then take SH32 south from Whakamaru. At 23.1 km look for Kakaho Rd. It will take you to the geographical centre of the North Island. It’s marked by a stone cairn a level 10 min. walk off the road.
From Whakamaru you can turn eastwards for Taupo, or, if Turangi and beyond is the destination, keep going south on SH32, the West Taupo Rd, my preferred route south to avoid the traffic endemic on SH1.
So, why not boldly go where few have gone before – grab the makings of a picnic lunch from the Cambridge Bakery and stop along the way to enjoy the tranquillity of the rural hinterlands instead of stressing out in interminable traffic on SH1.