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A family bike adventure with Te Huia train

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as the saying goes. That’s certainly been the case for us moving from Sydney to Aotearoa and finding that there’s almost no train services with which to combine bike travels. NSW is not exactly a world leader for interregional public transport, but the options for bike adventures are in comparison limitless.

The old saying has a short use by date it seems. A generation or two later, most people no longer even know what it was that is gone.

And then came a ray of light in the form of Te Huia train, bucking the trend as a brand new (it just celebrated its 3rd birthday) passenger rail service connecting Auckland to the Waikato. While it has its limitations in frequency and (lack of) coverage during holidays (and a risk of not surviving the government), it is the most exciting transport news of the decade. And does it take bikes? You bet it does!

Bikes in carriage from our 2023 trip

Last year the two little ones and myself enjoyed a trip on the train and a riding and camping trip on Te Awa trail from Hamilton to Lake Karapiro. This year Kaitlin came along as well and we took a longer trip – Huntly – Port Waikato return, via Nikau Caves. You can see the full photo set with captions on our Facebook trip album.

We set out on the Thursday evening departure, as Te Huia (like EBT) doesn’t run over public holiday long weekends, so Easter Friday was out. The plan was Huntly – Nikau Caves (overnight) – Port Waikato (2 nights) – Nikau Caves (night) – Huntly. We’d be coming back on the Tuesday, which conveniently was a Teachers Only Day at kura. Te Huia was packed full on the way out – commuters, uni students, families, pensioners and only a few bikes

After staying the night in Huntly, we took off across the mighty Waikato awa, past the power station and into the backroads via Naike where even on holiday weekends, there’s hardly a car around. It was hilly and idyllic riding, often on dirt. The Waikāretu valley road into the Nikau Caves was a highlight.

Waikato te awa – he piko he taniwha!

This was our setup for the vast majority of the ride – 9 year old on the FollowMe Tandem pulled by my eZee Torq, 6 year old on the child seat on Kaitlin’s Sprint and his bike on top of my Ortlieb panniers. I also have a Shotgun seat on my Torq in the event I need to carry one of the kids there (I didn’t). On very steep hills, one or both the kids had to walk. We’re also packing tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear and a day’s worth of food. Each bike has a 1200Wh battery (which I fully used most days!). The whole setup seems fairly cumbersome, but is our preferred setup for bike touring, as no single bike is any bigger than standard, making the non-bike parts of the trip easier, such as getting on the train. Getting on a bus from Huntly to Auckland was the backup plan in case the train was full on the way home, which excludes cargo bikes. Similarly, piling into a friendly driver’s car in an emergency. But more importantly, this setup means that either of the kids can ride their own bikes as appropriate. We knew this was going to be rare due to the length and hilliness of this trip, but those moments are precious.

Staying the night at the Nikau Caves Cafe accommodation is highly recommended, you couldn’t ask for friendlier hosts or a happier place to arrive after a long day of riding. The next day riding to Port Waikato was similarly idyllic, alternating gravel and seal, with bikes and motorbikes easily outnumbering the cars.

We stayed two nights at the holiday park in Port Waikato, giving us time to relax and for the kids to ride around on their own bikes. The holiday park had the ‘kids first’ culture on its internal roads and paths, with lots of kids riding around happy and free. There’s lots to do in the area.

The return to Nikau Caves was along the same route and arriving back felt like coming home, staying in our same little cute room. We had time for a trip into the Caves themselves this time –  an incredible cave where you do the real caving things like getting wet and squeezing head first through little gaps. You get so close to the glow worms that you have to be careful not to touch and disturb them! Phones and cameras were not allowed in but there’s plenty of photos online of this amazing cave.

Tuesday morning saw us leaving at sunrise. It was very cold in the valley and we regretted not bringing gloves! We decided to take the ‘main road’, as in the way that one would drive a car out of there, avoiding the gravel roads. It was a longer route, but much less hilly, so overall a lot quicker. Although we probably would have had time to go back the way we came, it’s nice not to be in a rush and we wanted to see what the traffic was like along this route. The result – there was very little traffic until Ohaki Road and even that wasn’t much. And the views travelling along the length of Waikāretu valley road are not to be missed!

We easily made the train. Although not required, I removed the pedals from the bikes and turned handlebars sideways to take up less room.

Although the trip was over, you could feel the difference in the kids’ motivation and confidence to ride their bikes to school the next day. And ours to plan more trips!

And you dear reader, if you haven’t ridden on the only inter-regional, non-tourist passenger train in the country – jump on Te Huia! You’ll miss it when it’s gone!

Maurice Wells

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