Hauraki Rail Trail – Thames

November 2022

The northern counterpart to the Otago Rail Trail is the Hauraki Rail Trail. You know the type, used to be a railway line but now a safe place to pootle along on your bike without fear of being mashed by a truck or skittled off the road by a car. We planned to do the whole thing, but to get someone to carry a couple of bags between motels would have cost double what we had paid in Otago eighteen months previously. This, which seemed a bit extravagant, plus that the first section was closed for repairs, meant we decided to ride just a couple of sections.

Thames is known as the gateway to the Coromandel Peninsula, a holiday hotspot –imagine the classic image of a Kiwi beach with pristine pale sands, surrounded by bush and tree-covered hills and cliffs, often only accessible by foot or boat, and you get the picture. The town itself doesn’t have any of these attributes, snuggled in the corner of a large estuary; I suppose gateway is the key word and it does have a feel of a service town. The end of November isn’t holiday season and on a Saturday afternoon the streets are almost deserted, and completely so by evening. Only one restaurant seems open and, with prawn cocktail on the menu, when the waitress props the specials board on a chair by the table I land smack back in the eighties.

Next morning the brakes on my bike squeal in protest after a few weeks of non-use. I suspect my legs, just recovered from Covid, will soon do the same so we aim to ride a short distance to Kopu and a historic bridge. Said bridge turns out to be a one-lane crossing over the wide mouth of the Waihou River and the main route into the Coromandel from the north until a new two-lane version opened only a decade ago. I shudder at how long those traffic queues must have been. The old bridge, now closed and fenced off, awaits restoration. I cycle over the shiny new one on the smooth bike path, then turn back towards Thames, aware that the wind that propelled me out of town earlier might well impede my progress back.

Thames grew up as a gold mining town and the easy riding is enlivened by various sculptures dotted alongside the trail, some commemorating this heritage, others the cycling tourism that now helps sustain it, one a huge jandal (flip-flop) just, well, because. Pukekoes scratch in the fields and a heron sits in the middle of the track, eyeing me while I stop to retrieve my phone from my backpack, then launching on huge wings as I raise it to take a picture.

A gathering of people at picnic tables by a low building on the old wharf leads us to the local fish and chip shop and, of course, it would be rude not to. A cacophony of seagulls waits between diners and a berthed fishing boat for scraps either might yield. Fish and chips by the sea is one of the best lunches, despite the lack of vinegar. It’s a no-no here – You might as well have English stamped across your forehead said a Kiwi friend – and I still miss the tang of it assaulting my nostrils as I unwrap the packet. 

After we’ve eaten we ride along the coast path by the side of the estuary, colourful children’s playgrounds on one side, an unmoving sea the other. Mangroves cluster in groups, low tide revealing the sticky mud around their roots. Dark clouds threaten so we turn inland, me pushing for the last uphill section to our accommodation. As I calculate we’ve ridden around 20km – not bad for a first post-Covid effort – a torrent of water smacks the window. We’d have been saturated in seconds. 

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