Jennifer Palmer has become a cycling enthusiast thanks to her work on Te Awa The Great New Zealand River Ride.

Near the banks of the Waikato River a community of seekers is gathering momentum.

Some come in search of adventure or the chance to traverse new land.

Others seek tranquillity, precious time away from the bustle and chatter of everyday life.

Whatever their motivation for coming, there is no doubting the popular appeal of Te Awa The Great New Zealand River Ride.

In less than five years Te Awa has become one of the most popular trails in New Zealand.

On any given day, hundreds of walkers and cyclists can be seen travelling along the three-metre-wide river path and enjoying once inaccessible views of the Waikato River.

Jennifer Palmer has been involved with Te Awa's development from the beginning through her role as general manager of the Brian Perry Charitable Trust.

Perry's invested $3 million to kick-start work on the river path and continues to be a driving force behind Te Awa.

Up to 70 per cent of Palmer's working week was devoted to Te Awa.

Supporting Palmer in her work was Te Awa trustee and champion cyclist Sarah Ulmer and Te Awa River Ride project manager Andrew Roche.

"I feel like I've got the best job in the city," Palmer said.

"It's a great project and it's really been embraced by the community. Even if people don't understand the wider economic impact of Te Awa, they appreciate the fact it's free, easy to access, and it connects us to beautiful scenery."

Since becoming involved in Te Awa, Palmer has become a cycling enthusiast and regularly recruits friends and work colleagues to go on bike rides.

It's a passion she also shares with her husband and their 8-year-old twin daughters.

"I wasn't what you would consider a cyclist by any sense. I had a 20-year-old bike in the garage that never saw the light of day. But then I started going on rides and loved it. The last year especially has been transformational. I would say I'm the healthiest that I've been in my whole life."

Despite a busy schedule Palmer and her family regularly cycle sections of Te Awa.

A key reason behind Te Awa's popularity was the fact it was accessible to people with a range of fitness levels, she said.

"As a family we can cycle Te Awa together and that's really important. The girls also get to see mum and dad being active and they're always asking can we go and ride our bikes."

Once finished, Te Awa will travel 70km alongside the Waikato River between Ngaruawahia and Horahora.

More than 20km has been completed, in addition to about 15km of river pathways inside Hamilton's boundaries.

Work on Te Awa was currently focused on two parts: the construction of the Horotiu to Ngaruawahia section and planning for the route between Cambridge's St Peter's School and Hamilton Gardens.

The $4.5m Horotiu to Ngaruawahia section will include New Zealand's largest single-span cycleway bridge - an asset Palmer expects will become an iconic feature of Te Awa.

"The suspension bridge will be 170-metres-long and we hope it will generate a lot of spin-offs such as cultural tourism. There will be opportunities to theme the bridge with carvings or pou whenua (carved poles)."

Preliminary work on the section linking Cambridge and Hamilton was still at an early stage.

"What's great about Te Awa is it brings people together," Palmer said.

"You hear stories about neighbours who perhaps didn't know each other but then met on Te Awa and now they are talking."

Aaron Leaman - Stuff

Photograph: Peter Drury


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