The Timber Trail – 85km of traffic free cycle track through a mix of virgin and regenerating forest in the middle of the north island. Following old logging tramways and bulldozer haul roads through the Pureora Forest Park, it gives access to some of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful terrain, crossing 35 bridges, eight of them swing bridges, one of which is the highest and longest in the country.
I’m not a great cyclist. I don’t really do hills and I definitely don’t do bad weather. As we drive to Ongarue I try and quell the knot of anxiety in my stomach. Although I’ve done the second part of this track a couple of times, I’ve never cycled this far before. And there’s the 11km climb up Mt Pureora. At least, after a few days of rain, the sun – albeit with clouds scudding across it – has appeared, and is forecast to hang around all weekend.
We load bikes, bags and ourselves into the shuttle bus, organised through the Timber Trail Lodge. Our driver is chatty and friendly, offering tips for the ride. He points out Mt Pureora on the horizon, not helping my stomach – a peak that prominent won’t be easy to get up, even if we don’t cycle all the way to the top (there’s an optional walking track if we’re keen).
The Lodge, almost slap bang in the middle of the trail, is warm and inviting. Our room is basic but spacious and the bed huge. I eye the plastic box on the floor marked ‘wet gear’ – I wouldn’t be so keen on the next couple of days if I needed to use it. The main room is a mix of sofas, bean bags and large tables with benches running alongside. A woodburner glows at one end and a radiator warms the other. There’s a cash bar and dinner, served in help yourself bowls a la familie, is restaurant quality and plentiful. I cover my glass as Neil offers a refill, aware of what I face tomorrow.
After a hearty breakfast we collect our packed lunches and board the shuttle. The air is frigid but the sun breaks over the ridge as we drive away, fighting the chill. I’m fighting the bat sized butterflies in my stomach. At the beginning of the trail we pull on jackets, strap on helmets and are ready to go.
The cold pounces as we ride into the trees, biting my cheeks. Birds, vocal as we left the van, have quietened, or are muffled by the thick forest, and the only sounds are my breathing and the crackle of twigs and leaves under my wheels. My nerves settle in the almost solitude and I find my rhythm on the twisting flat track, pedalling around giants that escaped the early loggers. We pause by an old crawler tractor, used for hauling fence posts out until it blew a piston and was abandoned to the elements. Although rusty it still looks sturdy, its caterpillar tracks intact, and it seems a good clean and some fuel is all it would need to get it moving.
The trees thin and dappled sunlight flickers through as the 11km climb begins. I force myself to focus, picking a line around swinging turns, my confidence growing with each one, my body warming as I push harder up steeper sections. I stop at all the information boards telling the history of the area, natural and industrial –it’s a good excuse to pause and catch my breath. My fears have been banished – the track is wide and well maintained, any obstacles easy to manoeuvre around. It rises steadily, some flatter sections to help my legs recover, the occasional few metres of downhill to rest them.
My progress is slow and I’m soon left behind. It doesn’t worry me and I’m happy knowing that I’m not holding anyone up. Wondering how far from the top I am, I hear voices ahead, round a bend, and a small group greets me with a cheer. One of them breaks away and waves.
‘You made it!’ Neil cries, a huge smile on his face.
I roll to a halt and meet his high five, resting my bike against a tree before rummaging in my pack for the cookie I stashed there earlier. A steep path leads off left. I’d love to climb to the top and see the view, but I’m worried my legs will regret it later. The men take the path and I pedal on with Jenny, one of the ladies in our group. This high the cold is even fiercer – steam rises where sunlight shafts onto the path and we exhale clouds that drift around us. After a couple of km a small sign marks the highpoint. I can’t let it pass without a selfie to prove I was here.
Going downhill is good for resting the legs but the rush of cold air finds all the gaps in my clothing and the lack of effort means I’m soon freezing. It’s an exhilarating ride, bumping over rocky patches and splashing through mud. Jenny is quicker than I, a carrot I chase at speeds faster than I would usually ride – if Neil were with me he would be surprised. I try not to get too confident – a chance too far and I’ll be on my backside, ruining my fun.
At 22km we reach the first of the swing bridges. It crosses a deep, steep-sided valley that would be impassable otherwise. We pause in the middle, the span swaying slightly under our feet, and marvel at our bird’s eye view of the forest, looking down on a majestic rimu that cascades beneath us like the waterfall we can hear far below but cannot see through thick foliage. A bright green fern opens like a huge umbrella and tui and fantail flit below us. Close by a grey warbler hides and chirrups in time to the rushing water. The real world seems so far away. We find a patch of sun to eat our lunch, finishing as the men power over the bridge, making it sway drunkenly and breaking the peace.
Cold soon settles on still bodies and we climb back on the bikes. The track goes up immediately. It’s probably only a couple of km but it seems never ending and it’s hard going after a break. I slog on, cold legs complaining and lungs struggling. Finally it ends and a sign warns steep descent. The butterflies return and I take a deep breath, clamping my hands around the brake levers, concentrating on keeping my pace steady. The crunch of wheels behind me announces faster riders. I push aside the thought that they might hit me, ignore their whooping as they fly past me.
It’s an unwritten rule of cycling that what goes down must go back up again and, sure enough, after a small bridge over a stream, the track rises sharply. I swear and get as far as I can before admitting defeat and push the steeper section. It becomes a pattern: down, across, up. My gears slip a couple of times and, momentum lost, I’m forced to push. As I try to ride again at the top I realise my chain is off. I have no idea how to put it back on but I’m alone and buggered if I’m going to wait and play the damsel in distress. It looks easy so I have a go, amazed when I manage it on the second try.
Neil rides up as I get back on the bike and we ride the final 10km together, where the track undulates and criss-crosses the metalled road that we’d driven out on a few hours earlier. The 34km marker dismays me – I’d thought I was nearer the end. I sail down small inclines to gain momentum, willing my tired legs to keep going. Neil, as always, encourages from behind, tells me he’s tired too. I’m not sure if he’s saying it just to make me feel better. Finally we pop out of the trees and the lodge hoves into view – above us! I go as far as I can before dropping my foot and pushing up the last few meters.
We sit on the warm deck sipping tea and munching freshly baked pizza, abandoned shoes and helmets scattered around us. I’m exhausted but so pleased with myself. The hardest day is done and not too much off-cycle pushing. After a shower, a beer, and another delicious meal we don’t linger as we did last night, sinking into bed ready for another early start.
Day 2 is the easier day, shorter inclines and long downhills. I’m glad –as soon as I have to pedal hard my legs feel the effort of yesterday. Here the track follows the old rail line, plunging into darkness through steep sided cuttings, damp and soggy under wheel where the sun never reaches. We pop out into sunlight before diving back into forest, passing the site of logging camps where information boards tell of the privations early loggers suffered to fell giants. Scattered remnants of those days remain: a turntable that was used for turning the jiggers, rusted and collapsed engine parts, the odd section of twisted rail alongside.
After the first hour or so the track becomes mostly downhill. I’m particularly glad of this when it hugs the side of a cliff face with warnings not to stop due to the danger of falling rocks. It remains wide though, with a shoulder and usually substantial vegetation between where I’m riding and where the edge falls away, distilling my vague worry that I may go flying into an abyss. The long downhills do my shoulders no good – I feel as though someone has stabbed me and is twisting the burning knife so at lunch I lie on a convenient log to alleviate the ache, staring up through the leaves that move only slightly in the light breeze.
Then we’re at the Ongarue Spiral. To get down a steep incline and, in a huge engineering feat of its time, the rail line crossed a steep ravine, wound around a full 360 turn, then disappeared into a tunnel cut through the rock, emerging in the bottom of the ravine. The trail does the same, an exciting difference in riding for some. For me it’s a chance to get off and carefully walk my way through. I’m not the best cyclist when I have full vision so there’s no way I’m riding in the pitch black of a tunnel.
On the final long downhill the full suspension on my bike earns its keep as the path roughens, sharp drops jarring my joints and testing my wrists and elbows. It’s like riding a bucking bronco and I don’t envy those I’ve seen with hard tail bikes. At the bottom there’s a heart stopping moment when my wheel seems to be buckled before we realise it is actually unhitched from the bike, the quick release having, well, released. If it had happened when I was bumping down at speed… I push the thought from my head with a shudder.
The last 10km is through recently logged forest, a mine(pine)field of scattered cones and small branches amongst soft soil that grabs my tyres. Small rises are a final test for my legs and I grit my teeth, trying not to look at km markers that suggest I’m not as close to the finish as I’d like to be. Then through the trees I glimpse the container, cars, people – the car park at the end! In a final sting in the trail the carpark is at the top of a short steep rise. I’m determined to get to the end on the bike and grunt my way up it, muttering to myself.
We’re the last, Neil only because he’s stayed with me, but I don’t care. I did it. More to the point, I did it without falling off, a major coup for me. I’d kill for a coffee until I notice people swigging beer. It’s alcohol free stuff I’d normally stay a Timber Trail length from but the cold refreshing sting is the taste of success. I’m tired and I doubt I could pedal another km even if the devil was after me, but you know what? I’d do it again.