Caroline Sowerby makes a return to the Timber Trail, this time without the stress.
"Can you hear that? That's a kākā calling, that's really cool," says Doug. We're starting out on the first section of the Central North Island's Timber Trail, having just finished scrubbing and disinfecting our bike wheels before entering Pureora Forest Park, renowned for its birdlife and ancient podocarps.
It's been two and a half years since I last rode the Timber Trail with friends and since then I've wanted to come back and bring my husband, Doug. When the opportunity arose to stay at the Timber Trail Lodge, I grabbed it.
Most people treat the 85km Timber Trail as a two-day ride starting from Pureora to get the steeper sections out of the way first. Day one from Pureora to Piropiro is 40km and classed intermediate/grade three, whereas day two from Piropiro to Ōngarue is 45km but considered easier. If you're super fit you can do the trail in a day, but part of the pleasure is the diverse scenery and the opportunity it provides to spend time together.
Though my friends and I had all enjoyed our previous trip, we'd found co-ordinating the food and shuttles time-consuming. Not this time however, as everything was done for us. Our Timber Trail Lodge ultimate two-night package was giving us two nights' accommodation, two dinners, breakfasts and packed lunches, plus all shuttle transport and luggage transits.
During the roughly 40-minute drive from the Ōngarue end to Timber Trail Lodge, our Epic Cycle Adventures shuttle driver, Josh, chatted about the trail and what to expect and gave us a useful leaflet with maps. After meeting lodge managers Willi (Wilhelmina) and Dave and checking out our comfortable, warm room, Doug and I settled down with drinks in the lounge and dining area. The lodge has clearly been designed with groups in mind, offering various seating areas, and the wood burner keeps the room toasty and adds to the ambience.
The lodge is off the grid and uses mainly solar panels and a generator, and recently received a 5 Star Silver Qualmark, meaning it's on the top tier of New Zealand accommodation providers, no small feat considering it opened in April 2017.
That first evening we shared our table with two couples who had completed day one of the trail and were even more happy than us to tuck into Willi's delicious home-baked salmon dinner and sponge pudding. The communal dining made it easier for us all to chat.
Edwina from Pa Harakeke Shuttles cheerfully collects us and our bikes early the next morning and drives us through the forest road to the trail start. She points out the disinfecting station and asks us to make sure we use it on our wheels before starting out.
The last time I was on the trail, my friends and I shot through the forest section without paying much attention to our surroundings. This time we follow Dave's advice and take our time, admiring the native bush and stopping to try to identify the many birds we hear. Kākāriki, kākā, rifleman, North Island robins and even rare kōkako reside here. The forest is also known for its giant tōtara, rimu, matai, miro and kahikatea, towering between 40m and 60m high. Numerous interpretation panels appear regularly as this area is popular with walkers and day riders as well.
Once out of the forest we steadily climb 10km up Mt Pureora to 940m, the highest point of the trail. This section of track is well drained and passes through regenerating bush. Although I had been worried about my fitness, it's not strenuous and I'm making good time and enjoying the challenge.
From the highest point, around the 14km mark, there's a 25km-long descent and some technical skill is required, but I take it steady and have no troubles, even in the wet patches. I'm a Sunday cyclist and consider my skill level to be fairly basic, whereas Doug is an experienced rider and shoots ahead to have some fun, agreeing to meet me further on.
The trail is incredibly well signposted and it's pretty much impossible to get lost. There is a distance marker every kilometre — starting with 1km at the Pureora end and finishing at 85km at the Ōngarue Trail Head.
We stop for lunch at Harrisons Creek, somewhere around the 26km mark, where there's a large, grassy area plus the only toilet between the start and mid-point of the track at Piropiro campsite (bring your own toilet paper). We are both impressed with the condition of the track in the wet and are also pleased to have seen countless pest traps set all along the trail.
There are plenty of opportunities throughout the day to ride alongside each other and for me, this is another of the reasons why I really like this trail — it's very social. The suspension bridges are fun to cross and also offer great views and photo opportunities.
We reach the Timber Trail Lodge about mid-afternoon, having seen only one other group of riders. Following a bowl of soup, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering outside the lodge then relaxing in the lounge, talking to other guests.
The following day we set off in a light drizzle and pass the nearby Piropiro campsite. It's rained heavily during the night so I'm so glad we had a warm, dry place to stay.
Despite intermittent rain, the track is firm and the uphill sections at the start are covered in gravel, making the climb easier.
Day two of the trail follows sections of old bush tramways and haul roads, and long-abandoned logging machinery can be seen among the greenery alongside the track. There are a lot of interpretation panels explaining the equipment, people and history of the area, and it's worthwhile stopping and taking a look. Of the two days, this is my favourite, I think it's because somehow the trail seems even prettier now that the bush areas are more open.
Just past the Historic No. 10 Camp, once a large bush camp for loggers, we come across a muddy downhill section where we have a great time riding fast and getting covered in the stuff. The mud ends at the Ōngarue Spiral and a rocky downhill path kicks in before the final part of the track flattens out and takes us through private farmland. We arrive muddy but happy at the Bennett Rd car park where we left our car in a secure section and meet Paul, who owns Epic Cycles and has been storing our bags. His converted container/office is based there and for a gold coin we can use the farmer's water supply to clean off our bikes and our legs, before getting changed and heading home. On the way home I'm already planning my next trip on the Timber Trail.