Elisabeth Easther pedals Pureora Forest Park's acclaimed Timber Trail and declares it a treasure trove of trees, fresh air and just the right amount of mud.
At 85km long, The Timber Trail is a game of two halves and, ever since I'd cycled both halves over two separate visits separated by some years, I'd yearned to return and ride the trail as nature intended - over two consecutive days, with two nights at Timber Trail Lodge, an oasis of comfort in the woods.
We'd originally booked to ride in early May - no prizes for guessing why that plan was canned - so we rescheduled for June and, joyously liberated from our Covid cocoons, we set off for Timber Trail Shuttles HQ just beyond the blink-and-you-miss-it settlement of Ongarue (64km south of Te Kuiti).
Our long-awaited adventure began just as night fell and we were whisked along dark rural roads to the lodge. Having arrived under cover of darkness, we didn't see much of the 78,000 hectares of forest that enveloped us but, as we exited the van, we sensed the dense power of nature. Although, once we were shown to our rooms, all thoughts of the great outdoors vanished in the snug indoors.
In spite of beds the size of small countries, pristine en suites and radiators radiating warmth, there was no time to linger because we'd arrived just in time to dine in the toasty warm wharekai. Pulled lamb, salad, green beans with feta, and roasted potatoes, I wished I'd left more room for dessert.
It'd been a long day so, after making some, but not too much, use of the licensed bar, our posse headed to bed.
Day one - Pureora to Piropiro - 40km
Up bright and early and decked out in layers to combat the cold - windbreakers, gloves, hats - the trail climbs to a peak of 940m so you need to dress smart. Once dropped at the trailhead in Pureora, we saddled up and in a morning damp with dew, a cavalcade of cyclists funnelled on to the trail, our brakes squawking like bagpipes in the early morning moisture.
The trail begins with a 15km ascent that meanders through regenerating native forest and open clearings, evidence of more recent felling. I stopped at every information panel and read about Māori legends and geology, bustling settlements, bridges and birds. I did grieve for the towering giants lost to logging but, thanks to the anti-logging protests of the 1970s, native forest logging was eventually stopped, the remaining giants preserved in perpetuity.
At around the 11km mark, riders can choose to dismount and walk to the peak of eponymous Mt Pureora. The sign claimed it was 1.8km to the summit, or an estimated 40 minutes which was actually pretty accurate and, even though the cloud was low, I had to check it out. Trig stations are magnets for some people.
Walking up through ferns and fronds, using tree roots as steps, eventually the path became boggy and walking became wading. I tried to step nimbly, but there came a point where I had to choose between dry shoes or reaching the top. Once I'd committed to wet feet, I stopped pussyfooting round puddles and sploshed 1135m above sea level. I was rewarded for my doggedness when the clouds parted and green swathes of nature were laid out before me, the giants of the forest reduced to mere florets of broccoli.
I squelched back down to my bike and completed the last of the climb, and then it was all on. Downhill I sailed on elegant trails, when I arrived at the splendid Bog Inn suspension bridge and, while it's not the longest or the highest, it took my breath away and proved an excellent spot for a packed lunch.
Fortified, I rode on as kākā screeched overhead, telling me to get a move on or I'd miss the pre-dinner pizza. Just shy of the lodge I made one last stop at Stump House. Legend has it that three chaps were once living and working in the bush, sharing a hut, when one of their number returned from town, unexpectedly married. So two of the chaps were turfed out and had to bunk down in this vast tōtara stump with just a sheet of corrugated iron to protect them from the elements. To imagine their lives made me even more grateful for snug digs.
Once home, we hosed our filthy bikes and stabled them beneath the wharenui and, after a welcome wash - the mud really did fly - the warm arms of the dining room wrapped themselves around us and a hearty meal of roast chook, roasted veges and two types of cake was served. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Day two - Piropiro to Ongarue - 45km
Waking to a particularly frosty dawn, once we'd breakfasted, picked up packed lunches and stowed our luggage to be returned to Ongarue, we set off when it suited us. Although for future reference, if I did this again, I'd definitely think about taking a day off in between, to enjoy the wondrous woodsy location.
The two-hour hike to a stand of untouched podocarp sounded particularly attractive and creeping quietly through the bush would mean more chance of encountering kōkako or kiwi.
As we set off on the slightly longer 45km leg, the ground was dappled with frost and misty morning light filtered weakly through the trees. The old body had a few words to say as it warmed up but, because this leg also starts with a decent climb, one portion relatively steep, we just put our heads down and pedalled.
Stopping now and then to read accounts of sawmills, cinemas and schools, I did enjoy the tale of the unlucky paymaster's horse that bolted with saddlebags full of cash – imagine his relief when the horse returned some days later, and the frugal filly hadn't spent, or lost, a penny.
There is so much history to absorb here, as well as feats of engineering to admire like the Maramataha Bridge which, at 53m high and 141m long, is the longest of its kind in the country. There's also the famous Ongarue Spiral, while the final section is largely along old tramways before concluding in a single narrow track beside towering cliffs of ignimbrite. Regenerating pine plantations complete the trail, all part of the timber industry cycle that still operates, until riders emerge through farmland to arrive in rustic Ongarue.
It's no surprise The Timber Trail is one of the country's most popular adventure rides. It's the right side of challenging, the outlook is always changing and it's just so refreshing to spend time in the company of trees. Forest air is rich and full of life and, as a result, riders emerge restored, renewed and determined to return.
Completed in 2013 The Timber Trail is 85km from Pureora to Ongarue and hire bikes are available from a range of operators. Graded 2-3, you need to be a fit and capable cyclist although, if you'd rather, you can walk the trail over four days. Top marks to designers and maintenance crews, this trail is epic.
The Timber Trail Lodge is proudly off-grid, an excellent example of sustainable environmentally friendly tourism. Open year round, all meals are included with options of double and triple rooms with ensuites or shared bathrooms.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew