Riding the Timber Trail.
In two days!
With The Waikato River trails (previous blog) behind us we headed for Blackfern Lodge – 1731 Ongarue Stream Rd, Waimiha or to put it another way – the middle of nowhere! We had just left our wonderful accommodation for two nights in a guesthouse called “Out in the Styx” which was fairly remote but Blackfern was even more remote. The lodge is situated half way along the Timber Trail bike ride and would be our home for the next three nights giving us two days to ride the 85kms of the Timber Trail. Because there were ten of us in our group we had booked several months in advanced to ensure accommodation as it is pretty sparse along the trail but is improving with the opening of the latest addition – the new Timber Trail Lodge.
We travelled the 82kms from Mangakino to Blackfern Lodge and arrived there about 1pm. The 82kms took us about one and a half hours to get there mainly due to the fact that the last 10 kms was on a narrow dirt road which required caution.
But what a spot! It was so worth the drive – Blackfern Lodge, a tranquil oasis dotted with rustic cabins and a softly flowing steam close-by the cabins. The stream was home to eels, trout and endangered Whio or blue ducks. A short walk took you to a fast flowing waterfall with a pool underneath to swim in (if you are up for it). There was also a longer one hour easy walk that challenged your sense of humour with several eclectic artefacts, sculptures and several creatively humorous notices which defined the rye and quirky sense of humour of the previous owners.
The couple who now owned the lodge had just taken over from older members of their family a few months previously. The previous owners had lived and worked there for over 20+ years . The complex started off as a place to make a home, it then morphed into a well known local restaurant and finally into an accommodation lodge.
Of course our main reason for being here was to ride the Timber Trail. Rachel, our host, had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at 0830 the first morning and take us to Pureora – a very bumpy 30-40 minute ride along unsealed roads. The same shuttle would also pick us up at the end of the second day at Ongarue. The 87 km Timber Trail is situated in the Pureora Forest Park between Lake Taupo and Te Kuiti and is called the Timber trail as it follows the old rail track that was used to cart out the timber to the sawmill in Ongarue. The trail follows the Ellis & Burnand Tramway built in 1903.
Day One – 36kms on trail to turn off for Blackfern + 7 km to our Lodge
We were all up bright and early but full of apprehension about what was ahead on today’s ride. We are all well over seven score years except one youngster aged 65. We are also fair weather riders and had heard that the Timber trail was challenging for riders of our fitness and vintage! But we were also excited to test ourselves. I was riding my three year old e-bike – a smart-motion city bike – how would this go on this rugged terrain that suggested mountain bikes would be the best choice?? We had also heard that over 600 riders had been through the Timber Trail days before us so we anticipated it to be a little churned up, plus it had been raining for over a week.
Our shuttle driver regaled us with lots of local information which distracted us from our very bumpy ride to the start of the track at Doc base on Barryville Road.
The first 4 kms of the track were relatively easy with a short diversion at the three kilometre marker to view and photograph a 1920s historic logging caterpillar bulldozer, which was left abandoned for years but has since had a facelift. From 4kms to the first shelter (a little red shed) was a gradual climb through podocarp forests of rimu, totara, miro, matai and kahikatea. The King Country region was covered with forest prior to European settlement which the Māori referred to as Te Nehe-nehe-nui, the great forest which is slowly regenerating.
The climb continued in earnest into the ‘cloud’ forest around Mt Pureora with breaks for views and photos along the way up to the highest point on the trail – 971 meters above sea level. Just before you reach the highest point there is a walking track up to Mt Pureora 1165 m and is a 40 minute walk each way. Some tackle it on their mountain bikes but they are ‘true mountain bikers’!
We rode passed gnarled moss covered dark green trunks and trees and the undergrowth was dotted here and there with foxgloves and some pretty white flowers and red berries.
From here the trail is mostly down hill but with some steep and rutted descents to the 18kms marker (the blue markers telling you how far you had travelled were positioned every single kilometre) where we met the first of the trails suspension bridges 115m over Bog Inn creek, followed 2kms later by another bridge 109m over Orauhora creek. According to the Kennett brothers “Unless you suffer from vertigo, it’s worth stopping in the middle to appreciate the forest views”. I took their advice and walked back to the centre after first biking across the bridge just to prove I could! The view of the beautiful forested ravine below the bridge was a stunning canopy of trees with the New Zealand native ponga trees proudly displaying the fern leaves.
Between the highest point and the bridges there were several viewing points along the top indicated by special markers – ‘views of Lake Taupo’ and areas where you could get ‘cell phone coverage’. Unfortunately lake Taupo was not visible as there was cloud cover but we enjoyed the break trying to find it! This trail consists of 35 bridges including the 8 suspension bridges.
All along the route I was mindful of the bars on my battery reducing more quickly than I liked. I knew I was using my brakes because my road tyres were struggling to cope with the ruts, dips and bumps on the downhill run and of course I also used some throttle on the 14km climb. Using brakes frequently on an e-bike unfortunately uses more battery because the engine stops each time you apply the brakes and you need to use power to get going again so the battery suffers.
Finally we arrived at the 36km mark where there are very clear signs directing us to Blackfern Lodge – another 7 kms on…..would my battery last? After riding a further 3-4 kms I came to a stile (which we had been warned about) and as I was riding alone at that time I had to negotiate a 25kg E-bike over a style by myself. I managed to do it with a lot of huffing and puffing. I was over the stile and riding on top of a soft carpet of pine needles when …my battery ran out. Bugger…… I still had about 2-3 kms to go and most of it was uphill. In fact it turned out to be a long steep grind through the forest punctuated by the occasional bizarre notices place on the route by the Blackfern Lodge owners. What a sense of humour…! not long to go, just up around the corner….. no way! Finally after several corners and much more uphill I reached the top and was met with a notice that said – “Enjoyment is the success of conquering the challenge”. I admit to not feeling any enjoyment at that time!
We all arrived back in dribs and drabs and were warmly greeted by the two members of the team who did not ride. After a shower and a glass of wine I began to feel that excitement! We ate a beautiful meal prepared by Rachel. All we had to do was heat it in the oven while the wine and beer and tongues flowed.
Day Two: 47km Piropiro to Ongarue
After a great nights sleep we all had different ideas about what we wanted to do today and so there was lively discussion over breakfast. By the time Mark & Rachel came to see what the plans for the day were our plans had changed. Six wanted to do the trail from Piripiro to Ongarue but did not want to cycle the 7 kms to the start of today trail. So it was decided that Mark would take all six ( for for a certain price right through to Piropiro where the trail started for the second days ride and then the shuttle would pick them up at about 4pm at the Timber Trail carpark at Ongarue. So we loaded the six bikes aboard Mark’s pickup truck which has bike racks front and back and was used mainly to take guests back up to the ridge line to start the second day ride – just a couple of kms thereby avoiding a long climb to get to the Timber Trail but today he would take them right to Piropiro which would be about a 40 minute drive but would save that extra 7 km.
The second day of the trail is certainly easier than the first. With packed lunch and slightly sore butts they were off. There was less climbing and more descents but the rain the week before and the 600 cyclists riding through had churned up the trail so again one had to take the descents carefully so as not to get a tyre stuck in a ridge!. Again the day starts with a relatively steep climb through stunning Podocarp- hardwood forest and across another massive suspension bridge. There were several suspension bridges, including New Zealand’s longest one with a span of 141m across the Maramataha Valley. There was a moderate climb through native forest before they reached the terminus of the Ellis and Burnand bush railway that extracted timber from 1914 to 1958.
Meanwhile because of my battery issues the day before myself and Helen, another member of the team, opted to be driven to Bennett Road outside Ongarue. Marcia who was not riding because of an injury drove us to the car park to start the ride. Our plan was to ride out and back on the Timber Trail to beyond the Ongarue spiral. I would be able to keep a close eye on my battery and turn back if it began to get low. By riding out and back we could also get a lift back in the shuttle with our six team mates to Blackfern Lodge.
It was a beautiful ride although it was a steady climb for 10 km to the Ongarue spiral. We did pass an area that was cordoned off with red and white tape because of logging in the area but I am afraid we ignored it and kept going. It really was easy going until we came to a huge sign indicating a rock fall ahead! When we got to the rockfall we had to haul the bikes over this mound made by the fall. After that there were several alert signs telling us that we must NOT stop for the next two kms as we were in danger from rockfalls.
Finally we got to the Ongarue spiral – what an amazing section of the trail this is. Great to look at and even better to ride through the curved tunnel and over the bridge and ride around in a circle. You can still spot some of the original beams that held up the bridge when trams were passing over it.
The trail had several information boards that DOC with the help of local historians has created to take us back in time especially the information and photographs about the Ongarue Spiral and how the workers lived while building this railway. One story tells of a pay clerk riding out on his horse to deliver pay-packets to the workers and while having a cup of tea his horse bolted and was not found for several weeks but he still had the saddlebag with the workers pay envelopes in it!!
We arrived back at the car park having ridden 24 kms with lots of time to spare so rode down into the sleepy backcountry village of Ongarue where there is little to pass the time. However, there was a backpackers in the main street but it was closed. Luckily for us a guy pulled outside who was a friend of the owners and he persuaded the owner to make us a coffee, which he did reluctantly. The friend of the cafe owner and his son were in the honey & bee business and sold us 1KG of their honey via internet banking!! The father had been in the bee business for over 20 years and now the son had joined him and both live in Taurmanui.
The shuttle was there at 4pm exactly and took us all back to our oasis where a wholesome dinner, wine and beer awaited us.
So what had we achieved over two days? Eight long slow climbs, seven rapid descents, 35 bridge crossings, dark but beautiful regenerated native forest, lots of gnarled moss covered tree trunks, a few open plains dotted with toi toi, lots of muddy and rocky single-riding tracks, some easy pedalling, lots of stops/breaks, learned the history of the King Country, took many photos and finally felt a huge sense of satisfaction.
Next morning we were very sad to leave Blackfern lodge but we were off on another adventure – riding the Te Are Ahi Thermal trail in Rotorua.