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Great Rides: The Timber Trail

April 30, 2015

Another guest-post from a family that lives life to the full. Last year it was Clare & the boys enjoying the excellent Exhibition Drive and Beveridge Tracks over in Titirangi. This time it’s husband John writing-up their family trip to the Central North Island’s Timber Trail. 

There’s a lot of information here (John thinks he’s getting paid by the word), but it’s a good read and a valuable insight for anyone planning a similar adventure. 

Timber Trail Trip, April 2015

The first hour was spent getting out of Auckland. It was the worst part of the trip – it was all downhill from there!

An early start at Ongarue meant we overnighted at Taumaranui, via dinner at the Thirsty Weta in Otorohanga – a big plug for these guys who went above and beyond to get us (mum, dad & boys 9 & 12) fed and on our way before it got too far past bedtime. A popular place on a Friday night, and deservedly so – so be early, book ahead, or just relax.

8am saw the overnight rain long gone and a partly-sunny day dawning. We met Paul & Debbie from Epic Cycle Adventures and transferred our camping gear into one of their vans for dropping up at the Piropiro campsite a bit later in the day. Our bodies and bikes went with Debbie and another two for the trip to Pureora. Lots of local commentary and anecdotes on the trip, along with a few pointers on the trail, what the overnight weather would have done (not a lot, pumice drains well!), a sheet of FAQ – and a reminder to go the right way in the morning.

marker post 1

1 down, 84 to go…

Out of the bus, onto the bike (via the first of many DoC toilets), a quick photo-call and we were under way before 9:30am. The trail first winds through forest before breaking out into a cleared area for a weather check and a look at the peak ahead – Mt Pureora, 980m. All along the trail are heaps of DoC signs describing the local flora & fauna and a lot about the history of the local towns and the origin & characters of the trail.

I won’t go into the details of the climbs and kms, as there are leaflets all about that (links at the end) and they do a better job than I could. Impressions were that this is a cool trail with a lot to offer everyone in it’s 82kms. We managed it easily (ok, there was the occasional whinge from 3 of the 4) with lots of stops to take in the views (especially at the suspension bridges), snack, chat to other cyclists, eat, read the signs and eat (especially the wild blackberries).

trail surface

Great trail surface

The trail surface is great, with a lot of work going into keeping it that way. Along the way there’s gravel, mud, fine pumice, coarse pumice, tree roots, a short section of sleepers to test the suspension and a few ruts and bumps to keep you focussed. Obviously lots of riders and a load of rain will change things, bringing in ruts and washouts, but the maintenance crew are obviously a busy bunch.

uphill trail

Boy chasing

marker post 12

Nearly at the top!

The big climb up Mt Pureora was not the hardest, but it was often easier for some of us to get off and push. One excuse offered for this was that it was to save his backside for later in the trip! Seriously though, 80km is touring-saddle length, racing razor-blades are just masochism. After the summit the trail was mostly downhill. Nothing too challenging, but I was fearing for my rims as the pumice got stuck in my V-brake shoes and graunched away. It’s not a race, remember. I do know of three blokes who did the whole thing in one day, but that was a bit earlier in the year, with longer days and possibly a fair bit warmer, which would have made water a real factor. That was a race, I suspect.

The first of a few...

The first of a few…

The first of the suspension bridges is an impressive sight, up here in the middle of nowhere. In fact all of them (there are six) are worth a sit and a look and make a fine place to snack, or just rest and take it in. Walk or cycle across these, look down, or not!

There is one steep downhill section of the trail (around kilometre markers 26-27), where you are advised to dismount. The section immediately before this has a right turn off the straight gravel track, so you should see the sign, turn off and enjoy some gentle, switchbacks on a smooth trail – or you can plough on like me and Mr 9, over the very coarse gravel surface on the steepening gradient and fly sideways to the point where the “Dismount Here” sign is. Here you can stop, catch your breath and figure that if the next bit is worse than what you just did, you’ll walk, thank you very much. Then you start off down the hill, note the nice surface and easy grade and remount. Afterwards, the rest of your party catches up and tells you that you went the wrong way. Most people should be fine on that “dismount” section. Just watch for the arrows and the bridge at the bottom of the steep bit!

Having said that, just a little further down the trail, we came across a crowd of people waiting for an air ambulance to lift a woman to hospital. It seemed she’d hit an angled rut at the bottom of a downhill and gone flying, possibly breaking her hip. The trail seemed not much different from a dozen other sections, so it looked like just really bad luck. Best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.

trail sign

Times of the sign: walking hours, not cycling hours

The temperatures were high-teens during the day and not too cold overnight, maybe 7-9ºC, but we all got through a 750ml bike-mounted bottle and a 1-2 litre Camelbak on both days. Each of the four us. Both days. Take some purification tablets to keep any nasties from streams or the Piropiro campsite water-supply from making life unpleasant. Or spend hours boiling it and cooling, your choice.

The campsite is used by hunters, and they tend to get the half-shelters, but there is plenty of flat grass. The hardest choices are whether you want early sun or late, and how much you want to be out of any wind. The water is pretty central and the creek is about 50m along the trail past the campsite. You can wash yourself and/or your bike in there, but the heater was off when we visited!


Amazing what you find!

Paul had dropped our gear off with one of the hunters who’s nearly always there (he’s known as The Mayor!) and put it under a tarpaulin to keep the rain off. You can get packages where you can use rental bikes and camping stuff, but we know our own gear, so we took that. Not everyone took the option to get their gear dropped off, one couple carried two huge rucksacks with them whilst cycling, which I think showed excessive zeal and looked like bloody hard work! Still, they did it, and good on them.

Away from the urban lightscape the night sky was spectacular. Satellite-spotting and trying to remember the constellations (upside-down for some of us) made the evening zip by, but we were feeling the kms, so early to bed.

Coffee and bacon sandwiches can only ever be a good thing to wake up to, and our camp chef made sure we were all adequately prepared for the 2nd day. The weather looked good again, cloudy, but nothing too threatening-looking.

We made sure to turn right out of the campsite and spot the 40km marker (there’s one every km along the trail, some seem to come past faster than others!) then headed downhill towards the Maramataha suspension bridge, which is 141m long and 53m high! After this came a bit of a slog of a climb, then some more downhill. An unadvertised 15km of flat riding, along the top section of the tramway, actually felt worse than the climb, as you knew when that would end! The downhills after that were definitely worth the wait. Just don’t try to look at the scenery while you’re riding, as you’ll end up as part of it. The two young speedsters left Ma & Pa for dead at around the 70km marker and were next seen at the trail end carpark at 82km with big grins on their faces!

helicopter signage

Maramataha Suspension Bridge Story

All along the tramway sections DoC have put in signage with stories, relics and photos of the history of the places and people. These really bring the history to life again and give the office-based a bit of an appreciation of what life could have been like 80 years ago! The Ongarue Spiral is a great feature, unique in the world as a cycle-able tramway spiral.

spiral signage

Spiral Story

The downhill trail eventually turned into pine forest, and loads of brambles. We’d enjoyed the blackberries along the route, but these were choking everything alongside the creek and trying to creep across the track. I suspect one of these caused my puncture, the only one in our party the whole trip, but unnoticed until we got home. After the goblin-forest earlier, the pine forest seemed creepy – still and silent after the life and textures. A few km of this brought us to paddocks and a strange layered landscape before the finish in Ongarue, about 5 hours after we set off.

Here we found our car, just as Paul had said when we passed him at around km 70. He didn’t mention the sandflies, which chewed on me as we put the bikes back onto the car, loaded with our camping gear which he’d already picked up and brought back for us, moving the car from the $10 secure parking to next to his premises in Ongarue. Off for a hot shower and a hard think about which of Taumaranui’s hot-spots to hit for dinner (we chose the Thai over the RSA) before retiring for the night in more torrential rain – perfect timing!

trail hut

Lunch on the flat

Coming from Auckland you may want to overnight in Te Kuiti instead of Taumaranui, but it’s a bit further in the morning. There are heaps of places opening up more locally though, as the trail’s popularity grows. Debbie said that they had about 700 people go through in 2014, but then they had 700 in February 2015 alone!

Most people only see this area as they flash past on their way to go skiing, so here’s a chance to spread the love a little and see places you wouldn’t normally. The riding is fantastic and everything is set up to make it easy for you, from day rides from the start, middle or end of the track, to carry-your-own-tent, to shuttle-delivered tents, to catered options and even a lodge! All you need to carry is what you’ll need for the day: food, water, clothing & spares/tools. A head-torch may be handy for the Spiral, but it’s not essential. If you have young kids, it could get a bit like hard work, but we found another 9 year-old and one of 10 on the two days we were on the trail. Ours still had energy to burn at the end of each ride, so either we fed them too many sweeties along the way, or it’s not THAT hard. Give it a go. Just take a comfy saddle!

The Thirsty Weta, Otorohanga:

Epic Cycle Adventures:

Official Timber Trail site:

Local operator’s joint site:

DoC’s Timber Trail site & PDF brochure:

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