THE NORTH ISLAND’S Pureora Forest Park is a relatively unknown jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s wilderness. Situated between Te Kuiti and Lake Taupo, its vast expanse of primeval forest is home to some magnificent 1000-year-old podocarp trees. Totalling 78,000 hectares, the Pureoras (as they’re commonly known) has been recognised among the world’s finest rainforests. I’m not sure who recognised it as such, but I read it on the internet so it must be true …
Podocarp forests are made up of coniferous trees – giants such as rimu, totara, miro, kahikatea and matai – and have a dense, rich understory. These ancient woodlands contain the highest diversity of plants and animals found anywhere in the country … and did I mention giant trees?
So, you can imagine the sheer delight of early settlers, especially those with a hankering for swinging axes, when they first laid eyes on a 60m tall, straight-as-an-arrow rimu. (Those skanky, knotty old oaks from the homeland had nothing on these babies!) The mighty totara was already a firm favourite with Maori for building canoes and carving. So while the massive kauri were being slain by their thousands in Northland and the Coromandel, the giants of the Pureoras began to fall soon after, such was the demand for timber and farmland.
Between the 1930s and 1970s, large sections of the Pureoras were extensively logged, sparking friction between the timber industry and conservationists. It finally came to a head in 1978, when protesters climbed into the treetops, built platforms, and camped with the birds in an effort to halt logging. Their creative approach worked, because not long after, the area became protected as a forest park and logging operations were stopped permanently.
For many years, the Pureoras were used primarily by hunters, mad-keen trampers, birdwatchers and dope-growers. I was fortunate enough to farm on its boundary when I was younger, and I spent time hunting the fringes and riding motorbikes along the overgrown logging tracks. But, for the general population of urban bush-warriors and explorers, the forest, with its rugged and featureless interior, was a little too unknown – and an easy place to get lost!
Then, in December 2012, it all changed with the construction of … The Timber Trail! (insert whip crack HERE). One of the more recent additions to the New Zealand Cycle Trail network, the Timber Trail has the illustrious honour of being named a ‘Great Ride’ – a concept similar to the country’s ‘Great Walks’ … except you’re on a bike (unless you break down; then it becomes a great walk).
For cyclists, this offers 85km of pedalling nirvana, with enough ‘ups’ to keep those who shave their legs and enjoy wearing lycra happy, and enough ‘downs’ to keep the downhill-orientated adrenalin junkies from moaning too much. It’s rated as an easy grade 2-3 in terms of difficulty, so all average-and-above cyclists (except those riding Raleigh 20s and road-bikes) should be able to manage it. In fact, the only pre-requisite is a reasonable degree of fitness – i.e. if the walk to your letterbox is too strenuous, you should probably stay home.
Needless to say, the Timber Trail has had a dramatic impact on the numbers visiting the Pureoras – attracting rave reviews like, “Undoubtedly, one of the best rides in the North Island!”
That’s a pretty bold claim to make, so I thought we should see for ourselves …
My chance to ride “the most incredible ride in the universe” came in the recent school holidays. We were staying at my mate’s farm, and the Timber Trail goes right past his back paddocks – so it was almost rude not to ride it! Roger was a mad-keen-mountain-biker from way back, so he was a starter. And my boys had both recently up-graded their bikes, so they were frothing-at-the-bit. I was simply looking forward to seeing whether the trail lived up to the hype!
It was also the middle of winter, with fresh snow on the mountain and ice in the shade – perfect for an eye-watering, nose-dripping epic ride!
To cycle the trail proper, you start at Pureora Forest Village and ride through to Ongarue – which can be done in a day if you’re uber-fit and take performance-enhancing drugs. For us mere mortals, it’s a two-day ride with options of camping at Piropiro Flats, or staying in a nearby lodge. We elected to do neither. Instead, we chose to ride the second half – from Piropiro to Ongarue. We were told that this 45km section of the trail was mostly downhill – which, quite frankly, is a load of bollocks. Sure, you have a net elevation drop of around 200m – but you’ll be doing lots of pedalling uphill to get there!
Anyway, Roger’s parents kindly drove us to the start of the track (about an hour’s travel from Ongarue), which made things pretty easy. There are shuttles available for those who don’t have the luxury of a chauffeur – otherwise you need to plan for pick-ups and drop-offs.
We’d organised an almost perfect day for it, and, despite the sub-zero temperatures and frozen extremities, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Once we were up and riding, we soon forgot the cold – and enjoyed the large sections of ice-covered track. Among the many well-thought-out ideas on this ride were the ‘kilometre markers’ set in the trail. These showed you where, on the 85 total kilometres, you were up to. Sometimes, those markers went by awfully slow!
About 4kms in, we came to the Maramataha suspension bridge – the longest and highest bridge on the ride. Spanning a spectacular 141 metres, this awesome feat of engineering carries you 53 metres above the river below, and is well-worth a stop and a look around. In fact, DOC must be congratulated here: there are numerous info boards dotted right throughout the ride, providing a fascinating insight into the history/flora/fauna of the area, and giving the Timber Trail some important context. It’s like you’re learning stuff – but it’s fun!
Soon after crossing the Maramataha, the trail went downhill – by heading uphill, along the steepest climb of the ride! For the next 30 minutes, we puffed our way through the forest until we reached the historic Ellis and Burnand tramway clearing, where we stopped for a well-earned lunch break. From here on, the trail mostly follows the old tramline all the way to Ongarue. My boys, who are nine and 12 years, were making easy work of it – and the many lolly-breaks we had were more for me and Rog!
Refuelled, we continued on, past the Mystery Creek Triangle – where the old locomotives used to turn around doing massive three-point-turns – through the historic No.11 and No.10 camps. From here the trail finally headed downhill, and we made quick work of the next few kilometres, crossing a couple more swing-bridges before hitting the awesome Ongarue Spiral. This corkscrew section of the track follows the original tramline over a bridge and through a long narrow tunnel. It was a clever, yet simple piece of engineering which allowed the trains to climb a hill that was normally too steep to get up. And it was a blast to ride through!
From here on, it was a short ride out to our exit point, where the ute was waiting to get us home. And, I must admit, I felt pretty knackered and was looking forward to the cold beverage and hot spa waiting for us back at the farm. Oh yeah …
So, was it worth the hype? Yep, I reckon it was … almost. But I say ‘almost’ only because our expectations were for a mostly-downhill ride – which it’s not. What it is, though, is a fantastic mountain-bike trail, with plenty of ups and downs – perfect for fit families and friends, who want a day or two of amazing cycling in a beautiful environment.
We’ll definitely be back … but I think I’ll wait for the ice to melt!
FOR MORE INFO, CHECK OUT THIS WEBSITE: WWW.THETIMBERTRAIL.COM