Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Third time's a charm on the Timber Trail

One of the very many things I love about Sarah is her eagerness to get out and do something - it cuts through my natural tendency to stay in familiar surroundings.  So, with the Queen's Birthday long-weekend looming, she declared that she'd like to do the Timber Trail, having heard good things about it.

I'd been through twice already: once in the wet with Ash, Steve and Whiskey Mike, and once in the wet with Dave Sharpe, and I was excited at the thought of tackling it without getting drenched.  As the weekend loomed, the forecast rain was pushed back, and the only concern on the eve of the ride was whether or not we collectively had the legs to get through it in one day.

Sarah and Khulan had taken advantage of a Teachers-Only Day at WGC on the Friday, leaving Wellington for Rotorua first thing in the morning, and managing a quick afternoon ride in the forest before dusk.  Their ride on Saturday had been anything but quick - about 6 hours worth, including three ascents (by bike) of the shuttle bus route...!

Back in Wellington, and having to make my own porridge for a change, I snuck in a quick road bash around my old favourite Makara Loop...

My favourite spot on the Makara Loop, near the end of Takarau Gorge
... followed by Airlie Road in Plimmerton, and Gray's Road and the Haywards across to the Hutt Valley before returning to Karori.  That done, attention turned to loading the car and connecting with Kaitlyn, and once the laundry was washed and hung, we hit the road.

Google maps offered an interesting route choice to Taumarunui, recommending SH4 from Whanganui over SH1 through to Ohakune.  I was fairly certain that SH4 would be slower, but it gave me a nice opportunity to show Kaitlyn the church at Upokongaro that was built by her great-great-great-grandfather back in 1877.  Nice to see that it's stood the test of time.

St Mary's Church, Upokongaro
I vaguely recalled being driven towards Whanganui in my youth, but it was certainly my first time heading in the direction of Raetihi.  The slow road wasn't such a big deal with Kaitlyn's company, and in the fading light we enjoyed the eventual glimpses we had of a snow-clad Ruapehu - quite hard to see against the gray sky but worth the effort.

We arrived in Taumarunui shortly after 6pm, pretty much on google's schedule.  Sarah and Khulan were already checked-in at the Alexander Spa Motel, and from there it was a short walk to the local Thai restaurant.  Based on the number of people in it, and the number of people in the few competing establishments, this was the place to go!  Well fed not long after, we made a quick visit to the supermarket, before heading back to base to get organised for Sunday's ride.

Alarms went off at 6:15am, and we were ready to go by 7:30.  Originally, we'd planned to do the long shuttle ourselves, but on Friday morning, faced with the prospect of a two-and-a-half hour drive after an 85km ride, I'd booked us all seats with Epic Cycle Adventures.  We decided to save a bit of time in the morning too, avoiding the 4-bike jigsaw puzzle on the back of my car by sticking with the original configurations - two on the corolla, and two on the suzuki. 

Both cars reported an outside temperature of two degrees for the duration of the drive, but at least it was dry!!  We met Paul and his wife, Debbie, at Ongarue, a 20-minute drive from Taumarunui, and our four bikes were soon loaded onto the trailer behind Debbie's vehicle.  The drive to the northern end of the Timber Trail, at Pureora, took about an hour, during which we were well entertained by Debbie.  She had interesting stories to tell about the area, and herself.

Before bidding us farewell, Debbie gave us her business card, requesting that we let her know when we were safely off the track.  On booking, I'd had to reassure Paul that we were capable of getting through in one day, and I was nervously optimistic that we wouldn't be added to his list of "a few idiots" that they'd had to rescue!

9am, and raring to go!
We were immediately plunged into stunning native bush, and while the trail invited a bit of hooning, I rode at the front of our wee peloton, and kept the pace very cruisy indeed. 

We popped down to see the crawler, and I was disappointed none of my female companions jumped onto it and made engine noises.  I also had a bit of a laugh realising that none of them new it was an out-and-back diversion...

One of these 4 is not like the others...!
The regular kilometre markers (every kilometre in fact) ticked by as we conservatively made our way up to the red shelter.  It was no surprise to see the deep ruts in the steep track leading up to it - maybe one day those few kilometres will be redesigned to ensure a sustainable gradient.  Despite our slow pace, we'd knocked out the first stage of the Kennett Bros' write-up in one hour, half of what they'd suggested. 

After 15 minutes or so in the open, we were then back into the bush.  Khulan rode immediately behind me, while Kaitlyn drifted back, accompanied by Sarah.  As we gained elevation, the moss covering the trees thickened, and when the gradient mellowed out, indicating our climb was almost over, the forest was lush and wonderful.

Lush and wonderful!
As with my previous trips through here, I enjoyed the way the pebbles suspended in the soil sheltered the dirt immediately below from the elements.  Up close, the resulting land-forms looked like a mini city.

My bike was absolutely purring.  The Yeti Big-Top 29er is a great platform for this sort of thing, and while I prefer my plush 26" fully on Wellington's singletrack, with a load on, the 29er rocks.  It had just come from Oli's shop, where he'd moved my old 9-speed gear onto Kaitlyn's bike, and given me a 10-speed upgrade.  It was like new, as I've come to expect when retrieving a bike from his workshop.  A couple of Revelate bags made the whole shooting match a bit heavier, but the bike continues to handle beautifully.

Warm gear x4 in the back, tools and bog-roll up front.
Before too long, it was clear that we weren't going to be climbing any more, and the long plunge down to the first suspension bridge was underway.  Khulan and Kaitlyn had point, while I followed Sarah, enjoying seeing how much her riding has progressed since we've known one another.  The kids were waiting for us just before the impressive 115-metre long bridge.

I was looking forward to getting stuck into the ham sandwiches Sarah was hauling, so went off ahead, just managing to get the camera out before the first of my companions arrived.

Not a bad spot for a picnic, we had our first rest of more than a couple of minutes duration.  The air was chilly, but the food, and views, were good.

I was glad that I went for a short walk back onto the bridge, the forest up Bog Inn Creek was a sight to behold. 

As promised by the Kennett Bros, the next (merely 109-metre) bridge followed quickly, and the novelty of these massive structures had not yet worn off.  It was nice also to embrace the dry skies, unlike on the trip with Dave where my last photo of the day was of the crawler a few minutes into the ride...

The track was mostly downhill through to Piropiro Flats, our next milestone, and designated lunch stop.  There was the odd climb though, and it was clear that Kaitlyn was starting to struggle a little bit.  She'd not done much riding since Karapoti back in early March, and while very fit from football, WORD in Term 1, the odd family ride, and the recent City Safari, the very regular and somewhat unusual call on her muscles was starting to take its toll.

Discussing it with her later, one of her biggest problems was actually upstairs.  She was struggling to reconcile her waning energy levels with the reported distance travelled (nearing 40 kilometres by this stage), and the length of the track (85km).  She was extrapolating her increasing physical discomfort, and starting to stress out considerably about her ability to complete the ride.

Luckily Sarah and Khulan were still in sight when they took a random turn-off to a camping area at Piropiro Flats.  We retrieved them, and then rode a few hundred metres more before stopping for lunch.  Kaitlyn perked up a wee bit as we rested and got stuck in to our various goodies - the aforementioned sandwiches (ham, avocado, cream cheese, yum), date loaf (the Randal half buttered and the Tumen half not), raspberry and chocolate liquorice, honey roasted peanuts, and bananas.  A hunter stopped by and nattered to us for a wee while, which was a nice diversion.

Whatever confidence Kaitlyn got back at lunch was dashed immediately after as we were straight into a relatively harsh climb.  We'd been riding 4 hours by this stage, and again the psychological blow was as harsh as the gradient.  I reassured her that things would be OK if she rode at her own pace and kept eating, and quietly crossed my fingers (and toes) that I was right.

The 141-metre-long behemoth that is the Maramataha bridge was the next milestone, and a good excuse to stop for a quick breather...

... and a selfie!

The climb away from the bridge was relatively long, but the track was wide, and I got off my bike and ran alongside Kaitlyn, my hand on her lower back providing valuable watts.  I took advantage of a few flatter sections to jump back on my bike and get my breath back!

We were then treated to a long descent, and I was treated to the regular sight of my three favourite people in the world doing something completely remarkable.  Three years earlier, Sarah hadn't really ridden a bike since childhood, Khulan had hardly ridden a bike at all.  And, if it hadn't happened already, Kaitlyn was already riding further than she'd ever ridden before. 

Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan, rocking my world
When I wasn't admiring them, the scenery wasn't bad either.

The 10-kilometre long false flat along an old bush railway route was our next challenge.  I'd anticipated taking advantage of the width of the track by towing Kaitlyn, but realised that it would be better if I were to push her - that way she'd have both hands on her bars, and complete control.  As the camber of the track changed, I swapped from one side to the other, trying always to keep her uphill of me. 

Near the top, my energy levels really took a dive, and after a few near misses, I decided I'd better stop for some food.  My downhill knee, core and arms were also taking a hammering, and I was starting to lose my mind a little bit.  Unfortunately Khulan was ahead, and not due to stop until the final swing bridge.  I didn't have the power to chase her, and decided not to flog myself through to the bridge, stopping briefly for some snacks.  Sarah, worried about Khulie being on her own, kept going, while Kaitlyn stopped with me for a pick-me-up too.

After a few minutes off the bikes, Kaitlyn left me so I could go for a quick slash in private, and not long after, I found them all waiting for me only a few minutes down the trail. 

The final bridge had been very close indeed, but I didn't regret the snacks I'd just demolished one bit.  I sent the women off so I could photograph them on the bridge, clearly demonstrating the scale of the bush, and of course the bridge itself. 

The Ongarue Spiral was not far ahead, and I was glad that I'd finally have the opportunity to check it out properly - the heavens had really been open the last two times I'd been through here, and lingering had not been appealing at all. 

Unlike the relatively tight spiral on Makara Peak's Vertigo (maybe a 5-metre diameter?), this one was a monster.  After the bridge, the track veers to the left, dropping down and through a tunnel, before emerging into a deep cutting and then passing back under the bridge. 

Sarah looking on from the top bridge
I headed back to the tunnel on foot, and was glad to have my helmet-mounted light.  With that on, I saw a hell of a lot more than I had riding through with no light, and my sunglasses still on! 

The tunnel wall was bare dirt, and there were remnants of some old timber supports near the centre of the tunnel...

Sarah had obviously thought things through better than I had, and came round the bend, Ayups blaring, moments later!

Not a train, Sarah!
By this stage, the arithmetic had become very easy indeed, and Kaitlyn was having no trouble working out the distance remaining.  She'd admitted earlier that she was so pooped she had two lots of 17-kilometres-to-go!  But now, the psychological blow each kilometre marker had brought was replaced by a boost.  She was "down to fingers", and justifiably pleased about it! 

We had to dismount for the very first time only a few kilometres from the end, but were all able to successfully negotiate a fallen pine. 

2 down, 2 to go
My legs had perked up again - a combination of the long downhill we'd been enjoying, and the most recent snacks - and I pushed on a bit, listening in fascination to Khulan behind me.  Over 80-kilometres ridden, she didn't seem to be having any trouble keeping up, and it was only over the final couple of minutes to the road end, that I couldn't hear her at all. 

I was impressed that she arrived 15-30 seconds after I'd leaned my bike against the signage at the end, and was even more impressed that Kaitlyn and Sarah arrived only a couple of minutes after her.  Kaitlyn had obviously undergone a similar physical recovery to my own, and was obviously highly motivated to knock the final kilometres off.

We had about 5 minutes to ride on the sealed road back to the cars, and they were dealt to with aplomb.  The light was beginning to fade, but we'd covered the 84km track in almost exactly eight hours.   The four sets of lights we'd carried had been a good precaution, but were unnecessary in the end (my own sightseeing aside).

We saw Paul from Epic as we turned left away from Ongarue, making the txt message I'd sent him a few minutes earlier redundant.

The sight of him was a nice reminder of the money well spent, and by the time we were all showered, fed, and back at our cosy motel, it was nice to reflect that we'd still have been on the road had we not taken up his service. 

The next morning, rain was in the air, and as we drove past Horopito, I don't think anyone regretted forgoing the Ohakune Coach Road - we'll no doubt hit that ride up soon enough.

We did stop at Ohakune though.  One upside of doing the Timber Trail on the last day of autumn, is that the world-famous in New Zealand Chocolate Eclair shop was open.

We each smashed one of those suckers back, thoroughly deserved after a massive day on our bikes!


As nice as it is when a plan comes together, I'm overwhelmingly proud of my beautiful family.  Their levels of fitness are quite remarkable, and I feel incredibly lucky that we were able to share (not to mention, enjoy) such a demanding ride together.  Whatever minor contribution luck and good management have made, I put the success of this ride down to the talents and tenacity of three incredible women, and I look forward to our next adventure together immensely. 


  1. I enjoyed reading about your excursion. My wife and I live in Taumarunui and rode the bottom half of the Timber Trail last year and have since purchased our own bikes and been riding ever since. We hope to get on the trail again soon. You might like to read about our trip on my blog:

    We have also ridden the Old Coach Road and I think you'll really enjoy it when you come back up our way. Here's my post about that trail as well.

    I also appreciated your picture of the church at Upokongaro. This site features in one of my novels.

    Kind regards,