Friday, March 6, 2015

Hybrids in the hills: the Pureora Timber Trail

"How are you getting on riding that bike?" Marg was asked several times, The bike in question would have been the technological envy of an early 1990s mountain biker: front shocks, V-brakes, gears down to 1.8m development (that's the equivalent of a 22" penny farthing, for those of you wedded to imperial measurements), and 42mm tyres on 29er rims. The question, though, was most likely prompted by the hybrid bike's sit-up, citybike configuration, which implied that it was more at home conducting Marg to her Willis Street law office than tackling the Pureora Timber Trail.

Through somewhat convoluted logic, I was also riding my hybrid rather than a mountain bike - the CT scan reports on my spine had reinforced my specialists advice that mountain biking was OK, so long as I didn't do the sort where I fell off. Given that single track always involves the risk of a fall, I'd sent my mountain bike off to a South Island retirement home, looked after by my daughter and a territorial mastiff.

We started by parking our car at Ongarue, and got shuttled up to Pureora by Ian and Ros of Timber Trail Shuttles, getting a full briefing on Pureora gossip as we went. The first section of the trail winds between the tall trunks of a remnant of Te Nehe-nehe-nui, the "great forest" that covered the central North Island. This particular remnant was saved by protests in the 1970s. A short detour leads to a 1930s bulldozer, a reminder of the machinery that harvested this forest. A bit further on, the trail breaks out into the barren waste of recently felled forest, a further reminder of the industrial forestry that has replaced much of Te Nehe-nehe-nui.
Cyclists contemplate reviving the 1930s bulldozer to give them a tow up Mt Pureora
Freshly felled forest leading to Mt Pureora
Soon the climb started in earnest, entering the cloud forest around Mt Pureora at the first shelter, where we paused for a view. To be honest, from here on my pauses became more and more frequent, taking the opportunity to appreciate the green labyrinth of the cloud forest at every km post, conveniently placed to lean my bike against. Rather than hang around, Marg headed up the 40 minute track to Pureora summit, meeting me again at the 14km high point for lunch.
View north west from first shelter.
Hybrid pauses at a convenient km post to contemplate cloud forest
It was a bit of a relief to start descending, though narrow tyres meant that I had to pay attention to the dips and bumps. Occasionally an orange marker indicated a rough side trail out to a view - or cellphone coverage.

Soon we reached the first of the suspension bridges. These are a highlight of the trail, making the crossing of bush clad valleys effortless. They are amazing engineering achievements, providing rigid bike paths with only a spidery network of cables, seemingly resistant to wobbles caused by riders or wind.
Marg crosses a suspension bridge
"Unless you suffer from vertigo, it's worth stopping in the middle to appreciate the forest views" - Jonathan Kennett, New Zealand Cycle Trails
Another innovation on the trail is the "stump house", a possible precursor of the "Small House" movement. A three man team was working in the area when one of their number returned from a trip to town with his bride, and demanded the exclusive use of the whare the team had been using. The two bachelors hollowed out a stump, fitted double bunks, and apparently pursued a comfortable life for the rest of their contract.
Inside the "stump house"
After Harrison's shelter, the trail followed forestry roads until we reached the turnoff for Black Fern Lodge, about 7km off the main trail and currently the only full accommodation at the mid point of the trail. Our decision to ride the trail over Sunday/Monday was due to Black Fern being booked out for all the Saturday nights through to winter. I'd stayed there on a previous trip, but had only biked out to the trail, not in. My memories of a brief sweeping descent turned out to be optimistic - instead we had a long steep grind, with the occasional bizarre "encouragement" installed by the Black Fern management, and provoking mutterings of "why didn't we just stay at the campground".
An eerie face looms up out of the gloom, urging us "don't give up"...
Eventually we reached the ridge top, and dropped down steeply to the Lodge, where Maria had a prepared dinner waiting for us to pop in the oven. It was warm enough for Marg to dive under the waterfall (now a trendy wedding venue) just upstream of the lodge, though I took the easy option of a shower and a lie-down. The delicious dinner washed down with a couple of Stella Artois at a picnic table with views of the sun setting on the bush clad ridges restored our equilibrium.

Next morning we did our best to knock off the delights in Maria's breakfast hamper, then loaded our bikes aboard Eddie, the Lodge's pickup truck, which owner Kerry has festooned with bike racks to get guests back up to the ridgeline. From here, the ride out to the trail was much more pleasant than the grind of the previous night - or at least it was once we'd mended the puncture on Marg's bike. We took a brief look at the Piropiro campsite, occupied by a single car tourist - there are rumors of a Glamping site being developed here, which could provide an attractive alternative for the mid point stay on the trail.
Loading up Eddie
Riding out to the main trail
The second day's trails are easier - wide hard packed surfaces where the hybrids came into their own. More suspension bridges, including the biggest span of 141m across the Maramataha Valley. There was a moderate climb through native forest before we reached the terminus of the Ellis and Burnand bush railway that extracted timber from 1914 to 1958. Marg remembers the Ellis and Burnand Mill at Otorohanga from her childhood, but the company had sawmills and bush railways penetrating many parts of Te Nehe-nehe-nui. While we might mourn the lost forest, the bush railway makes a great bike trail, gradually wending across the ridges and descending to Ongarue. The frequent cuttings with their overhanging bush seem like tunnels.
Marg contemplates a change of wheel at the tramway terminus
Marg emerges from a cutting
A DOC oral historian has done great work preparing information signs, so the trip becomes a journey back through time, learning about the establishment of No 11 camp, then No 10 (allegedly the coldest of the camps) and on to the spiral railway that allowed the "lokeys" - steam locomotives - to make the final climb from Ongarue to the bush clad plateau. The information signs are peppered with anecdotes - such as the pay clerk's horse that bolted on the ride in, not to be found for two weeks, miraculously still bearing the saddlebags laden with timber workers pay packets!
you have been warned...
Marg emerges from the spiral
Down in the valley we skirted cattle and deer fences on a firm gravel trail (occasionally punctuated with rabbit holes) before coming out on the road for the last 2km into Ongarue, cold drinks, and the drive back to Wellington.
Holes dug by seditious rabbits (probably with IS links) subverting John Key's vision of a National Cycleway
So are hybrid bikes practical on the Timber Trail? Certainly. A true mountain bike would have been better for blasting down the single track on the southern side of Mt Pureora, and we might have been less sanguine about this section in wet weather. But for most of the trail the hybrids were fine, underscoring the lesson that the best bike for a ride is the one you've got already.