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Two faces of the Timber Trail

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Official website, approved by DOC and Waitomo District Council

The Timber Trail vaults across the Maramataha River on a 140-metre suspension bridge, 53 metres above the water. Crossing in 2015, I paused in the middle, looked down at the water and thought back four years. Two visits to the Timber Trail, two radically different experiences.

2011

Jonathan Kennett on the part-built Timber Trail just south of Piropiro Flats.

Our journey of discovery starts at Piropiro Flats. And I couldn't be in better company; not just Simon and Jonathan Kennett, two of the three brothers who've been at the centre of New Zealand mountain biking since it began, but also Hoz Barclay, who's – what? The designer? The discoverer? I think Author of the Timber Trail is a fair description. And what he's showing us is very much a work in progress.

The first stretch is gentle, the trail already cleared and levelled, though not surfaced. It's easy, just a little soft in places. Then, half an hour in, the trail cuts off on the brink of a deep wooded gorge. The suspension bridge is merely a gleam in Hoz's eye, so we shoulder bikes for a slithering descent, followed by the crossing of the Maramataha Stream.

Jonathan Kennett crossing the Maramataha Stream.

At its deepest, the water licks at the hem of my shorts; it's tricky enough, but Hoz tells a tale of an earlier crossing. "It was maybe six inches deeper but that was enough. I lost it. Bike on top of me, dragging me along… Big adrenalin surge. I just threw the bike towards the bank, then kind of crawled into the shallows." Soaked and chilled, all he could do was climb out and then ride to get warm.

We're not cold today, so the climb's sweaty work: steep and slippery, bike on back, floundering over muddy roots. Then we're back on rideable trails again, though they're just a sketch at first, defined by marker-tape and the eye of faith. It's pleasurably technical, picking a line over knotty roots in dappled, flickering forest light. Somewhere under it all, yet to be unearthed, is the bed of the old tramway.

Jonathan Kennett nearing the end of the Timber Trail in golden evening light.

Presently, the way becomes clearer and we see the Trail developing; the 90m bridge over the Waione stream is complete but there are big drop-offs at each end. And then there's the Ongarue Spiral, where the line gyres right around and under itself. The tunnel is still ankle-deep in gloopy mud – ‘interesting’ in semi-darkness. The gradient’s all in our favour now, but there’s a final bog-and-blackberry bash before we emerge to a gravel road and pedal the last few kilometres into Ongarue in golden evening light.

2015

A Maori carving stands guard at the northern entry to the Timber Trail.

The Timber Trail is complete and rapidly becoming an established highlight of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network. Four years (plus three weeks) after my first visit, I'm thrilled to be back – and this time my partner Bernie and I are riding the whole of it. We've met up with Hoz again (and daughter Charlotte, 9) and they've shuttled us to the start at Pureora. We have to tear ourselves away from the conversation to get riding.

Once away, it all unwinds smoothly, through podocarp forest then more open country, climbing steadily but almost never steeply. We decide we’ve got time to take the side-trip (on foot) to the 1165-metre summit of Mt Pureora for its 360-degree views over Lake Taupo and beyond. Back down to the bikes, and there’s a little more climbing to the shoulder at 980m, about 450m above the start, before some serious freewheeling begins.

An open section on the first day.

Our official trail guide says, 'It is strongly recommended that you walk the steep, rocky, downhill sections between the 26 and 27 km markers', but frankly we never even noticed these: certainly they weren’t technical enough to stick in the memory or became an obvious photo-opportunity, let alone to make us walk.

Then we're looking out for the side-trail to our overnight at Blackfern Lodge; it's a substantial side-trip, with a significant climb and descent, but leads through some beautiful country, open and bright. Next morning we accept a ride back to the top, courtesy of Eddie the Bush Lokey. A sandy track past shimmering fronds of toetoe returns us to the Timber Trail proper.

Bernie Carter negotiates the rockfall.

Half an hour later, we reach Piropiro Flats, closing the circle for me. 2011's half-built trail has bedded in nicely now and soon whisks us to the Maramataha valley. This time crossing is easy – unless you don’t like heights. For some people these suspension bridges are the real challenge of the Timber Trail, but I can't recommend the alternative; looking down now, I can’t even work out where we crossed, or how we climbed down and back up with bikes.

Now the kilometres tick by easily, except at one spot where a rockfall has blocked the trail. Scrambling over fridge-sized boulders gives a few interesting moments. Of course this isn't a permanent feature – it'll be cleared before Christmas – but it gives Bernie a brief taste of the wildness of the first trip, and reminds us that nature’s never entirely tamed.

Looking down as Bernie Carter emerges from the tunnel of the Ongarue Spiral.

The Ongarue Spiral is a lot less gloopy this time, but still disconcertingly dark. Just beyond, we meet up with Hoz and Charlotte again. Charlotte’s keen to see the Spiral, so we double back. What’s an extra few kilometres between friends?

Finally, we reach the broad golden pastures of the Mangakahu valley. The trail winds around the pastures and through woodland before joining a dirt road just below the car-park where Hoz’s ute is waiting. In 2011 we continued the couple of kilometres to Ongarue and I got a puncture somewhere in the middle. I’m quite happy not to have to wonder if there’s another thorn there with my name on it.

JON SPARKS  Photographer and Writer

1 Waterside Close, Garstang, Lancashire, PR3 1HJ
01995 605340
email: jonsparksmaccom
www.jon-sparks.co.uk

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