Shiver me Timber Trail

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By Monica Louis

There’s nothing quite like getting out and active for kick starting a feeling of wellbeing and we reckon we’ve discovered the perfect cycle ride to activate the happiness gland.

The pineal gland, referred to by some as the seat of the soul is situated in the brain. It produces melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sweet dreams, libido and optimism. Physical activity stimulates the production of this happiness hormone.

So, rather than giving in to the winter blues, we thought; why not head for the hills of the Pureora Forest Park. We’d heard rumours about the Timber Trail in the heart of the King Country, one of the 23 great rides of Nga Haerenga,  New Zealand cycle trail.

Partly to test the theory about the happiness gland but also as a plan to bond with our son who was having a hard time at his first year at university, we took to the Central North Island cycle track, one pale yellow winter’s day and discovered much more than we expected.

mapMount Pureora is situated to the west of Ruapehu, where the ski season starts early. Pureora, we are told, has many pleasant winter days once the morning mist has lifted.

When the days lengthen, about halfway through July, Pureora skies are often blue, crisp air and a surprisingly warm winter sun defy the urge to dress for alpine conditions. But cyclists, be warned; The Timber Trail is not a Sunday ride and in winter the added effect of frequent temperature changes makes it essential to be well prepared. This means being appropriately dressed for the occasion (‘layering’ is the rule of thumb to apply here).

Some fitness training also wouldn’t hurt; the trail isn’t technically challenging but it’s a physical exercise similar to doing the great walk around Lake Waikaremoana with a back pack; getting those leg muscles strengthened is highly recommended and training up for the distance assures that it will be a joyride rather than an on the edge-of-enervation experience.

Generally promoted as a two-day ride, the Timber Trail appeals to a wide audience; baby boomers looking for a way to humbly show off their titanium super bikes, diehard MTB riders who cycle the 85km trail in a day, friends or families bonding and in our case parents and a son with some mates, each having their own reason to heed the call of the ancient woods.

We base ourselves in Benneydale; a slumbering mining town that might well have disappeared from the map if it weren’t for recent cycle trail fame. Half-way between Pureora and Ongarue on state highway 30, Benneydale is the only trail settlement with a shop, accommodation and a good café. There is also a police station, St John’s and a public telephone. We stay at the Timber Trail Sleepout @ ArtDoc which turns out to be a fine choice for a comfortable stay with everything neatly packaged, leaving us to focus on the ride.

bikeSupport services around the trail are slowly popping up, much the same way the Otago Rail trail incited rural development, but searching the internet doesn’t give an easy answer to questions about itinerary. Unlike some trails close to towns with heaps of motels and food outlets, the Timber Trail goes through remote country and you need to arrange transfers and accommodation before getting there.

In Pureora village where the trail starts there is a campsite, some DoC cabins and a Maori tourism business called Pa Harakeke. The Pa consists of an information centre and there are two whare-style chalets, very elegantly decorated and each sleeping up to six people. Pa Harakeke also operates a bike shuttle and bike-hire business. Also in Pureora at the offices of a Maori landowning trust, is Kohia Ltd, another business offering bike hire and ‘glamping’ packages.

During  summer  ‘glamping’ (glamourous camping) is popular at Piropiro Flats – several companies will arrange to have your luggage and tent shuttled to the halfway point. Either the tents are set up and provisions for a barbecue meal are waiting or cyclists get the key to a box with all provisions that are needed for a genuine outdoors experience. But in winter staying in Benneydale or in Taumarunui provides the more comfortable option by far; no need for backpacks, sleeping bags and linen or for luggage shuttles. At the end of a ride we get shuttled to our accommodation where a hot shower and cool drinks await before sitting down to a tasty meal with French flair.

Carving of Kanawa, donated by Ngati Rereahu Rangatira.

Carving of Kanawa, donated by Ngati Rereahu Rangatira.

For those traveling from Wellington, Taumarunui is a good stopover point. There is a choice of accommodation, restaurants and shops and if you don’t cycle you can always hop on the Forgotten World adventure. Close to the half-way point at Piropiro there is a lodge you can cycle to (Blackfern Lodge, closed part of the winter) and there are a handful of B&Bs and holiday houses some with farm stays and other unique aspects. (www.timbertrailaccommodation.co.nz).

As we opted for a package at the Timber Trail Sleepout @ ArtDoc in Benneydale we arrive in time for dinner served by Maurice Louis, owner-operator and host at ArtDoc. We get the story of how he and his wife moved from the French Riviera to the King Country. After plenty of slow cooked carbohydrates (Poulet Moutarde and Gratin Dauphinois) and a glass of wine (BYO) we tuck into our warm beds.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast reality kicks in. We are dropped off at the start to set out for the toughest part of the trail; climbing the 14km to the top of Mt Pureora. Maurice had warned us that we were likely to learn the true meaning of the word push-bike – as in a bike you push uphill most of the way.

It apparently is not uncommon nor to be ashamed of, but our group consists mostly of young fit cyclists and we need not have worried. The first 8km through the bush make us feel like kids. There is something about the melange of forest perfumes, bird song and the screeching kaka and the winding forest path; it connects directly to long lost memories of childhood adventures. We manage pushing ourselves to our limit fuelled by manly pride and the dropping temperatures –  alpine indeed. We stop only for lunch, to take some photos and to enjoy the views and arrive after a little under five hours at the halfway point.

Here the Pureora shuttle is waiting to take us back to Benneydale and we meet the lovely Edwina who arranges a time for our pick-up the next morning. She explains that there are several shuttle companies around the trail transporting cyclists, bikes or luggage to anywhere in Waikato or beyond. But Pureora Shuttle has the exclusive right though to take a shortcut through the forest – as they are Tangata Whenua. The Pureora shuttle is base at Pa Harakeke.

The next morning Edwina meets us at ArtDoc to take us to our second day start at the half-way point. We need less than an hour to get to one of the highlights of the Timber Trail; The Maramataha Bridge. This is – we are told – the world’s longest suspension bridge for bicycles at 151 metres over a 160 metre gorge. There are 33 bridges along the track including eight that are longer than 100 metres. There is a short but steep climb after the bridge, but from there it gets relatively easy with a long section that follows where the tram lines used to be.

In the days when this was the scenery of milling camps complete with schools and hospitals, there would have been a community of more than 1000 people living and working here. The history is well explained and it’s worth taking time to read the interpretive boards along the track.

We end up indulging in a bit of a photo safari and get some fine shots aided by the magnificent big skylight. The happiness hormones are being produced in droves as we cycle another hour until we get to the Ongarue spiral with tunnel and bridge. From there it’s more or less downhill to Bennett Street car park where Paul from Epic Cycle Adventures is waiting to shuttle us back to ArtDoc in Benneydale.

Our package at ArtDoc includes dinners and breakfasts which are all served in The Gallery which our host Maurice calls a rural salon. It certainly is an eye-catching surprise to step into what used to be a 4 Square shop and find a music library with close to 5000 LPs and bookshelves laden with orange Penguin pockets. Here in the middle of rural backwaters we are entertained with stories and music from all over the world after which we are invited to the home theatre of the Gallery. The kids connect to the WIFI and post their photos on their Facebook pages. We open a bottle of Merlot and nestle into the large retro couch to watch the DVD of how the Timber Trail was built. Projected on a large screen, we revisit the day and no one is ashamed to head for bed soon after, minds full of images and bodies empty except for a fuzzy feeling of wellbeing.

The New Zealand cycle trail was originated as a project to help create job opportunities in the dying rural towns that were once erected as temporary settlements. The Timber Trail which is only three hours’ drive from Auckland, has a captive audience on its doorstep. So, this winter, put the happiness gland to work in the Pureora Forest Park.

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