We’ve written about the fabulous Timber Trail before, one of the most spectacular stretches of the NZ Cycle Trail (and home to the longest bike trail suspension bridge in the country). So we couldn’t resist revisiting it via this atmospheric account from our pal Zane Bray. In part one of a two-part story, Zane arrives in the friendly ghost-town of Ongarue, and sets off along the trail alone…
Arriving in Ongarue at dusk, there’s an element of sadness here, isolation, abandonment, desolation. I’ve seen more rabbits than people – and a mere handful of shy rabbits, at that. I can imagine the people here scurrying for cover just like the rabbits when they see someone strange wandering into their tumbleweed town. The street sign says it all: No Exit.
There is still beauty here, though. The small lane that leads to the town is picturesque, with dappled sunlight finding its way through the trees onto the road.
The river has a lovely reflection as the sun slowly heads toward the horizon. This watery treat runs parallel to the road and the train tracks as they cut through town, appearing to define the town’s boundaries more than supplying nutrients, supplies, wealth and growth to it.
Just out of ‘town’ – if you can call a dozen houses a town – there are goats ambling through the long grass next to the river. The town itself is nestled in a small valley surrounded by hills covered in native bush, forestry or farmland, with the occasional rocky outcrop poking out of the latter.
The power poles appear to be train tracks driven into the ground, really quaint as they slowly rust… A few have already been replaced with newer concrete poles, but something about the DIY power poles is appealing and the concrete ones seem so wrong in this place.
To my eye, the Timber Trail Shuttle building seems to be the only place that isn’t run down and abandoned in this little attempt at civilisation on the edge of the railway. Fresh corrugated iron on the fence, a lick of paint here, a broken down tractor being used as an ornament, their little patch of land slowly being turned into something brighter… There is potential here, and you can imagine little Ongarue coming to life once more with the patronage of the Timber Trail.
I’d come into town in my humble Hiace, stopping along the way to collect ripe wild blackberries from the edge of the road. Once you’re off State Highway 1 it’s a beautiful drive through the hills, curves and scenery of the King Country.
Hoping to find a meal before tomorrow’s adventure, I was sorely disappointed. No food here, only a handwritten sign outside the closed shuttle service saying ‘cold drinks’. Luckily I came prepared, although creating my own meal was not quite what I was hoping for.
I sleep in the van… only to be woken at 12am by the van shaking. It’s a few seconds of confusion before I recognise the sound of the midnight train running past…
Up at 5.45. It’s still dark, it’s cold and the only other things awake are the roosters. Somehow the thought that the only things that get up at this hour are cocks does not make me feel too super-awesome.
TT Day. TT minus 2 hours. The coffee gods are calling. I pick up their call and all I hear is a dial tone; they have no reception here, no cellphone-tower-café-outpost. I get out my stovetop espresso pot, prime it with fresh grind and water, connect my gas cooker, turn it on, and….
The ignition switch fails to spark.
I am one with the roosters now, want to crow obscenities like a true cock, but I hold it in, just.
Using my spoon as a tool, I MacGyver the ignition into lighting, and I’m going to be okay again.
I meet my shuttle driver, Ian, at 7am, and we’re off. Ian is a fountain of knowledge about the area and its demise. Ongarue used to be a town of fifty houses or so when the timber mill was in full swing many moons ago, but when the timber mill shut down in the 1960s, the owners burnt down the mill (just because, apparently) and many of the houses just… disappeared.
As Ian and I travel from Ongarue to Pureora through the back roads of the King Country, I admire the scenery: small cliffs thrusting their way out of the hills, farmers moving cattle along the road, still many more rabbits than people, and a chill in the air.
At Pureora, I unload my humble steed and bid farewell to Ian. As the sound of his car fades into the distance, it really hits me: I’m all alone, in the middle of nowhere, 85km from my van, and no cellphone reception. The sound of birdsong is my only company as I pump up my tires one last time, check my pack is secure, and turn my wheels towards the hills.
This is it; the real adventure starts.
I’d been told the first 16k are the hardest, so I’m prepared. The first 4km leads me through beautiful forest, on firm, wide and smooth paths through lovely trees. I know I’m slowly travelling uphill, and I hope the whole trail is this beautiful.
At the 6km mark, the uphill really kicks in, my speed drops, the trees give way to a bleak stretch of deforested land, where trees have been cut down for another lumber mill somewhere else, and I know this is where the battle begins. At the 10km mark the path levels off, the trees come back and it’s fantastic riding again. I steel myself for the next 6k – surely somewhere there’s another nasty hill? But thankfully, it never eventuates, and a few km later I take a quick 20 minute detour to walk to the summit of Mt Pureora.
Ian had said that on a good day you can see Taranaki. Unfortunately for me, there are clouds in that direction – but I can see Ruapehu and its surrounding peaks. At 1082m up, I feel like I’m on top of the world, above the clouds, and it’s all downhill from here.
Back on my bike 10 minutes later, it IS all downhill – a fast, fun and stunningly entertaining track all the way to the Piropiro campsite. On the way, there are blackberry bushes on the side of the path. Sometimes you’re on a road, sometimes in the bush…
And then sometimes, this.
Crossing swing bridges across deep chasms where kereru swim through the air beneath you… Mind-blowing. NOTHING can prepare you for it.
But you must go on, you’re barely half-way there…
And there we leave you hanging! Can you handle the suspense? Okay, here’s Part 2…