Tour Aotearoa: Timber Trail & Beyond
Being able to ride the Tour Aotearoa is a privilege. Some of the sectors of the ride so far had been pretty darn boring, but better than work. The sector ahead, the Timber Trail, is one of the most talked-about trails in New Zealand. To say I was excited to be able to ride this trail is an understatement. To ride it as part of the Tour Aotearoa is a real joy.
Now, after reaching the centre of the North Island on the Arataki trail, we headed for the Timber Trail. “Remember to turn at the sign of the old tractor” everyone kept on telling us. Now, where was that sign? For we didn’t see it. We ended up at the very start of the trail, and boy, I’m glad we did.
The first 8km are some of the most scenic km of the whole TA. The lush vegetation. The birdlife and song is off the charts. I was in heaven. And if heaven was a fraction close to this, I’ll be happy to accept the invite. Not that I’ll even get one.
Once out of the woods, it’s a long climb up to the top of Mt Pureora. It’s a little boring. The lush vegetation is replaced by a deforested landscape. I’m assuming once if allowed, the vegetation is allowed to grow, this landscape will be just as beautiful as the previous 8km. For the time being, it’s a pretty average climb. The descent is much better.
I’m not sure if it is just because all of the efforts of climbing is behind you, or it’s because the bush returns. Whatever it is, it’s a very nice feeling to be heading towards a food stop at the Timber Trail Lodge. Before you reach there, there are a few sections of the downhill which I’d deem pointless. On and off the road. I’d recommend just going straight most of the road. That could be because I was needing food and feeling time-poor. Or, it could be that they really were pointless.
Despite all of the rumblings about the lodge, it was fantastic. The pizza and ginger beer was all that was needed. The staff were also super friendly, offering traditional Kiwi friendliness, despite being from Europe. It was with a heavy stomach that we had to leave. If riding at a more gentle pace, it’s definitely a place I’d think about staying. Just nice to break up a punishing downhill. I’m still tricking suffering from cyclists palsy. And yeah, it all started on the Timber Trail. I’m just glad I’m typing, rather than writing this.
Once we’d finished the Timber Trail I could’ve quite easily finished up for the day, but we had another 30Km to go until we arrived at Taumarunui. One thing I do have to mention, the road between Ongarue and Taumarunui is stunning. A gravel road with a good hardpack.
It was great seeing a farmer exercising his dogs on a quad bike. The only problem was that it took me 20 minutes to get by them all. I’d managed to scare the two rear dogs back across the railway line. They wouldn’t come back. I waited patiently. They waited for me. We were at an impasse. Eventually, I got bored and continued on my way. When I looked back I could see them running back to the farmer. Crisis averted.
I could just see the headlines in the papers ‘Auckland cyclist gets 2 farm dogs killed by train’. That would be a bloody freak of nature in New Zealand, a one in 10 million events. As we only have one train every other day travelling up that line. In fact, there’s only 1 train running between our 2 major centres every other day. Crazy!!!
On reaching Taumarunui I/we headed straight for McDonald’s. It’d be the last time we ate such crap for the next 2000km. I simply overindulged in a strawberry shake. See, I’ve not eaten Micky D’s for such a long time, I just couldn’t help myself. I left there with the sweats. Nauseous, and with stomach cramps. Fortunately, we only had 6 km to ride before I could lay down and rest, but not before I caught up with Dan. He informed us that Auckland had just gone back into level 3 lockdown due to a community outbreak. Phew, we started the TA just after a lockdown, and now had managed to ride through Auckland and escape the next one.
We arose early, packed our bags, had some breakfast at the campsite, and made our way south. This day would turn out to be one of the hardest of the TA. We were heading to Whanganui. But not before we had ticked off the Bridge To Nowhere and the Whanganui jet boat trip.
We chased away the dawn on our way to Owhango. We’d been hoping that there would be a café open. No such luck. The next stop for food would be at the Blue Duck Café Whakahoro. I’d heard so much about this oasis. It was constantly talked about amongst other riders. It had even featured on Country Calendar, a popular NZ TV show. O, how I’d built this up to be amazing.
The road leading to the Blue Duck was nice enough. It reminded me of cycling through the dales in the UK. Rolling hills with deciduous trees and farm animals casually roaming the terrain. The rolling hills made for easy riding on the hard pack gravel road. In the distance, I could see the legendary Blue Duck Café.
I arrived, only to meet Craig, Gillian, Neil, Dan, Nick and two other unknowns. They’d already all ordered breakfast. Fortunately, and I say that a lot, Neil had ordered me some eggs on toast with a large flat white. Anyway, long after Neil’s breakfast had arrived, I was still waiting. He had been relaying a story about how the waitress had expressed her dislike for cooking eggs. She’d said that she couldn’t wait until 11 o’clock when she didn’t have to cook eggs. Yet, every item on the breakfast menu contained eggs. She was shit out of luck.
I asked politely where my breakfast was. She said that she’d forgotten and that it wouldn’t be long. When it did finally arrive, it was swamped with water. The toast may have passed by a toaster, but at no point had it actually been in one. The coffee was as crap as her attitude. What a disappointing experience. I’d held this place up to be an oasis in King Countries desert. Shit, I’m glad I didn’t drink the water.
We left, somewhat disheartened, and dreading the next 30km. That dread was well-founded. The first 10km along the Mangapurua road/cycle track is delightful. Just watch for culls hiding behind the bushes. They shit the life out of me. The rest of the climb is very tough on a gravel bike. This is where a mountain bike would shine. But that’s not enough for me to recommend riding one for the TA. I’d simply say that a gravel bike is king.
Racing down to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere is fun. That is until you actually get to the bridge. It was stacked full of people. Far too crowded for my liking. I’d hate to see this place in a non-Covid year. It must be rammed. Because after the crowds, you’re also stuck behind riders on a different pace going to also catch a jet boat to Pipiriki. It’s also where I fell off and damaged my lever, or made it worse. It wasn’t a hard fall. It was a fall where I didn’t have enough momentum to actually clip in and ride. I fell left and straight onto lush bushes. Unfortunately, the only two things I hurt was my pride, and later my wallet. My pride was damaged by the crowds that surrounded me as I tried to remount and fell again.
I arrived at the jet boat landing pad, only to find out that Neil had booked us onto the next jet boat. It left within 10 minutes of me arriving. You’re advised to book early in the morning to avoid having to wing it, or camp there until a boat is available. Usually, it’s also jammed with riders who are riding the formal ‘Bridge To Nowhere’ route. I’d recommend doing that if you’re short on time. I’d also recommend canoeing down the Whanganui. Although we didn’t do it, it looked amazing.
Neil and I waved goodbye to those that had booked their jet boats. They were due to leave 2 hours after us. Phew, sometimes riding by the seat of your pants pays off. Usually, it doesn’t pay to be so laissez-faire. Arriving at Pipiriki gave us the opportunity to stuff our faces. I chowed down a burger and fries. We were soon back on the road. It was this road that I soon discovered that my left shifter had given up the ghost. No matter what I did I couldn’t shift into the big ring. F*#k!
The next 70km were miserable, until the next morning when the champions at Velo Ronny’s managed to make good my bike. I cannot recommend them enough. They also lent me an MTB to ride to the cafe. Top staff, and so very friendly.
To be continued…