My co-worker is heading to New Zealand with her husband for the Christmas break. Jealous is a strong word, but definitely appropriate here. I'm so jealous. My wanderlust is rearing her lovely head, and I've fallen down the rabbit hole that is Erica's Instagram several times.
My co-worker won't be riding bikes- opting for hikes and postal tours instead- but she wanted to hear about my time on the Timber Trail. Because the weather here in Austin reminds me of our first few days in New Zealand, before the rain, I figured I'd share the story with y'all here. Without further ado, here's my tale about the Timber Trail.
First of all, you should know that I’m lucky to be surrounded by really accomplished and really strong riders. So sometimes it’s easy for me to bite off more than I can chew when it comes to rides, like steep rolling hills through a state park on platform pedals and a steel bike. Or one of my favorite adventurs: 52 mile (83 km) trail ride in New Zealand.
But that’s just what I did.
As New Zealand transitioned into fall this past March, I joined my husband’s cycling club in boxing up our bikes to explore the mystical trails (and vineyards) on the north island. This was the first time I had flown with my bike, not to mention my first time seriously attempting trail riding, but I figured I’d cross that bridge when I got there. And believe me when I say, it was some bridge!
First Stop: Wine and Oysters
After three flights and navigating customs with my bike box, we headed to our home base in Waimarama— after we stopped at a Hawke’s Bay vineyard for wine and oysters. This trip was off to a delicious start! We took advantage of the sunny weather and built up our bikes while we waited for the rest of our crew to make it into town. After everyone made it, some of us stretched our legs by riding down to the beach to watch the full moon rise over the ocean. This wasn’t the last time I wanted to pinch myself.
We made the decision to explore Hawke's Bay and the surrounding areas at our leisure. I’m glad we made that call because the weather was unpredictable and— being from Texas— we were hoping for sunshine on our rides. That being said, I made sure to grab my Search and State jacket, especially because the possibility we’d get rained on was always a strong one.
After we recovered from jet lag, explored the roads of Waimarama, and indulged in plenty of regional wine, we knew it was time to pack our bags and head inland, for the area around Lake Taupo— we’d spend some time melting in the thermal pools before heading to the Timber Trailhead to camp for the night.
Camping at Ngaherenga Campground
The thermal pool was as amazing as it sounds, worth the detour if you’re ever in an area with one. We loaded back into the cars as the clouds started crowding out the sun and made it to camp before the rain started.
A word about our camp: We rolled into the Ngaherenga Campground and I don’t think any of us were prepared for the lushness of it all. Bright rays of sun were still streaking out from the rain clouds, spotlighting the rich, deep green flora. Birds (and maybe dinosaurs) were calling out to one another and the only other sound was a family in a camper making dinner. Yes, this would be a fine place to stay the night.
We started setting up our tents as the first sprinkles of rain started falling. My husband and I just finished securing our rain-fly as the deluge started. High-fiving as we zipped up the tent, we started unrolling our sleeping bags and making sandwiches. I thought our stuff was damp because we set up in the rain. That thought didn’t last long: a few drops on my head later, I realized our rain-fly was leaking. All over. Doing what any former girl scout would do, I used the wrappers from our cheese slices to cover the seams of the rain-fly. That should do it! It didn’t. Immediate re-packing of the bags commenced and we dashed for cover in the cars.
Even though I was 90% sure I’d have to snuggle with my Surly overnight, I looked around at our friend’s (waterproof) tents, listened to the sounds of the birds mingling with the heavy rain drops on the leaves and thought, “it’s pretty hard to beat this.” We eventually figured out we could use a horse blanket, conveniently in one of our trucks, to cover our tent. We did that, went in for round 2 of unrolling the sleeping bags, and stayed pretty dry. Sure, we smelled like a barn… but it was a dry barn!
My favorite part of camping is hearing the camp grounds come alive again. The unzipping and zipping of tents, sleepy voices greeting each other, birds letting you know the sun is about to rise— all that and the promise of camp coffee. The rain was gone and it was a clear and bright morning. The perfect morning for heading out to the Timber Trail on the Pureora to Ongarue trail.
Riding the Timber Trail!
This is where I should tell you that I’ve never been mountain biking. I ride road and I commute. So you can imagine the flak I caught for only having road shoes and pedals. But, it’s what I had and what I would use. We packed up our gear, made a plan with our friend who was hiking instead of riding, and ventured out. As we entered the Pureora Forest, we were passed (on the right— which felt real awkward) by a family on full suspension bikes. “Hope you’re still smiling at the end,” one of them called out after seeing our steel frames, sans suspension. I liked challenges— clearly— and felt pretty sure there would be smiles the entire ride.
I let the guys with more experience ride ahead, as I did my best to take in the jaw-dropping scenery and ride through the mud caused by the rain. At one point we turned out of the forest and all of a sudden we had a clear view of the forest- having ridden 980m above sea level.
My husband and I regrouped with the guys and we descended back into the forest. I got a crash course in handling— literal at some points. And because my pedals were caked in mud, I managed to stayed clipped in (and on my bike!) on a particularly tight turn. I consider that a win.
The puddles were no joke, and we all did our best to take the same lines in order to avoid rutting out this incredible trail. I was sore, bleeding, and stuck to my bike and yet still having the time of my life. Still smiling… but definitely grumbling a little more than at the start of the day. And then, the first suspension bridge. This. This was the reason I was on my bike. I soft pedaled across looking out— not down! I was grateful for a lot at that moment, but especially grateful no one swayed the bridge as I rolled over.
We kept riding, but it was getting tougher and tougher for me. It was humbling to realize that this time I bit off more than I could chew, and I didn’t have the skills or the suspension I needed to get me to Ongarue. Sometimes you want to ride your own bike. Other times, renting a bike with suspension is a wonderful idea. Carefully assess the situation and then find a bike that fits. After some serious gut checks, I made the call to pull out of the trail and wait for everyone else to finish the ride and come get me. We saw a sign for the Black Fern Lodge and I thought that sounded like a pretty darn good place to wait.
Know When to Fold 'Em
One of the guys decided to hang out too. He had just spent the previous two weeks riding all over the South Island, so he was ready for an extended snack break too. We said “see-ya!” to our group and ventured toward the Lodge. And ventured… and kept venturing, until we came to a locked gate that said private land. Coming from Texas, we know not to mess with private land, so we headed back to the road. We figured our friends would take that road to pick us up, not factoring in another entrance. Always factor in the possibility of another entrance.
We ate our snacks, lounged in the sun, and built pebble sculptures all while watching the shadows grow longer and longer. We knew we had a few hours to wait, but as the sun started to set, we started to get pretty nervous. Praying no one had a mechanical issue, or there wasn’t a problem meeting up with our hiking friend, we waited and waited. A couple camping near the road took pity on us and suggested we wait for our friends at the Piropiro campgrounds. All roads passed through Piropiro and it sounded a lot better than the side of the road. Always have a plan B and C, in case your plan A is actually on private land and you don’t have cell service.
Thank Heaven for Murray
The couple dropped us off and told us they had a friend camping there, and he would look out for us if our friends didn’t show up soon. It was dark by this time. We were still in Lycra and I had run out of chocolate covered raisins. Heartened by the fact that we could pick up the trail after a night’s rest— and that we weren’t completely in the middle of nowhere, we kept our positive mental attitude as best we could and started coming up with a game plan.
We noticed someone walking towards us where he stated— it was definitely not a question— that we were cold and hungry. Right on both accounts. Somewhere in New Zealand is a gentle giant named Murray, to whom I will forever be grateful. Without hesitation (well maybe there was some, but I didn’t see it) he and his family welcomed us to their campsite, started a fire, fed us and let me borrow a sweater. If I wasn’t so anxious to be reunited with our group, I would have cried tears of joy.
We ate around the fire, taking turns between telling our story of the day and coming up with plans for finding our friends. We found out that one member of our party had been through the campsite around sunset, looking for the Black Fern Lodge.
Not long after, headlights swept across the campground and settled on my bike. We were found! There were introductions, hugs and hearty “thank-you’s,” all around. We loaded up the bikes and headed down that dusty, windy road to our second camp.It started raining again that night, and we slept under the horse blanket again. Our bikes were rinsed clean of Timber Trail mud when we woke up the next morning, and a dog raced around our tents while sheep looked on. After we packed up, we headed back to the coast and to more familiar roads. I hope to get back to the Timber Trail again. This time with a full suspension bike and a backup plan.