Flashpacking the Timber Trail

Let’s cut to the chase: Our weekend riding the Timber Trail & staying at Flashpackers Ongarue was the best experience we’ve had so far on the New Zealand Cycle Trails. The whole combination of riding, accommodation, transfer and meals was just fantastic.

The Timber Trail is a newish track through the Central North Island in New Zealand. It starts in Pureora and passes through 88km of native bush, regenerating forests, and a former bush tramway line, finishing in Ongarue.

Rem @ Flashpackers in Ongarue offers a range of services, from accommodation, meals, car transfers to bike rentals. You can put together whatever combination suits you. Our plans were:

  • Arrive Saturday night, after dinner
  • Have breakfast on Sunday, and get vehicle transfer to the starting point at Pureora
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp (about halfway along the track), pick up the car, and head back to Ongarue for dinner
  • Monday morning have breakfast, get dropped off at Piropiro, and ride back to Ongarue
  • Drive back to Auckland (about 3 hours).

That was no problem to organise. Even better, there’s no checkout time on the last day, so you can have a shower when you get back, before the drive home.

The Accommodation

Ongarue is only a shadow of its former self. It once had 3,000 people, but with the mill gone, there’s only a few people left. There’s still a few houses left, and Rem has renovated one of them, next to the old General Store. It is a beautiful old 3-bedroom house, with full kitchen, and spa pool. Anna immediately declared:

I’m in love with this house! This is the greatest place you’ve ever taken me!

This was about 2 minutes after arriving, long before we’d even looked around properly, or done any riding.

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The house is rented out on a per-room basis, but we were lucky enough to be on our own. So we had our choice of rooms, and the pianola all to ourselves!

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The spa pool’s just the ticket for after a day’s riding too:

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No need to light the coal range though. The 3 heat pumps kept the house warm & toasty:

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Day 1: Pureora to Piropiro

Strong riders can complete the whole trail in one long day, but it’s better split over two days. The problem is that it’s a point to point ride, and there’s not many entry/exit points along the way. You’ve got a few options:

  • Ride out partway, then turnaround and ride back over the same trail to the start
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp at the halfway point, and arrange a shuttle/pickup
  • Ride all the way through to Ongarue (and organise transport to the start or finish)

There are a few shuttle services available to drop you off, and pick you up, but Rem does something a little different. Using our car, we drive to the start, with Rem and his bike. He drops us off, then drives the car to the halfway point. He leaves the car there, and rides his bike home to Ongarue. We then have as long as we like to reach the halfway point, pick up the car, then drive ourselves back to Ongarue. The advantage of this approach is that we don’t have to get to Piropiro by a specific time – we just need to get there before dark!

The first section of the trail goes straight into native bush that wasn’t logged. Apparently they started by logging the sections further away from town, working their way back in. So then when the logging was stopped, they were left with a native bush section near town.

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From there it goes through some areas that have been logged more recently, before starting a climb into higher altitudes. The bike trail itself goes to around 1,000m. You can see a clear change in the trees. Look at the mosses that grow on them:

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The bike trail goes around Mt Pureora, but doesn’t go to the top. There are two marked walking tracks that divert off the main trail to the summit at 1165m. The second one is shorter, but the trail is rough going:

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It took at least half an hour to get to the top, but it was worth it. From here you can see all the surrounding countryside, and across to Lake Taupo:

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We had lunch at the top, then headed back down and picked up the bikes again. Not long after this we came across Bill, a DOC contractor working on the trails. Even though it was a Sunday he was out working on the tracks, grading a section. The weather was good, so he was out while he good. As he put it, he doesn’t like getting wet, so if it rains he stays home.

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We stopped to have a chat, and found out that he was the one that had put up the small signs on the track showing where some mobile phone coverage was available. Most of the track had no coverage. He’d also put up a small sign pointing out a view of Lake Taupo through the trees. It would have been easy to miss the small gap.

 

The day was getting on by this stage – it was around 2:30pm, and we’d done less than 20km of the 45km we had to cover. The good news was that things opened out from here. More gravel roads, less single track. More importantly, we were generally going downhill, a welcome break after the long steady climbing. So we made good progress over the last section. Much faster than the first.

We did have to stop and take a few photos of the first of the eight suspension bridges on the trail. Very cool, but be warned that these things to wobble about. Keep riding, don’t look down 🙂

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The last part of the trail dips in and out of a few gravel roads, finally winding up at Piropiro camp. Light was fading by the time we got there – I would not want to be any later. We spent about 7 hours on the trail, including the diversion up the walking track. Most people will be a little faster than us, and if you didn’t do the walk you’d have plenty of time.

As promised the car was there waiting for us. From the camp it’s a drive down a gravel road, back the main road. It’s a bit weird to drive the car out from a section you didn’t drive into. The signs weren’t obvious, so we just had to hope we were going down the ‘main’ gravel road. Eventually we hit the tarseal, and we knew we were on the right track.

We jumped in the spa at Ongarue, while Rem sorted out dinner. Long day on the trail, a beer in the spa, and a great dinner. What else could you want?

Day 2: Piropiro to Ongarue

This time Rem goes with us to Piropiro, drops us off, then drives our car back to Ongarue. He gets the day off riding.

I haven’t been out on the bike much recently, so hopping back on for the second day in a row is alway a little tender. We get back into the swing of it, but I spend more time then usual standing up, out of the saddle.

The trail is quite different today. Again, it starts with a climb, followed by mostly downhill. But this time the climb is only for around half an hour. We cross the longest suspension bridge on the trail, separating the two large forestry blocks:

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From there it’s uphill in the bush until we hit the bush tramway. In the early 20th century the timber company built a tramway from Ongarue up into the bush. It took years, and they had to spend vast sums of money before they were able to actually start logging.

The tramway was used until 1958 when flooding knocked out sections of it. Diesel trucks were then becoming viable, so it became a road, before being abandoned to the bush when logging finished.

It has now been cleared out, perfect for mountain biking. The cuttings through the countryside are very clear, making for a mostly level line. Steeper gradients than a regular railway, but better than going up & down every single hill.

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There are many deep cuttings, and fabulous views out over the valley:

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There’s also a few remnants of the old camps. Some camps had quite a few houses, but these have all gone now:

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The original track had a spiral section, where they needed to gain a large amount of elevation in a small space. The spiral was closed when the tramway was converted to road, but has been re-constructed:

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Huge long downhill sections are lots of fun. Kilometres fly by, but sadly the downhill doesn’t go all the way to the end. The trail levels out a few kilometres from the end, and follows a track alongside a small river. Very pleasant, but if you’re tired after a couple of days, it’s just a little bit more effort than you’d like.

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The trail itself ends about 2km from Ongarue. The last 2km is a mostly flat, quiet tarsealed road. We rolled into Ongarue, and took advantage of the late checkout to get cleaned up before heading home. Tired, but very satisfied.

Special Mention: The Food

You might think that if you’re doing a couple of days of mountain biking, you can eat whatever you like. No chance of gaining weight, right? Yeah, well…Rem feeds you well. Very well. You will not go hungry here. Rem cooked us breakfast both days, and provided a packed lunch for the trail. He also cooked a fabulous dinner. Ask for the recipe for the kumara & butternut recipe.

You’ll need the food on the trail, this is a long way from the Otago Rail Trail. There are no cafes here. We only saw one other person on the track in two days. Plan on taking all your food. You can drink from the streams if you’re low on water.

The kitchen at the house is fully equipped, and you could easily cook your own meals if you preferred.

Do It

Overall: Highly recommended. Both the ride, and staying at Flashpackers. If you can, get a group of 6 together and take over the whole house. I also recommend doing the vehicle transfers the way we did it. Much better than a shuttle.

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