I am not a cyclist. I’m not even much of a pedestrian. Yet, here I am, perched precariously on a mountain bike peddling unsteadily towards a cycle track that has 87 long kilometres between its fresh-faced start and its puffed out finish.
In between? Two days of deep forests, steep mountains, immense suspension bridges that dangle over dizzying gorges and plenty of thrilling downhill slopes. Two days of aching legs, bruised palms and a saddle-sore butt. Two days of adventure.
It starts in shadow. Cycling under the leafy archway which marks the beginning of the Pureora Timber Trail, I enter the dark of the forest. As my eyes adjust, the reality of my undertaking starts to sink in and I begin to regret not training – a foolish and potentially dangerous omission. Shooting through the heart of the middle of nowhere, there’s no cellphone reception and little sign of civilization. As my girlfriend charges ahead, I realize it’s literally a case of do or die. I get pedalling.
A jaunty path through the grand green forest eases us into the trip. This is fun, I decide, as we scoot along under the cooling shade of the towering trees. Rounding a corner the trees abruptly disappear and we find ourselves on a dusty, desolate trail under the beating sun.
True to its name, parts of the Timber Trail are actively logged and the industry’s impact is harsh. Enveloped by barren, chopped-down plains, we cycle slowly up the journey’s first real incline. Stopping to lug heavy dead branches off the track, I start to wonder where the fun went.
I figured getting the hard stuff out of the way early wouldn't be a problem. I figured wrong.
Sadly, it’s all uphill from here. While the Timber Trail is graded ‘easy’, the first 15-20km are ranked ‘intermediate’. I underestimated the difficulty, figuring getting the hard stuff out of the way early wouldn’t be a problem.
I figured wrong. Ascending Mount Pureora is a brutal slog, made more difficult by earlier rain transforming sections of the track into clumpy, resistant clay.
When the going gets tough, which it does immediately, the tough get off their bikes and start pushing. We spend most of the morning trudging up the steep, muddy path.
Coming down, well, that’s a different story. A story full of fast, furious fun, that twists and turns and rushes by at a breathless pace. It’s a story that excites.
Flying down the mountain I’ve no idea what speeds we hit and I realize the length of a kilometre varies drastically depending on the angle of the terrain and the direction in which it’s travelled.
The 800-year old forest – previously so impressive – is now a blurred background of slurred greens and browns. The trail is steep, narrow and bursting with sudden 90° corners which pop up unexpectedly and unannounced. White-knuckling the handlebars, my fingers constantly work the brake; my arms absorb every judder and bump, and my darting eyes constantly seek and assess obstacles and low-hanging branches. Immensely challenging yet wildly fun, it’s all about nimble manoeuvring, sharp reflexes and a heap of concentration.
At the halfway point, we leave the Timber Trail and head for our accommodation at Waimiha’s Blackfern Lodge. Delicious thoughts of a steamy shower and comfy bed keep me going, but the seven kilometres to the lodge almost end me. One bastard never-ending hill sees me slumping to the ground in defeat. For half an hour I refuse to move – partly out of exhaustion, partly out of pain, mostly out of despair.
Somehow we arrive and I make short work of an icy cold beer before tucking into a scrumptious beef hotpot and an eye-wateringly good dessert. Then, after a hot shower, peaceful, restful oblivion…
I awake to painful, awful reality. Everything aches. My legs creak and groan, my palms are battered and bruised – as is elsewhere. Getting back on my bike is not a welcoming prospect but, after devouring a cooked breakfast – and a couple of painkillers – we hit the trail.
We’d been told the Timber Trail has a ‘pick your poison’ quality to it: day one is short but difficult, day two is longer yet easier. Being inexperienced riders we decide this is the right way to do it, as my suffering body couldn’t have handled a second day of vertiginous mountain climbs or the quick thinking required to successfully descend them.
Yesterday was a seat-of-my-padded-pants rollercoaster, today is more relaxed. The thrillingly narrow trail has widened, allowing us to ride side by side; the claustrophobic enclosed canopy has opened up, revealing blue skies and stunning vistas that look down on gorges framed by full, lush forest.
There are uphills to tackle, but they’re gentle and stretched out – though their geniality makes them seem endless. But what goes up…
The trail’s roomy downhill straights encourage crazy speeds faced with reckless abandon.
Today, zipping downhill is a very different experience. The trail’s roomy downhill straights roll on and on for kilometre after kilometre and encourage crazy speeds faced with reckless abandon.
Joyously blatting down as fast as possible blasts all the weary pains right out of my body and makes me forget all my uphill mutterings and curses. Until I hit the next hill and the cycle repeats.
But, when I’m hurtling down, the world obscured by motion blur and flat-out speed, the only sounds the screaming wind and the rackety-clack of my bike, that’s when I discover the thrilling joy of mountain biking.
Later that night is when I discover the vast and exhaustive range of maladies that’s befallen my fatigued body but, by then, I’m too zonked to care. Falling into bed and into a deep slumber I dream only of cycles and cycle trails, mountains and mountain bikes, and speed and more speed.
Reported by Karl Puschmann for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue