The Off Road Begins
The road disappears and I seem to be riding along someone’s driveway? The path deteriorates and turns into just patches of trodden foliage. The light brown mud shines up through the encroaching grass and a 4×4 track is barely distinguishable. I chuckle to myself, in my head my hands are rubbing together excitedly. Things are about to get interesting.
When the road ends is when I start to flourish, Off Road Aotearoa is living up to its name. This is what I wanted, wild experiences in remits places. This is the connector to the Timber Trail. From Mangakino to Pureora I am on the dirt and fate is in my hands.
Seconds later bumping down the rough track I come across a tiny little swing bridge. It is a real squeeze with my fully laden rig. I lift up the bike onto the back wheel to roll across the tight rope-like bridge. Noticing blood smeared on my arm, I must have been snagged by a bush on the way down. The thought of adventure was so exciting I hadn’t felt it. First blood has been drawn. The adventure was on!
The trail is buckled, deep potholes are scattered randomly across the path. Steep drops into river beds followed by bike-hauling steep climbs out. I am working twice as hard and making half the progress, this is what I wanted though. To embrace the discomfort and try to conquer what the trail has to throw at me.
The blood has barely dried on my arm and I am struck with another obstacle. Fallen trees on the track. The way is completely obscured. I leave the bike on the floor and approach on foot. Snapping and bending branches to make an acceptable tunnel through the foliage.
A Fantail (I think) watches my loud and clumsy progress with unbridled curiosity. The brave bird hops from leaf to leaf as I feebly heave and stomp to manoeuvre branches out of the way. Cocking its head in a puzzled and slightly condescending way as I snap a few twigs and try to wipe sap from my hands in the dirt.
My feathered friend departs once the manual labour is over. There is more to watch than a lanky English man drag a bike through a tree, though undoubtable entertaining as that was. I carry on revelling in how remote this path feels. I am probably less than 30 minutes away from Mangakino yet I feel like I am in the middle of the Amazon. Deep bush all around, the sounds are muffled and warped. Bird song echoes over the top of other birds and I am lost in nature.
After some time, I stumble across a fire road and the going gets easier. I coast along reveling in the isolation, again the mental arithmetic is churning as I try to work out how far I can pedal. It’s not too far to Pureora and most of it should be on fire-road, providing it remains fairly smooth I should make good time.
Center of the North Island
I see the green and yellow sign of a DOC signpost. ‘The geographic center of the North Island’ is just down this short path. My guide book mentioned this and even mentioned something about some good singletrack riding to get to the sign. Far be it for me to turn down any good singletrack I happily follow the sign on a little detour.
I reach the center of the North Island. It’s a bit of an unexpected milestone. I stop off for photos to commemorate the achievement. Near the information plaque is a green and yellow sign that points to the left it reads ‘Link Road 2.5 kms’. My guidebook mentioned some good singletrack so off I went following the rough path through the forest.
Under the lush canopy the forest is a damp and fecund place. Dead leave and debris from fallen and semi rotten tree makes a thick carpet. I ride less than 50 metres of incredibly steep track before I start to get suspicious. This a seriously technical descent!
Please bare in mind, that I have come from a downhill mountain biking background, that pretty much focusses on riding steep tight technical terrain, even I was taken aback by how tough this descent was. No worries though, it wasn’t long before I was faced with an equally tough, steep and technically demanding climb, after I had crossed the stream of course.
Hoisting my fully laden bike onto my shoulder and at the same time smearing mud all over myself I crossed through the bubbling stream and dragged my bike up the unimaginably steep embankment on the other side. I stopped for a breather and to brush the wet leaves and cobwebs off me.
‘Bloody hell this is a tough track’ I thought to myself, ‘I would have thought that they would mention that is was this tough in my guide.’
Up I slogged, dragging and pushing my bike over tree roots and under low hanging vines that bisected the path at wild angles. I snagged regularly and came to a breathy curse-filled stop as I disentangled myself from the local flora.
Lost in the Forest
It took about 45 minutes for my suspicion to elbow its way past my stubbornness to the front of my consciousness. I check the guide book,it clearly states that at the geographic center of the north island follow the singletrack BACK to the road. I have gone the wrong way. This must be the Te Araroa Trail. The walking track that goes from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
I sit down for a little while and assess my situation. I am definitely more than a 45-minute hike-a-bike-through-thick-bush away from the road. The sign said ‘2.5km’ to the road. So, I figure, I was probably halfway already by this point and maybe the track would improve, forever the optimist. As I sit and think panic briefly rears its vicious heart-trembling head. I took a few deep breaths and looked through my options rationally.
Do I have food? Enough for two more days. Although if I had to spend a night in the forest and then another night on the Timber Trail without a resupply I would definitely be going hungry at the end.
Do I have water? Yes.
Do I have shelter? Yes.
Do I know where I am? No, not exactly but I know I am on a trail and that trail will eventually get back to the road.
I have had to make these kinds of serious decisions before and I always ask myself; is this life threatening or just going to be uncomfortable? If it takes me three or even four days to get from here to the next shop will I die? The answer is no. It won’t be fun and I certainly won’t enjoy it but I could struggle my way through it.
This rationale beat the rising panic back into submission. Naivety and optimism my twin swords in the fight against fear. I ate some jelly bears and continued pushing the bike through the bush.
At many points, the track dropped down into stream beds so steep I had to let my bike slide and tumble down into the water then climb down nearby tree roots to retrieve it from the icy water. Only to then have to hoist it up the other side in any way I could. Sometimes by the back wheel with my legs wrapped around a tree trunk and grasping the muddy wheels by both hands and dragging the whole thing up ass-backwards.
Really Lost in the Forest
Another hour went by and the path was getting harder to find. I was relying on following the orange arrows nailed to trees for navigation. There were plenty of them, but the forest was dense and overgrown and some arrows were increasingly elusive. I would have to look behind me to find the arrow pointing the opposite way and use that to determine a line-of-sight to where the next arrow might be. Losing sight of both arrows for a second sent an icy spike into my stomach.
I lay down the bike and took a few deep breaths, before starting to make a small spiral out from my bike, whilst being careful to keep it within sight. Circling around I scoured every tree branch and tree trunk in a 15m radius (it was so dense this was as far as I could go and keep the bike within view.)
Relief washed over me as I found the track again, sans orange arrow but definitely the track. The path was well hidden by the dense weave of boughs from a fallen tree. It lay across the track resolute and uncaring to my feeble predicament. It was maybe 20m long and truly tangled into its bushy neighbours. I tottered up and over the slippery and potentially painful pile of canopy, my bike slung ungracefully over my shoulder, the handlebars swing hard into my face and chest.
Bruises upon cuts upon scratches and sweat-grime all over. I stopped again for a bite to eat when my legs were starting to shake and I was stumbling more than I was walking. I had been on the walking track for 3 hours at this point. Three hours to go less than 3km. I was covered in leaves, cobwebs and mud. Sticks and loose rock were bursting out of my shoes. Seeds and wisps of grass clung to my scratched and bleeding legs. Eating a handful of nuts, I searched for my jelly bears. Devastated I realised I had lost them somewhere along the way. Life on the road is always harder when you have run out of jelly bears.
No time for mourning my additive-filled, rainbow coloured, fallen comrades, I had to push on. The forest finally became thinner and blue sky peeped out from beneath the canopy. A final steep push and I could see a break in the trees. I burst onto the road, looking like I had spent two weeks in the wild, I was in tatters mentally and physically. In my journal that evening I started with;
‘Hardest day yet!! HARDEST PHYSICAL THING I HAVE EVER DONE?!’
Back on Track
I stand by that, those 3.5 hours in the forest I gave it absolutely all I had. It was a full body workout like I could never have imagined. I sat and regrouped by the side of the road. Took a few photos to celebrate the occasion. Then it dawned on me that although I was now on the correct road, I actually didn’t know which way I was supposed to go? I had gotten so turned around in the woods, I had no idea. I continued to sit by the side of the road and tried to clean myself up a little bit.
By an absolute random act of mercy, a 4×4 came down the road not 5 minutes later, I flagged them over. They looked startled to see me, (I looked pretty startling so it was a fair reaction) but happy to point me in the right direction. Pureora was just 10 minutes down the road they said. I set off into their dust trail. 30 minutes later I made it to Pureora (never trust the timings of people in cars, they just can’t estimate travel time for a cyclist).
Pureora and Timber Trail
Finally arriving in Pureora I used the restroom to freshen up and top up with water. Only after I am fit for human socialising, I go speak to one of the wardens and use the opportunity to charge my phone and GPS (only tracks doesn’t navigate). I want to at least start the Timber Trail but there is little chance I will get very far. I have about 2 hours of daylight left as I pedal back into the forest, this time on the Timber Trail. Got there in the end.
It’s gorgeous. A smooth wide path, almost two bikes wide, winds its way gently zigzagging through the historic forest. I stop to read every information board, thrilled to be able to appreciate the forest that I spent so long struggling through earlier. The track starts with a gentle but consistent 1000m climb. The casual gradient and flat gravel path makes it a wonderful experience. I spend my time looking up at the giant trees and trying to retain the new information I got from the boards. Attempting to identify the different trees and birds.
The canopy rustles peacefully as the air cools and the sky turns first golden and then transforms into a gentle pink. Breaking out of the forest into the open slopes where the trees haven’t yet grown back from the forestry, the view filled with gentle glow of the sky and endless trees covering the landscape. I ride until my altimeter reads 900m.
This is where I set up camp, absolutely spent, my head dropping as I make food. My hands are covered in little cuts and scrapes and they clutch themselves around the warm bowl. It’s slightly cooler up this high so I wrap up in my down jacket. Then I sit and watch the first bats of the evening, venturing out to save me from the biting bugs, making their furtive and stealthy way out into the dusk. I see them darting through the growing shadows until the sky turns completely dark and they are hidden once again.
I climb into my tent and pass out immediately, my whole body humming with fatigue. This is what adventure is to me, working my way through the challenges and obstacle that arise using my own strength and skillset. It’s a real test of character and I think it’s good to test yourself. My experience and training got me through this particular challenge and I feel good for that. Admittedly it was also entirely my own fault for not paying attention to the sign, so still some room for improvement haha!