Tom, Paul and I woke in our small cabin to a cool morning with a light mist. Since none of us were carrying any proper breakfast materials I made do with chocolate chip cookies sandwiched together with Nutella. Definitely try that at home. We headed off to Matamata, 30km away, for a proper breakfast. It was an easy roll along flat road and we were in good spirits. In typical fashion, Tom made two, big, delicious meals disappear without hesitation. We cruised down a little more main road and highway until we reached the start of the Waikato River Trail. The Waikato River Trail starts easy; your grandmother could ride it. It's a wide, smooth, well graded gravel trail along following the Waikato River. It was nothing flash, but was a nice change from the roads we seemed to have been on for much of the past three days.
The vegetation slowly thickened and the trail got a little windier, and before we knew we were in the small town of Arapuni, with its famous Rhubarb Café. Rhubarb Café serves fantastic food in a beautiful outdoor area, and has toilets to match a 5-star hotel (one of the highlights of the tour). While were a little fatigued, we were in much better condition than the older gent who was falling asleep on the table. We ate, and ate, then had a short nap on the grass in the shade of an oak tree. This rest was a good idea, since none of us were expecting what was to come next.
We left Arapuni and paid a quick visit to the suspension bridge, our first for the Tour.The trail then took us back into proper forest for the first time in what seemed ages. And then it almost dropped us down a cliff. Twice. The trail switchbacks folded over each other like layers of pastry or Damascus steel. You know a trail is steep when regular switchbacks won't do and switchback stairs are needed. We hit the bottom of the trail by the river and made our way over the dam, where Tom and I stopped for a cool-off dip in the reservoir. Gladly we didn't arrive there any earlier as another rider was just leaving and told us it was a good spot to skinny dip. Thanks, mate. Mangakino was only 30km away so I didn't bother refilling my empty bottles. After all, it shouldn't take that long to get there.Like a lot of theories, mine was a good idea but failed when tested in the harsh light of reality.
The next 30km can best be described as a rollercoaster ride. Or a rodeo. While the trail was wide and not technical by singletrack standards, there was not a single metre that was flat or straight. The thrill of chasing Tom around every corner, up and down every pinch offset my recurrent dehydration and lactic muscles. In retrospect I should have slowed down and enjoyed the lush forest, and maybe taken a photo or two, but for that short time I forgot I was riding a fully loaded bike and just embraced the joy of the moment. Tom and I caught up to Paul in the last few kilometres, and we stumbled down into town just as it started raining. I headed straight to the local store and skulled most of a 2L juice. We checked into the main motel in town, a place that was making a fair trade welcoming in Tour riders. About 12 of us made up most of the clientele at the motel 'restaurant'. My hopes of getting a good sleep were dashed by a combination of the muggy warmth in a room with no circulation and the couple across the hall decided to have a domestic dispute.
Between us, Tom, Paul and I ate almost two packets of Milo cereal for breakfast. Tom then ordered a pizza from a food caravan by the lake, but was put off by it being undercooked. Now able to think clearly, I restocked on enough food for 24 hours as the next town we'd encounter was over 150km away. We took a short ride along country roads under clouds threatening rain. The main road became a country lane, which became a gravel path, which quickly became a washed out and rutted 4wd trail. I tried to jump over one of the ruts but my front wheel slipped into and I ended going over the bars; my first crash of the tour. I ended with my bike on top of me and a little gravel rash, but didn't get any tears in my clothing or breakages on the bike. Phew. A few metres after eating dirt we came across our first suspension bridge on the route (the one at Arapuni was a detour).
This bridge was a portal to a completely different landscape. One minute we were in countryside; the next we found ourselves in thick sub-tropical forest. We dodged branches along the narrow 4wd track and climbed upwards. I had no idea where we were and where we were going. The thick foliage restricted our vision to no more than 10m in front, but I could hear a fast-flowing stream down the ravine we were following. Just as I was thinking about how remote this location felt I came across young European woman pushing her bike up the hill. It was a strange sight; not only did she have seem to have a kitchen sink packed in her huge suitcase-sized bag on top of massive panniers, she was wearing an amount of makeup usually reserved for a night out on the town or a wedding. I later found out from some other friends that would pass her later that she wasn't doing the Tour, but was riding around and scattering her late fiancé's ashes across the four corners of the Earth. Epic, indeed.
Eventually the 4wd track ended at a proper firetrail, at which I saved Paul from yet another wrong turn. We climbed the gravel road through the forest, ever onwards towards the famous Geographic Centre of the North Island.
This point was 'discovered' in 1961 by surveyor John Wheeler, who found the centre of gravity of a cardboard map of the North Island, and thereby the North Island's geographic centre.
We enjoyed lunch deep in the forest, surrounded by giant trees and ferns, far from civilisation.
From there it was all downhill to the start of the Timber Trail. The Tour route heads onto the Timber Trail a few kilometres from the trail official start, so I separated from Tom and Paul to head down the road to the visitor centre and fill my bottles while they continued on. The Timber Trail astounded me from the first moment I entered. The lushness, the bright green moss and ferns, the bird calls all made it more like riding a magic carpet in a dream than riding a bike. It's a special place.
I climbed through the rainforest for hours, up and around Mount Pureora, in which live 1,000 year old podocarp trees. It quickly became one of the most remote sections of the Tour. The trails weren't overly technical, but they weren't easy. I was able to enjoy the scenery but could never relax. The trail demanded constant turning and dodging of mud puddles, tree roots and rocks. At the peak of the trail I stopped for water at one of the pure streams flowing down the mountain and across the trail. I'd ridden around a good portion of Mount Pureora when the trail turned southwest along the range and I encountered the first of the many famous large suspension bridge crossings, which afforded spectacular views of the massive expanse of rainforest below. The trail turned into wider and smoother gravel for the long downhill to Piropiro campsite, where Paul was waiting for me, while Tom had kept charging on ahead.
We enjoyed a much needed break, a second lunch and water refill from a stream. From Piropiro we had two more small climbs and descents along the converted rail siding to Ongarue. I kept up with Paul until about half way, but he rode like a bat out of hell, smashing his fixie far harder than seemed wise given the terrain and load being carried. Plus, I was feeling exhausted. It had been a taxing day, with the crash, lots of climbing and a difficult riding surface. Luckily it was mostly downhill or flat to Ongarue.
On arrival at Ongarue, a little village of a dozen or so houses, I decided to stop there for the day rather than push on to the extra 30km to the regional centre of Taumarunui. Tom was sitting out the front of Flashpackers, a former post office the owner is in the process of converting into backpacker-style accommodation primarily for Timber Trail riders. Tom and the other riders he was with finished their dinner soon after I arrived and headed to Taumarunui with the last light. I ate a large plate of lasagne, set up my tent, showered and stayed up for a while chatting to the owner and a Canadian backpacker who was WOOFing across the road. I slept so soundly I almost didn't hear the three freight trains passing by town.
Before I started the Tour, I promised myself I would have at least one rest day each week. Well today was day seven, the weather was miserable, and for the first time I was starting alone. The low cloud drizzled incessantly and the forecast promised several more hours of rain. Needless to say, I had little motivation to get up and going, so I waited in vain for my washed clothing to dry. I hung my tent in a warm glasshouse to dry while I ate my breakfast of instant porridge packs and slowly fiddled around with my gear for much longer than was necessary. I eventually packed my half-dry half-wet tent and rolled out at 10am, bound for Taumarunui for supplies. The rain fell at a rate that could be described as perfectly half-arsed; Just enough to be annoying but not enough to saturate. It could have been worse I guess.
For the last half hour before town the rain finally picked up and I put on my wet-weather gear for the first time. Despite this I arrived well wet. Unsure of the conditions lying ahead, I loaded up well, and discovered that rolls with salami and sweet potato dip are incredibly satisfying. More chocolate bars and porridge sachets were stashed in whatever spaces were available. Thankfully the rain eased to a bare spit as I left town.
I enjoyed the easy pace by myself, not having to keep up with anyone else, and knowing that I only have a few more hours to go today and for the first time I would finish riding well before dark. I cruised along the well-kept gravel road, which carved its way through gently undulating farmland and occasionally punctuated small patches of forest. The terrain got more noticeably remote as I neared Whakahoro. The road wound up and over a cliff which gave specular views of the forested ravine and river below, which leads to the mighty Whanganui. I eventually made it to Blue Duck Station Lodge, set up my tent at the free DOC site and had dinner with the ten other riders staying at the station, including Paul. It turned out he had an easy day too. After a whole day of clouds and no sun, and a bright orange sunset lit up the whole sky for no more than 10 minutes. The day was just the rest I needed.