Deer Country

Riding the Timber Trail

‘Watch out for hunters. It’s the middle of the roar,’ says Edwina.

She sounds serious. I try to calculate the likelihood of two mountain bikers being mistaken for deer. It seems improbable. But the only time I hear about hunters is in the news when they’ve accidentally shot each other.

‘Especially tomorrow, on the second half of the trail,’ she says. ‘You don’t want to collide with a quad bike.’

We’re dropping off our gear. Sleeping bags, extra clothes, food. We’re paying for it all to be driven to Piropiro campsite, midway along the Timber Trail. There’ll be a tent pitched, a gas cooker and table and chairs, even mattresses. The following day, it’ll all be packed down for us, and when we finish the trail we’ll be shuttled back to our car.

I sheepishly add our small chilly bin to the pile. I feel like a tramping traitor. To pedal off with only a day bag seems a bit pathetic. But I console myself that we aren’t staying at some cozy bed and breakfast mid-trail, and also with our gear’s simplicity. My bike’s small nod to mountains is limited to basic front suspension. Chris is on a bike he bought 20 years ago. It’s been a commuter and kid carrier since, and, apparently a point of pride, never had a puncture. Also, there’s not a stitch of Lycra between us.

The Timber Trail officially opened in 2013. An eighty-three kilometre walking and cycling trail, it lies near the junction of the Waikato, Manawatu and Whanganui regions. Most people traverse it from Pureora to Ongarue. It boasts beautiful bush and stunning suspension bridges. There’s even a small railway spiral along the abandoned tramway.

Panting toward the Pureora summit I’m still wondering just what I’m gaining by pedaling. We’re climbing barely faster than walking pace, but being on the bike are forced to go at a minimum speed in order to stay upright. It would be much easier to plod up, with small frequent pauses.

The distance markers along the track are appearing depressingly slowly. We stop for a drink and a snack. The sounds of the bush become audible as our breathing settles - bird song, unidentified rustlings. We notice hoof marks in the mud, and then some nibbled nearby plants. Chris thinks goats, but somehow I’m certain deer made these. I peer into the bush as if I might catch a glimpse of one. Who knows how old those prints are, but still I feel a pang. We might’ve surprised a deer if we were on foot, and we’d easily have missed those signs cycling past. I’m not about to push my bike to Piropiro though, so I get back on.

It turns out that initial climb is the hardest of the whole trip, and as soon as we hit the first downhill stretch I’m a convert to wheels. Slippery tree roots and the odd slap from a ponga frond keep my speed exuberance within healthy limits, along with a lack of depth perception thanks to frequent squinting against mud splatters and insects, but my earlier grimace has transformed to grin.

Edwina had mentioned a lunch spot. The trail begins to weave between bush and wider forestry roads and we worry we’ve missed the turn off. Ahead, Chris stops to talk to two men beside the track – the first people we’ve seen on foot. They’re hunters. Both in orange hi-vis camouflage. Both carrying rifles. They confirm the lunch spot is up ahead; they’re camped there. I can’t keep my eyes off their guns – the way they carry them so casually. I’m vegetarian. I want to dislike them. They wave as we leave. We should feel free to make ourselves a cuppa they say.

Their camp is tidy. I can’t see any carcasses hanging, any heads. We sit a little way off and eat our sandwiches. After lunch Chris discovers his rear tyre is flat. While he’s changing the tube two more hunters cruise past on a quad bike, dogs on the back. They call out and ask if we’re OK. We nod and smile.

Piropiro campsite is populated with two tribes: Hunters, with their semi-permanent set-ups, and Cyclists. Our tent is there as promised. A hand-written note attached to a roll of toilet paper, wishing us a comfortable stay.

We gather some small branches for a fire. Not because it’s especially cold, but because it’s allowed. As dusk falls a ruru calls as if on cue. We tuck into our vegetarian curry, naan and poppadums – ice-cold drinks from the chilly bin. After, we sit, doing the satiated-ember-stare when a hunter pulls up in a ute. I’m instantly anxious that we’ve done something wrong, breached some sort of code, but he gets out with a friendly grunt and begins to haul something heavy from the back of the Ute. For a horrified moment I think he is bringing out a slab of meat, an animal haunch to be cooked over our fire, but instead he drags out some big, dry logs – about a week’s worth of firewood – and throws them in a heap by our dying fire. We thank him, but he’s already driving off, as if wood delivery is part of his job description.

Later, amid drunken laughter, the hunters roar. I fall asleep to their call and response across the campground.

The cycling feels more natural the next day. Any aches are pedaled out early on. We are riding the tramway, a clear wide track flanked by bush. It’s mostly downhill, and it’s fast, with perfectly timed small humps for jumps. We stand on our pedals the whole way down. When our quads can’t take any more we stop and read the information signs and marvel at the toughness of the men who worked out here for weeks on end hauling logs. What would they think of the Timber Trail? It seems like building a roller coaster in a coal mine.

We finish the trail. The sealed road seems smooth as a dream. We’re feeling pleased with ourselves. No sore muscles, and it didn’t take us as long as we thought. We wait for the shuttle in the sunshine. An hour or so later another rider shows up. He’s done the whole eighty-three kilometres this morning. Later, the shuttle driver tells us about a guy who rode the trail last month – on his unicycle.

On the drive back to where our car has been safely corralled I think over the ride. Right toward the end, when we’d come down from the bush, the cycle path lay between a river and a farm and that’s where we saw them. There they were in the paddock, penned behind the tall lattice fence, without a single tree to hide behind. A field – full of deer.