Death by Vacation, Part 2

Continued: Our week of adventure with Carrie

Tongariro National Park is northeast of Taumaranui. Located a few hours from Auckland, the park is a popular destination, featuring the 19-kilometer Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a World Heritage site. That track has been on my bucket list for a while, but in October, it is still partially snow-covered and requires winter hiking gear.

We decided on a shorter day hike to Taranaki Falls, which turned out to be just lovely.

Over the next two days, we worked our way north to Turangi, the fly-fishing capital of the world, and watched anglers land trout. After a two-hour bike ride, we soaked in mineral baths, and dined at a restaurant in Taupo that we stumbled into by accident. But after a day of relaxing, watching movies, and wandering on a local path, we decided it was time for some excitement.

We headed south to the Timber Trail, an 84-kilometer bike trail through the Pureora Forest. Once a logging road, the path is part of the Nga Haerenga (The New Zealand Cycle Trail), a network of 22 Great Rides. The Timber Trail lays claim to 35 bridges, 8 of which are large suspension bridges.

Crossing waterfalls, whitewater, and deep gorges, the bridges can be deceiving. From a distance, the structures look impressive and sturdy, but, as you cross, the walkway sways with your every move. Usually, no more than 5-10 people are allowed on the bridge at any one time, although that doesn’t change the unnerving sense that the bridge could fall at any minute. The views, however, are well worth the anxiety.

The trail officially begins in Pureora with a steep 10-kilometer incline. Rated as a grade three (intermediate), the first 40 kilometers are not recommended for beginners or anyone with the last name of Rudzinski. It sounded grueling. The guide books suggested an alternative start at the midpoint of the trail. This second half of the trail is graded level 2 (easy) and is considered suitable for families with children.

Now here’s the thing with Kiwis. They always sound calm and chronically understate whatever they are describing. If you don’t pay attention, you will be lured into a life-threatening situation. A bit of a challenge is code for this will be the toughest thing you ever do. A few good hills with some muddy spots implies the trail is pitched at such a steep angle controlling your speed is impossible, and at the bottom, you will hit 6-inch-deep mud. A few rough patches indicates entire sections are actually deep gullies with sudden drop-offs, so you will go airborne as you barrel down the hill. And, you might have to climb over fallen trees with your bike.

My husband was very excited at this new prospect of near death.

We met Paul from the bike rental at the trail end outside Ongarue. Once a robust logging town, Ongarue is now a small hamlet with some abandoned buildings and a few services for the trail. Paul fitted us with fat tire bikes, provided helmets and padded seats, and then drove us 45 minutes to the campsite/mid-point. Paul let us know that we would have a “wee bit of a climb” for the first few kilometers and then “an easy go of it” for the rest of the trail. Thanks, Paul.

We practiced on the bikes for a few minutes. I fell off mine before I even got on the trail. It took half the ride for me to accept these fat tires were not like my tires on my bike back home. If I had been riding my own bike, I never would have made it. Despite barreling down a hill terrified and moving faster than I ever wanted to be going, then hitting huge mud sections, the rental bike handled most of it.

When we were halfway through the trail and approaching a bridge, I slowed to navigate the entrance. Suddenly, the bike paused, and before I could get my feet on the ground, I was going over. I landed on a sharp rock on my left side, and the resulting bruise spanned my entire left buttock.

I could tell my husband and daughter were upset; I was hurt, and honestly, it was excruciating. But we were a good two hours into cycling and had no cell reception. I either had to get on the bike and ride or walk my way back.I was angry at myself for not being more aggressive with my speed and trusting the bike.

At that moment, I decided to stop being so cautious. Despite taking care, I had already managed to fall off the bike twice. I had to trust the bike’s ability to handle the trail, and I had to trust my own ability to navigate the path. It was the only way back to the car.

A few hills later, I finally felt that moment of “flow” – I got lost in the challenge of maintaining my speed down a significant slope. The bike skidded, but I recovered. The drop off was more extreme than I had expected, but I pedaled harder. Existing in just that moment, dodging obstacles with my bike was exhilarating and liberating.

On our drive back to the hotel, I thought back to my childhood when I didn’t think about risk; how deep the water might be, or how far the jump really was, or if I could break my neck having the fun I was having. I just did it.

The best part of the day was the opportunity to recapture that feeling of letting go.

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