The Timber Trail is popular for the wonderful mix of native and exotic forest it passes through. However, the trail’s amazing bridges – including the longest and highest on the New Zealand Cycle Trail – have become as much of a drawcard.
Straddling mountain ranges west of Lake Taupo, the 78,000-hectare Pureora Forest Park is a treasure trove of tall trees, clear rivers and rare wildlife. It also has a fascinating logging past and large tracts of precious native forest, saved by environmentalists after landmark protests in the late 1970s.
Up until the Timber Trail opened in 2013, Pureora remained the realm of hard-core trampers and hunters. However, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and other locals had long dreamed about building a cycling and tramping track through the forest, following old logging tramways, forestry roads and tracks.
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The park’s rugged gullies and gorges were formidable obstacles, and without some serious investment, bridging the biggest of these gaps was simply too expensive.
In 2009, the New Zealand Cycle Trail fund changed all that. With grant money allocated, the Timber Trail’s planners could embark on some rather special projects that would push bridge design and construction to their limits, and allow the trail to be completed.
In all, thirty-five bridges were constructed along the 85km trail, ranging from short beam bridges replacing old tramway spans to eight suspension bridges, three of which are more than 100 metres long. Not only do these bridges enable visitors to explore Pureora in a way they never could before, they also bolster conservation efforts within the park.
Keeping people up and away from watercourses helps protect delicate habitats and their residents, including endangered whio (blue ducks) that revel in the some of park’s white waters. And while pests such as stoats, weasels, ferrets, possums and rats are known to use the bridges to get from A to B, this is outweighed by the fact that DOC and local volunteers have better access for running trapping programmes.
One of the trail’s most interesting features is the engineering marvel known as the Ongarue spiral with its upper and lower bridges, circle of track, and arced tunnel. Restored to its former glory with new spans, it’s an impressive site and a popular photo-op for those wanting to capture its captivating curves.
Arguably the most memorable sight, however, is the vertigo-inducing Maramataha Bridge. At 141 metres long and 53 metres high, it’s not only a highlight for Timber Trail riders but also an icon of the entire New Zealand Cycle Trail. Check out #maramatahabridge on Instagram to whet your appetite.
The bridge generally stops people in their tracks, as it stretches way across to the other side of the gorge, swaying oh-so-very-gently above the river far below.
Now, if the idea of crossing the bridge or peering over its edge makes you go weak at the knees, consider the brave folk who built it.
Unsurprisingly, this is a bridge that was a very big challenge to build. Enter the New Zealand dream-team of ‘We Do Bridges’ Edifice Contracts and designers Frame Group, working alongside DOC.
The first task was to find the best spot to span the gorge, somewhere with enough flat land at similar levels on both sides and solid rock foundations to build on. Then all the materials, equipment and workers had to be transported into this remote wilderness.
The footings of the bridge were set, and cable anchors thrust 12 metres into rock – no mean feat in itself. Then four, 12-metre, 1.2-tonne towers were hoisted into place by helicopter before the suspension cables could be strung out between them. And that’s when the really interesting work began!
The suspension cables, more than 200 metres long, were laid out on the ground and lifted into the air by chopper. With only millimetres to spare either side, the cable was laid on top of the tower in an amazing feat of precision piloting. The helicopter then had to fly backwards across the ravine and guide the cable gingerly onto the tower on the other side. And then the whole process had to be repeated for the second cable.
For the construction team, this was no ordinary nine-to-five job. With a trapeze artist’s head for heights, they dangled below helicopters in cages to attach fixings, or crawled along the bridge deck closing the gap one plank at a time. Looking on the plus side, every bridge completed made the commute to work a lot easier!
When you ride or walk across the Maramataha Bridge, take a deep breath then look down, up and around. It’s a remarkable piece of architecture in a spectacular location. Once its dizzying effects have faded and your legs stop shaking, you might even start to enjoy it. Some people have been known to cross the bridge five or more times before carrying on along the trail. With its gentle north-to-south slope, it’s a contender for New Zealand’s most exhilarating freewheel!
Maramataha Fascinating Facts:
- Length: 141 metres
- Height: 53 metres above river
- Design life: 50 years
- Maximum load: 10 persons
- Load test weight: 4.5 tonnes (that’s a lot more than 10 people and their bikes and packs!)
- Helicopter flying time: 18 hours
- Timber used: 19.8 cubic metres
- Length of cables and rods: 3 kilometres
Words by: Lee Slater and Sarah Bennett
Bennett & Slater