Friday, 3 April 2020

The West Coast Wilderness Trail: Day 3

On a clear, blue-skied morning, we travelled east up the road from Hokitika towards the high hills – for the third time. This toing and froing was necessary to get us from Scenic Waterways back to Cowboy Paradise, where we would’ve been staying, had we booked earlier.

We’d had a superb night at Scenic Waterways, so this geographical hiccup had worked out fine. Our bikes appeared to have had a quieter night, and were still leaning where we’d left them on the hitching rail outside the Cowboy Paradise saloon. Without ceremony we donned our helmets, hopped onto our saddles, and cycled off.

[Ready to leave Cowboy Paradise] 
Whenever we’re told “it’s all downhill from here”, we’ve learned to take it with a grain of salt. Someone had said it about today’s ride, but our scepticism proved justified. Certainly we did start with a small descent through rich, dark rainforest. In places tall, thick-trunked rimu overtowered everything. But after we’d crossed the long suspension bridge over the deep, dark slot that held McPherson Creek, we began a steep, winding, leg-burning climb. A couple of times I had to shift down to “granny gear” and pedal furiously. At least the forest held its composure.

[Podocarp Rainforest] 
We’d also been briefed about a couple of fords that we’d meet this morning. Following rain these stream crossings are sometimes impassable, but after the fine weather we’d been having, the worst the fords could do was dampen our shoes as we slooshed across. We continued climbing across a high terrace. We learned later that we were riding along the line of the Great Alpine Fault, a vast zone of collision between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. It’s strange that you can sometimes be in the company of something dramatic; something literally earth shattering; something that’s even visible from space, and yet remain completely unaware of it. Given that the fault’s last major rupture occurred over 300 years ago, we probably didn’t have a lot to worry about. Still, ignorance is bliss.

Less blissful was the continuous uphill gradient, now on a gravel road rather than a narrow track. With hard work and persistence we finally reached Kawhaka Pass, at 317m the highest point of the whole trail. There we caught our breath alongside a handful of other cyclists also pausing at the top. We realised we were seeing a lot more cyclists this morning; many heading in the opposite direction, some with panniers and full overnight touring gear. We learned that these were participants in the biennial Tour Aotearoa Brevet event. This involves cyclists – most of them New Zealanders – riding the entire north-south length of their country over no more than 30 days. To keep from overcrowding, they had been leaving in waves of 100 from the middle of February until early March, and we were now meeting a few ripples from those waves.

[We're all smiles at the top!] 
We chatted with two North Island women who were on the tour. They told us they were expecting their husbands, who’d started riding a week after them, to join them sometime today. We took a photo for them, congratulated them on their guts, and wished them well. As they pedalled off we suddenly felt wimpy comparing our 4 day, 135km tour with their 30 day, 3000km marathon. On the long, steep descent from Kawhaka Pass, we marvelled afresh at the stamina of anyone riding up this climb with fully-laden bikes. What for us was an exhilarating whoosh through sun-dappled forest, would for them have been the struggle of Sisyphus. Before we reached the bottom, we’d passed several cyclists on their way up. Even as they were basting in their own sweat, most still managed a cheerful wave or a “G’day”. You’ve gotta love the Kiwis!

[Enjoying the downhill run] 
One of the other delights of being in remoter parts of New Zealand is the capacity of the locals to surprise you. One such was the hot tea on offer – for a small sum – at the campsite known as Trappers Rest. The host wasn’t at home, but a large tent was set up in a broad clearing next to our cycle trail. Around this was a scattering of camp chairs, and a sign offering camping (with hot shower) and, crucially, hot tea. Atop the almost extinguished fire sat a small urn with just a skerrick of hot water left in it. Not to be denied a cuppa, Lynne refilled the urn and we refreshed the fire. The wait gave us a good excuse to sit a while, and catch up with some of the cyclists we now knew by name.

[Tea break at Trappers Rest]
Our tea downed, we continued onto what we expected would be a straightforward, mostly downhill section. At one point the track met some flood damage, and jagged unexpectedly left to a makeshift bridge across a stream. But confusingly there was also a clear track straight ahead, going sharply up a steep hill. Lynne was in front of me here, and on seeing this, she had accelerated hard to get up the hill. She’d missed a small “private property” sign, so I called out, whistled, and eventually shouted, before she finally heard me. I signalled her back down, pointing to the rather cryptic orange trail marker and the bridge we had to cross.

Once across we stopped to talk to three cyclists we’d met earlier. They were looking quite puzzled, and asked us if we’d seen Cathy, the fourth of their party. We hadn’t, but we conjectured that she might have done the same thing as Lynne, and then kept going. (We later learned that was the case, and that she’d only rejoined her group nearly two hours later via a very convoluted route.) At the time we said we’d keep an eye out for her, and rode off along the track beside a water race.

[Cycling beside the water race] 
The going was now becoming flatter and more open. But we were also growing wearier. I’d been telling myself whenever we came to an uphill section, that my legs were my engine. I simply had to change down a gear or two, and push hard to keep up with Lynne on her e-bike. Perhaps I’d been too convincing, and had been pushing a little hard, because now my legs burned on every slight uphill. When we got to a wide wetland our trail followed a boardwalk. I welcomed the chance to stop and refuel. We even had a chocolate bar.

[Looking across Lake Kapitea to the Southern Alps] 
We were now down in lowland country, though the views across the hydro-electric reservoir, Lake Kapitea, showed us that the Alps were not that far behind us. Eventually, after nearly 35km of riding, we arrived into the town of Kumara, where we would spend the night in the ambiguously named Theatre Royal Hotel. Gladly we didn’t have to put on any performance to get a drink at the bar. After a day that was anything but “all downhill”, we were very glad of that.

[Time for a beer: our hotel in Kumara]

Saturday, 28 March 2020

The West Coast Wilderness Trail: Day 2

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but a little local knowledge can be marvellous. Gavin and Cindy, our hosts at Scenic Waterways near Hokitika, had a full house, and we were fortunate they could squeeze us into some extra accommodation for the first night. The trade-off, since their dining room was full, was that we had to fend for ourselves for dinner. Given we were 5km out of the town of Hokitika, lacked supplies or a kitchen, and had “tender derrières” that weren’t keen to ride again so soon, that could have been a problem.

[An improvised town sign at Hokitika] 
That’s where local knowledge and true Kiwi hospitality came into their own. Gavin threw us the keys to their little Honda, and Cindy – hearing of our fondness for Thai food – tipped us off to a little Thai food van on the beachfront at Hokitika. Problem solved.

[A nice idea, but NO ... we didn't stop] 
The next day promised to be longish – more than 40km – and with some steep climbs. The ride into Hokitika was gentle, and allowed us to buy lunch in town before heading for the hills. We followed the Hokitika River east as far as the small settlement of Kaniere. At first it was only slightly uphill, partly on a cycle path and partly on back roads. But before long we started to climb towards Lake Kaniere.

[Heading for the hills from the Hokitika River] 
I began to find the climb tough, and not for the first time doubted the wisdom of not getting an e-bike. At one stage we turned a corner to see a long climb ahead, and I let out a little groan. But almost immediately that turned to a whew of relief. An orange West Coast Wilderness Trail marker pointed off the road, onto a merely undulating track. And that soon turned into the loveliest of forested trails. Yes, it was uphill, but it wove delightfully through the deep shade, and beside burbling water races that had been used for both gold mining and power generation.

[Beside a water race approaching Lake Kaniere] 
We finally broke out of the forest at Lake Kaniere. A wide, sparkling blue lake with a superb backdrop of high mountains stood before us, inviting us to linger for lunch. Unfortunately the sandflies had other plans, so after a brief, ambulatory, hand-swishing style of lunch, we saddled up again. And off we pedalled, uphill again, for a few more kilometres.

[The view across beautiful Lake Kaniere] 

[Rata in bloom near Lake Kaniere] 
And then the fun began. We had reached the steepest part of our ride yet, but the good news was that it was downhill. I took the opportunity to overtake Lynne, and hooned down the long dirt road towards the Arahura Valley. I’m not entirely sure I didn’t whoop out loud; although that might have changed to a shriek when I suddenly reached a bit of road still under repair.  

The afternoon had grown warm and sunny, and it felt so good to be nearing the higher hills and mountains – part of the Southern Alps – at the head of the wide, blue, braided Arahura River. For me this was already a paradise of sorts, with high mountains, including the Newton Range, looming above. But ahead was Cowboy Paradise, the accommodation property we would have stayed at had we booked earlier. Instead the arrangement was we’d be met at the property gate at around 3:30pm, and be shuttled back to Scenic Waterways for a second night.

[The rushing, blue Arahura River] 
As we rode across the bridge over the wide Arahura we realised there was a fly in the ointment: a sandfly to be exact. We would have to wait in the open for nearly 90 minutes before our pick-up, and the sandflies were already promising to make that wait seem an eternity. As we pondered this, a ute pulled up, and its driver asked us what we were up to. On a hunch I asked if his name was Mike (the owner of Cowboy Paradise), and he gave an evasive “it depends who’s asking” sort of answer, with a slight lift of of amusement at the edge of his mouth. That was a yes, then. He quickly figured out our dilemma, and told us to come up to Cowboy Paradise, and he’d arrange getting us picked up from there. “Better than being sandfly bait, plus it’s a great ride: half an hour max.”

He drove off, and we quickly decided to take his advice. And he was right on the first two counts, if a little optimistic on the timing. Cowboy Paradise sits high on some partly cleared hills, surrounded by podocarp rainforest. Reaching it via a dozen sharp switchbacks took every ounce of my energy at the end of a long day. But finally we rode into a clearing edged with a cluster of buildings that really did give it a wild west look. Best of all, we were able to get a beer in the saloon while we waited for the Cycle Journeys shuttle-bus.

[Approaching Cowboy Paradise] 
Once we’d been picked up, we were driven back over the route we’d just ridden, stopping a few times to pick up some other stray riders. We finally got back to Scenic Waterways just in time to go on a boat cruise that Gavin runs on Lake Mahinapua. We shared the cruise – and later dinner – with a whole new crop of guests, most of whom were cycling a day behind us.

[Scene from the boat cruise on Lake Mahinapua] 
The lake cruise and dinner showed us what wonders we’d missed the night before, and felt almost the perfect conclusion to our long day. But perfection came when Cindy showed us to the upgraded accommodation we would have for our second night. A large en-suite cabin might not have been a necessity for this pair of tired cyclists, but a blessing it certainly was.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

West Coast Wilderness Trail: Day 1

There was a storm brewing, metaphorically at least. It seemed as though clouds were building on the horizon, lightning flickering in the distance. But we were on holidays at the western extremity of New Zealand’s South Island, and that storm was surely a long way off.

Now, just a few weeks later, I already think of those as the rosy days, the days of innocence: BC – before coronavirus. Back then our major concerns were the weather, and whether we’d be able to complete the 135km bike ride over four days.

[Stream rushing through flax, West Coast NZ] 
We were innocent in other ways too, having left our booking of the West Coast Wilderness Trail to the last minute. And that had run us into an accommodation log jam, with the popular Hokitika Wildfoods Festival happening at the same time. Fortunately, perhaps typically, the good people at Cycle Journeys found a way around our problem. And so we left Christchurch, taking the marvellously slow Tranzalpine train across the South Island to the notably wet west coast town of Greymouth.

On cue, as we arrived, it started raining. It pelted down all night, our trepidation rising with the water level. But somehow in the morning the sun shone, and as we sat on the shuttle taking us to Hokitika for a briefing and bike fitting, the west coast sparkled innocently.

A few weeks before we had discussed whether we’d both get e-bikes, or whether Lynne would hire one, and I’d go on a standard bike. Our late booking had made the decision for us, as by then there was only one e-bike available, and that was Lynne’s size. So she would go electric, and I would go “acoustic”, as we came to call the unplugged version.

[The start at Ross: 135km to go!] 
The trail starts in the small town of Ross, famous for its gold mining … and for its sandflies. Even as the two of us posed for a photo beneath the starting arch, those tiny adversaries inflicted their first bites. That propelled us into our saddles and off on the ride. Or at least as far as the first coffee shop, where we joined several other cyclists getting their late morning caffeine fix.

As well as mining gold, the west coast town had been a logging stronghold, and the cycle trail soon began to follow the line of an old forestry railway along the flat coastline between Ross and Hokitika. It was a gentle introduction, and with the easy trail passing through flax-rich bush, our legs quickly found that easy propulsive rhythm that is one of cycling’s soft thrills.

[Reminders of timber-getting near Ross] 
My thrills were perhaps harder-earned than Lynne’s, as I was learning that my leg engine was no match for her battery-boosted one. So as the kilometres went by, we stopped at some of the many bridges for both views and to give me a breather. We were heading towards Hokitika, but first, once we’d come to the end of the old rail line, we had to cross a road and ride to our lunch stop at the café beside the West Coast Treetop Walk.

[Lynne waits for me on the Totara River bridge] 

[The West Coast Treetop Walk] 
It was after lunch, as we were taking the lovely treetop walk, that part of the stormy outside world broke in. Lynne received a text from home telling her that a beautiful friend of ours had died. It wasn’t completely unexpected, as she had a rare and untreatable form of cancer. But foreknowledge of someone’s impending death does little to cushion the blow. High in the canopy of a stunning podocarp rainforest, we shed tears for our friend, and then prayed for her family. She was a vibrant, blithe spirited woman, gone far too soon at just 50. Afterwards we completed the walk at a slower pace. The elevated metal walkway rocked gently beneath us, adding to the sense that our world had become unsteady.

[In the forest near Lake Mahinapua] 
The rest of the first day’s ride offered us some balm, going partly through beautifully deep green rainforest. After just over 30km of riding, just a few km short of Hokitika, we rode up the hill to our accommodation at Scenic Waterways. We were met by our smiling host Gavin, who offered us a cold home-made lemon drink. Even though our day had been more emotionally than physically demanding, this hospitality was hugely appreciated.

[A tanin-stained stream near Scenic Waterways]