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]