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]

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