Wheeling through the Wilderness
West Coast Wilderness Trail
Our Trail Story
The West Coast Wilderness trail is aptly named. Unlike much of the country, the Coast still feels like a wild frontier.
With its whimsical weather, whiskery men and wildfoods festival – I was game to go offline, ride and grow some stubble along the way.
So when I heard about a 100+ kilometre cycle trail being built through the wilds … I unravelled my map and plotted a course.
My wilderness trail experience started at the northern trailhead with a brisk introduction to the local barber. He’s a particularly fearsome character and Greymouth residents tell me he cuts right to the bone! However this no barber with a pair of scissors in hand but is in fact a local wind; a unique phenomenon of cool katabatic air that often drains from the Grey Valley. As the flow squeezes down between the narrow gap in the hills it accelerates to quite a blast. If the barber is operating during the cooler months it’s worth warming with a hot chocolate at a local café before setting off.
The start of the trail begins high up on the stopbank beside the Grey River, just above the train station. Many riders choose to take the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to arrive at the trailhead - which would be a fine way to begin any adventure. For me, the adventure began when I powered up my three GPS units, the barber making himself known causing my fingers tremble on the keypads.
Then I was off, warming up as I cycled past the massive dock shipping cranes and towards the mouth of the Grey River. The trail hugs the shoreline meandering its way around the harbour where fishing boats shelter, before delivering me at the river mouth. Here I encountered the notorious Grey Bar where the massive rolling Tasman Sea swells gather in a tumbling crescendo before spilling exhausted on to the beach. Watching those boats leave the shelter of the harbour and take on these rolling giants is both a thrilling and terrifying sight. The vantage point is a must visit, however I did not linger long after reading the numerous memorial plaques at the site. It is clear that not all vessels return safely over the bar with their catch.
I ride on southward beside the coastline, with the trail regularly weaving between the flax. To the left of my handlebars is the forested foothills, to my right is the roaring surf break that pounds the pebbles on the shore. Despite the surf spray mist hovering over the beach, straight ahead in the distance I can see the white peaks of our tallest mountains some 150 kilometres away. After crossing the Taramakau River bridge the trail leads me inland on the former alignment of a tramway, and through a corridor of trees so tall my mouth drops in awe as I ride. Gobsmacked! After crossing a swinging suspension bridge I reach village of Kumara.
Heading towards the main divide I cycle past two beautiful reservoirs with calm waters that reflect the Alps. I then come across some cyclists who have stopped for photos. They seemed to beckon me over with the West Coast wave – as they swat the pestering sandflies. These foreigners are prepared with bulging panniers, I suspect their heavy load is for a multi-day journey beyond this trail. We ride together into the depths of the forest enjoying each other’s company and sharing tales of our ride so far. Like me they are loving the trail, and can’t believe how gentle, wide and smooth it is to ride. We follow the river and gradually climb to the Kawhaka Pass, more of a blip than a bump that reaches 300 metres above the rolling swells of the Tasman Sea. From here our pace hastens as we follow the base of the hills and drop past Cowboys Paradise into the Arahura River catchment.
I farewell my riding companions who decide to linger longer at the river, while I pedal past Milltown (most riders miss it) on my way to the Coast’s second largest lake. On my arrival at Lake Kaniere it is picture perfect. This glacier carved hollow is filled with fresh water and today had the most the incredible reflections of the podocarp forest along its shoreline. Right beside the lake outlet is the historic water race section of ride. The Kaniere water race was opened in the mid 1870’s to provide a reliable water source for gold mining operations downstream. I can see the wooden trench walls of the race, the original timber supplied from the Milltown sawmill – locally known at the time as ‘Sawdustville’. Milltown...Mill... oh, I get it!
I marvel at and relish the gentle bends of the water race, and follow its rich brown tannin waters past foam floating in eddies as I travel towards the sea. At times I slow and let my eyes follow the white bubbles negotiating the bends of the water race, much like a child watches a paper boat down a swirling watercourse. I love these moments, little trail delighters. The reward of a trail experience is not necessarily located in the grandiose, but found by lapping up the multitude of minor moments that form a journey’s richness. There is synergy on this trail.
Before long, like the flowing waters I’ve been following, I reach the Hokitika coastline which is known for its driftwood sculptures and wildfood festival. I could have easily spent another day in ‘Hoki’ wandering around town or a trip out to Hokitika Gorge with Hokitika Scenic Tours, but I have to keep moving as there are trails to ride.
After a restful sleep I turned on the GPS units again and pedal across the Hokitika River bridge, a graceful span that takes me onto my next section of this wilderness ride. When I reached the Mahinapua Creek and swap cruising on my bike for a boat with the help of West Coast Scenic Waterways. Their trip takes us gently upstream around the bends of the creek which is lined with the weeping branchlets of kahikatea trees.
This is nature at its best with chattering calls of birdlife filling the air and the graceful movements of waterfowl on the lake. This is a real treat and a welcomed respite from the saddle. Off the boat and cruising on my bike again, I mark a waypoint upon reaching the rusting relics of the former Mananui sawmill site. This is a fascinating place to appreciate the historic context of local industry.
Next I pass over a 300 metre long wetland boardwalk and ride onto the alignment of the former Mananui timber tramline. I am glad that tree felling did not exhaust the woods when I reach my next stop to stretch my legs. I had arrived at the West Coast Treetop Walk, a commercial endeavour consisting of several towering platforms linked by elevated boardwalks – the best way to be at head height with the temperate rainforest giants.
As if being 20 metres up in the crowns of kamahi and kahikatea trees is not sufficient I then climb to the top tower at twice the height. It’s a long way up. The lookout has views of the main divide and over the lake that I had enjoyed only a couple of hours before by boat; a green cloak of forest was hiding the trail. The walk is a top spot to appreciate the forest before I get grounded again and I get my wheels back in motion.
I rode south where I connect onto the trail that now uses the former railway line to the township of Ross. Unsurprisingly this section offers something different with straight lines that run parallel the coast; the smooth surface is only broken by a truss bridge. Several kilometres later, and the first turn in the line marks my arrival on the outskirts of Ross; the goldmining town and the southern trailhead. Near the trail is a quirky holiday park on the beachfront; their up-cycled shipping containers are modern apartment-like pods and appear to be a perfect stay at journey’s end. As for me, my wheels make their final turns and I arrive at the Ross Information Centre and Museum beside the former open cast pit mine, now turned lake. With some gold pans from the information centre I take a little time out to pan for gold in the local stream and stike it lucky - or that could just be fools gold?
As always, I saved my trip data for the App, turned off the GPS units, and reflected on my journey. The West Coast Wilderness Trail is one of the great multi-day rides in the wild frontier. It’s a delightful time away from modernity to immerse oneself in both nature and heritage. However the trail is not about roughing it as there are plenty of ways to be treated at cafes and lodges in the townships near the trail. Few other cycle trails can boast such a genuine taste of wilderness without a punishing effort or the feeling of going without. It’s a true western gateway to easily go … wild on wheels.