New Zealand: The West Coast

30/01/19 - 09/02/19

This post is dedicated to 'The West Coast Cycle Crew': Uwe, Christina, Sara & Matt, Jens & Julia and Léa.

Lake Kaniere

EPIC is the only word that conclusively sums up our time spent cycling along New Zealand's great, rugged, beautiful, wild West Coast.  From Westport to Haast, we pedaled some 400km along State Highway 6 and the brilliant, off-road West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail.  It felt like we were in our element and that this was what we had come to New Zealand for.  Every month of the adventure so far we had seen loved ones, and February was the first month where this wasn't so.  However, the incredible and inspirational cyclists mentioned above became our "February people", new friends all on their own adventures and with whom it was a pleasure to cross paths - more than once in many cases!  It was never planned when or where we would meet up, but when we did, woes, wisdom and ice-cream were shared in abundance and good times were had.

With Matt & Sara in Fox Glacier.

The West Coast is famous for its immense beauty and notorious for its inclement weather and pesky sandflies.  We experienced all three and, looking back, we wouldn't change any of them for the world.  Tourists, coaches and motor-homes, camper-vans and hire cars also abound along the West Coast, but, by and large, mutual respect and admiration for the incredible landscapes and everyone's desire to enjoy them amounted to serene cycling.  (We may have been less serene when tackling some of the hills, but they did afford some delightful downhills and stunning vistas.)  From isolated beaches with crashing waves to sparkling snow atop fast retreating glaciers and crystal clear lakes, the West Coast really is spectacular.

Lake Kaniere 

Franz Josef Glacier

Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier

From Westport we set off to Punakaiki and pitched up there at the campground just by the beach.  We had hoped to see Uwe en route and so were happy to see him wheeling in with the dusk and enjoyed hearing about his first Warm Showers stay.  In Westport, Janet and Terry had told us that they were going to be hosting a young family of four from Quebec a few days after our stay with them.  In fact, we all mused, we would probably cross paths with la troupe what with it being a 'one road fits all' ride, and we all reveled in the expectant wonderfulness of the cycling community.  Boy did we revel then when we pushed our bikes over to our designated pitch at Punakaiki and our neighbours were none other than @terratributa: Vanessa, Bertrand and les deux petits, Léo and Lucas.  I potentially came on a bit strong when introducing myself: "we know all about you", I exclaimed excitedly (creepily...).  We stayed three nights at Punakaiki (some of that inclement weather I mentioned was forecast) and had some wonderful moments with the little adventurers including a sunset view to the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes: stunning limestone rock formations that are about 30 million years old.  Bertrand is making a documentary about New Zealand that he will showcase in over 200 locations once the family return home to Québec.  I would absolutely love to be in the audience because seeing the trailer gave me goosebumps!  Alongside the documentary, Betrand and Vanessa are making a book and we saw an edit of it and it was sublime.  I can't wait for it to be published and in print so that I can proudly add it to my 'coffee table book' collection.  If I own a coffee table by then that is.

Pancake Rocks

Cycling to Punakaiki had initially taken us slightly inland and away from the coast.  In addition, it was an incredibly misty morning, a fact blamed on the heat wave happening in Australia at the time, and so when we finally spotted the sea after about 30km of pedaling, we stopped, crawled through some shrubbery and onto a small beach whose sands were being whipped by punishing west coast waves.  We sat and had lunch and watched as the horizon gradually came into view as the mist withdrew and the sun's rays pierced the cloud.  Back through the brambles we went and after a minute of pedaling we discovered a beautiful spot with a picnic bench perfectly positioned on it.  How often that happens!

As we walked into the office at Punakaiki, I caught a few words being uttered by the man behind the counter: "Free Solo" being the pivotal two.  "Alex Honnold?", I asked.  Olly had introduced me to the insanely talented (insane and talented?) climber and we had watched any and all videos available on the Internet that he starred in (including the one about his being vegan!).  The documentary/film about his successful free solo (climbing with no ropes to us laymen) of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park was showing in "Hoki" that night and the guy whose conversation I had just barged in on invited us to go with him to see it having failed to convince his co-worker that a trip to the cinema was how she wanted to spend her evening.  We gladly accepted his invitation.  It was an incredible film and one I'm sure I could only watch knowing that the outcome was positive.  This was not the case for the directors and producers of the documentary, many of whom were close friends of Alex's, who had to turn away from their cameras at various points during his ascent.  The ride to and from the cinema in Hokitika, an upcoming destination of ours, was possibly the most nervous I had felt on the whole trip.  Something happens to cool, calm Kiwis when they get behind the wheel...

At Pancake Rocks

We left Punakaiki on 2nd February and camped that night at a wonderful site in Kumara called Greenstone Retreat.  ( A "kumara" is a sweet potato.)  I loved the outdoor kitchen, the single eggs that could be purchased and the hammocks dotted around for guests' use.  The shower was brilliant too!  It was at Kumara that we filmed our tent time lapse - it was a happy spot.  As night fell, I sat with my down jacket on in the entrance of the tent looking up at the sky for it was completely covered in stars - the most I think I have ever seen.  We had got to Kumara via Greymouth where we had started The West Coast Wilderness Trail, one of the NZ Great Rides.  The trail was largely off-road and stretched for 130km.  It was simply brilliant!  Preparing for a few days away from any major towns, we stopped at the Countdown in Greymouth to stock up on supplies.  Just as we came out of the shop, another cycle-tourist pulled up and enthusiastically launched into conversation with us.  Christina (Instagram: @chrissob) is also cycling home from New Zealand to the UK and had started cycling in January.  She was full of life, energy and optimism and it was infectious.  She told us that she recognised us and it transpired that she had camped at Punakaiki the night before too.  As Christina ran in to do some shopping and we kept an eye on her 'bluebird of happiness', two more cycle-tourists joined the fun.  Canadians, Matt and Sara (Instagram: @sarayongg), were on a six-week, two-wheeled trip around New Zealand and they too had been at Punakaiki!  It was a fantastic pannier pile-up!  I was quite sad to then learn that we were all going separate ways, though Christina was due to start the Wilderness Trail the following day and we looked forward to cycling with her.  (It turns out that she did it all in one and overtook us good and proper despite our 28km head start!  We haven't seen her since that fleeting supermarket stop, much to our disappointment.  I have no doubt that, despite a jaunt to Australia and her starting her Asia leg in Singapore, that she will catch us up at some point!)

Stars filled this sky at Kumara.

We spent two and a half more days on the trail and enjoyed it massively.  The track, although undulating, made for hassle-free riding and we wound our way through bush and forest, around lakes and past crystal-clear streams that we used to fill our bottles.  Before we reached Cowboy's Paradise, whose saloons we bypassed in favour of a bench just after which overlooked the valley and the road ahead, we stumbled upon a clearing and a sign advertising "Hot Tea, Hot Showers, Hot Wifi".  Intrigued, and fans of tea, we pulled over and were met by Paul Sinclair who owned a lot of local land and had set up a tent (blown over at the time) and a stove to offer tea and coffee to any passing cyclists in need.  (He also provided many of the port-a-loos en route!)  He was passionate about the land and its history and told us about how the Gold Rush had impacted the area including how and where 'races' were built and also how one area of land, left untouched by Maori - potentially because they hadn't the means to mine gold, had been mined five times over by settlers.  We enjoyed listening to Paul talk as we ate our lunch and drank hot tea.

Banana bread bench

On some cool, forest switchbacks (that required me to brake at every bend to avoid plummeting to disaster) we were overtaken by a speedy pair on lightly packed mountain bikes.  We envied them their agility.  As we embarked upon the final hill of the day before we reached our campspot at Lake Kaniere, the dynamic duo caught us up again having stopped at Cowboy's Paradise for food, we learned.  Jens and Julia from The Netherlands became quick friends and as we cycled to the DOC site, Hans Bay, they told us about their adventures on the Tour Aotearoa: Cape Reinga to Bluff via all of The Great Rides.  As the four of us cycled round the busy campground to find a spot to pitch our tents, a man called us over to offer us each a bottle of beer.  The man was Dutch too and so Jens and Julia started chatting away animatedly to him and his wife, as Olly and I remembered the coffee and shelter offered to us by another friendly Dutch couple a few days previous.  An appreciation of cycling, whether they actively do it or not, seems to be a defining feature of the Dutch.  An appreciation for cycling, friendliness, open-mindedness and incredible English skills are words I would associate with all of the Dutch people we have so far encountered on the trip.

Julia & Jens 

Lake Kaniere was beautiful and once the tents were up and sleeping mats inflated, we all dashed to the lake side to deposit our clothes and, in lieu of a shower, take an evening dip.  The water was cool and refreshing and after a few strokes I'd left the shore behind and felt so serene.  Until, that is, Olly and Jens took to dive-bombing off the little pier!  After dinner, Olly and I headed back down to the shore to watch in awe as the sunset cast incredible pink colours across the sky.

The following morning we set off ahead of Jens and Julia, but they overtook us in no time!  We had, admittedly, spent a fair amount of time trying to use the tripod to take a picture of ourselves beside a pretty lake about five kilometers in!  Anyhow, we had a short day planned: just 30km to Hokitika where we had a Warm Showers stay.  It such a nice ride and I especially enjoyed following the old, mining waterway close to the Hans Bay campsite.

We were soon in Hokitika and spotted Jens and Julia having lunch in a café and we caught up with them by the beach as they set off to continue along the trail.  We went to the supermarket and made one of the tastiest lunches of the trip: lime and chipotle houmous, black beans, avocado and grated cheese.  It hit the spot!  We strolled around Hokitika, a picturesque town with an artsy feel - thanks, I think, to the driftwood sign (there is a driftwood festival every year, I believe) - and got tea and coffee in a cafe to celebrate our "six-months-on-the-road-a-versary"!  I remember the little celebration feeling quite anticlimactic as my tea was both over-steeped and went too cold too quickly and I missed the opportune drinking window.  I went to rummage around in the blue-food pannier to find some mint slices in a bid to cheer myself up.  It helped a bit.

After a few hours sat outside the iSite doing trip-min, we cycled over to Kevin's house, our Warm Showers host for the night.  Kevin is something of a Warm Showers legend and, being the only host along the West Coast, he kindly hosts almost everyone passing his way.  Kevin was an inspiring man and collector of maps.  He showed us a book that he had helped to write called 'Old Boots and Packs', a wonderful title, about the history of the mountaineering club he belonged to.  It was a brilliant book filled with brilliant tales; another one for my coffee table.  Kevin was also hosting a Spanish cyclist, Jon.  Jon was cycling around New Zealand with a surfboard in a trailer and had sailed to The Land of the Long White Cloud from The Canaries!  He was also an inspiring man.  Quite why I decided that making a tortilla for tea that night would be a good idea, I don't know!  Jon kept a keen eye on my movements in the kitchen and it was with great relief that he gave me a small nod after taking his first bite!

With Jon and Kevin.

Having had a short day to Hoki, which is the home of New Zealand greenstone, Pounamu, or jade, we decided we would aim to cycle 'as far as we could' the day we left Kevin's.  We had a destination 130km in the future in mind, but we stopped at Harihari, under the pouring rain, some 80km later.  We had been going well until it started to rain, but made a good call stopping when we did, firstly, because the next day was so clear and bright and the views so spectacular and we would have missed them had we continued in the cloud.  Secondly, stopping at Harihari, and deciding to upgrade from a camping spot to a room in the Backpacker's Lodge due to the relentless rain, meant that we met and got to know Léa who was cycling around NZ on an ElliptiGo bike.  We had waved and shouted 'hello' as we passed her and Elliot (the bike) earlier in the day near Ross and it was good to hear about their adventures.  It was also good fun having a go on the ElliptiGo despite learning that it is no where near as easy as Léa makes it look (she goes faster than we dare to dream of going!).

Léa and the ElliptiGo.
Me, trying and failing.

From Harihari we headed into Glacier Country and on the way admired the rising mountains and increasingly alpine landscape.  We got to Franz Josef earlier than we had anticipated and then spent about an hour faffing around outside the iSite trying to decide where to stay as none of the campgrounds in the tiny, tourist-focused town centre accepted tents: motor-homes only.  Franz Josef was quite shocking in that regard.  I've been to plenty of 'tourist traps' in my time, but this felt like something else.  For one, the sky was peppered with choppers.  Every other building in Franz Josef was a helicopter-flight booking centre and we spoke to a helicopter pilot having a drink and a snack outside of the iSite who told us that there were five main flight operators in town, each with about three pilots who can each make up to 32 trips a day.  That's potentially 480 helicopter flights a day!  And all to take people to see a tremendously retracting glacier that has shrunk so much even in the last ten years that it makes you wonder what will be happening in the town in ten years' time...  Fortunately, before I got too weighed down in maths and environmental misery, a cheery voice called, 'hello, friends'.  Matt & Sara came to our rescue and within half an hour, Matt had brokered a deal to get the four of us a room in the YHA International hostel.  It was a wonderful hostel and the cheapest place to stay in town too!  We piled our panniers into the family room and then relaxed into the afternoon.  Olly and I cycled out to see the Franz Josef glacier before dinner.  It was beautiful and the walk to get within a kilometer of it was very nice and there were also some wonderful waterfalls to ogle at along the way.  However, the little signs at various intervals which indicated where the glacier used to end were a powerful reminder that global warming is very real.

At Franz, we also had our only up-close encounter with a Kea - the naughty, alpine parrot.  This one was eating a crisp... 

We got, what we considered at the time to be, an early start from the homely hostel in order to cycle the 20km to Fox Glacier before most of the traffic took to the roads.  The ride involved going up and over three saddles and was by no means easy-going, but it was scenic and challenging and before I knew it we were descending into Fox.  We stopped to rest on a bench just before we entered the main town and ended up staying there for over an hour, eating banana bread and Nutella and discussing what to do next; going round in circles and not making a decision.  We had planned to stay in Fox, but it was still early in the day to hang up our helmets and we encountered the same problem as we had in Franz: the only available campsite was a Top 10 Holiday Park and the price for a night was $50, which was, for our budgets, extortionate.  Just as we made to leave, having decided to take a 12km detour from the main road in order to go and visit Lake Matheson, Matt & Sara came whizzing down the hill and it was good to see them.  We pointed them in the direction of the bench and next saw them at Lake Matheson.

Lake Matheson is considered to be one of NZ's most scenic spots and its features of postcards from Auckland to Christchurch.  I'm glad we took the diversion to see it, even though Mt Cook kept his head buried under cloud and even though a slight wind sent ripples bouncing across the water so that the famed mirror-reflections were hard to capture on camera.

Deciding to cycle on was a good decision, but one without a clear end goal for the day in mind.  We pedaled on and on until we reached Bruce Bay where we had heard there was a campground.  We found it and it was miserable: a tiny patch on gravel complete unsuitable for tents and crammed full with camper-vans that were double parked and almost touching.  At Bruce Bay, on the seafront at a tiny little café in a van, we had bumped into Léa, queen of wild camping.  She had been tipped off by another tourist about a sandy spot and we had left her there to go and check out the 'campsite'.  Aware that there was already a crowd amassing at Léa's spot, we decided to knock on a door in a bid to grab a spot of grass.  A lady opened the door of the house we chose and I explained our plight.  She simply shook her head and advised that 20km in either direction we would find somewhere to stay.  Regretfully, I thanked her and asked if she might be able to fill up our water bottles as, one way or another, I sensed we were going to need them.  At this point, her husband, bothered by what was taking so long, came down the stairs and looked me up and down.  He said nothing to me, but followed the sound of his wife's voice into the kitchen where she was tackling the lid of Olly's water bottle which he always screws on far too tightly.  The husband came back with the filled up bottles and told me to go across the road and into a paddock with a few friendly sheep and a few run down cars.  He said we could camp there for the night, no bother, but not to go blabbing about it on my phone.  I gushed my thanks and went to tell Olly the good news.

Bruce Bay
For the most part, the sheep gave us plenty of space despite our invasion of their grassy paddock.  The sandflies were less considerate and it was in that field that we obtained the most bites in the shortest amount of time!  I was so grateful for the camp spot, though, because it meant we could sleep soundly in the knowledge that we had someone's permission to be there.  I've still not mastered the art of wild camping, though it is something I am keen to do and, in fact, must do as we continue on our adventure back to Europe.  A couple of men whizzed back and forth on quad bikes down the lane beside the field, but they didn't come over and ask any questions, just raised a hand in greeting as I tried to covertly stare at them from my glaringly obvious spot by the half rotten picnic bench!

The camp spot facilitated an early start the next morning and we caught up with Léa again, 20km down the road at Lake Paringa where we had all paused to use the facilities and refill our water bottles.  Léa was in good spirits having spent the evening chatting with an overwhelmingly French camping cohort; she said that people had been gathering at her not-so-secluded spot until quite late into the night.  I was a bit disappointed not to have camped by the shores of the lovely lake, but it was nice to be there albeit briefly to have a gingernut and a drink.

Léa powered off and we pedaled on behind.  As we started to climb a small hill, I spotted something fluorescent in my mirror and on the descent the small, bright blob got bigger and bigger until it transformed into Matt the human!  We quickly shared storied with the Canadian whippersnappers before they sped away towards the horizon.  As we arrived, sweating and ready for some lunch, at Knights Point, Matt & Sara were just preparing to leave having finished their Whittaker's chocolate rations.  Haast was where we were all headed and the small town was now just 26km away.  I figured we would see them there and so waved them off cheerily without too much pomp and ceremony.  However, that was the final time we saw them, such was the nature of making friends on the road.

Knights Point
Ship Creek

As we descended into Haast, I was looking forward to just one thing: an ice-cream.  We free-wheeled until we reached the general store and them hopped off our bikes in search of the sweet stuff.  It transpired that buying a 2L tub of hokey-pokey was cheaper than buying two individual ice-creams and so for economic reasons, that is was we did.  Anyhow, we rationalised, we could share it with Matt & Sara who we were sure were going to be sat relaxing at the campsite.  Sat in the little café attached to the store was none other than Léa, and so we pulled up a chair, asked for three spoons and tucked into the ice-cream and chatted about our respective days and plans.  Léa told us that the Canadians had been and gone, set on covering a bit more ground before the light faded in order to facilitate their crossing the Haast Pass the next day.  The Pass was on everyone's minds and we had learned from Uwe and Christina, who had met up by this point and were cycling together, that it was a long cycle out to the pass and then a relatively short, but steep in places, up and over.  After forcing as much ice-cream upon Léa as possible, she turned her attention back to her preparations and we headed over to the campsite with half a tub of ice-cream strapped under a bungee.

The site at Haast was quite sterile, but we found a level spot on their tiny tent patch and assembled our portable home.  There was a large and friendlier lounge and kitchen area where everyone at the camp assembled in the evening, primarily, I imagine, to avoid the insufferable sandflies.  We had settled onto a sofa when a familiar face appeared in the window of a door leading away from the kitchen.  Clutching a towel and some comfortable clothes, in walked Jens, waving and smiling as he came.  It was brilliant to see Jens and know that Julia wasn't far away either.  We chatted excitedly for a few minutes before Jens went for a shower.  He had spotted our tent and told us that their's was right by its side.  How good it was to see him and have someone to share our ice-cream with!  After dinner, Jens and Julia gratefully gobbled up the gelato that we hadn't managed, which embarrassingly wasn't all that much!  We laughed as Julia talked about "poison-berries" and discussed why and how the Dutch spoke such phenomenal English.

The following morning we prepared to leave the wonderful, wicked, wild West Coast behind as we headed for the Haast Pass which, once crossed, would lead us into Otago.  We had got into a routine of leaving early so that we could cover a fair distance before the 10am campsite check-out time.  We marvelled the whole way along the flat approach to the pass as it was quiet and calm.  We spotted waterfalls big and small, near and far the whole way and I noticed that many had brilliant names too: I liked 'Imp Grotto' and also 'Dancing Creek', 'Dizzy Creek' and 'Dismal Creek' - I responded appropriately to each, dancing in my seat or frowning glumly as was required.

Heading for Haast

By lunchtime we still hadn't started climbing and so we stopped at Pleasant Flats to fill our stomachs.  (Also required was a quick cover-up operation in order to avoid providing the gnawing sandflies with an early lunch too.)  This was, indeed, the last pleasant flat for a while as shortly after resuming our cycling we passed through 'The Gates of Haast' and started to climb.  The pass was incredibly anticlimactic in comparison to the French and Swiss passes of The Alps.  (Haast Pass does only stand at 564m and so I'm not sure what I was expecting.  There was no stunning vista at the top as I had hoped, that's for sure.)  Although incredibly steep at one point - the precise point when my chain snapped and I realised that all of my frantic pedaling was in vain, the rest of the pass was very manageable, the only real issue was how narrow the road often was and how many buses and coaches were trying to squeeze past us.  As we crossed the regional border and into Otago, the heavens opened, but we didn't mind because it was all downhill from here!

With the worst of it over, I could smile again.

Despite the low, rain clouds, the landscape was immediately, noticeably different.  Gone were the lush, green, waterfall-splattered mountains and in their place were brown and barren mounds.  And it seemed even more vast.  The rain continued as we pulled up at the campsite and so once we had paid, we headed straight into the kitchen/lounge area and made a cup of tea and ate any and all of our remaining snacks.  It was a veritable feast of a boiled egg, banana bread and ginger biscuits.  We decided to have a second cup of tea because we had found Scrabble and it felt like a game or two were in order.