Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Tern to the west: an origami bike on the West Coast Wilderness Trail

As the plane came in to land at Hokitika Airport, perched on a terrace above the town, I remembered the last time I landed there, 37 years before. I was finishing my library school studies by compiling a bibliography of Westland National Park. Courtesy of the Department of Lands and Survey, I got to check out the archives held at Hokitika and Franz Josef, which included such items as Charlie (Mr Explorer) Douglas's original field notebooks, documenting his explorations of the West Coast.

It's not clear if Charlie ever rode, or even saw, a bicycle, and he certainly wouldn't have contemplated taking one on his journeys through the rugged West Coast terrain of the late 1800s. But thanks to the West Coast Wilderness Trail (WCWT), cyclists of the early 2000s can explore the West Coast on a well graded Nga Haerenga route.  As a precursor to the annual CANDO cycle advocacy meeting, I'd decided to ride the trail from Hokitika to Greymouth. To simplify using public transport, I took my Tern folding bike, hoping the trail would be good enough for the small wheels. In the event, even the offroad sections were no problem for the 20" wheels.

The flight got in with a few hours of daylight to spare, so after unfolding and loading the Tern, I swept down the hill and picked up the highway heading inland to Lake Kaniere. Once out of the urban limits, I encountered more Kereru and Kea than cars, making for a pleasant evening ride to Lake Kaniere Homestay, where host Grant welcomed me with a cold beer and BBQ'd chops.
Lake Kaniere
I made an early start next morning,  conscious that it was a long day to Kumara. From the lake, I picked up the gravel road through tunnels of tall forest to Milltown in the Arahura Valley. On the map, Milltown looks like a one horse town, but this proved incorrect: there was no sign of a town, but the equine population was at least four.
Milltown horse
I'd followed the Arahura before, in its deeply gorged section descending from Browning Pass on the Three Pass tramp, but here it followed broad flats up to the bridge and the first off road section of the WCWT. After passing some weka grazing on the flats, and a couple of cycletourists heading for Queenstown, I followed the trail zig zagging up the hillside.
Cycletourists head down the Arahura valley
On the trail climbing out of the Arahura
The trail then sidled through sub alpine bush to Cowboy Paradise, a slightly incongruous dude ranch straddling the trail, on one side a series of shooting ranges set into the hillside, on the other a couple of rough hewn timber buildings that wouldn't have been out of place in a gold rush town. Arriving on a folding bike rather than a horse, it seemed inappropriate to swagger in cowboy style and order a shot of bourbon, so I made do with a green tea and a muffin from the young German backpackers staffing the "Saloon".
Weka meets Tern, Cowboy Paradise
The trail continued up the valley with a few steep climbs, but also following water races until the high point at Kawhaka Pass. After this I coasted downhill on a series of four wheel drive roads to the Kapitea reservoir and Kumara. I spent the night at Cyclists Rest, a few hundred metres along the trail north of Kumara; backtracking for dinner at the elegantly named Theatre Royal. I'd hoped to stay there, but it was booked out by a noisily jovial group, rumoured to be a meeting of the Westland Undertakers Association.
Sunset, Kumara
I was keen not to miss the Tranzalpine train to Christchurch, so made an early start the next morning. The sun was just coming up as I reached the new bridge across the Kumara chasm. An engineering challenge, the bridge has its supports well back from the fragile sides of the gully, and from the centre offers a good view down to the Taramakau River.
Kumara Chasm bridge
The trail led through lowland forest until it met the main road again at the Taramakau Road/Rail Bridge. Riding in the middle of the carriageway, it was fairly easy to avoid being trapped by the rail lines, despite the ominous pictogram.
Taramakau road/rail bridge
A bit further north, I picked up the final section of trail, running parallel to the main road, but often ducking into forest and passing picturesque lakes and coastal views.

Eventually the trail reached the Greymouth breakwater, with memorials to the vessels that have failed to safely negotiate the challenging entrance. A final stretch through the harbour landed me at the "official" start/finish of the trail, within sight of the railway station, and with plenty of time for the Tern to undergo an origami transformation from touring bike to luggage for the trip across the alps, very different from the gruelling stage coach ride of Charlie Douglas's time.
Journey's end: Greymouth breakwater