As far as cycle touring in New Zealand goes, the West Coast Wilderness Trail may be the easiest track around. Granted, I haven’t done them all but I chose the simplest on the map that I’ve never been near. I’ve also never ridden a rail trail which I hear is fairly simple and flat. Keep in mind, flat terrain doesn’t always make it easier. There could be rain, mosquitoes, and punctures!
I chose to venture off to New Zealand’s West Coast (not the be confused with the west coast of the North Island) to christen my bike (see previous post about the build). I chose the West Coast because it meant I wouldn’t have to tote my bike on a ferry or plane. I could take the train over the mountains and sit peacefully in observance as the snowcaps passed me by. AND it would only require a long weekend. From Greymouth to Hokitika (the remainder of the trail down to Ross is incomplete until October 2015) is roughly 100km. Easy! Not really, I’m just trying to sound tough. I was eager to hit the road and I knew that before the heatwave arrives, I needed to get out there. That, and the threat of mosquito season was terrifying.
Like any good cycle tourist (ew! not the “T” word), I watched the weather everyday leading up to the week of my trip. By Monday, all signs were ‘go” and I booked the train and shuttle. Then I thought long and hard about the biggest decision: what am I gonna wear? The West Coast has a reputation (as does the rest of New Zealand) for weather that will change at the drop of a hat. I have two panniers, neither of which would hold enough clothes (mostly rain gear) and a tent to make it one of those kind of adventures. So camping was out of the question. I’d simply pack for the cold, rain, sun, heat, wind, snow situations I would most likely encounter and book nice accommodations with heaters and warm showers (Speaking of warm showers, have you heard about the website? Well, it doesn’t work in remote place like Kumara or Cowboy’s Paradise. So don’t bother). I chucked in some fruit, topped up my cash and hit the road.
I rode from my house to the train station. Actually, my partner offered to drop me off in the car and I refused. I was too damn proud to start the big adventure in a car. So we rode our bikes together. He claimed he wanted to see the train station for himself. I think he was more nervous about the trip than I was. I checked in, gave my obligatory speech about where I’m from, why my accent isn’t like the ticketing agent’s and got my boarding pass. We walked to the luggage dock, I slapped a bright yellow bag tag to my bike and handed my life into the hands of the nicest man ever. He, like many, was SHOCKED I’d be traveling ALONE to the West Coast with my bike AND at this time of year. Calm down people, I’ve planned for this all along!
I said bye and boarded the train with my helmet and panniers, quickly realizing not a single soul on the train had a helmet. Off we went, charging toward the mountains. Several stops, a couple of coffees, but mostly me, my tunes and the giant view out of my window. We traversed river after river and the views switched back and forth from one side of the train car to the other. The further inland we rode, the better the view became and in a flash, you were at the foothills of some of the most magnificent mountains on Earth: the Southern Alps. And just like the name says, it’s like the Alps (although I’ve never been, this is a Google-Images-supported-statement) but in the Southern Hemisphere. There are no words to describe the scene though– only EPIC. Trains are the forgotten transport that I highly recommend. I’m not a huge fan of driving. Being the co-pilot is one thing, but everything passes you by if you’re the driver. And trains take you places cars can’t go.
I left on a Friday morning, a relatively low traffic day in the winter for train travelers. I arrived in Greymouth around 1:30pm, ahead of schedule. I knew I had roughly 30km ride ahead to get to Kumara Junction and the rain was rolling in quickly. Despite the looming ugly weather, I wanted to see a bit of Greymouth. I rode up and down the main street, quickly window shopping from my two-wheeler. I stopped for a coffee and Dp1, a quirky cafe serving C4 coffee. I downed my flat white and headed up the ramp to the official start of the track. It felt like this moment, given all I’ve dreamt about, would feel more amazing, but it wasn’t. I was alone on the gravel track thinking, God I hate gravel, and pedaled into the headwind. The storm was rolling in.
The start of the track runs about 7km out of the town, onto the coastal path and then cuts into the forest. I stopped (as I recall, there were LOTS of stops) to peek at the ocean. It was my first time seeing the violent, massive waves of the West Coast and I was in awe of the stormy current crashing into the pier. I snapped a few photos and zipped up my rain jacket. It was like pedaling through the jungle, surrounded by ferns and palms, coupled with humidity that fogs up your sunglasses. I stopped about 5km in to put waterproofing covers on my bags. That’s when I heard the dreaded hole that would ruin Day 1. Ssssssss… like a damn snake in my wheel. I hopped back on and quickly pedaled to a rest stop/cafe and out of the rain. Upon inspection, I could see the tyre has a nasty hole through it. Not just a puncture in a tube but a gaping hole. Alas, I kept pedaling thinking I’d stop again, pump it some and repair the whole thing in Kumara. Bad move.
12km in, the rain slowed and I stopped to pull out my pump and give my tyre a boost. It was one of those small hand pumps for road bikes and the nozzle needed to be shifted around to fit my french valve. I managed to reverse the parts in the pump but not correctly for my valve. One press onto the valve and I went flat for the day. I sat on the side of the road, literally halfway between my start and the day’s destination and flipped a coin (in my head. I don’t actually carry coins while cycling). The nearest farmhouse looked abandoned so I began my long walk back to civilization. I tried sticking my thumb out to hitchhike but no one likes picking up muddy, rain cyclists AND their bikes. The trail itself is off-road, into the bush a bit so I hopped back in and walked to the nearest i-Site shelter. This spot wasn’t manned by anyone but had lots of ads and billboards of local hotels and services to call. I called a few spots and everyone sent me to another place for help. I finally reached the Top 10 local camper park and they sent someone to pick me up.
They were so nice to come out and rescue me. I’d done my best not to cry too hard. I was so sad I only made it 12km before considering giving up. I stayed at the motel that night ($99 for a hot shower and single bed). I ate a HUGE plate of spaghetti and meatballs at the local pub. And I rang the local bike shop, who made a house-call to pick up my bike and have it ready by morning. Kudos to you Greymouth. Despite wanting to get on with my trip, you said ‘nah’. I had to stay the night but I met some of the kindest people who turned my horrible start into a fresh beginning. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the West Coast Wilderness Trail.