We headed up the East Coast of the South Island for our last week. From Central Otago we went to Christchurch via Timaru, then on to Hanmer Springs, Blenheim, and back to Picton for the ferry home.
I had been to Christchurch a couple of times since the big earthquakes of 2010/2011, but both times had just been day trips, and I had not gone into the centre of town. This time we did, and I was somewhat shocked at how torn up much of the city still is, and how much there is to do. There are a huge number of levelled off areas, and still too many buildings that have not been torn down (although they should be). I understand that it takes time, but if I was living there, I would be pretty upset about the rate of progress.
Certainly things are under way, and there’s some pretty cool “temporary” food/shopping/entertainment areas, but I wonder what the long-term impact to the city will be. Businesses have re-established elsewhere – either on the outskirts or outside Christchurch – and I wonder how many of them will return to the CBD. What will that do to the city if it no longer has a strong “heart”? Does it become a soulless sprawl of a place? The current trend, particularly amongst younger people, is to want to live in central areas – what happens if they don’t want to live in Christchurch because it has no well-defined centre? I hope they can get over their inertia, and re-build the city into a place with a strong identity and style, in the way Napier rebuilt.
One of the nice things we did was to catch up with Karen & Hamish, who live in Christchurch these days with their two young kids. Had to have a glass of Lindauer, for old times sake.
Slightly back inland, and up in altitude to Hanmer Springs, an old thermal resort town. It doesn’t just have hot springs though – they’ve been building a network of mountain bike tracks to go with the walking trails. This was a nice town to stop in for a few days, and take it easy. A nice bit of relatively easy riding, and then a soak in the hot pools. I have to say that Anna and I are not made for sitting around doing nothing. We looked at the people sitting for hours in one pool, and thought “Not for us” – we had more fun spending a bit of time in each pool, working our way around all the pools, then getting out after a couple of hours. Don’t know how you’d spend a whole day there.
The interesting thing about Hanmer is the altitude, and the difference this makes to the weather. It can go from baking hot one day, and then drop down to only 8° the next day. You definitely want to be carrying decent clothing when you’re out on the trails.
We had a few hours to spare in Blenheim, so headed over to the Wither Hills bike park – Anna was most upset that there wasn’t any wine at the top of hill
I’m not really sure what was going on here. I think maybe we’d spent too much time with each other over the last few weeks?
And as for this, I think I’m stuck in a giant mousewheel:
The next stage for our summer trip was Central Otago. From the West Coast we had a long day of driving via the Haast Pass. Luckily this was the only day of serious rain for our whole trip. There’s a lot of isolated, rugged terrain down the West Coast, dense bush, and steep mountains. Cross over the alps, and suddenly the terrain becomes a lot drier, and opens right out.
We established a base camp in Ranfurly, right on the Otago Rail Trail. This gave us easy access to the Rail Trail, with Naseby Forest nearby for mountain biking. The Otago Rail Trail was the first multi-day off-road cycle trail established in New Zealand, and it has become a combination blueprint/showpiece for the other trails that want to establish themselves. I had ridden part of it a few years ago, and was looking forward to getting on the trail again.
Getting settled into our cabin at the Ranfurly Motor Camp, we saw that our neighbours were on bikes too. Their bikes were left unlocked outside their cabin, and they appeared to have passed out on their bed, still in their biking gear. Later we saw that him carrying her around the campground, too tired to walk. Hmmm…it’s just not that hard a trail, what’s going on? They’d only ridden around 35km that day, but it seemed the headwind and slight uphill gradient had gotten to them. It’s a very easy trail, and very accessible to a wide range of fitness levels – I have to assume that she was unwell – most non-cyclists will have no trouble riding 35km a day, especially if you’ve got 8+ hours to travel that distance.
Having Lew with us made planning much easier – the Otago Rail Trail is effectively a point-to-point ride, and we didn’t really want to have to go out and back. Lew was able to drop us off at Omakau, and we could spend the day riding back to Ranfurly. On the second day on the Rail Trail we were able to ride out from Ranfurly, and meet Lew at Hyde.
The trail itself is an interesting mix. It’s a mainly gravel trail, following an old railway line. This means the trail is quite flat, but it also means there’s a few old bridges and tunnels where the line passes through gorges. This is very nice, but the flip side is that sometimes the trail is very long, straight, flat and…dull. It’s definitely still a trip worth doing, but just be aware that it’s not ALWAYS amazing biking and scenery. Overall highly recommended, particularly for those who haven’t done much cycling.
We did have one break-down – our only mechanical issue of the whole trip. I was riding along when I had a blow-out, with all the air quickly rushing out of my rear tyre. Looking at the wheel, I saw a spoke nipple had broken off. I assumed it had broken off and driven up into the tube, but it turned out that I had a separate gash in my tyre. At least it was a pleasant spot to stop and make some repairs.
Replaced the tube, couldn’t fix the spoke on the trail, so just rode gingerly down to our meeting point – luckily we only had a few kilometres to go!
Of course, it wasn’t just about the cycling:
We were in Ranfurly for New Years Eve, and were asking at the bar what might be happening that night. “Oh hopefully it will all be over by 10:30.” We went over to Naseby for a drink, to see what was happening there – it was a little busier, but if you really wanted a big party, heading over to Rhythm & Alps near Wanaka was probably a better option. No matter, none of us were into a big night out.
You might also be wondering what Lew was doing while we were out riding. While he did get out and about, sometimes he just took advantage of the peace and quiet:
The most anticipated ride of our summer trip was the West Coast Wilderness Trail. The trail runs from Greymouth to Ross along the West Coast of South Island of New Zealand. It only officially “opened” in late 2013, but it still has parts under construction, and some areas with alternative routes in place. For practical purposes, it’s open right now from Greymouth to Hokitika, and our plan was to ride that section.
Our plan was to spend two days riding on the trail – the first leg would be from Greymouth to Kumara, and then the following day from Kumara as far as we could go. Luckily we had our support crew (Lew) with us, so we could get dropped off at one point, and then picked up somewhere else. This dramatically simplifies the riding. For those without support crew, I’m sure that shuttle services are available – it’s worth spending a bit on this, and not having to do “out and back” rides, or trying to make it into a loop.
“This fabulous cycling adventure guarantees an outstanding landscape ride through dense rainforest, past glacial rivers and lakes and through wetlands, all the way from the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps to the ocean.”
Greymouth to Kumara
We were driving down from Nelson, so arrived in Greymouth in mid-afternoon, for the first leg. We found a park in town, and started getting organised. Now where exactly does the trail start? Oh right. We managed to park RIGHT NEXT to the official start point! Nice parking there. Gear up, say goodbye to Lew, and plan to meet up again in a couple of hours in Kumara. It’s around 35km from Greymouth to Kumara, and it’s all flat. We wind our way out past the small port, and settle onto a mostly gravel trail that runs parallel to the shoreline. This means no traffic, but at times it does make for slightly dull riding. But it’s all very easy going.
At times the trail moves closer to the road, but it’s all traffic-free, until we get to this bridge:
Yes, that’s right folks. This is the main highway down the West Coast, and it has a one-lane bridge, that also has a railway line running down the middle of it. Currently the bike trail also goes across this bridge. It makes for an entertaining crossing – luckily there’s some friendly drivers around, and they put us in front of them, and shield us somewhat from the other traffic. Phew. It looks like they’re building a “clip on” lane for pedestrians/cyclists – the sooner it goes up the better. Later we spoke to a couple who were carrying their young children with them. Not only did they have to negotiate the cars, they’d also had the misfortune to arrive exactly when the one train that day came through.
Up until this point, the trail was reasonably well-signposted. But after the railway bridge, the signs seemed to stop. The only option was to follow the main road until Kumara Junction, then turn off and follow the road to Kumara. Hunting around online seemed to give some contradictory answers – some sites said the trail went via the old Kumara Tramway, others showed a road alternative. We ended up following the road, which had no shoulder, and feeling somewhat miffed, like we were missing out. We could see a couple of spots where the trail seemed to be built, but it was deliberately fenced off. I was annoyed about it, and worried I’d missed some signposts. But later I spoke with other cyclists, and found out that it was the only option available at present. It will be finished off soon hopefully.
We had a quick look around in Kumara, a historic gold-mining town. The Theatre Royal Hotel has had a massive amount of money spent on it, and looks to be well set up for the hoped-for influx of cashed-up bicycle tourists. It looks like a great place to have a beer, but I don’t think I could afford to stay there. Out of our budget. Instead, Lew drove us through to Hokitika, where we were staying.
Hokitika was packed with people, and cars with bikes on board. It seemed that we weren’t the only ones who decided to ride the new trails, and I’m not sure that the locals were ready for it. Almost every bed in town was taken, and we were lucky to get into the local pizzeria – they had to close the doors at 7:30pm because they’d run out of food!
Kumara to Milltown
The following day Lew dropped us off back at Kumara, for what turned out to be the best single day of riding for the whole trip. It starts out gently enough, with a mix of single track and gravel roads, before things get a bit more interesting with a diversion through an old gold-mining area.
But then you start working your way around TrustPower‘s Kumara/Dillmans Hydro scheme. Now things step up a gear as you look out over mirror-like lakes, with snow-capped mountains in the background. You start thinking “This is what I signed up for!”…but push on. You go deeper and deeper into the country, and suddenly you’re feeling quite isolated. Bush all around you, steep mountains, very little sign of human habitation.
Later in the day the trails go through more bush, and you hit glorious switchbacks, rolling on and on downhill, with the odd scary swingbridge:
Racing down through the bush, and suddenly you pop out at “Cowboy Paradise.” Huh? This is a rather odd place – it’s set up like a one-street cowboy town, where you can pretend to be a cowboy, and start shooting things. There’s a bar, and the accommodation should be ready by now. But when we were passing through, the main saloon was being completely rebuilt, with huge piles of timber sitting around. No matter, the bar was open, and we were ready for a drink. A very relaxed sort of affair, you drink what you like, then at the end the total gets totted up, and the cash is just strewn across the bar. Bring cash, I’m not sure if Eftpos was available. Absolutely sensational views of a Arahura valley, where my wife’s grandfather ran a huge farm:
From here we went back into the bush for more nice trails, before glorious switchbacks down through open fields:
We then had a bit of a grind along a gravel road down a glorious river valley, before being picked up by Lew. Fit riders who start early in the day could make it through to Hokitika, but we were happy to be picked up.
Overall Impressions: Do It
I highly recommend this ride – it was an amazing view of this country, seen from a very different angle. Stunning scenery, a feeling of isolation, and riding surfaces & gradients that were achievable to most. There weren’t many riders out there younger than us. This will be a fantastic ride when it is completed, and will become a major attraction in the area, providing for much more sustained income than the Wild Foods festival.
One local we were chatting to had been involved in much of the planning and preparation for this trail. The long-term plan is to extend it from Karamea all the way to Haast, almost entirely off-road. This would probably be 10 years away, but if they can achieve that, this will become one of the greatest bike trails in the world.
A Note on Hokitika
My wife still has some relatives in Hokitika, and we had a nice time meeting some of them. It is a somewhat isolated town, and it’s not very large. One particular comment struck me when we were there, chatting to the locals:
“Sure, of course I remember when XXXX died, what was it, at least 10 years ago? He was a good sort. But as I said, I’m still fairly new to the area”