The West Coast Wilderness Trail

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.

West Coast Trail - Click for Map View
West Coast Trail – Click for Map View

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.

The trail promises:

“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.

Greymouth Trail Start - click for larger
Greymouth Trail Start – click for larger

At times the trail moves closer to the road, but it’s all traffic-free, until we get to this bridge:

Combination Rail & Road Bridge - click for larger
Combination Rail & Road Bridge – click for larger

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.

Gold Pits - click for larger
Gold Pits – click for larger

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.

West Coast River - click for larger
West Coast River – click for larger
Feet Up  - click for larger
Feet Up – click for larger
Click for Larger
Click for Larger
West Coast Trail - click for larger
West Coast Trail – click for larger

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:

Bridge 3 - click for larger
Bridge 3 – click for larger
Bridge 2 - click for larger
Bridge 2 – click for larger
Swingbridge 1 - click for larger
Swingbridge 1 – click for larger

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:

Cowboy Paradise Saloon -  - click for larger
Cowboy Paradise Saloon – – click for larger
View from Saloon - click for larger
View from Saloon – click for larger
Arahura Valley - click for larger
Arahura Valley – click for larger

From here we went back into the bush for more nice trails, before glorious switchbacks down through open fields:

Anna - click for larger
Anna – click for larger
Valley Trail - click for larger
Valley Trail – click for larger

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”

I guess it’s a bit like that.

Anna - click for larger
Anna – click for larger