Friday 21 December 2018

West Coast Trip – 28 November to 9 December 2018

Hello everyone, we’re back!

Although I haven’t posted any blogs since 1 May (about a ride to Pencarrow in March), we have been cycling. We have done mostly local rides that I have described a number of times before, so there was no point in going over the same ground again and again. But my total e-bike mileage now stands at 7,692 km, which is nearly 1,200 km more than at my last post in March, so we haven’t been slacking!

2018 has been an uneventful year for cycling trips away, but two weeks ago, we came back from our trip to the West Coast of the South Island. We had been wanting to ride the West Coast Wilderness Trail for several years now, but other things kept getting in the way.

I must say, it has been worth the wait. What a spectacularly beautiful country we live in, and the West Coast is among the best! And just don't believe all the stories about how it rains all the time on the coast, and about the voracious sandflies! We had no problems on that score. We were incredibly lucky with the weather: though for many of the days, the forecast was for rain, we mostly had fine weather, and when it did rain, it was after we had finished cycling for the day – except for one day when we got absolutely drenched!

Planning a trip away had to be fitted in around my Scottish country dancing commitments (which by now include four different “hats”, so they keep me busy and out of mischief). We planned to do more than just the West Coast Wilderness Trail, which can be done over four days. We were away for 12 days, including two in Westport, four on the Trail, and two in Kaikoura, so I shall write up this trip in several parts. Here is where you will find Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

West Coast Trip – Part 1: Wellington-Westport-Greymouth

Day 1 – Wednesday 28 November – Wellington to Westport

We took the early morning ferry Kaitaki from Wellington to Picton. Despite the Captain’s forecast for the crossing of “moderate to rough”, it wasn’t too bad, but it was overcast and a bit chilly, so we stayed inside. When we were some distance into the Sounds, there was a bit of excitement when a large pod of dolphins played, leaping and diving, alongside the ship for a while.

The holiday season has not yet begun – there is still room on the vehicle deck

We rolled off the ferry at Picton before midday and set off on the road to Westport. First stop: St Arnaud, where we drove down to the reserve at Lake Rotoiti. There was a large group of DOC (Dept of Conservation) people on the jetty, peering into the water. It turned out they were looking at whole lot of great big fat eels that had apparently come into the shallows to be fed.

Eels and ducks: a different take on “getting your ducks in a row”.
The ducks were interested in being fed too! (photo by John)

Once the other people had gone, we were able to take the “iconic” photo of the jetty, looking out towards the mountains beyond the lake. Unfortunately the effect was somewhat spoiled by the boat tied up alongside.

The jetty at Lake Rotoiti (photo by John)

As a place to have lunch, St Arnaud was pretty much a lost cause, but we were able to score a coffee and piece of cake at the Alpine Lodge. The surroundings are very attractive but it was empty; perhaps the place will be a bit livelier in the skiing season.

Coffee and cake at St Arnaud’s Alpine Lodge

In Murchison, we stopped for petrol and then headed to the Beechwoods Café, in search of an ice cream. It took a while before we were able to attract the attention of a staff member. I waited patiently, but after she had walked past and eyed us up several times without offering to attend to us, I just had to speak up! Anyway, we got our ice cream, and while we were eating it under the verandah, we were treated to a sudden and violent downpour! The weather had been a bit dodgy for most of the day, with periods of rain here and there, but this was something else! Fortunately it was brief, and after ten minutes, the rain had abated enough for us to be able to run to the car without getting saturated.

A sudden downpour in Murchison (photo by John)

The Buller Gorge was beautiful. The rain soon abated, it stopped and started a few times, but we were able to pull up at a few viewing areas to take photos without getting rained on. We took a few “passengers” along too (sandflies), which I duly murdered!

I noticed that everywhere alongside the road and in paddocks there were clumps of pink foxgloves - just beautiful.

The Buller River in the Buller Gorge (photo by John)

At this point there was a plaque, commemorating Thomas Brunner’s epic journey to trace the Buller River to the sea, go down the West Coast and find a pass across the Southern Alps. 

A plaque commemorating Thomas Brunner’s lengthy journey

Our next stop was at Kilkenny Lookout, where there is a bend in the river. A bit further along was Hawks Crag, a place where the road had been carved out of a vertical rockface. This road was first built in the late 19th century, and the cliff posed quite a challenge to the road builders

A bend in the river at Kilkenny Lookout, and the cliff at Hawks Crag (photo by John)

The road narrows where it was carved out of the cliff at Hawks Crag

It was after 6 pm by the time we got to Westport. We had booked our accommodation for the next two nights at “Utopia Retreat”, a lovely unit on the property of Raewyn and Geoff, in a gorgeous setting overlooking the estuary of the Orowaiti River. 

The house was surrounded by bush, with a couple of short bush walks on the property; there were some very solicitous chickens in a chook run that would come rushing over in hopes of treats every time anyone went near the fence, a cheeky weka on the prowl for left-overs from the chickens, and a friendly black Labrador, called Jet. Inside the unit we found not only fresh milk in the fridge, but in a basket on the bench, freshly-baked home-made bread, butter, Raewyn’s own plum jam and marmalade, and some fresh eggs. What a welcome!

The garden overlooked the estuary of the Orowaiti River (photo by John)

Solicitous chickens (photo by John)

We put our stuff inside, then drove into Westport for dinner at “Johnny’s”, where we had a nice – very big, West Coast sized – meal, and were “entertained” by a group of diners apparently out to party, with one guy playing a ukulele, and everyone singing. Quite fun actually.

We drove around Westport for a bit, and then back to the unit, trying to get there before the lovely sunset had finished. We were just a few minutes too late.

The last of the sunset (photo by John)

Day 2 – Thursday 29 November – Karamea and Denniston

We got up early, and John went down the garden to take photos of the estuary – so beautiful and peaceful. He also took a wander on one of the bushwalks. Some evidence remains in the bush of the damage the West Coast suffered during Cyclone Ita in 2014.

The estuary in the morning light (photo by John)

The driveway into the property is surrounded by bush (photo by John)

Remaining evidence of Cyclone Ita’s fury in 2014 (photo by John)

We drove north towards Karamea. I had wanted to take a tour to the Oparara Arches and caves, but I would have had to book earlier. So we just decided to drive there and see what we could see.

The scenery is spectacular. Along the coast to Granity, and we stopped at a beach at Ngakawau/Hector where we took photos and I picked up some beautiful stones. The beach had the most amazingly smooth flat pebbles and stones.

The beach at Ngakawau, by the mouth of the Ngakawau River (photo by John)

I loved these beautiful smooth flat pebbles (photo by John)

A bit further along we stopped at Mohikinui, where we stood on top of the sea wall - just mounded up beach sand to act as a barrier against the eroding effect of the waves. Granity and Mohikinui both have sections and houses which risk being swamped by the sea during bad storms.

The sea wall at Mohikinui beach (photo by John)

There was a long winding road over bush-clad hills, and we stopped to take photos of amazing rock formations. I felt furious about the names and initials that had been carved into the rock by some self-entitled idiots. What makes these people think it is OK to deface something so beautiful? Aaargh!

Dense bush lines the sides of the winding road – a giant matai towers over it all (photo by John)

Beautiful rock formations

When we got to the small settlement of Karamea, we talked to the lady in the Information Centre to get some idea about the Oparara arches and caves. It was quite a long winding, gravel road, she warned us, but the area is beautiful and worth the trip. She told us about the Oparara Arch and the Moria Gate Arch. I really wanted to see the Oparara Arch, but I didn’t do my homework well enough, and we stopped at a parking spot just short of the main entrance to the walks, where there was a set of information panels, so we didn’t get to see them until the end of our walk.

We stopped by the start of the Moria Gate Arch walking track, which was supposed to be a short loop track. That will do for starters, we thought, and set off walking.

It turned out to be a much longer walk than 15 minutes (photo by John)

Fortunately I was wearing my sturdy walking shoes, which was just as well, as it was quite a hike. The track was narrow, and we were enveloped by the lush rain forest. It is so, so beautiful: such wonderful ferns and mosses; epiphytes growing on huge trees; mosses drooping from branches; the jumble of young plants striving to get to the light; fallen or broken branches covered in moss or fungi. We took heaps of photos. Of course we can’t show you them all, but here are a few.

Old tree, young tree (photo by John)

Love in the forest: moss covers a stump in a heart shape (photo by John)

Delicate mosses …

… luscious ferns …
… and bold fungi (photo by John)

Towering trees (photo by John)

After a while we arrived at the entrance to the Moria Gate cave, up some stony steps, and then steeply down through a very small gap. Apparently, by going through the cave, one could get to the bottom of the arch, but we thought the entrance looked too hazardous to try. Too skinny, too steep, too slippery, and we didn’t want to tempt fate so early in our holiday!

It told us to go through the cave to get to the Moria Gate Arch

The steps to the entrance of the cave (photo by John)

Access to the cave was through the V-shaped gap at the bottom of the photo (photo by John)

By continuing on the loop track, we did get to see the arch, albeit from a distance, and from above, rather than from below. The arch is a limestone tunnel carved out by the Oparara River. It is 19 m high and 43 m wide and its ceiling is extensively covered with stalactites and roots.

The Moria Gate Arch – the colour of the water is caused by tannins (photo by John)

It started to rain, gently at first, then a bit harder. When we got to the Moria Gate Mirror Tarn – a small lake in the midst of the forest – there were no reflections to be seen as the surface was disturbed by the rain.

The Moira Gate Mirror Tarn

Eventually the loop track got us back to the road, but we weren’t sure whether the car was down the road or up the road. I thought one, John thought the other, so we each started walking in opposite directions, and the first one to find the car would win! After covering quite a distance, I heard John in the car, tooting behind me – he had been right – of course!

We briefly stopped at the ‘correct’ carpark, to look at the information panels. By then it was getting too late, and I was too footsore, to still try to walk to the larger, and more impressive, Oparara Arch. We still had the long drive back to Karamea, and back to Westport.

And on the way back, I wanted to visit the Denniston Plateau. This was the site of a coal mine and thriving mining community in the latter part of the 19th C and early 20th C. 

I have read both of Jenny Pattrick’s novels (The Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal) about life on the Denniston Plateau back in the late 19th C, and I was quite keen to see it. It is now a ghost town and historic site. 

It is way up the hill, and just like in the story of The Denniston Rose, it was wreathed in mist, which gave it a bleak and eerie atmosphere. We walked the track around Denniston - no houses are left, but pieces of rusting machinery and ruined building remains are scattered on the site.

Mist enshrouds the site (photo by John)

Rusting machinery …

… and ruined building remains (photo by John)

Abandoned coal wagons in the mist (photo by John)

Nowadays there is a good road to get up there, but back in the day, the only way to get the coal from the tops to the railroad at the bottom (a drop of 500 m), was the Denniston Incline. This was a “self-acting” ropeway that used gravity to lower the full wagons. Each descending wagon hauled up an empty one by means of wire ropes, each wagon attached to its own rope and brake drum. This was also the way people and materials were transported up to the plateau or down again. Going down would have been a pretty hair-raising ride!

You can look down the “Incline” where the full coal wagons were sent down the hill.

The top of the Incline (photo by John)

Coal wagons at the top of the Incline (photo by John)

Building remains at the top of the Incline

Sturdy stone walls, now crumbling, supported roadways in the settlement

There were information boards near the railhead, and near the car park, with lots of photos and diagrams.

An information board shows what the railhead was like in its heyday

Information panels by the carpark (photo by John)

The track around the site was well marked. The rose and the heart on the white panel at the bottom are a reference to Jenny Pattrick’s books The Denniston Rose, and Heart of Coal (photo by John)

It was after six when we finished looking around the Denniston site, and we made our way back to Westport, 15 km away, only stopping to look at the view of the sunny plain below, through the mist at the top.

Looking towards Westport from the Denniston access road

Day 3 – Friday 30 November – Westport to Greymouth

In an article about Westport in a NZ Today magazine (a great magazine, by the way!) on the coffee table of our unit, I read about the bike trail around the river, and port and town. We decided to do that. Having asked our host if it was OK to leave our car and our belongings in the unit for a bit longer, we biked into Westport right from there. It was lovely, we did 19.5 km in the sunshine.

Getting from Utopia Rd to the start of the trail near the Buller River Bridge was about 6 km. We followed a quite narrow little track through the trees alongside the river - having established that we were on the right track by talking to a gentleman walking his English bulldog.

Utopia Road (photo by John)

Then into town, where we had coffee and shared a piece of carrot cake. The man at the cafe was enthusiastic about cyclists, and mentioned that in the news that day (he showed us the newspaper) there had been an announcement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of a big dollop of cash having been allocated for developing tourism on the West Coast, including $9.36m for a cycle trail along the coast. 

Great news! $9.36m to build a new cycle trail between Westport and Charleston (photo by John)

We rode along to the port, which, oddly, is only visible from the cycle track. A very peaceful sight. And then we biked on a track around the lagoon, and onto the breakwater.

I wonder how many boats there are in the world with the name “Lady Jane” (photo by John)

The start of the Lost Lagoon Track

A memorial to the crew of the Kaitawa (photo by John)

At the end of the breakwater is a memorial to the crew of the Collier M.V. Kaitawa, which sailed from Westport, but never came back, as it foundered off Cape Reinga in 1966.

After our ride, we went back to the unit to have some lunch – Raewyn’s beautiful bread and jam – then bade farewell to our hosts, and set off towards Punakaiki and Greymouth.

Along the way, we stopped at Fox River to take photos of a very enticing-looking cleft in a rock, which unfortunately we couldn’t get to, and to take a walk across an old wooden bridge.

The cleft in the rock at Fox River (photo by John)

The old Fox River Bridge. The inner barriers are a safety measure,
while repairs are carried out (photo by John)

The top of one of the bridge piers

On towards Punakaiki, with a few stops along the way for photos of the gorgeous views. For the first time on this trip, we saw quite a lot of tourists, mostly in camper vans - both big and small.

The coast from a lookout just before Punakaiki (photo by John)

At Punakaiki – the name is a Māori version of “pancake”, describing the layered rock formations – we did the walk along the clifftops. It is amazing to see the layers of rock and the way it is being worn away by the sea.

The clifftop path is flanked by flaxes and nikau palms (photo by John)

The name Pancake Rocks is very appropriate (photo by John)

The sea swishes in and out of these breaks in the cliffs … (photo by John)

… leaving great caverns and blowholes (photo by John)

The rocks provide perfect roosting places for a colony of terns
(click to enlarge) (photo by John) 

After an ice cream from one of the “touristy” roadside shops at Punakaiki, we finally made our way to Greymouth, from where our main reason for this trip – the West Coast Wilderness Trail – would start.

We checked in at Greymouth’s Seaside Top 10 Holiday Park, where we were staying overnight before our big ride, and where we were able to leave our car for the next four days while we were biking the West Coast Wilderness Trail.

The Holiday Park was right on the Trail, quite a distance from the town, so we decided to bike into town, to the official start of the trail, just so that we would be able to say we had done the whole trail.

We biked the track and onto the breakwater, where we watched a ship (a dredge) coming into the Grey River to the port of Greymouth. 

The dredge Kawatiri enters the Grey River (photo by John)

After a pizza in town, we headed back to our unit to start re-packing our bags for the next day.

Originally, when I was planning this holiday, I thought we would get the Wilderness Trail Shuttles to transport our bags from one accommodation to the next, and then take the shuttle from Ross back to Greymouth. However, when I tried to book that, they told me that our plans didn’t fit their schedule, and we should think about packing “minimal” gear and taking it along on our bikes. I was not impressed. Moreover, the shuttle was due to leave Ross at 2pm, too early for our needs, we thought, and it would cost us $180!

So we did a rethink: we would take the minimum of what we needed in our carry-alls (as we had done on our Nelson Trip), and leave the rest in the car. Then, after cycling the Trail, we would fold our bikes, pack them in their bags, and take the bus back from Hokitika to Greymouth. A much better deal, it turned out, as it only cost us the princely sum of $38 for both of us and our bikes!

The only worry was: would we be able to keep our stuff dry if the forecast rain was going to be heavy? We took precautions by packing things inside zip-lock bags and we had large plastic rubbish sacks to cover our (not quite water-proof) carry-alls in case of rain. But as it happened, the rain stayed away for most of our time on the trail.