Westport loomed like the gold at the end of the rainbow. This was, for me, the beginning of the promised land of New Zealand’s West Coast – where mountains meet ocean and ruggedness is standard fare. The township of Westport is a relatively small affair, situated about 70 miles north of it’s bigger city neighbour Greymouth. Arriving mid afternoon, I checked into the Westport Motor Hotel who were graciously hosting me. Another comfortable bed from which to rest and drink coffee, eat biscuits and revel in inactivity. I might stayed there all day, but luckily I had pressing engagements to drag me from my sedentary. Mid-afternoon found me waiting in the Department of Conservation offices for Penny McIntosh, who had a treat in store for me. The Department of Conservation, or DOC as the are commonly known, operate nation wide taking care of natural areas and issues. 20 miles north of Westport lies the old mining town of Denniston, located on a 600 metre plateau. In it’s heyday there were over 1000 residents up there, almost completely detached from the world below. It now sits abandoned, the old equipments resting heavily on the site like a ghost of times past. DOC are planning a foray into the world of tourism by converting the whole area into the Denniston Experience. The idea is you buy a ticket, in the form of a ‘worker’s card’ for the mine, and are transported up there, taken on a ride into the shaft and toured through the history of the place.
It’s still a few months away from launch, but Penny and her colleague Suvie took me up there to check out it’s progress. Life in Denniston could not have accommodated anything other than the hardiest of folk – 600 meters high and overlooking the ocean on that particular coast line offers spectacular views, but subjects it to weather of the most atrocious kind. Rain the size of golf balls is to be expected, as is the ethereal fog that can engulf you at a moment’s notice. I reckon the experience will be well worth taking when completed, if only to get a taste of what the miner’s and their families had to endure up there.
Rested from my night in the motor hotel, I bid farewell to the sunshine for quite some time, although at the time I did not know it. Riding to Greymouth took most of the day, and was a pleasant affair with a couple of moments of exhilarating grandeur. Winding over rises and through the inland bush, the road eventually climbs to a fair height about 20 miles south of Westport, before release onto a sharp downhill which terminated right on the coastline. Small but perfectly formed beaches give way to steep rocky bluffs, and I feel most adamantly that the beauty here rivals that of America’s Pacific Coast, where I experienced so many happy moments. Bend after windy bend presented vistas to the north and south until land eventually obscured water. The main draw on this section is Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks, called so because they resemble pancakes stacked on top of each other. Definitely worth a visit, I feel that despite their oddity they are no more interesting than that which lies around them – to me this whole area is something to be enjoyed, and does not need to be a peculiarity to draw attention. As a smaller piece of the larger Coastal episode however, the rocks are splendid indeed.
In Greymouth I was hosted by Paul Schramm, owner and operator of Wild West Adventures – an adventure Tourism company based in the city offering just a wide variety of outdoor activities for the thrill seeker. Drizzle increased in intensity, and weather and time did not allow me to try any of Paul’s recreations, but I spent a great evening with him and his family learning about just how tough his industry is. He has been in the game as long as anyone, and is still constantly having to rework and reinvent ventures to attract new customers. It is always a struggle he says, despite his skill and experience – people just have less money nowadays. They are also more likely to skip somewhere like Greymouth, which is not the most glamorous of locations, offering nearly 200 days of rainfall a year. Paul explained to me how the water comes off the Tasman to the West, rises with the heat and then finds it’s way forward blocked by the imperious Southern Alps. It can do nothing else but dump it’s load until it can pass over. Thus, the coast takes a regular beating. As I found the next day on my ride to Hokitika.
Only a short ride, I spent the majority of it driving into a Southerly, occasionally shaking myself like a dog who has just emerged from a river. By the time I reached the home of Ric I was ready for a rest. Luckily Ric is a seasoned mountain biker, and operator of West Side Rides. He’d predicted how I might be feeling so we went to ‘the office’ for the afternoon. The office, of course, was the pub. A few beers later we went back to Ric’s house where we spent the early evening making the most of a dry spell by admiring the view from his house – straight down the throat of the Alps. Ric was keen for me to stay and head out on the trails the next day, but with regret I decided to push on to – pressing engagements south were keeping me on the move.
The next day’s ride was mostly flat, but with an increasingly domineering view to the East – The Alps. Mount Hercules presented a mid afternoon challenge, but by evening I was safely camped up close to the township of Franz Josef. The area has developed an urban settlement to accommodate the few residents and many visitors to the glacier of the same name. When following morning came around, I pedaled into town to take a closer view. Normally wary of such organized activities, a Glacier Walk proved a very attractive proposition to me. And so it proved to be – guided by Jack, a crew of 15 or so of us kitted up and trailed along behind him to the foot of the massive glacier. Just standing in it’s shadow is impressive enough, but if you’re gonna do something, might as well do it properly; crampons were fitted, Jack grabbed his ice axe and we began to ascend. I’ve never walked on ice before and must say it was quite a thrill. Trekking steadily upwards we traversed crevasses and negotiated icy hazards until we reached a plateau. From here we could see the glacier rise ever upwards in front of is, and slope steadily to the ground below. Steep cliff faces on either side completed the scene, with waterfalls and a glacial river thrown in. By this stage the rain was really pounding down, so we began the descent, and within a few hours were enjoying the naturally hot glacial pools back in the township. Not a bad afternoon, it must be said, although for me it wasn’t over.
Dragging myself out of the pool, I found some dry clothes (of which I was running very low) and got back on my bike. The next settlement was Fox Glacier, 20 miles to the south. Not far at all, but with three huge climbs between us I felt like it would be good to take care of them before the next day. So it was I found myself in a veritable rainstorm climbing ever upwards over saddle after saddle. Varying in grade, all were challenging to say the least, and with never less than 5 kilometres of rise, I made slow progress. Tiring as it was, not to mention cold and wet, the reward was tangible. Each summit brought descent resembling freefall, which although dangerous in the weather provided quite a rush. Fortunately I’d began just in time; by the end of my third ascent the surface was becoming hard to grip, and the water lying thick and hazardously. A wet night just outside of Franz Josef was my prize, and I slept like a King in his Royal Chambers.
More damp riding was in store for me on the way to Haast, and coupled with thick fog it took any remaining glamour from the occasion. Unable to enjoy the scenery I got my head down and turned on the audiobook of the Hobbit. Sometimes I find it essential to completely disengage from reality, and JRR Tolkien provided more than adequate relief. 120kms later I had another miserably soggy evening on Haast. I was ready to be dry and warm again. The West Coast was a place of wonderment, but requires fortitude and I believe only accommodated survivors and those strong in mind. My moral fibre was fading, and the next day I rose early to cross the pass. The Haast Pass is the lowest of the 3 crossings inland from the coast, the others being Arthur’s and Lewis. Again, I was forced to forgo the sightseeing due to a blanket of fog, and once again Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions provided my company. The pass was steep and sufficiently testing to warrant it’s reputation, but at this stage in my adventure I have become quite good at zoning out and getting on with task in hand.
Thus it was that I crossed the Alps and descended onto the shores of Lake Wanaka. In store for me was a couple of days in a town which experiences around 15 times less rainfall that it’s counterpart on the other side of the mountains. An all year round tourist destination with skiing, watersports, rock climbing and mountain biking as standard parts of a resident’s lifestyle. Wanaka sounded like a place I wanted to be.
Accommodation and activies on the West Coast were made possibly by local owners and operators, as well as West Coast Tourism, see Sponsors page for more details
Coming up next - Mountain Time - Wanaka, Queenstown and the highest road in NZ