Cycling the South Island's West Coast Wilderness Trail by Anna Harrison

Cycling the South Island's West Coast Wilderness Trail

Anna Harrison embarks on four days of cycling to explore the beauty and history of the rugged West Coast on the West Coast Wilderness Trail.


They say you never forget how to ride a bike. But the last bike I remember riding was a bright red one with a panda painted on it and trainer wheels attached.

As it turns out, it's true, you don't forget. But there's also more to it than just sitting there and pushing the pedals. I'm in Greymouth to do four days of cycling south along the West Coast Wilderness Trail.

You wouldn't think the notoriously wet and wild Coast would be the best place for cycling but we're here in autumn and the outlook is actually pretty good - high cloud, fine spells, not a breath of wind.

The track starts out opposite the railway station in Greymouth and follows the Grey River on a wide footpath, the perfect place to reorient myself to riding. I'm sitting on a 20-speed, aluminium-framed mountain bike. Panniers on either side are packed with the day's supplies.

My friend is more of a cyclist than I am so he offers a few tips. But it takes me a while to get the hang of it, working out the gears on each side and how to get the most out of my untrained legs.

Luckily the first section from Greymouth to Kumara is pretty flat so we're soon cruising along, following the coast with surf crashing to our right, until we come to a turnoff I want to take.

Twenty minutes up the hill is Shantytown Heritage Park, which I visited as a child. I have fond memories of gold panning there and putting my brothers in stocks at the jail; their memories are probably less fond.

Shantytown hasn't lost any of its charm. It's set up like a gold-mining town in the late 1800s and shops such as the bank, bakery and post office feature curiosities from ages past - a butter churn, a washer ringer, scales for flour and scales for gold, old watches and spectacles and rusted tins of Chelsea golden syrup.

Crude suturing equipment in the hospital gives me the shivers and at the theatre I find bloomers made from old cotton flour sacks and wonder how itchy they would have been to wear.

But I'm most excited about the steam train. The smell of burning coal is enough to take me back to childhood. We jump aboard and head up the track into the bush, to an old sawmill.

Seeing the sawmill and the mining setup gives us an appreciation of what a tough life it would have been, felling logs in the bush, slicing them up at the mill and harnessing water and steam to get at the gold. And it sets the scene for the areas we will cycle through in the coming days.

After Shantytown it's not much further inland to Kumara, our destination for the day. As we approach the rural town, we travel through a stand of totara and rimu, all to attention like a guard of honour. It's a fitting welcome considering the effort I'm putting in - 29km on our first day, a great start to our trip.


Anna Harrison tries a huhu grub. Photo / Anna Harrison


On day two we face "the most challenging section" according to the track literature. Which is a euphemism for lots of uphill slog. But it's also the part I've heard the most about, with other cyclists saying the views make it all worthwhile.

But before we head off from Kumara we take a look around the Theatre Royal Hotel.

It started life in 1876 and served as a dance hall, hotel, bar and, at one time, a brothel.

In its heyday people came from all around to see travelling circuses, concerts and shows. Now it's a charming Victorian-style hotel and restaurant that is set up to look after cyclists.

Over coffee a woman from Westport tells us stories about the area while waiting for her friends coming along the trail.

Those friends are doing the Tour Aotearoa - 3000km of cycling from Cape Reinga to Bluff. They're easy to spot; they have focused, weathered faces and are powered by smooth pedalling. As for me, one day in and my bum is sore so I push off gingerly and wobble a bit as I pedal.

The trail takes us through the back of sleepy Kumara and starts up a gentle incline; my thighs soon begin to burn.

As we get higher, I get slower until a steep gravel hill looms in front of me and I finally cave - there's no way I'm going up there on two wheels. So I stop and walk my bike up the hill, the bruise to my ego eases slightly as a few other cyclists do the same.

Further up we come to the Kapitea Reservoir, where a young German family are packing up ready to head off. A small green bike is attached to dad's, allowing the 5-year-old to pedal if she wants to - which is not often, he tells us. At the back of mum's is a bike buggy, with the baby tucked inside.

If I was intimidated by the Tour Aotearoa people before, I'm floored by these guys; they've been cycling around New Zealand for two months already, stopping wherever they can put a tent up, and with a child and baby in tow. No mean feat.

Inspired, we come to another body of water - a beautiful lake pooling at the end of what turns out to be a huge water race. These are channels originally cut to divert water for gold mining.

As we head around the gravel road, the sun comes out and I can see to the bottom of the lake. Logs breaking the surface suggest sunken buildings.

The track continues to climb, alongside a pebbled river and through sections of forest until we're high in the mountains I admired from below.

I've got the hang of the gears now - changing with the best of them. But I'm getting pretty tired.

As we get closer, some kind soul has put markers out. One promises 5km to Cowboy's Paradise. Soon, 4km to go.

The final hurdle is a series of switchbacks down the side of a hill - I struggle to maintain control around the corners and visualise myself flying off the track and landing in a heap.

But I make it safely down and we arrive at Cowboy's Paradise. It's as cheesy as it sounds - a few buildings set up to look like an old Western town, complete with a saloon selling liquor and a shooting range. Unexpectedly, it also offers some flash accommodation in the form of converted shipping containers.


My muscles are not happy today. After throwing myself into it, I'm tired and sore. Still, today's a mostly downhill stretch out towards the coast.

We cross the Arahura River, a name I remember from a holiday spent ploughing through The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton's tome is based on the gold-prospecting days of this region. Later I recognise Gibson Quay and Revell St.

As I try to recall the intricacies of the plot, we come to Lake Kaniere, a glacial lake formed thousands of years ago. It is stunning. Reflected clouds shimmer in the water, framed by an alpine range and the lake edge softened by forest.

After soaking up the view for a while, we head into the forest. It's thick with ferns and along one side of the track is an historic water race with wooden beams holding up the bank. It was built for gold but is now used for generating electricity.

My muscles are warmed up now and we zip through the forest, enjoying the twists and turns of the track until a heavy kereru darts out in front of me, nearly making me crash.

At a small clearing, we come across a woman pouring a flask of Milo into porcelain mugs and three old men building something. "It's a cafeteria for you cyclists," one says. It takes me a second to realise he's joking.

They're actually building a frame to protect an historic sawmill flywheel that has been vandalised by kids. And they're almost as old as the wheel - one says he's 82 - but they're tough Southern men, working in the bush. Still they're very friendly and none of them so much as flinch when we let slip we're from Auckland.

Back on the bikes, the trail opens up to a wide track. I'm really enjoying the riding now, weaving alongside streams. And as we come up the hill we arrive at Hurunui Jacks. It's the home of John and Maureen and they offer cabin accommodation as well as luxury glamping.

But we're after coffee. We take a seat in the "office" while Maureen goes off to get us a bottle of fresh milk. It's an eclectic room, with John's fly-fishing equipment on one side and screen-printed T-shirts for sale on the other. Dennis the dog is curled up in a blanket on a wooden chair.

It's the kind of place that's instantly relaxing and we're tempted to spend the rest of the afternoon chatting. But we have to keep going to Hokitika - we've got a date.

It's Wildfoods Festival today, an annual event attracting thousands keen to test their tastebuds on a variety of meats, seafood, insects and offal.

When we arrive the band is in full swing, there are impressive wild-themed costumes around and the lines are growing at each stall.

At the huhu grub stall teenage boys are chopping logs, picking out live grubs and offering them to the keener punters.

The pudgy, white bugs squirm around on a plate, but I'm not having a bar of it - instead I order a small one, barbecued thank you very much. It's tiny, and not nearly as terrifying when it's not moving, stuck on the end of a toothpick.

I close my eyes and pop it in my mouth, chomping once or twice and swallowing quickly before my brain can catch up with what I'm doing. It's chewy, and not half bad. But huhu grubs are pretty tame in the world of Wildfoods. University students are lining up to down fish-eye jelly shots and live scorpions. I pass on the mountain oysters.

Instead I go for the delicacy the West Coast is known for: the whitebait fritter. It's light and fluffy and delicious - just perfect.


Locals delve through a woodpile looking for the grubs. Photo / Anna Harrison


First up today, coffee - I need to settle my stomach after the oddities of Wildfoods Festival.

Sipping on a brew as good as any at home, we pop into the Ngai Tahu-run pounamu workshop to admire some impressive pieces and the skilful carvers at work. Even before the gold rush, West Coast pounamu was highly sought after and is still found among the driftwood on Hokitika beach.

But we haven't got time to find our own today. We're off on the bikes and once we're out of Hokitika, we turn inland into wetlands, home of the kotuku, or white heron. Having never seen one, I scan the water's edge, but to no avail.

This part of the track follows an old tramway that once led to the Mananui sawmill. What's left of the mill is rusting in a clearing - bits of concrete wall and broken boilers and wheels.

Then a chainsaw starts up somewhere in the bush and the smell of freshly cut trees brings the history to life for me. I can picture the men, 100 years ago, hauling the logs out on the bogeys along the tramway to the mill.

The juddery track over buried railway sleepers jolts me back to the present. To give our bums a break, we take a 15-minute walk to a picnic spot at Lake Mahinapua for lunch.

It's proper enchanted-forest stuff. We step carefully over twisty tree roots and blankets of moss. Red berries and speckled toadstools dot the edges of the path and hollows in trees offer homes for the kind of woodland animals found in storybooks. Flitting fantails and a yellow-breasted tomtit come up to us, chirping away.

After lunch, we follow a rural road around the back of the lake, joining up with an old rail route that travels along the coast. It's a long straight stretch, wide enough for a car, edged by gorse and flax. After 10 minutes, I'm sick of it.

After another 45 minutes I find myself wishing for hills to keep me sane. And the most frustrating thing is that my body is now used to this cycling gig and my legs are doing great.

But the trail continues, long and straight until suddenly, in the distance, a pole! As we get closer, there are old gold cart carriages hidden in the bush and I'm thrilled when we arrive at an old bridge over a rocky riverbed.

We stop to admire the view and there in the distance, I spot him: my kotuku, perched on the river edge, looking for food to snap up. It's a welcome reward.

From there it's only a few roads to Ross, an old gold mining town surrounded by forested hills.

I want to try my hand at gold panning. For $10, you can hire a shovel and pan and go up the river to fossick in the public areas. For an extra $3, you can pan behind the heritage centre - where gold is guaranteed.

I'd like to think I would go up the river, relive history and experience it the way past generations did. But frankly I'm not that patient.

So I pay the extra and shake my pan of rocks in the water, back and forth, until that thrilling moment I spot gold flecks at the bottom. And with that I can go home happy.