Part 3 NZ cycle – The wild west coast

After our relaxing foray kayaking Abel Tasman, our next goal was the formidable west coast. We had heard a lot about the never ending rain and were keen to find out for ourselves.

This post covers a lot of ground, all the way from Marahau at Abel Tasman down to Wanaka, a distance of 800 km spanning days 15 to 28.

Upon leaving Marahau our goal was simple. Burn time. Franz Josef was 500 km away and we wanted to get there ASAP to give ourselves days off down near the glaciers of Franz and Fox. So that’s what we did, our fitness was up and my knee issue was pretty much resolved.

Camping on our way to the west coast
Enjoying a satisfying dinner on our way to the west coast

The next five days our distances were 82, 108, 63, 123 and 124. We were flying! And in classic west coast fashion we were hit with some rain. The rain wasn’t like the heavy rain from back home though. Over in New Zealand it just drizzled incessantly. The clouds lingered overhead rather than sweeping in and out.

During this leg I reached my maximum speed of the whole trip – 68km/hr down a hill approaching Murchison. This was also the hill that a bag of kiwi fruits fell off my bike with a satisfying “whack”, and splattered themselves across the road. Unlike Matt, I was sick of eating kiwi fruits and I had successfully gotten rid of them in a completely innocent way.

A note for future touring cyclist’s there is a smooth, quiet and sealed secondary road from Ikamatua to Greymouth (50km) that gets you off highway 7. Well worth it!

A fancy sign at Hokitika beach
An artistic wooden sign at Hokitika beach

We were in Hokitika on Day 18 when we met Lari, a cycle tourer from Finland. His schedule aligned with ours almost to the tee and we spent a good two to three weeks riding with him into Queenstown. The funny story about Lari is when he arrived for his 12 week stay in New Zealand he had no intentions of cycling at all. In the end he cycled 1850km from Auckland to Queenstown, driven by the freedom and low cost of cycle touring.

Day 19 was our first day riding with Lari and it sure proved to be one of the most memorable. 124 km into Franz Josef, the equal longest day of the trip, with a good 80 of those through constant rain. When we arrived in Franz Josef we were saturated but deep down very satisfied. The hot shower was incredible.

Drying our clothes in an inventive way using a hot air vent. The dryers were terrible.
Drying our clothes in an inventive way using a hot air vent. The dryers were terrible.
Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef glacier
Cycling from Franz to Fox
Cycling from Franz to Fox

We ended up staying six days around Franz and Fox townships and our west coast experience was built around tramping up Mt Fox and tramping the Copland Track. Both were very challenging in their own way.

Mt Fox was a day hike up to a lookout 1000m above Fox glacier. The day was fine and sunny after days of rain, however as we discovered as we neared the top, cloud cover was low which cut visability to about 100m. We passed ten other hikers and everyone gave off a negative attitude.

“How was the view from the top?” I asked. “We didn’t make it, damn forest never ends” The first couple replied.

“It gets really muddy up ahead and you won’t be able to see anything”, another frustrated group pointed out.

Matt and I perservered though and eventually our shoes were so muddy we couldn’t care anymore about dodging mud. We reached a vantage point only to find we couldn’t see anything either.

C'mon clouds, lift!
C’mon clouds, lift!

We decided we’d wait it out for an hour and see if it cleared. About half an hour later I said to Matt, “Is that a river down there? ….. Hang on, I think that’s the glacier!”

It was and we were over the moon about our sneak peak. The photo might not look like the best view in the world but at that moment it was. All our work tramping up this ridiculously steep mountain and pushing on when others had indicated to turn back had paid dividends. Each step of the three hours back down was made that little bit easier.

The view that we treasured. Fox glacier.
The view that we treasured. Fox glacier through the clouds.

The next day we regrouped with Lari to spend three days tramping the Copland Track. Most people opt to only go the 18km to Welcome Flat hut but in our customary desire to tackle the toughest challenges available we opted to go the 25km to Douglas Rock hut. It was tough alright!

The trail sign said 8 hours one way to Welcome Flat hut and 11 hours to Douglas Rock hut. Pfft we thought. These signs are always extra conservative. Well no, not in New Zealand. It took us the full 11 hours and just about all our energy.

Lunch along the Copland
Lunch along the Copland

Lari was a strong hiker, and Matt and I were usually playing catch up with our weary legs from the Mt Fox climb the day before. After passing the Welcome Flat hut and hotsprings (which were remarkable but riddled with sandflies) the track became much tougher but on the positive side also more scenic. Most challenges centred around rock hopping to avoid getting a shoe full of water.

One of many rock hopping challenges
One of many rock hopping challenges
Just beyond Welcome Flat hut the track passes through vast open fields. Not we had to hike with our bikes pannier bags.
Just beyond Welcome Flat hut the track passed through vast open fields. Note we had to hike with our bikes pannier bags.

Nearer to Douglas Rock however the track just went up and down repeatedly. Up five metres, then down five metres and on and on. I’d have to say that even compared to all the hiking I did in Canada this last hour before reaching the hut was the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. Each step was a struggle at times in our hungry and tired state.

As is usually the case though, reaching our goal made it all worth it. The hut was brilliant, positioned in a valley surrounded by sheer mountain walls (shown in the feature image for this post). It was just us three in the eight bunk hut enjoying the comfort of the fireplace and even got lucky enough to listen to an avalanche thunder down a nearby mountain.

Me, Matt and Lari in the hut
Me, Matt and Lari in the hut

Our original plan was to tramp out the next day but our bodies objected and the next night we stayed in the two bunk Architects Creek hut. Scissors paper rock it was for a bunk. Unlucky Lari.

It was a good feeling getting back on the bike again on our way to Wanaka. Strange how after a few days off the bike you long to get back on it, but after a few days on it you long to get off it.

Day 26 was 124km from Fox to Haast. In my attempt to make cycling easier however, I overinflated my rear tyre and 70km in I found it bubbling out over the rim. Not good.

I managed to limp the remaining 50km into Haast, stopping several times to wrap duct tape around the tyre and rim. I was hoping there would be a bike shop in Haast to grap a new tyre but there wasn’t.

We made the decision that the best option for me was to catch the bus to Wanaka. Better to get there than be stuck on the side of the road needing to hitch hike with a bike. So that’s how I skipped the formidable Haast Pass.

Matt said that as soon as my bus passed him and Lari their moral dropped big time and all they wanted was to get to Wanaka and get off the bike.

They experienced some of the toughest riding over Haast Pass but also what they say was the most picturesque riding beside Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. You always have to take the good with the bad when cycle touring.

One of a few swing bridges along Copland Track
One of a few swing bridges along Copland Track
Welcome Flat hut hotsprings
Welcome Flat hut hotsprings
Lake Matheson near Fox township was amazing!
Lake Matheson near Fox township was amazing!
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One thought on “Part 3 NZ cycle – The wild west coast”

  1. Brilliant adventure! Fancy missing the Haast Pass on the bike…. you’ll have 2 go back 2 NZ mate!!!

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