45.1 mi / 8.0 mph / 2011 ft. climbing
Home: Hans Bay DOC Campsite
At their 7am opening we entered McDonald’s for breakfast (er, I mean, “Macca’s for some brekkie”), since it was steps away from the Backpackers and the last chain eatery we’re likely to see for some time (Greymouth is by far the largest town on the lightly-populated West Coast). There is apparently no Macca’s early-morning old-folks group in Greymouth, we were the only ones inside.
The West Coast Wilderness Trail starts in Greymouth, and as it exits town it runs near the water while the highway parallels it somewhat inland. We’re broadly going to be riding the Trail, but we aren’t religious about such things, so normally I’d pick the fast-riding paved highway (with shoulders). But since there aren’t many other places along the West Coast where the ocean will actually be in sight, I figured it was worth the “cost” of the slow-riding gravel. I was wrong; while we got some glimpses of the Tasman Sea rolling in from Australia, for the most part we were tightly enclosed within dense coastal bush. But! That bush did a great job of blocking the crossing headwind, which would have slowed us more than the gravel if we had been on the more-open highway. A case where two wrongs do make a right! Just how I drew it up.
The direct route from Greymouth to Hokatika is 23 miles. Via the Wilderness Trail it’s 58 miles. So we were definitely taking “the scenic route”, hopefully in both the colloquial and literal senses! We cut inland toward Kumara, and at that point, did skip a few miles of the trail and opted for the low-traffic highway into town (and skipped even more winding nonsense on the way out of town). In the middle we stocked up on water (refilling bottles and adding 3L to our bag) because the DOC campground tonight has an explicit alert about boiling the water (in contrast to the “default” CYA warning that DOC has for every other campsite, which we have ignored to no ill-effects thus far). Then a final stop at the store/cafe where the display case tempted us into “donuts”, which were really more like two six-inch slabs of carnival-style “fried dough” stuck together with almond custard. As Rett said “this is why we ride our bikes, so we can stop and eat things like this!”
Near the top of the trail is “Cowboy Paradise”, an off-grid establishment of rooms, and maybe food, and maybe other stuff. Poor reviews and comments from other bike tourers made me already decide against staying there, but this morning the host at the Backpackers gave the most explicit warning yet: “don’t even stop pedaling through there! That guy is an insane asshole, he’s like your Trump but ten times worse!” He related that the guy’s misogyny had brought a couple of girls riding the other way to tears when they arrived in Greymouth, which led to our host driving all the way up there to tell Mr. Cowboy off. He also said the Trail people are considering permanently routing the trail around the “Paradise” (currently there is a “wet weather” bypass to be used when rain has flooded the stream crossings on the main route). So, we weren’t stopping there!
The sad thing is, it really is paradise around Mr. Cowboy’s land. It was the best section of the trail all day, and some of the most-amazing trail riding we’ve ever done. Much of it was bike-specific paths (unlike the gravel access roads that make up other segments), with a gorgeously-designed narrow track winding through dense forest, cutting down into a gorge and across across a swingy suspension bridge. While it was paradise, the tropical jungle feel to the area made the “cowboy” concept feel pretty incongruous.
The Cowboy Paradise itself was not nearly as enticing as its surroundings. It was a handful of falling-apart old buildings (perhaps under not-very-active “restoration”) and a couple of new ones, with a couple of cars (one with the hood up) being the only signs of life. I guess a “ghost town” is pretty cowboy-ish?
On the other side, the paradise resumed, but in an equally-incredibly yet different form. There was an even higher density of switchbacks, an insane, unnecessary, and awesomely high number of them! There was no real reason for so many; even reduced to half the number of hairpins, the grade would still be well under the brief 11% grades we hit on other areas of the trail. But they were fun! The corners were graded and cambered well enough that even a loaded touring bike could handle them with some speed, so while Rett “cheated” and cut straight across many of them, I loved riding them all, even though she got down the hill faster than I did walking her bike than I did riding (and, her bike-handling skills have continued to show incredible development on this route, but sharp turns are still more “chore” for her than “fun”, especially since she laid down her bike on one of the steep ones earlier, so I fully endorsed her “cheating”!)
And they went through more botanic-garden-quality landscapes, alternating between mystical forest with huge gnarled old trees and red-leaved foliage, and mountain-revealing alpine meadows, with putting-green grass as the backdrop to landscape-architect-selected plantings.
We reached our lakeside campsite (hmm, well, the campground didn’t actually have lake-view spots) after five and a half hours of pedaling time, the longest we’ve done in New Zealand, but one of the shortest-feeling because it was so much fun the whole time. Yes, there were some rough and rocky sections, some quite-steep sections, and short sections that Rett needed to walk, but it was (as advertised on the Trail’s website) so much easier than riding the gravel of the Molesworth Muster Trail. The clearest proof of that is that we rode the whole day without even thinking of lowering the pressure in our tires, (something we did immediately to soften the rough ride on the Molesworth) because it just wasn’t necessary here. On top of that, we saw a total of three cars on the “official trail” parts of the route, and five cyclists (a family of four, and a solo guy, all on unloaded mountain bikes). So even more of a paradise-to-ourselves feeling than the Molesworth.
Even though people were swimming in the lake (and I witnessed one goofball even ride his bike straight off the dock and into the lake, it was already getting fairly chilly, so we just went with sponge showers (aided by the fact that this DOC campground had luxuries like outdoor dishwashing sinks, and flush toilets!) And then the cold meant that covering up to stay warm doubled as protection from the sandflies!