48.6 mi / 10.2 mph / 2977 ft. climbing
Home: Wonderland Makarora Lodge
We stayed in Haast under a roof for two nights because the 3rd round of heavy rain in just over a week was scheduled to crash down on the West Coast on our second night. Unlike the previous one-to-three day events, this one would blast through in just a few hours, but with the ability to drop a few inches of rain in that short period. That means it came with some serious wind gusts (unlike the previous events), and while we could hear the whistling by our window as we went to sleep, our 2nd-floor shelter felt solid, warm, and dry.
By morning it had all stopped, but a couple in the kitchen who had spent the night in their campervan sounded nearly-traumatized, saying that the van was rocking, they barely slept, and it was the worst night they’ve experienced in their van. I can’t even imagine what it would have felt like in our tent!
Quantitatively, Franz Josef (where we waited out the first of these three rounds) got four inches, bringing its total over the last 10 days to nearly 20 inches! Haast got “only” 3 inches overnight, but the lack of damage, flooding, or even puddles this morning speaks more to this land’s experience in handling heavy rain than to the idea that 3 inches of rain is generally inconsequential.
There was still a bit of a risk in us moving on today. While the heavy rain was definitely done, there was a chance of light showers all day, and we had a big mountain pass to climb (and we’re still big inexperienced wussies about riding in the rain). But more significant rain is coming again tomorrow, so rather than extending our 2 nights here to 4+, we chose to push forward (and upward!) Also we would have ideally taken two days to get to Makarora, with a night of camping halfway, but since our non-shitty-weather window was only a single day, the push would be a big one.
Thus, it did not help that when we were all ready to go at 8am, our bikes were not. I had chosen the option of storing them in the woodshed, rather than outside under the stairs (more for weather-protection than security). The clerk had said someone would be around at 8am to unlock the shed (at least I’m 90% sure that’s the time she said), but then I noticed the signs said reception opened at 9am. Ugh. There was an after hours phone number listed, but when Rett called it, we could hear the phone ringing inside the office whose locked door we were already peering through (that’s not an after-hours number, guys!) I was just roaming the property looking for anyone, while Rett was fuming in frustration, partially at me. Then, at 8:37am, we saw a guy enter the office. A knock, a wave, a quick explanation, and we had our bikes. Phew!
We set out back onto highway 6, following the Haast River upstream. Traffic was absent, the clouds were low, and the river was high. And tying those gray clouds above to the gray river below was a network of brilliant white streamers. Waterfalls, dozens of them, spilling off the tops of the high valley walls on either side of us, and then eventually churning below our tires, under the road, and contributing to the Haast’s mighty flow. The only time I’ve seen anything like it was when I explored a bit up the Franz Josef valley a week ago, but the quantity and variety of falls here far exceeded those, especially since we would be riding up this valley for some 30 miles. And like at Franz Josef, being here right after a deluge was surely one benefit to the rain that’s been slowing us down, improving the quality (and maybe even the quantity) of the falls.
We were stopping every few minutes to look at a new waterfall, so at one point I had to tell Rett “no, let’s skip this one”, because we still had a long way to go with the huge hill to climb. But Rett, who always prioritizes getting the day’s “work” done as soon as possible (and much more than I do), said “no, I don’t care how long it takes us today!” That’s a better indication than any photo I could take of how great the scenery was.
At the confluence of the Haast and the Landsborough, we turned south to continue up the Haast valley (a small cell phone antenna provides a spot of service there!), where we passed some amazing slot-canyon-style roadside-waterfalls, and eventually opened onto a broad plain. The “before the climb” Pleasant Flat campground is situated there, and we considered lunch, but decided to move on to Thunder Creek Falls.
It was funny to cross the one-way bridge there, and remember that I had looked at this route before we even arrived in New Zealand, and feared that it might be dangerous or even impossible to ride our bicycles across such a bridge. By now we’ve been across hundreds of one-way bridges, and they’ve been barely a concern. It’s a good lesson that I can become too concerned with preparations.
We’d been rising very slowly for the first 30 miles, but after lunch the real climb came on immediately, hard and fast. 10-12% grades most of the way, initially with a continuous 2-inch wide drain grate running along the left side of the road near the cliff that otherwise would have sent a river down the roadway.
It was a seriously challenging climb, not improved by the arrival of our first actual rain of the day. But with frequent pauses to catch our breath (allowed by Rett’s ability to now restart her bike on 10-12% grades!), we made it 700 feet up to the top with only 100 yards of pushing, and that only because at one point passing cars made Rett too nervous and she had to stop.
There had been a French bike touring couple in the Haast Backpackers with us this morning, though we didn’t really talk with them. They left a bit before us (since their bikes weren’t locked up!), but near the end we caught and passed them (and a little earlier we passed a couple of guys riding the other way, precisely at Haast Pass, all of us excited for a downhill!) But then for some reason the guy left his wife behind and raced past us again (later he said we inspired him for the final push, which is cool I guess?)
But the push got both of us under the roofs of the Wonderland Makarora Lodge just as the heaviest rain of the day began, quite contrary to the forecast, but perfectly timed for us.
An entire day spent inside our cute A-frame, when again contrary to the forecast, it rained nonstop until evening. The on-site restaurant and small-but-useful grocery corner at the lodge did a fine job of keeping us fed for five meals without needing to lug up groceries from Haast.