"Gidday, mates. How ya’ going? Straight up, we’re knackered! Just cycled the Coast, sweet as! Beaut of a ride…took nine days. We almost got buggered by Cyclone Gita. Whole lotta wop-wops, eh? And heaps of hills…that bloody Haas Pass - she’s a steep one. Pull up a seat, grab yourselves a glass of Sauv – there’s a cold Marborough in the chilly bin – and I’ll tell ya’ all about it!”
My friends, that is the language of New Zealand, “chocka” with lovely Kiwi slang! Isn’t it great? By way of translation, “wop-wops” are places far from other civilization, a “chilly bin” is a cooler and “Marlborough”, of course, is the country’s famed wine district. Thanks to the awesome staff at TCB (the local bike store in Ohakune where we were mountain biking). Their input was invaluable for cultural authenticity.
Ahhh, the Wild West Coast! It lives up to its reputation. Crammed between the savage Tasman Sea and the snow-cloaked peaks of the Southern Alps, this long, narrow stretch of land down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is rugged, remote and sparely populated. It forms almost 9% of the country’s land area but contains less than 1% of its population.
Our cycling odyssey began in Christchurch, a city still struggling with the aftermath of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. It was sobering to see entire streets and neighbourhoods abandoned and the city’s heritage architecture irrevocably damaged. The Kiwis, a resilient bunch, are busy rebuilding - though I fear it may take more than one generation.
To get to the West Coast, we cut clear across the country on the TranzAlpine Railway, traversing South Island’s rocky spine, the mighty Southern Alps. One of tunnels was 8.5 kilometers through solid bedrock and left us in total darkness for 18 minutes. It was a breathtakingly scenic, five+ hour journey.
Here’s a funny train story! At Arthur’s Pass, we made a brief stop to drop off some passengers. The rest of us were told we could step onto the platform if we wanted, but to re-board immediately at the sound of the whistle signaling the train’s imminent departure - it wouldn’t wait.
I was so busy visiting with our lovely Kiwi seat-mates, Kate and Janet, I didn’t realize Don had disappeared…until I heard tapping on the window next to me. Gesturing through the glass, he managed to convey he had gone out for a stretch and was locked out of the departing train.
Paralyzed by the humour of the situation, I was useless - although I did manage to confirm the door wouldn’t open from the inside either. Thankfully, Kate had the presence of mind to tear off in search of a conductor. The ending was happy when she tracked down an official to let him back in, but the incident caused much hilarity in our train car. In fairness to my hubby - none of us heard the whistle.
At the station, we were met by our gracious Kiwi guide, Emma, with news that Cyclone Gita was heading our way and on track to hit the West Coast the next day. She transported our little group of six and our rental bikes north to Punakaiki, our departure point the next morning, and if you’ve been following our travels, you won’t be surprised to learn my rental was an E-bike (E = electric). The Milford Sound trek had not been kind to my sprained ankle and trading in my road bike rental was a case of (reluctant) adaptive acceptance!
Pre-dinner entertainment that evening was compliments of the geographically famous Pancake Rocks near our motel. When the Tasman sea surges through the bizarre limestone landscape of blowholes and pancake-shaped rock formations, it’s as dramatic to hear as it is to see.
The next morning, the skies were dark and the forecast ominous…but, what the hell? In New Zealand, the forecast often has little to do with the actual weather. We pulled motel shower caps over our helmets, donned everything Gortex in our suitcases, mounted up and headed south along the sinuous coastal highway - the mountains on one side of us, the crashing sea and empty beaches on the other. Our destination - 84 km down the road - was Hokitika, a famous gold rush town in the 1800’s.
By the time we hit Greymouth for lunch, we were soaked, the wind had picked up serious strength and businesses were closing because of the approaching cyclone. We even had to try a couple of cafes before we could find one that would stay open long enough for us to eat.
After lunch, the wind was so brutal it almost blew us off our bikes. We contemplated packing it in, but then the road turned and the vicious headwind became a pushy tailwind, so we hung on - even though conditions were deteriorating by the pedal stroke. To add to the weather woes, my E-bike - which was so heavy it took three of us to haul it up stairs - was powering off at random. It probably didn’t like the rain either! I had thirty kilometres left to ride, when it died completely. Without the magic of E-assist, riding that beast of a bike the old fashioned way was a workout!
Soon after we reached the hotel, Mother Nature reminded us who was boss. The heavens opened and the winds roared, as Cyclone Gita tore through town. When we awoke the next morning, the roads on both sides of us were closed. While Guide Emma checked weather and highway advisories, we waited.
Our destination that day was Franz Josef Glacier, 135 km to the south! By late morning it was still raining, but the road was open and Emma – my hero - had arranged a sleek, new E-bike for me. Considering we’d just survived a cyclone, we had a great day of riding. Franz Josef (the glacier) is a mere six kilometers from Franz Josef (the small village) where we stayed. The glacier, which descends from the tops of the Southern Alps into rainforest below, provided us with staggering views on our stroll to dinner and we loved the vibe in this lively little village.
The rest of the trip flew by with decent weather – at least by West Coast’s standards - and even some much-appreciated sunshine. We enjoyed a day off cycling in the stunning Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, where we did rainforest and seacoast walks and watched the naturalist feed long-finned eels. When the lamb was dropped into the river, the water churned with their writhing, black bodies and they slithered up the bank to grab the raw meat with their tiny teeth. I still have nightmares!
Upon reaching Haast Pass, we left the West Coast, headed inland and the dense brush gave way to open sheep paddocks and lime green hillsides dotted with grazing cattle. Riding into Wanaka was sublime! The road above the wind-whipped Lakes Wanaka and Hãwea skirted their shores and we were carried into town with a powerful tailwind and dramatic, across-the-lake, mountain vistas as our backdrop. It’s so true – to a cyclist, happiness is a tailwind!
Our second day off was in lovely Wanaka - the less flashy sibling of Queenstown - and it could hardly be considered a day off. The glaciers, waterfalls, unspoiled rivers and craggy mountaintops of the Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mt. Aspiring National Park awaited. When water covered the road partway to the trailhead, Emma took off her shoes and socks and waded in to discover if it was fordable in the van. We took a vote, it wasn’t…and a 10-km day hike turned into 14-spectacular-kilometres. It felt like we were in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The last day of riding was into Queenstown via the Crown Range Road, the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Electrical propulsion was a definite asset! Okay, I’m not going to lie - a person could get used to one of those bikes! For all you skeptics who think I was slacking, I still had to pedal! Riding an E-bike the big distances we did on this trip, is like doing an endless spin class.
Alas…our time Down Under is over! We hiked! We biked! We explored! We experienced! We ate far too much Hokey Pokey ice-cream! But even with seven (busy) weeks, we ran out of time. The images posted with this blog include our West Coast cycling adventure and more...
New Zealand has so much to offer its visitors. It blows me away, figuratively…and literally. At the moment, we’re trying to travel home in the wake of yet another tropical storm, Cyclone Hola. This time it’s heading towards the the Bay of Islands on North Island and yup, that’s where we are now. It’s coming for us. Wish us luck, mates!
Epilogue: We’re home safe & sound! Distracted by a drive through the cyclone, cancelled/delayed flights and international travel back to Canada, I didn’t get around to posting this in New Zealand – but better late than never! Cheers…