Riding the West Coast Wilderness Trail, New Zealand: Naturally beautiful

On a fine morning in Hokitika, Mount Cook and Mount Tasman seem to hover like glass figurines at the end of the streets. It's a striking vision of New Zealand's two highest mountains that's ably matched by the grand architecture that seems to enclose them in this small town that gold built.

There are imposing neoclassical buildings, a Romanesque church and the art deco geometry of the Regent Theatre propped on one corner of the main street. Stand for a few minutes and you notice one other curiosity about this west coast town – there are typically almost as many bicycles as cars in the streets.

Hokitika sits on the course of the West Coast Wilderness Trail, a 139-kilometre cycle path between Greymouth and Ross that is one of the most naturally beautiful of the 22 routes on the New Zealand Cycle Trail network.

Our ride begins in Ross, an unpretentious small town that was the scene of New Zealand's largest gold strike – a three-kilogram nugget that was gifted to King George V, who promptly melted it down to make a tea set.

Ahead of us is a journey into a land and a history rich in green and gold, passing through valleys that yielded greenstone for the Maori and gold for the European settlers, and darting between rainforest and wild west coast beaches.

Outside of Ross, the trail passes the West Coast Treetop Walk, where an elevated walkway circuits through the canopy of a lush rimu and kamahi forest. Fittingly, it's here that the trail first burrows into the rainforest that so defines the ride. And just as fitting, it's pouring with rain in this region that gets bathed in about three metres of rain a year.

"If you can see the tops of the hills here, it's about to rain," our guide and west coast local Rodger Mills offers as a weather forecast. "If you can't see them, it's raining."

The trail from the treetop walk follows the course of an old logging tramway, still ribbed in part with old sleepers, and cutting through the rusting remnants of a former sawmill. It's a reminder that after gold came timber, with this region once responsible for 20 per cent of New Zealand's timber production.

Along the tramway, ferns are splayed overhead like ineffective umbrellas, and there's a perverse kind of pleasure to cycling in the rainforest in rain. The trees and plants look washed and fresh, even as mud sprays from my wheels and I blink raindrops from my eyes. To my right there's the rumour of snow-capped alpine mountains, and the rainforest crowds so close it's like cycling through a green tunnel.

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This first day ends in Hokitika, just 40 kilometres along the trail from Ross. We pedal into town over the Hokitika River, from where the tall cupola of St Mary's Church creates a scene not unlike cycling into a European city.

Hokitika was put on the modern map by Eleanor Catton's 2013 Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, which was set in the town that was once a grand centre of gold and wealth. In the late 1800s it was New Zealand's largest port, with up to 40 sailing ships waiting to dock outside the shifting river-mouth sandbar that wrecked so many of them. The sense of ocean menace remains, with the beach littered with enormous driftwood, much of which has been stacked into an ad-hoc outdoor art gallery.

Hokitika is a Maori name said to mean "place of many returns" because the people continually came back to the area to gather greenstone. Today, the stone – jade to some, pounamu to the Maori – feels like a currency again in Hokitika, with greenstone souvenir stores dominating its main streets.

Weather moves through quickly in string-thin New Zealand, and by the next morning the sky is unblemished by cloud. The Southern Alps are etched against the sky, and the coastal plain, which is dotted with glacial lakes and striped with wide braided rivers that drain down from the mountains, is laid out like a welcome mat for cyclists.

At Hokitika, the West Coast Wilderness Trail turns inland, heading towards (but blessedly, never quite reaching) the foothills of the Southern Alps. Past the small town of Kaniere, the trail follows an old water race that connected Lake Kaniere to the goldfields at Kaniere, scene of the Chinese camp in The Luminaries. During the gold rush, an old woman is said to have grown vegetables around the lake, floating them down the water race in shoeboxes to supply the miners with vegetables.

The race's narrow channel is cut deep into the earth, curling through dense rainforest, and the trail beside it is almost as skinny. Weta and pukeko – part of New Zealand's suite of flightless birds – dart across the track, while fantails and bellbirds tune up their songs in the canopy.

Hokitika is just a few kilometres behind us, and yet in here it feels almost as though we've pedalled back into prehistory. It's an ongoing feeling across much of the Wilderness Trail, where towns are never far away but, as the name promises, there's a distinct feeling of wilderness.

Finally the trail pops out blinking from the canopied darkness into the open space of Lake Kaniere. On this hushed morning, the reflections of the Southern Alps appear stamped onto the lake surface. Pulling up beside me is Grafton cyclist Colin.

"That's the best bit of trail I've ever ridden," he says. "That rainforest..."

And yet there's arguably more spectacular riding ahead even on this trail.

From Lake Kaniere, the trail makes one of its few notable climbs, rising over a small ridge before dropping into the Arahura Valley and a classic bit of Kiwi scenery – translucent river, hillsides tangled with rainforest, bare tussock-covered mountain tops above.

The Arahura was one of the major sources of greenstone for the Maori, and also a rich gold-bearing valley. The gold rush has long passed, but the precious metal continues to be found in the region. Rodger, a former emergency doctor, farmer, shearer and published poet, is also a gold prospector, panning the west-coast waterways.

"On a good day I can get about seven grams of gold," he says. "On a bad day I get to enjoy the scenery."

Even that sounds like a day well spent here, for the views are truly precious. By the time we pull up to walk into the poorly named Cesspools, a gorgeous, duck-egg-blue stretch of water higher up the Arahura Valley, there are more proclamations of wonder coming from the group.

"That has to be the prettiest scenery I've ever ridden through," I hear one rider declare.

From the Arahura River, the trail begins a series of tight switchbacks, turning a mountain into a molehill in a cleverly designed climb, almost tying itself into knots as it coils up to the wonderfully named Cowboy Paradise.

Here, poised above the Arahura Valley, a replica cowboy town is being constructed by a local farmer – an ambitious and incomplete Wild West arising in New Zealand's natural wild west.

Past Cowboy Paradise, things briefly steepen before the trail descends to a weir and the start of a more modern water race that connects a string of alpine lakes. The water here in the race is exaggeratedly transparent, and riding atop its embankments reminds me of towpath cycling along European canals.

Another series of tight switchbacks brings us down into the small town of Kumara, scene of New Zealand's last great gold rush – here, a glacier ripped open a seam of gold, spitting nuggets across the land. Hints of the gold rush remain in a sign warning of the presence of a mineshaft right beside one of the trail's bends, adding a literal pitfall to the ride.

By Kumara, the West Coast Wilderness Trail has almost returned to the coast, where it makes its final roll into Greymouth, but the town itself might also easily be the story of the trail.

Like the Otago Central Rail Trail before it, the West Coast Wilderness Trail has reinvigorated the towns through which it passes. Before the trail opened in 2013, Kumara was a dying settlement. With 8000 cyclists now riding the trail each year – a figure forecast to grow to 15,000 – Kumara is enjoying a renaissance.

The gold-rush-era Theatre Royal Hotel has been restored, and cottages along the town's main street converted to tourist accommodation. At one point in the afternoon there are two cycling tour groups in the pub, and I count eight bikes belonging to independent cyclists propped against the hotel walls. 

Build it and they will cycle.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

newzealand.com/au; nzcycletrail.com/trails/west-coast-wilderness-trail 

FLY

Air New Zealand flies direct daily to Christchurch from Sydney and Melbourne. See airnewzealand.com.au.

TOUR

Adventure South operates a five-day West Coast Wilderness Trail trip, departing from Christchurch. Guests return to Christchurch on the final day on the TranzAlpine Express railway over Arthur's Pass. See adventuresouth.co.nz

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Adventure South and Tourism New Zealand.

FIVE OTHER SOUTH ISLAND CYCLE TRIPS

OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL

The trail that spawned New Zealand's cycle-trail boom loops for 150 kilometres through gold-bearing valleys and character-filled towns. See otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz

OLD GHOST ROAD

A mountain-biking marvel, this challenging 85-kilometre trail (the longest bit of single-track riding in the country) follows a never-completed miners' trail over the mountains from Buller Gorge. See oldghostroad.org.nz

ALPS 2 OCEAN

Begin at the foot of the country's highest mountain and finish 305 kilometres later on the coast in Oamaru – all downhill, at least in theory. See alps2ocean.com

TASMAN'S GREAT TASTE TRAIL

Ride up an appetite worthy of 174 kilometres of pedalling among the producers and vineyards around Nelson. See nzcycletrail.com/trails/tasmans-great-taste-trail

QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK

A shared hiking/cycling path that bumps along the shores of Queen Charlotte Sound – ferry to Ship Cove and mountain bike back over two or three days. See qctrack.co.nz

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