Sunday, 15 January 2017

The West Coast

It's funny how your expectations of places differs from reality sometimes and the long journey up the west coast certainly defied my initial thoughts on what the road would be like.

I knew it would be steep in places, and I also knew that I'd most probably be fighting the wind most of the time as the most common wind direction in New Zealand is a North-Westerly.  What I didn't expect was quite how isolated and quiet it would be. Starting my leg up the west coast in Haast was a bit of a sign of things to come.  The town was basically a U-shaped road of about half a kilometre long with the odd house and establishment on either side, and that was it.

After Haast, there was almost nothing until Fox Glacier, about 140Km away.  There was the odd house in the middle of nowhere, and curiously a woman with a near new-born baby selling coffee and light snacks from a trailer she was towing.  She had just started-up a new franchise business.  Seeing as I hadn't seen a soul for miles and was in dire need of a break, I stopped and bought a couple of ice creams and a muffin.  She seemed thankful as business was slow.  However, shortly after I arrived and series of people stopped for coffee, which made me feel a bit better about things.  I did have cause to be optimistic for her for the upcoming summer season, though, as she was the only person offering refreshment on a road that would surely be frequented by more travellers inside about a month or so.

While eating my ice cream and looking out at the rugged, choppy waters of the West coast, a few of us noticed some Hector's dolphins not far offshore.  Hector's dolphins are endemic to New Zealand and are one of the smallest species of dolphins, very cute little guys.  I had seen only bottle-nosed dolphins in Milford and Doubtful Sound, so it was a lucky encounter.  A worthwhile ice cream break indeed.

As mentioned in the blogs on Milford and Doubtful Sound, the West coast is one of the wettest parts of New Zealand, so I wasn't that hopeful of good weather.  I had my sights set on staying either at Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier at the end of day one up the West coast.  I was advised by my buddy Alex to also try and visit Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier, for famed reflective views of the mountains in the lake, however, this required nice weather which wasn't forthcoming.  With this in mind then, I decided to head onto Franz Josef Glacier, only another 25Km away.

I say only 25Km, but when you've already had 130Km of hilly cycling in your legs, another 25Km up and down is not always easy.  I was also pre-warned of 3 big climbs to overcome in the short distance between Fox and Franz Josef Glacier.  I prepared myself with some food and a rest at Fox Glacier and headed-out.

The first climb began straight-away and lasted for a very long time.  Strangely, though, I was taking it in my stride.  By this point my legs had become so accustomed to the regular arduous climbs, they were coping amazingly well with almost anything New Zealand could throw at me.  I felt almost invincible,  I was beginning to relish the climbs and wasn't even close to stopping and pushing, even when they were severe, I had plenty in reserve.

The second climb was almost as long as the first and the roads weaved up and down and around some beautiful mountain scenery on exciting roads to cycle on.  It was another good cycling day, despite the occasional rain showers.  The third and final hill was a tiddler by comparison and I sauntered into Franz Josef with ease.

Throughout my journey through New Zealand, I always kept a close eye on the weather reports.  As slightly unreliable as they were, they were usually spot on when it came to heavy rain forecasts, so I knew that the next couple of days would have to be spent resting if I wanted to get any glimpse of the glacier at Franz Josef at all.  Heavy rain was forecast for two straight days.  I wanted to see the glacier, and for two days a heavy covering of cloud and mist covered about half of the mountains, obscuring any chance of a view, so I just waited for the better weather.

Some nice trail runs in the rain past fast flowing rivers caused by glacial melt-water..

Luckily, I found the cheapest hostel of the trip.  I signed-up to be a member of the YHA hostel group earlier on my way through the South Island.  My membership not only entitled me to the standard money-off deal, but also gave me a whopping extra 25% off a night down to the fact I was a low-carbon traveller.  This meant I stayed 3 nights for just $16 a night.  A really good rate, especially considering the location.  The hostel was also very well equipped with Sky TV, which I took advantage of, watching some cricket while it chucked it down outside.

Even in the rain, I was itching to do something, so I took the opportunity to do a couple of trail runs on some of the shorter little trails in the area.  For some reason, I have always enjoyed running in the rain.  Cycling in the rain, however, is normally not nearly so much fun.

Top of the Alex Knob track.

Finally the rain cleared, so I headed up the Alex Knob track - yet again completely alone. The trail was about 17Km return and fairly steep up to about 1300 metres.  It was cloudy, but at least not rainy for most of the way up to the top and then snowed while I was up there.  It looked as if the clouds weren't going to clear for me, but eventually did and very swiftly, giving excellent views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains and coast.

Seeing as it was such a nice day, I decided to walk to the face of the glacier also.  It was quite amazing how much it had receded over the years based on the photos of the previous year's position of the terminal face of the glacier.  It certainly made for a longer walk than in previous years.

All in all, I had another one of those headless hiking days doing over 30Km if you include the walking to and from the glacier area, the Alex Knob track and the walk to the terminal face of the glacier.  I was pretty beat again on returning late in the afternoon after an early start.  I couldn't hang around any longer in Franz Josef, though, and left the following morning.

The next stop was Hokitika, another 140Km away, and the first major town for a while.  I was running out of food, so this came as a welcome stop because of the opportunity to shop at one of the big chain supermarkets in New Zealand, New World.  I stayed in a quaint little hostel run by one of many English expats who seem to enjoy running these sorts of businesses in New Zealand.  They weren't the first Brits to be running one of the hostels I was staying at, and they weren't to be the last.  I reckon about 50% of the places I stayed at were operated by Brits.

The weather forecast was challenging me once again to put in a big next day and sit it out for a rest the following day.  This time another 140Km (this was for some reason a very popular average distance between major stops) of extremely difficult cycling with lots of climbing.

I was getting somewhat concerned about the state of my front tyre.  I had replaced the back tyre in Melbourne when I had my bike serviced between my Australia and New Zealand trips, but the front tyre stayed the same and was also the tyre I switched from the back half-way through the Australia leg.  I was starting to see the thread showing through the rubber, so it needed a change before the inevitable puncture.

Knowing that I'd have a day-off in Westport, I bought a new tyre in Greymouth and I didn't put the tyre on straight-away and just carried it with me.  It was going to be another long day in the saddle if I wanted to get to Westport and I didn't need a delay and figured the old tyre would probably last until then.

The Pancake rocks at Punakaiki.

The cycling got gorgeous once again on the way from Greymouth to Punakaiki, and culminated in a fascinating little break at Punakaiki's, "Pancake Rocks".  Again, not one to disappoint, New Zealand served-up a truly unique piece of coastline not even the best scientists can explain.

After timing my stop to Punakaiki perfectly with a bit of downpour, the weather lifted and I was back on the road for an exhilarating coastal cycle up some steep inclines, with marvelous cliff-top views all around.  There were plenty of people stopping to take in the views and marveling at how I was managing to pedal up the steep roads.  I was feeling pretty smug about the fact that these hills were no longer breaking me as they once did, and would surely break most people trying to cycle up them with the kind of load I was carrying.  Again, I was feeling like superman.  It really is a nice feeling to be that strong, it doesn't happen often in life.

A wonderful days' cycling was finished at the rather dreary industrial town of Westport. Not one of the prettier places of the trip, but it had a hostel and a bed, which is all that mattered.  The people there seemed very working class and the whole place appeared a little run down and out of money.  I used the opportunity of another town to stock-up on food again for a potentially long stretch without a major supermarket.  As it turned-out, however, plans were to change ever-so slightly.

No comments:

Post a Comment