Wild West Coast, Revisited

by Dave Mitchell

An endless, dry summer on the South Island's West Coast. Home of my favourite singletrack - much of it recently refurbished in a surge of enthusiasm from local trail builders. Ditte, myself and our camper van spent much of twenty fourteen reclaiming old rides and discovering a few new trails. The big developments have been the West Coast Wilderness Trail and much vaunted Old Ghost Road.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail

The more relaxing of the big two, it takes in 120 km of awesome country between Greymouth and Ross - although is currently only complete as far as Hokitika. Ditte and I rode the central section south from Kumara. The smooth, wide, purpose built cycle trail climbs gently through the bush towards the mountains. We passed a number of historic gold workings before reaching the Kapitea Reservoir and spillway. 

Loopline Road then follows a series of man-made dams in the Kawaka Valley before a mix of old logging tram lines and pack tracks spat us out at the base of the Southern Alps. Water races and streams lead to the Waitaiki Reserve, with a descent to the massive suspension bridge over a deep gorge. We climbed under the hot sun to the Cowboy Paradise Ranch and shooting gallery to enjoy a ginger beer and massive ice-cream cone before the final traverse and switchback descent to Milltown, just shy of Lake Kaniere.

The Old Ghost Road

The other great West Coast cycle trail is a herculean project masterminded by a group of energetic local track builders. Plenty of others have been swept along by their passion… this summer's volunteer work scheme was oversubscribed, with significant progress made through tough terrain. 30 km at each end have been built so far with a long 20km 'work in progress' across the remote central section. When complete it will rival the Heaphy. As two separate rides it still deserves a place on your dance card.

Part One from Lyell

The ghost town of Lyell is found in the dominant Buller Gorge. From Lyell, we pedalled up the restored old dray road to the Lyell Saddle and Hut. The track continues with sweeping zig zags onto the main ridge before bolting directly for the tops - presenting uninterrupted views across to Thousand Acre Plateau, Mt Owen, the Glasgow Range and Tasman Ocean. A short carry section stretched our calves before we were back in the saddle and descending to the Ghost Lake Hut. There was evidence of hard labour in the valley below as an electric blue chopper ferried heavy metal between the chain gang crushing rocks and the newly formed benched track. We connected with a couple of the ringleaders - Phil Rossiter and Weasel - and lapped up their enthusiasm and vision. Then we headed out, although stopping for a night at Lyell Hut would have been a more orthodox option.

Part Two from Seddonville

On the West Coast, on either side of the mighty Mokihinui River are two motor camps. A third lurks inland at Seddonville. We were spoilt for choice. The palatial Rough and Tumble Lodge near the start of the track provides more boutique self-contained accommodation, catering for groups of 2- 20 people.

Our last visit to the area involved chainsaws as we helped clear the first 7 km of the track after slips had caused major damage. How different it was this time as we made swift progresson an immaculate surface to the Rough and Tumble Creek confluence and onward to the Mokihinui Forks Hut. Almost all the major side creeks and slips have been bridged and a spanking new hut resides at Specimen Point. We carried along the river flats, crossing a monster suspension bridge across the Mokihinui River South Branch and onto the historic Goat Creek Hut.

That same electric blue helicopter arrived to string up a long line of mountain bikes and fly them to Ghost Lake. The riders followed on foot along the newly marked but undeveloped track. None were game to carry their bikes. Rightly so. For us it was an indulgent blast back out to Seddonville.

Reefton 

Gold and coal mining have defined Reefton since before stamping its mark on history as the Southern Hemisphere's first municipal power supply in 1888. Kirwans Reward, Blacks Point and Big River-Waiuta must do rides.

Kirwans Reward

With Cherie from Ground Effect in tow, we soldiered up the Waitahu River towards the Montgomerie Hut. It started innocently but once beyond the hut the river in its anger had erased the track. A prolonged mix of river crossing and bush bashing ensued. Smiles thinned. The track was then relatively clear up Kirwans Creek to the old stamping battery, resplendent and restored in a bush clearing. Alas, treefall and a large slipbeyond the battery forced a lot of grovel on us at the wrong end of the day. Reunited with the track proper, we fed our faces. Cherie extracted a squashed banana from her pack and resorted to licking her multitool, tyre levers and tube for the last remnants of nana goo. Desperate times.

We flew down the Kirwans Hill singletrack to TopfferCreek Bridge and onto the newly formed Boatmans Creek section. This was once a mishmash of slips and mud. No longer. The swing bridge at Caples Creek has also been replaced with a mtb-friendly version, and the track is 100% rideable out to Capleston.

Kirwans remains a classic, hard trip. A night in thehut on the summit is always rewarding. But the full circuit is currently a bit tough, even for S&M fools like ourselves. Up and back Kirwans Hill from Capelston would be the current preferred option.

Big River

The hut and historic gold mines at Big River are ordinarily approached via the rough 'n' tumble 4WD track from Reefton. With news of newly refurbished singletrack at Waiuta, we opted to start at the 'finish'. In its heyday Waiuta was much more than the nearby One Horse Stream would suggest. There are mining relics for Africa - a day spent fossicking would not go unrewarded… but that is generally considered unwise due to the residual arsenic, cynaide and mercury from the former gold ore processing activities. 

The once interrupted-singletrack to Big River is now a delight. The benching is immaculate to the Big River South Mine, with just a few muddy and rutted stretches out to the Big River Hut. Boardwalks now traverse the fragile vegetation above the hut. Big wheels and dual suspension have lessened the discomfort on the rough track out to Reefton, but not lessened the enjoyment of a double scoop of orange chic chip back in the smoke.

Blacks Point

Another bulletproof forecast and another weekend in Reefton. We are submitting to wikipedia to list 'west coast summer' as a substitute 'indian summer'. In the name of science we rode Big River anti-clockwise to compare notes. We concluded it was equally great in both directions, and still finished with an icecream either way.


Sunday did not provide a day of rest as Blacks Point beckoned. We overdosed on the Murray Creek Track, riding it three times. On the first loop we took the newly benched track along the ridgeline above the Ajax Battery and Mine. The aptly named Machine Track returned us to Blacks Point for the next loop. We exited the same ridge track onto the newly minted Konini Pack Track. The roller coaster switchbacks head north to Reefton's east end. We were blown away by its flow and fleetingly considered moving to Reefton. The final third loop involved an energetic carry from the Energetic Mine. Innumerable steps dropped us onto the Tram Track and down to the Bolitho Brothers Battery and Mine. A stout descent down Lankeys Creek rewarded those willing to give it a whirl. The bottom section is pure adrenaline, coming to an abrupt halt at the main road.

Blackball

Birth place of the NZ trade union movement, Labour Party, the eponymous salami and home to Not-the-Blackball Hilton. Blackball is also the launch pad for the Croesus and Moonlight mountain bike tracks. The historic Croesus packtrack has been a favourite ride since we first ventured there back in the eighties. DOC has recently tarted up the track and swing bridges so it is a fast-paced climb to the magnificent Ces Clark Hut. 

Beyond the hut, the once bony and rutted track to the main ridge is all plain sailing. From here, the sane option is to enjoy a zippy descent back to the Hut and Blackball. For a more spirited option follow the poled route through snow grass and tussock along Paparoa Range until you hit the 'turnoff' for Barrytown. Crash and tumble downhill for a while until you are reunited with the smooth benched track that finishes almost at the front door of the Barrytown Pub. We took the third, less wise option and joined up with the Moonlight. Although it involves a decent stint of carrying, we've loved this ride in the past. Sadly the washed out waterways and massive slips mixed with broken trees currently make it an exhausting endeavour. Best left on the shelf for now. Stick to the Creosus and "all will be goodness and light".

As John Morrison (no relationto Jim) once said “West is the Best”. Especially in the dry. Roll on next summer.