Once upon a time, twenty-odd years ago, in a galaxy far far away, my mate Greg and I rode our bikes to Barn Bay in South Westland. Remote is somewhat of an understatement. It’s an hour's drive south of Haast, requires fording or floating across the formidable Cascade River followed by 20km of mostly flat but often very muddy 4WD track.
Fuelled by nostalgia and scones around the Ground Effect coffee table, a return match has been often threatened. West Coast weather and the challenge of clearing seven dance cards thwarted several attempts - until the stars finally aligned last weekend. Buoyed by a narrow window of forecasted fine weather, we hung up a “Gone Whitebaiting” sign on Friday and fled for Haast.
After a tempestuous night, the weather came through clear and calm on Saturday morning. It’s a stunningly beautiful drive south from Haast to the start of the ride at the Martyr Homestead. There was some remorse that our lightning raid didn’t allow enough time to ride this section too.
The primary challenge is crossing the Cascade River near the start of the trip. It can be forded during low flow but generally requires a boat. On our original 1993 trip, Greg and I used a canadian canoe that used to be tethered on the river bank. Sadly it is no longer there.
Cherie pre-arranged a jet boat with John the local farmer to ensure we got across. John has a whitebait stand at the mouth of the river so as a bonus we picked up a couple of kilos from him - the perfect post ride, pre dinner snack.
The country is big with prehistoric forests and abundant birdlife. The mostly flat 4WD track is not difficult riding, but muddy axle-deep puddles and wet rocks keep you alert.
A short distance in we stumbled up a fabulous tree hut complete with kitchenette, trapdoor and balcony - presumably an upmarket hide for shooting deer.
Tui were abundant and playful in their courting rituals. At one stage while pausing to regroup a Kaka squawked in the branches above us. Scott seized the kodak moment.
The track finishes at the Hope River. Then it’s a short walk (without bikes) following the river to the coast, and the fabulous private cottage tucked in amongst the flax and scrub.
Barn Bay is a paradise for hunters and gathers. The visitor’s book is thick with stories of deer, paua, crayfish, cod and whitebait. Dolphins regularly play in the bay, but not for us. The wind was howling and the sea foreboding. Some brave souls reported carting in surf boards. They were quite upbeat about the waves they caught.
Steve whipped up fritters with our purchased whitebait - we pretended that he had scared it into a net as we smashed down the Hope River.
Our evening finished with bacon and mushroom risotto chased down with tawny port and dark chocolate. Sunday dawned fine and calm. Yet more whitebait fritters appeared at breakfast - rocket fuel to retrace our tracks on the return trip to the Cascade and the long drive back to Christchurch.
With fourteen hours driving return from Christchurch, Barn Bay is a bonkers idea for a weekend away. But it’s quintessential bikepacking through uniquely beautiful country to a destination that is beyond remote.
Note the Barn Bay hut is privately owned and access is over private land with locked gates. Seek permission before heading down there.