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Whirlwind Winter Westy

03 June 2020

Words: Dave Mitchell
Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen

Welcome to the Wild West

A big round of Dutch cheese was moving up the South Island as the C19 elevator dropped down to level two and we popped back into travel mode with a mighty sigh of relief and exuberance for freedom. Every inch of our home-town hills had been biked and walked with a repeat prescription. Don't get me wrong we discovered untrodden earth, secret trails and forgotten old friends but still the wander lust tugged at our draw strings. Cloudless days below a grinning sunshine was predicted to hang around the wild-west, coast that is, for a good solid hard week or two of biking and where better to start than at the very top, Karamea.

Kohaihai view from the lounge

This proved a great launch pad and Kohaihai DOC camp the hallow home of one of the best adventure rides in NZ and in fact the world. A familiar trail that has evolved into the class act it is today. Shiny new palatial huts, wide new bridges with stainless steel fittings, and the rarest wildlife on the planet that you just trundle past in slow motion. Combine this with a gorgeous jungle clad coast line of raw beauty, massive waves, surf trundling boulders, sandy beaches and a rolling sound track. It has open red and golden tussock highlands with mountain backdrops, a karst system with caves and limestone formations and an alpine hut at Perry saddle that looks across to the Douglas Range and into Golden Bay. It ends at Browns Hut after almost 80 kilometers of riding pleasure and just a little bit of pain and suffering.

A black & white bleary eyed morning start

We saddled up bleary eyed packs ladened with overnight kit, especially food, all destined for the Perry Saddle Hut. Salt laden air and the roar of crashing waves rolled with us through the coastal nikau palm forest, over fast flowing mountain streams, up cliff hugging climbs all the way to the Heaphy Hut.

Coastal madness

Heading inland under a canopy of green the track roams beside the Heaphy River under ancient giant rata, matai and rimu gradually upward to the Lewis Hut and our first lunch stop. The sun was out and the hut weka wasted no time to check us out in the hope of stealing something steal-able. Long thin rays of mid morning sun were warming our thoughts and convincing us to strip layers before the long climb to the Mackay hut.

In the shadow of early morning

Lewis Hut, first lunch

Come what may it's the sort of ascent you just have to pace yourself along. Its the final third that catches the over enthusiastic out with a rocky leaf littered carpet and unaccounted small hop onto bridges of unknown traction in quick succession. Second lunch at the silent, cold and deserted James Mackay hut was consumed on the sun deck.

Magic mushrooms discovered

Putrified magic mushroom eater

James Mackay making side stands redundant

We had completely forgotten the mix of open and undulating terrain on our way east to the Saxon Hut. Giant rocks and red tussock along with lengthy board-walk and a pair of takahe track side ignoring our antics. We dropped down onto the Gouland Downs with the cave system and karst terrace in plain view lit softly by the late afternoon sun. The Gouland Downs Hut provided an ideal snack spot before the final push. In residence another pair of extremely rare takahe enjoying the mowed grass and pretty much oblivious to Ditte and I.

Don't feed the parrots

In the middle of a dream

Saxon deserted

“Hey Big Boy Boris haven't seen one of those smelly bikers for months”, "Yes darling Jacinda, thought they might have become extinct".

Onward and upward. The track gods had reserved the rockiest section for the climb up to the Perry Saddle, fitting for the end of a long deserted day. The hut was, you guessed it, unoccupied, a term often found on the older imperial cadastral maps. It took forever to warm up the abandoned Perry Saddle hut, but soon enough we were enjoying a slap up meal warming our toes by the Pioneer coal fired log burner thingy. By six it was black as coal out and nominally starlit. The temperature heading towards a morning frost and a sunny day.

Boots and all

Coal the cosy black stuff

The sixty two km ride back out has substantially less climbing on offer and some truly great sections of flowing downhill. We waited for the sun to poke its beak above the eastern ridge of before setting out layered up with every stitch of riding kit we had brought. But by the time we started heading back through the Downs clothing was being discarded willy nilly. Saxon Hut was still empty but the much relieved Mackay had some friendly trampers for the night. The endless descent from there to the Lewis Hut sure made up for the climb up, dry with crunchy leaf litter and great views into the Heaphy River catchment.

Picnic time

Palm heaven

A sunny warm spot by the river proved a good lunch spot beside the Lewis Hut before peddling headlong to the Heaphy hut and back along our favorite coastal section as the sun rolled around into the west, lighting up the wave tops, sandy beaches and penetrating the layered coastal canopy. We came across a couple of DOC staff with cargo E-bikes loaded up with rakes, loppers, fuel and a grunty two stroke weed eater packing up and ready to head out after a long days track work. We did concede that the final climb from Scotts Beach over the Kohaihai Bluff Saddle would have been great on an e-bike.

Exit new swing bridge with shiny SS fittings on show

Great Scott sun, surf and sand

We packed up and headed out to the famous Karamea Domain Camp. It's behind the school and for the princely sum of $10ea per night it has everything. Great showers and a fully equipped kitchen with plates, pots and cutlery plus a palatial lounge and stacked library. Just down the road is a classic 4 Square supermarket, the Last Resort lodge and a historic pub at the other end of town.

The Kohaihai Estuary & Bluffs

With a bit more riding and walking on the Karamea menu we stayed put for a couple more days before heading over the Karamea Bluffs to Mokihinui with Charming Creek, The Ghost and Britannia Tracks all up for grabs.

Karamea Caving