Words: Jamie Nicoll Photos: Freya McCall and Jamie Nicoll
Longitude 1563450.89; latitude 5501652.9 lands you out west from the top of New Zealand's South Island, roughly the location of this adventure - continuing my mission of exploring Aotearoa by 4x4 and mountain bike, driving until the road ends, then heading out further by bike in search of unknown trails and new landscapes.
Stretching south from our pin-drop lies Kahurangi National Park, tracts of private farmland and the wild pounding waves of the Tasman Sea. I had been here before but this was a new plan - riding the coastal hard sands at low tide and staying in the old lighthouse keeper's house.
Five days away was the plan. So we headed west from Golden Bay then south down the coast winding along on golden gravel roads, bordered by big native trees and coastal wetlands rimmed with copper grasses, before opening into old farmland dotted with fluted limestone cliffs and groves of the gracefully shaped nikau palms.
Reaching the first of the bridge-less river crossings we made camp for the night. I was keen to try out the borrowed rooftop tent. I’ve been planning to fit one but it was great to try it out first. It was an early start, making hot drinks and preparing a quick breakfast at the back of the wagon. Pre-dawn was cold, damp and dark but the pressure was on to make the difficult tidal river crossings before the tide turned. 'Difficult' because crossing point always changes, sometimes far up in the lagoon and sometimes at the edge of the pounding breakers.
Packed up well before sunrise, we crossed the river without issue and drove 5km’s on the last of the farm road. At the road end we were met by huge sand dunes and long stretches of beach with the lighthouse beacon flashing far far away. We left the wagon as dawn was just colouring the sky, soaking in the freedom you feel on a crisp winter sunrise mission. We pedalled easily along the sand, the yellow and pinks thrown past us lit up the white tips of the waves and created a golden-green on the forest scape.
One river down, crossed in a very straight forward condition, but this was not the tricky one. Approaching Big River, the one that could turn us back, the pressure built. I had to figure this one out quick smart. I cursed, we should not have stopped to take the photos earlier.
I stripped off my shorts and waded out testing the depth at the mouth. The water was really cold and even with my warm tops pulled up under my arms the water licked at the hems. "No, no good here, or there. Quick let’s try up in the lagoon". The tide had definitely turned. The big swell and waves had not allowed it to drain as much as normal. After more aborted attempts and now chattering teeth, I heading further up river than ever before, over slimy sticky mudflats. Again I waded out, and again waist deep. I made it past halfway. I think this might be the spot, then further. Yes this will work!
Returning, both Freya and I lifted our bikes over our heads, resting them on our loaded packs, across we went. Just in time, as we watched the rapidly advancing water filling the lagoon and our freshly laid footprints.
A bit of rock hopping before the beach resumed the easy sand travel of the early morning and allowed my tense cold muscles to relax. It wasn’t long before we were pushing our bikes up through a forested track and out onto the grass of the hut clearing. What a spot this old lighthouse keeper's house is. We took cups of tea on the sunny verandah, talked with a local hunter and explored the environs with a quick sunset pedal to the old lighthouse sitting above the point.
A starry cold night with the old coal range burning saw us through to the morning to repeat the journey in reverse. We knew where to cross and were treated to an atmospheric ride into the golden wintery glow to the north. Back at the truck, we set up camp amongst the dunes early for a relaxing day of coffee and reading.
As smooth as that sounds it all got a bit windy and so we relocated to a more sheltered spot, lit the campfire and enjoyed another clear night.
I woke early and sat out in the dunes watching the dawn break over the magnificent coastline. I felt very lucky right then.
A long day still lay ahead with two rivers to ford and many km’s of gravel road to drive. We were hit with a little sadness as we left the clear wilderness and regained cell reception. A sharp turn left and out to Wharariki beach for a night at the local campground soon put pay to that regret.
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