Riding along by the ocean, from Westport to Greymouth 100km of peaceful desolate roads and gorgeous sunshine. I even have a tailwind. The map says the road is fairly flat and I hum along, watching the lapping of the turquoise waves against the yellow sands. The waves break long and slow in crisp, clean lines. The sky is a bright baby-blue and I don’t have a care in the world, it’s a moment of idyllic naivety.
Emerging from the Old Ghost Road I feel like a new man. The most technical sections are behind me (Queen Charlotte Track and Old Ghost Road) and I am feeling strong, competent and confident. That was all about to change.
I spend the night in a hostel in Westport. Recharge all of my electrical gear and make an urgent resupply and general fix up of the bike. I have to buy a new seat after snapping the rail on mine just before riding the Old Ghost Road. The squeaking and rattling was really annoying not to mention my fear of snapping the other rail and having no seat at all.
An Unglamorous Checkpoint
Just outside of Greymouth I cross my second big milestone. The 2000km mark!
Whilst riding along beautiful rugged coastline I watch the odometer slowly ticking by. Each corner revealing a vista of contrasting colours; voracious green bush clambers to the golden edges of the beach. The clear deep blue of the pacific laps onto the glittering sands with frothing white waves. Beautiful scenes to frame the accomplishment. Any one of these sights would have made a perfect backdrop to my 2000km mark.
As it happens when the odometer finally rolled over to 2000km. I pulled over to a scruffy side road in the outer edges of Greymouth. An abandoned strip of land, bordered by sun-battered decrepit buildings that sprouted weeds through their broken roofs. The paint was peeling off and even the road seemed to be beaten by the encroaching weeds.
Maybe not a postcard picture but a huge moment for me. I had overcome my worries of possible injury and inadequacies. (My last attempt at a long-distance ride had me in the hospital in the first week with a dislocated knee) This ride was looking much more promising!
Last of the Summer
I camped on the beach that night. The sun set against a clear sky, a glowing orb of deep orange drifting slowly out of sight behind the calm purple of the waves. I watched out of my tent as the stars blossomed out of the blackness, gathering in force until I fell asleep with the tent door open.
I woke during the night with a cold breeze slapping into my face. A brisk breeze whipped the tent door around and the stars had been extinguished by fast drifting clouds. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to have meet the tail end of Cyclone Cook. It wreaked havoc across the North Island and now was headed my way.
Into the Storm
It started with a mild drizzle just as I was putting my tent down. The Westcoast Trail wound between pine forests and away from the coast. It wouldn’t be until Bluff that I saw the ocean again. The grey sky was unending and the rain with it. By 25km I was soaked, stopping at a dairy for a steak pie. I stood under the canopy of the shop with steam rising off my pie and water dripping off my helmet into the paper wrapping. My shoes squelched as I paced to stay warm. The clouds of my breath huddled under the canopy too, scared to venture out into the weather.
I had roughly 75km left to get to Arthurs Pass and the only way was up (roughly 1400m Elevation Gain) The jagged mountains of the Southern Alps loomed in the distance. Dark obscure shapes barely distinguishable through the foggy haze of rain. They sulked, hidden in the shadows.
The First Miserable Day
The road undulated through the foothills, there was little traffic and I was relatively warm under all my layers. What little traffic there was gave me a wide birth and I had plenty of food and water. But all the basics of survival aside it was pretty bleak riding conditions. I kept my head down and tried to get it done as fast as possible. Dreaming of a nice hostel in Arthurs Pass, maybe buy some fish and chips? Warm shower? Read my book?
I ate my lunch at 60km under a sparse and quite unsuitable tree. I was basically sat in the bush to try and get out of the downpour. Huge drips plopped onto my cheese and crackers, my socks were completely saturated and sitting still was making my temperature plummet. After a quick snack and some soggy jelly bears I jumped back on the bike to face the steeper parts of the climb into the mountains.
The valley closed in on either side, steep dense forest, mottled with rags of mist and rain clouds crowded over the road. It got steeper and steeper. The road winding upwards into the cloud. Arthurs Pass sitting astride the saw toothed Southern Alps.
Otira to Arthurs Pass
Crossing the Southern Alps was never going to be easy. Even when I was planning I knew that crossing over at Arthurs Pass was going to be difficult. I pulled in for a morale boosting sandwich at Otira. Sitting outside eating a cheese toastie I looked at the sign leading out to the road ahead. 16% gradient ahead. I had 16km to go to Arthurs Pass and some if not all of it was going to be 16% Gradient. This was going to be very tough.
The weather wasn’t going to change and the road wasn’t going to get any less steep so I set off back into the storm. Immediately I had to drop through to my lowest gear, it was relentless, straight away out of Otira. The blacktop was slick with a river straight pouring down it. The drains were bursting with excess water creating rushing rapids bordering the narrow road.
There was little to no hard shoulder and I put on my hi vis and turned on all my lights. Visibility was slim and the whole narrow valley seemed to be filled with cloud. There was a roar of rushing water, the whole mountain side seemed to be flowing with the current, flooding water ran by heavy with silt.
Riding through the cover of an avalanche tunnel the noise was briefly shut out. A curtain of water obscured the outward side as a waterfall rushed off the heavy concrete roof and disappeared into the abyss. The tunnel was tight and nerve wracking. Again, I was thankful for the quiet roads and the patient truck drivers who gave me as much room as they could. I slogged slowly up the hill gasping for each cold, wet breath. Telling myself I could just get around the next corner then rest, always the next corner, the corner after that. Slow, lung-wrenching, heart-pounding progress.
Clearing the final dogleg, I could see the edges of the valley receding and the dark grey sky, signalling the summit. Soaked to the bone but so hot I was steaming, I looked back down the valley flushed with exertion and a sense of pride. 1-hour 20mins!
Finding the nearest hostel I dripped my way up to the help desk. I had to put my bike in a sealed cage to stop the Keas (destructively curious alpine parrots) from destroying my bike whilst I rested. Although showered all of my clothes were still saturated. I wondered around the hostel in my down jacket and my thermal leggings, full of holes and leaving little to the imagination. Luckily there were very few people in the hostel to bare witness to the awful sight. The shops were already closed and the restaurant too!
Back into the Storm
Cyclone Cook was building steam and the weather looked to be getting even worse in the next few days. I needed to get down to Methven and find a place to hole up for a while. Setting out that morning from Arthurs Pass it had stopped raining but the cold air on my wet clothes was chilling to the bone.
I hoped for a long descent all the way to Methven, like a reverse of the day before. 140km away it was a long distance but downhill it was possible. And with promise of a proper resupply (Arthurs Pass had been very disappointing) I was keen to escape the weather and get there as soon as possible.
The descent never materialised, what I had was km after km of undulating alpine plateau. The valley widened until the steep mountain peaks were hidden by the thick fog. My landscaped became a roiling sea of stark bleached tussocks with islands of brooding jagged rocks. Flooded mountain lakes reflected the malevolent grey clouds above. The rain began again.
The Second Miserable Day
With the limited visibility the road seemed to roll endlessly like a long treadmill, repeating the same small hills from the fog. A sequence of endless monotony and punishment, the beautiful sunset of the Westcoast seemed a distant memory. All that lay ahead was the fog and the rain and straw-coloured tussocks as far as the eye could see.
There were a few factors that were slowly breaking me, a steady headwind that pushed Methven further and further from my reach. For hours at a time I would be riding, head tucked against the wind and the speedo saying just 8km/h. Painful progress and the thought of having to camp on this windy desolate plateau didn’t lift my spirits.
The second factor was my new seat, after putting a few days of riding on it I was initially pleased. It seemed like a good fit and similar to my last saddle. Now though, my bum ached constantly and I was forever having to shift position to try and alleviate the pain. Shuffling back and forth and leaning side to side, my sit bones just felt constantly under pressure. My wet shorts weren’t helping either.
The third factor and most likely the key factor in my miserable outlook was my lack of water. My food was ok but water was running low, there was plenty of running water around but much of it was opaque from flooded sediment and washed off topsoil. Murky brown with visible twigs it didn’t look too appealing.
All combined I was having a pretty shitty time. I pulled over to film my predicament (I’m currently making the video edit of the ride and this section is particularly funny to watch back) having moaned dejectedly in the camera for a while I realised that moaning and sulking wasn’t going to change anything, so I set off again.
Pulling into Lake Lyndon I am back between two peaks and the wind dies immediately. I fill up on water and the day is saved! I turn off road and rumble my way over rough 4×4 track, giant potholes scatter over the road like swiss cheese and I have to concentrate as I thread my way along. Lake Lyndon is still and calm and my mood follows its example. I come to terms with the fact I am not going to make it to Methven but at least I am down off the alpine plateau.
I follow a little shortcut that I had been worried about when I was planning the route, taking a 4×4 track from Lake Lyndon to Lake Coleridge. It was ok on paper but a gamble in real life. Signs warned of no phone signal and to carry emergency gear for a self-rescue. I found it to be a lovely backroad through some beautiful scenery. My mood now soaring as was my speed as I finally descended and away from the headwind.
Bruce, Steel and Snow
Finally rounding the edge of Lake Coleridge, I emerged back onto tarmac, I was exhausted and already scouting about for a place to camp. I spotted a mud splattered Ute in a nearby field and went to ask to camp there.
I pulled up to the window and was greeted with the greying face of an old black and white sheep dog. Sitting tall and proud on the passenger seat. His name I later found out was Steel, behind him sat Bruce.
A shaved head with a stubble of white hair, rosy cheeks from being out in the wind and a 5 o’clock shadow. He was dressed in a woollen camouflaged poncho over very short rugby shorts, knobbly knees and weathered skin. His legs looked wiry and strong and clearly were unaffected by the cold. They disappeared into stout hiking boots. His handshake was firm and calloused. I could have guessed his name was Bruce. He was the most Bruce looking man I have ever come across. The quintessential Kiwi farmer.
He was watching over a friend’s house down the way and offered to let me sleep in the barn there, he was out glassing for deer in the valley behind the house. As I set up camp, he excitedly called me over and pointed out the deer along the bank 300m away. It was the roar and I could clearly hear them through out the night. Their keening wails sounding like the bugles of dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. As we watched a big buck strut around on the bank opposite the swollen river, the clouds parted and I saw a glimpse of Mt Hutt. A solid coating of snow draped over its upper flanks.
A reminder that I still had a long way to go and the weather was changing quickly. The warm sunny days of the North Island were mostly behind me. I had many cold nights and a few more mountain passes to go before this ride was done.