In the Saddle

Cycling the West Coast Wilderness Trail

First Published AA Directions

The clouds hang low, pastel-smudging the ridge of blue-grey mountains that fringe Greymouth. Rusted train carriages stand with an age-deepening melancholy, as if remembering their vigour when shuttling coal to a bustling port, once the lifeblood of Greymouth.

I am atop the floodwall that holds back the Greymouth River during angry times, and where the three-day, 100km West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail commences.

Earlier, seeking breakfast, I discover Maggie’s Kitchen: simple and unpretentious, with blocky pine-wood furniture, and patronised with quintessential West Coasters: lean, land-worked men with faded tattoos and weathered faces, dressed in weathered attire - eating hearty breakfasts. My order arrives via a rotund woman with cropped silver hair. She banters about the ride ahead. I joke that my derriere is not up to the challenge. She ripples with laughter. Like dominoes, the people nearby catch the mirth and send it on.

The trail runs past quaint fishing boats, then strides out along the seaside where wind-whipped white-edged waves crash in wild abandon, carving up sand in giant scallops and thrusting huge piles of driftwood high up the beach. Their shapes are reminiscent of the curve of leg or arm: piles of abandoned prosthetic limbs.

Heading inland, I cycle through a stretch of dense forest. On one side of the trail the slender trunks are light, almost luminous, with moss green coverings. On the other, they are, curiously, a sooty hue of black, the result, I discover of sunlight deprivation.

I am taken completely by surprise by what happens next. NOTHING. Absolute silence. I stand next to my bike, motionless. Minutes pass in utter quiet.

Then. A faint call, a distant sound: an ascending mellifluous refrain, warbling, echoing … then fading into silence. A tui.

And again, edging into the silence: this time a soothing murmuration the result, I discover at ankle height: a bumble bee. Amidst the silence, this sound too is enhanced.

At the corner of the township of Kumara (Ku-ma-ra) stands a battered olive green weatherboard dwelling. A sign reads: Photo Gallery. I meet Carey Dillon - landscape photographer, Kumara resident since 1982. I’m a few minutes into a longer-than-expected monologue about cameras when abruptly, he hands me a card.

It reads: “I’ve had a stroke and have trouble speaking.”

Now I see it. His right arm. A recalcitrant limb, clipped to his lean frame, with inward clasping fist, somehow remote, as if belonging to another.

He beckons. We move through the doorway - a portal into a workshop, and, as I discover, to an earlier passion.

The space is dim. Carey flicks a switch and light flows over a machine, antiquated, solid, a large pyramid of metal coated in wood dust. In a curious pantomime he turns a knob. The machine whirrs into life. Another rotation of the knob and the machine gathers speed. He hauls over a rough-hewn chunk of timber, the rudimentary origins of a bowl, and rests this on the mantle. It is then I have a small epiphany of sorts. This, is Carey’s lament.

Onetime master craftsman, forging swamp rimu dredged from the very area I’ve just cycled through into elegant burl timber bowls, each with its own narrative. Such bowls fetch $10,000. Once.

“You’re still taking photos, Carey?”

The change is instant: a transfusion of vitality. The limitations thrust upon him have not prevented his photography.

I arrive at the Theatre Royal Hotel and within minutes am ensconced in a room with the slightly awkward royal nomenclature of King Dick. I spend twilight in the pub lingering over a meal and a glass of golden.

The following morning I depart as the light begins its ascent. It is a quiet, gentle, pristine time of day. At the start of the trail I glimpse colour: a family of mushrooms, set down in bright reddish hues amid a bed of discarded pine needles. They hug the base of a pine tree, from where, in welcome shade, they absorb nutrients.

The trail runs between the waters of Kapitea and Kumara, dammed to provide power to the West Coast. The water is a startling blue. Beneath the blue are rocks of rust-red, which glow golden rouge in the sunlight. The surface ripples with tiny oscillating waves, distorting reflections of clouds, nearby mountains and - a strange and eerie sight. Like a scene from a horror movie, a prelude to some foreboding spectre - a scattering of lifeless tree stumps standing partially submerged within the reservoir: hapless victims, roots entombed in a watery grave. Their aspect is haunting, but also, paradoxically, majestic and beautiful.

A curving boardwalk leads through lowlands of shrubbery towards the mountains - a 310-metre ascent and the most challenging leg of the ride. Before I can embark upon it, I become aware of the vibration of wheels upon boards - and swooping down upon me is a group of six women. They are out for a day’s cycling, a weekly thing, and someone says, we live in paradise - and in the middle of our conversation it strikes me: everyone is laughing.

Moments later I meet a family of four.

“We are headed along the boardwalk to the reservoir,” announces Dad.

“Can I take your photo?”

“Sure!” he says, laughing. “You’d be surprised how often we’re asked!”

Am I old fashioned? Perhaps. But cycling off, I think “wholesome.” I wish every family in the world could do this - at least once.

With each corner a new incline appears. My pace slows. Finally, I trudge alongside my bike.

To add to my chagrin, I meet 60-year-old Anne Bailey. More precisely, Anne passes me at an impressive clip, and, out of solidarity, I suspect, pulls up to say hello. She has come from Greymouth and will finish at Lake Kanerie - a ride close to 80 kilometres, making my 39-kilometre leg to Cowboy Paradise seem rather limp.

“I’ve been cycling my whole life,” she says, with joie de vivre. As she heads off up the hill she throws over her shoulder, “I was born with a love of cycling!”

Then, at the nadir of my weariness - relief! A sudden rapid descent: a thrilling serpentine trail that manoeuvres through slender trees and shrubbery, then finally uncoils itself so that I coast gently, serenely, onto the plateau upon which Cowboy Paradise sits.

The sun is setting over the hills, framing the valley below and casting the foreground in silhouette. Fingers of gold break through the twilight in a heart-stopping rush of light. My torpor and misgivings disappear. I am ebullient. I am in Paradise.

Cowboy Paradise is a place where you might, with equal comfort, tether your horse instead of your bike. Cabins flank either side of a large central building. The central hall is capacious, with a large dining table at one end that runs the width of the room. From the deck is a majestic prospect of the valley below.

Over a roast dinner people swap cycle tales, and, as if the trail has dissolved inhibitions, share life narratives with unusual candour. The sense of connectedness through a shared experience is palpable.

The next morning, supine, hand propped under my head, I watch the dawn light grow, creeping stealthily between curtains to fill the room. Today, the final leg. I feel a warming satisfaction.

I head out, weaving my way down into the valley. Before I see it, I hear it: the susurration of water over stones. I look back. The river comes from deep in the mountains. It’s like an oil painting: an early 20th century New Zealand landscape.

It’s an easy ride to Lake Kanerie, where the air is thick with fog. Drizzle has set in. It feels like a rite of passage. This is rainforest, after all. Droplets roll, swell then drip from my helmet. The distant hills surrounding the motionless water are out of focus, monochromatic shadows. A solitude hangs in the air.

My departure from the lake is accompanied by a sign warning me not to stray too close to redundant mine shafts. The trail sits adjacent a timber water race, built in 1875. The water, once used for sluicing to expose that valuable natural resource, is swift and startlingly clear. There is something profound about riding this trail: this is where much of New Zealand’s colonial history began. It echoes with the aspirations of those who pushed their way through indigenous rainforest in search of “better”.

The track narrows. On my left a vertiginous drop. Caution advised. Then there are dips and hollows. The bike collects speed, moving with an easy, undulating rhythm. I’m up on the pedals - whooping. Then a gentle tapering. Easy rotations through the wooded environment. Therapy for mind and muscle.

The Wilderness Trail weaves a unique trajectory through landscape, history and the narratives of characters along the way.

Ruggedness is the quintessence of the West Coast landscape: the omnipotent raw sweep of nature. It draws me back again and again: an antidote to the constraints of city geometry.