Bicycling South Island New Zealand: Part Four – The West Coast Road

Previous Post: Part 3 – From Christchurch To Greymouth Via Arthur’s Pass

Lake Matheson's

Lake Matheson’s “view-of-views” – the one I was given

Click here for the Google map of the ride down the West Coast from Greymouth. There aren’t many route choices! It is State Highway #6 all the way…

Here is what I wrote in my pre-trip post on this stretch –

The stretch of road from Greymouth to Haast promises to be a great ride, right up there with last year’s ride on the south coast of Cuba from Santiago de Cuba all the way to Pilon. The price of the stunning scenery will be a better than average chance of rain and wind going in the wrong direction, as well as the exquisite torture provided by the lowly sand fly.

Well, I had obviously taken the guide-book descriptions too much to heart on this one! Yes, there was occasionally a south wind to deal with but just as often it came from the northwest. As for the bugs – I had always thought the little black things were black flies – they were a bit of a nuisance whenever I went down to the beach, having gotten off my bike. After a couple of beach visits I just ended up slipping on a pair of long pants and from that point – “no worries”.  When I got to Queenstown I finally bought some DEET – and then ended up using it only once for the rest of the trip.

The peaks of Mount Tasman and Cook in the mid-morning fog

The peaks of Mount Tasman and Cook in the mid-morning fog

The predicted rain that puts the “wet” in Westland?  Well, given that it only rained for half a day during my 24-day visit to South Island  (and that was the morning I went over Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth),  clearly rain was not an issue!  Except for that bit of precipitation, my rain gear stayed in one of the front panniers for the entire 1,400-km ride.

The moral of the story?  By all means, prepare for the worst. But don’t be surprised when it turns out better than predicted. As for the stunning scenery? Maybe the reverse is true here – do expect the best, but don’t be surprised if it is not as spectacular as the guide-book says it is.   As picturesque as my ride down the West Coast to Haast was, this leg of the journey takes second place to the next one, the ride from Haast to Queenstown. Still, second place on South Island beats first place in most other places!

view from Knight's Point just north of Haast on SH6

view from Knight’s Point just north of Haast on SH6

Day Four:  Greymouth to Hari Hari – 113 km

Greymouth To Hari Hari

Breakfast at a McKay Street restaurant gave me a chance to talk to  my second and third fellow bike tourists of the trip. These  Kiwis and were travelling very light.  Their trajectory? They were doing a ride from Bluff, the southern end of SH6  back up to Picton on the north end of the island, knocking off about 160 km a day!  The caffeine ritual taken care of, we headed off in opposite directions.  The day’s first aim was the town of Hokitika, some forty-five kilometers to the south along a road that the two Kiwis had described as pretty flat  with occasional long  straight stretches of  five kilometers or more.  Also included were  a couple of single-lane bridges but as I noted in the post on the previous leg of the trip, this was a non-issue.

mouth - mostly flat and straight

a view from SH6 to the south of Greymouth – the road was mostly flat and straight

The beach was sometimes visible but mostly separated from the road by a strip of private property.  Occasionally I would pass by signs obviously posted by annoyed landowners.  They essentially told folks to stay out of what was called a private beach.  That ride along Cuba’s south coast mentioned above actually has you right at the water’s edge with kilometer after kilometer of dramatic hurricane-ravaged road. So – in this case at least, no contest.

That is what made Hokitika a very pleasant stop – I got to walk right down to the water and take in some of the energy generated when waves meet beach.  And to think I was planning on just cycling by to save a bit of time before lunch at Ross!  Sometimes gobbling up road miles becomes too much of an obsession and you forget the reason you’re there.  The hour I spent chillin’ on the beach was one of my favourite little zen moments of the trip.

SH6 passing through Hokitika

satellite shot of SH6 as it passes through Hokitika – definitely a town worth stopping for

Hokitika clockttower and the way to the beach

Hokitika clock tower and the way to the beach

hokitika-sign-on-the-beach

Hokitika driftwood on an overcast day

Hokitika driftwood on an overcast day

hokitika beach. driftwood art on display

Hokitika beach. driftwood art on display

a-hokitika-area-farmer-and-her-horse

One of the people I ended up chatting with was the woman in the image above; she was walking along the beach with her yearling to desensitize him to the sound of the crashing waves; not in the picture was her dog Tilley, busy chasing down the waves in crazy bursts of beach running.

major-driftwood-on-hokitika-beach

leaving Hokitika - another reminder of the village's claim to fame

leaving Hokitika – another reminder of the village’s claim to fame as the greenstone center

Had I not been locked in to getting to Harihari that night, I would have spent the rest of the day on the beach and walking around the town. It just had a nice vibe to it.  My immediate focus – to get to Ross for lunch and then to deal with the rest of the day’s 112 km.

farm building on the way to Ross from Hokitika

farm building on the way to Ross from Hokitika

looking inland towards the Southern Alps

looking inland towards the Southern Alps

a stretch of road north of Ross on SH6

a stretch of road north of Ross on SH6 – notice the paved shoulder!

lunch choices at the diner in Ross

lunch choices at the diner in Ross

lunch time in Ross, Westland - a Flat White waits to be sipped

lunch time in Ross, Westland – a Flat White waits to be sipped

Coast To Coast Race article in a Westland Newspaper found at the Ross diner

Coast To Coast Race article in a Westland Newspaper found at the Ross diner

SH6 on the way to Hari Hari from Ross

SH6 on the way to Harihari from Ross

approaching Hari Hari from Ross on SH6

approaching Hari Hari from Ross on SH6 – on a relatively traffic-free afternoon

There isn’t a lot at Hari Hari but it does have the reputation of being a good place to crash! (This reputation goes back to the day in 1931 when the Aussie who flew the first solo trans-Tasman Sea flight from Sydney to New Zealand crashed his plane not far from Hari Hari.)  I had booked a room for the night at the Hari Hari Motor Inn.

Day Five: Hari Hari to Fox Glacier Village – 82 km

Hari Hari to Fox Glacier Village

Click here to open  a “live” version of the above map!

Within the first half-hour after leaving Harihari I had my first bump of the day to deal with – Mount Hercules, a climb of about 200 meters. The reward was fifty-five kilometers of gently rolling road with the Tasman Sea on my right and the rainforest and southern Alps to my left.

the breakfast room at the Hari Hari Motor Inn

the breakfast room at the Hari Hari Motor Inn

a few kilomters south of Hari Hari on the way to Franz Josef Glacier

a few kilometers south of Hari Hari on the way to Franz Josef Glacier

in the vicinity of the White Heron Lagoon

in the vicinity of the White Heron Lagoon

sheep in a meadow below Southern Alps peaks

sheep in a meadow below Southern Alps peaks

looking up the Whataroa River towards the Southern Alps

looking up the Whataroa River towards the Southern Alps

the entrance to Whataroa from the north

the entrance to Whataroa from the north

coffee break time in Whataroa

coffee break time in Whataroa

the road from Whataroa to Franz Josef

the road from Whataroa to Franz Josef

Kiwi Greeters at Franz Josef Village Entrance

Kiwi “Greeters”  at Franz Josef Village Entrance

satellite view of Franz Josef Village Westland NZ

satellite view of Franz Josef Village Westland NZ

Franz Josef Village looking south towards the glacier (upvalley on the left)

Franz Josef Village looking south towards the glacier (up valley on the left)

The last twenty kilometers to Fox Glacier Village consists of three steep climbs and downhills in a row. I  had booked a room at Ivory Towers in the Village so didn’t have to spend any time looking for accommodation when I rolled in.  Within the first thirty minutes there I bumped into a half-dozen fellow cyclists and exchanged road trajectories and info.

a warning of hills to come - SH6 just south of Franz Josef Village

a warning of hills to come – SH6 just south of Franz Josef Village

a view of the Southern Alps from SH6 about 15 km north of Fox Glacier

a view of the Southern Alps from SH6 about 15 km north of Fox Glacier

rolling down to Fox Glacier Village on SH6

rolling down to Fox Glacier Village on SH6

satellite shot showing SH6, Fox Glacier Village, and the Fox River tumbling down from the Fox Glacier

satellite shot showing SH6, Fox Glacier Village, and the Fox River tumbling down from the Fox Glacier

Ivory Towers - my hostel digs in Fox Glacier Village

Ivory Towers – my hostel stay  in Fox Glacier Village – it is made up of  four separate buildings

I spent a couple of nights at Fox Glacier Village; after five days on the loaded bike I’d take the panniers off and tool around the neighbourhood without the 22 kilograms (50 lbs.)  of baggage. In particular, I cycled over to Lake Matheson as early as I could the next morning – 7:45 – to experience for myself “the view of views”, the reflection of Mounts Tasman and Cook on the still waters of the lake. First you need to get to the Lake Matheson Café; the view from there is already special.  Here is what I got from the parking lot –

Tasman and Cook peaks from the Lake Matheson Cafe parking lot

Tasman and Cook peaks from the Lake Matheson Cafe parking lot

Walking about a kilometer along a well-groomed trail takes you to the lake.

the trail to the Lake Matheson scenic lookout

the trail to the Lake Matheson scenic lookout

At a scenic lookout on the edge of  the lake itself  you line up with the other “pilgrims” to snap your take of “the view of views”.  The one I got is the first image in this post!  I will admit that it was my best view of the Southern Alps  since cycling over Arthur’s Pass down to the West Coast.  I had thought that I would feel the looming presence of the mountains as I cycled down SH6 but it was really only near Franz Josef that I did – and even then the rainforest between the mountains and the road prevent you from seeing much.  Bridge crossings over rivers were the exceptions – as one of my shots above shows.  

In the afternoon, after a lunch at the Cook Saddle Cafe (and Saloon), I cycled up the the rainforest trail to the glacier.

Fox Glacier Map as you leave the village on the walkway:bicycleway

Fox Glacier Map as you leave the village on the walkway/bicycleway

Then, after locking my bike to a post in the parking lot, I  walked as far as the trail went without going into “with guides only” territory. Low-hanging cloud did obscure the view of the upper reaches of the glacier but I did get to see the toe – and watched fellow tourists who have spent NZ$115. as they did their one-hour guided walk on the ice in the provided crampons.

the toe of the Fox Glacier from the walking trail

the toe of the Fox Glacier from the walking trail

tourists-on-a-guided-walk-on-fox-glacier

tourists walking the glacier with their guide

fox-glacier-trail-looking-back-from-the-upper-end

looking back from the top of the glacier trail

The toe of the Fox Glacier - and the trail that runs up alongside

The toe of the Fox Glacier – and the trail that runs up alongside

On the way back to the village I tried to capture the incredible feeling of cycling along the rainforest trail. With one hand on the handlebar brake lever and the other holding the camera as stable as possible – i.e. not very – I came up with this bit of video. After you’ve taken your Gravol, take a peek!

Day Seven: Fox Glacier Village to Haast Junction – 121 km

Fox Glacier Village to Haast

A fairly relaxing day at Fox Glacier done,  the next morning I continued on  south to Haast. A slight wind blowing my way made the first bit  a nice ride. The first eighty kilometers are mostly flat, after a nice bit of downhill leaving Fox Glacier Village.

the view of the Southern Alps from the bridge over the Cook River (southern Tributary)

the view of the Southern Alps from the bridge over the Cook River (southern Tributary)

Murray's Bay view of the Tasman Sea shore

Murray’s Bay view of the Tasman Sea shore

SH6 cuts through the rain forest on the way to Haast from Fox Glacier

SH6 cuts through the rain forest on the way to Haast from Fox Glacier

It is with about thirty kilometers to go that  the day’s hills appeared; the high point was Knight’s Point.  At the  lookout there I wheeled over to the picnic table where I thought a couple of English cyclists I’d seen at the Ivory Towers’ Hostel the day before were sitting.   But no!  These two guys were Belgians on their way up to Picton from Queenstown. I was able to make use of my French as we chatted a while.

a view from Knight's Point lookout

a view from Knight’s Point lookout

While they readied a lunch of macaroni and cheese, we exchanged typical biker road info.  One thing we  agreed on was that there were more bike tourists on the roads of South Island than anywhere any of us had been before.  After seeing three people on the first leg of my trip, I had counted about sixteen since Greymouth. In fact, there were so many that I was no longer feeling guilty about not stopping and chatting with each one that went by.

In my 1990’s trans-Canada and recent Cuba trips, fellow cyclists were a relative novelty and the situation almost demanded a stop-and-exchange-greetings-and-info.  Not on South Island NZ!  Had I been tenting all the way down the West Coast Road,  I would have met even more cyclists in the various campgrounds favoured by  the hard-core cycle tourists instead of the plush motel option I embraced.

Let’s just say that there is no reason not to go cycling in New Zealand on your own – you will meet all the people you want to meet!

the view from Knight's Point on the West Coast Road - working another angle

the view from Knight’s Point on the West Coast Road – working another angle

The day ended with about fifteen km of fairly flat terrain to the end point – Haast Township, four kilometres past  Haast Junction to the Haast Visitor Center.  There is a secondary road, one which follows the coast all the way to Jackson’s Bay, which meets SH6 at the Junction.  I stayed on SH6 and fifteen minutes later arrived at the Heritage Park Lodge in beautiful downtown Haast (population 40!).  Near the motel are a convenience store and a restaurant and, I think, a laundromat.

As seems to the norm on South Island,  the room also included an equipped  kitchenette and like all the other rooms I rented, was very nicely maintained. All included wi-fi internet access (usually limited to 100 or 200 mb).  The typical cost of room rental for one night ranged between $95. and $110. with prices being a bit higher (i.e. NZ$130.) in Christchurch. Having a cycling partner would have reduced my accommodation costs almost by 50%; that is the price you pay for flying solo!  In the grand scheme of things, it really is not that big a deal – and it certainly is nice to have a bug-free, warm and dry place to stretch out after a day on the saddle.

SH 6 down the West Coast to Haast

SH 6 down the West Coast to Haast and the Haast River coming from the Pass of the same name

The next day I would start the next leg of my South Island ramble, heading over the Haast Pass to Queenstown over a three-day period.  Click here if you want to see some more stunning South Island vistas and the strips of pavement that seem to figure so prominently in my pix!  The route to Queenstown from Haast – and especially the section from Wanaka to Arrowtown – rate as my favourite of the entire trip!

If it is more info on the West Coast Road you are looking for, an excellent post by a Canadian couple – actually, their entire travellingtwo blog is a goldmine of info – can be found here.

As noted in my Part One in this series of South Island posts, I also found the 2009 Lonely Planet Cycling New Zealand guide to be very useful in planning my route, not just down the West Coast Road, but also the stretch from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the rest of the trip.  The guide will hopefully be refreshed in 2013 and will  then present that much more recent information and planning guidance. The Pedallers’ Paradise set could also use a true updating (as opposed to the slapdash one it got)  that eliminates the glaring pieces of outdated information.

Next Post: Part 5 – Over The Haast Pass To Queenstown.

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3 Responses to Bicycling South Island New Zealand: Part Four – The West Coast Road

  1. Roy Londry says:

    the trip looks absolutely fantastic from these pages peter

  2. June Tay says:

    Hello! I’ve been reading your blog. Am planning a touring trip to Tasmania East Coast, however after reading your post on NZ South island it looks even more tempting! Where would you advice between the 2? We only have about 1 week to cycle though…

    • true_north says:

      June, while both stretches of road -i.e. NZ’s West Coast road and Tassie’s east coast- make for great rides , I’ll admit that NZ would be my first choice.

      In both Tasmania and In NZ taking a bicycle along on the bus is hassle free so you could make use of them as part of your route planning.

      The Tasmania ride I did from Hobart to St. Helens took five pretty leisurely days. You might consider just a trip down to Bruny Island from Hobart and spending two or three days on Bruny island. There is way more to see than I got around to during the day and half that I was at Adventure Bay. The boat ride to the south end of the island is also a must!

      In NZ the train from Christchurch to Greymouth – the TranzAlpine – would get you to the coast in luxury. NZ’s South Island has lots of bicycling possibilities. Basing yourself in Queenstown would open up a week’s worth of day tours or a couple of overnighters. It all comes down to how keen you are, what gear you’ll have, and how fit you are!

      Have fun choosing! P.S. – There is no bad choice!

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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