Westport's Kawatiri Trails are adding some easy riding into a region already renowned for its classic mountain bike rides, writes Sarah Bennett
They say when it rains it pours, and this has certainly been the case for the Buller District which has had more than its fair share of liquid sunshine of late. Looking on the bright side, there's some truth to the coasters' saying that the rain falls mainly in big drops and mainly at night, besides which the Buller is also blessed with a flourishing bike trail network built by some of the finest culvert craftsmen the world has ever known.
For evidence, look no further than the Old Ghost Road, the improbable 85km Great Ride that opened in 2015. Spirit to the Stone, a neat wee book about the trail build, offers insight into the places that inspire big dreams and the people who make them come true.
Phil Rossiter, one of the Old Ghost Road founders, says the project ignited the passions of supporters from far and wide, along with a league of locals who have continued to step up.
"Because we relied so heavily on volunteers in the early days," says Phil, "and because it takes real effort and commitment to sustain trails, we knew we had to build a foundation of love and support. That spirit and energy have sparked more trail development and other projects that benefit the community. There always seems to be someone who's ready to help out."
The lay of the land
The Buller District stretches from the Heaphy River to Punakaiki, with the wee smoke of Westport in between. Increasingly also known as Kawatiri, the Māori name for the Buller River ("swift and deep"), Westport shelters in the safe harbour of the river mouth, fortified by man-made breakwaters. Backed by big ranges, cut through by countless rivers and streams, and pounded by the rolling ocean, the Buller is big on natural drama.
Getting your bearings
The free Westport map pinpoints major attractions including the town trails. The reverse has a Buller map and a list of things to do. A week will barely suffice.
Maps and more can be found at westport.nz, a comprehensive guide which includes useful cycling information and maps for popular rides.
A town tour
The Kawatiri River Trail is a wonderful way to explore Westport. A series of connected tracks between the Buller Bridge and the breakwaters, the trail passes through town, past the wharves and harbour, and around Kawatiri Beach Reserve where there are some bonus fun trails. With luck, you'll see a fishing boat coming home over the bar.
The terrain is a mix of paths, bushy single track and quiet roads. Extend the ride by noodling around Westport's back streets, making sure to visit Victoria Square where the local kids scoot the skate bowl and cool new pump track.
The Bullerites are well into a two-year build of another 55km of off-road trail heading south from the Buller Bridge to Charleston, a historic gold-mining town. Called the Kawatiri Coastal Trail, this Grade 2 (easy) shared pathway has been an instant hit with the locals, and rightly so.
The first section is a 5.5km doddle from Westport to Carters Beach. Landowner permission has allowed the trail to reveal an ecologically important and relatively unknown estuary that sports forest with fernbirds, extensive boardwalk and a handsome suspension bridge. This section also surfaces whakapapa and mātauranga Māori dating back from the kaik established here from 1350AD. Excellent storyboards here and elsewhere speak to the breadth and depth of Kawatiri's history.
With a spectacular beach and Donaldo's Cafe, Carters Beach is a worthy destination for this two-hour return ride. Carters Beach Top 10 Holiday Park is a great place to stay, right on the trail.
The next section continues to Omau settlement and Cape Foulwind before reaching beautiful Tauranga Bay. It offers spectacular views to sea and inland to the Paparoa Ranges and even Aoraki/Mt Cook when the air is crystal clear.
Work continues on other sections of the trail, including at the Charleston end where there's a handsome new suspension bridge over the Nile/Waitakere River. The full 55km is scheduled for completion in early 2023. It promises to be nothing short of spectacular.
The Denniston Plateau delivers a triple-treat of flinty history, freaky nature, and vast views over the northern coast. It's 600m above sea level, around half an hour's drive from Westport and conceivably e-bikeable.
The plateau's hair-raising human history is vividly recalled in Jenny Pattrick's memorable Denniston Rose novels. DoC and the local heritage group have preserved the coalmining heritage that inspired them in a series of excellent storyboards dotted amid substantial industrial relics.
The hero lookout is the edge of the Denniston Incline, the railway along which coal wagons and folk ratcheted up and rattled down between 1879 and 1967. I'd certainly have taken a few deep breaths before hopping aboard.
Mountain bikers should consider bringing their bikes as there's a significant series of trails. They're pretty technical but rewarding for their views over the rocky plateau.
At Omau, on the Kawatiri Coastal Trail, the Star Tavern offers classic West Coast hospitality by way of cold beer, turbot and chips, and a delightful garden where you can rest your legs.
Westport has a rock-solid dining scene, strong on home baking and espresso. Our pie picks are Emily's from Scarlett & Co, and those from Waimangaroa Store at the bottom of the Denniston Road.
Cape Foulwind Walkway with its lighthouse and seals. It's not open to bikers, so leave your bike at the Omau or Tauranga Bay car parks on the Kawatiri Coastal Trail and continue on foot.
Hazards and cautions
If you think I'm going to say rain and sandflies, think again. Stay for a week so you can dodge the drops and make the most of pleasant year-round riding temperatures – a daytime winter average of 13 degrees, if you please. As for sandflies, pull up your socks and get some citronella.
Bike town rating
Westport's new trails are making it a better place to live and to visit. Combine this with Buller's existing, big-ticket trails – the Heaphy and Paparoa Tracks, Old Ghost Road and those around Reefton rides – and you've got yourself pretty much endless rides on the wild side. What makes this so wonderful is what the trails are putting back in, rather than taking out. From coal town to cycle town, and focused on community first.
Westport & The Buller: westport.nz
Kawatiri Coastal Trails: kawatiricoastaltrail.co.nz
Great Rides App: greatridesapp.com
Development West Coast: westcoast.co.nz
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz