Kaye Mueller enjoys a freewheeling tour of the wild West Coast.
It's day one of a four-day biking adventure from Greymouth to Ross. Swells barrel in after a long journey across the Tasman Sea, birds feast on flowering flax and cabbage trees.
Leaving the dunes, tidal lagoons and wafts of wild honeysuckle behind, the track veers inland along the historic bush tramway, through pungent forests of kahikatea, rimu and totara.
After 30 kilometres and the inevitable bruising of butt bones, the historic little town of Kumara comes into view.
Gold was discovered near here in 1864, triggering one of New Zealand's last great gold rushes. In its heyday, Kumara was a bustling town with 50 hotels. When the gold dwindled, businesses closed and people moved away. The town hit bedrock. "Kumara used to be a sad little place a few years ago," says trail manager Jackie Gurden. "Now there's a real sense of excitement."
Kerrie Fitzgibbon, owner of the Theatre Royal Hotel in Kumara, reveals her part in the revival. "We wanted to put something back into the community that has given us so much," says Kerrie. On hearing about the planned trail, Kerrie and her husband Mark bought the old pub and undertook a major rebuild. The couple also restored the Bank of New Zealand building into two luxurious suites, with decor inspired by Eleanor Catton's Booker prize-winning The Luminaries. In 2016, they added six miner's cottages to help cater for the growing demand from the Wilderness Trail.
"Kerrie and Mark helped create a destination," smiles Jackie Gurden. "They've been the cornerstone of Kumara's transformation."
Day two dawns mild and still. Wisps of mist hang in the treetops on the slopes. The next 36km are slightly more challenging, but the scenery is mesmerisingly distracting: ancient forests, Jurassic ferns, a boardwalk spanning reedy swamps, old logging tramlines, man-made dams and mountain-fed weirs. The snow-capped Southern Alps, their foothills flanked with brooding green bush are a constant companion.
Next stop: Cowboy Paradise, a Wild West work-in-progress. The wood-lined ensuite cabin is unpretentious but offers a comfy bed and a strong, hot shower to wash away the grit. Mike Milne, owner of the 700-hectare farm and mastermind behind the town, sits on a gold mine. Smack-dab within cooee of nowhere, he has a captive market.
Over a roast dinner and several Monteiths, he shares his story: "I grew up on a diet of Bonanza so I'm recreating a Wild West town the way Dodge City should have been built. I reckon I've seen a 30 per cent increase in cyclists each year."
The next day starts with a whoop and a holler on a downhill serpentine over open farmland dotted with lupins. After a couple of kilometres, a sign for the unappetisingly named Cesspool entices us for an invigorating dip in a glacier-fed swimming hole under a swing bridge spanning the Arahura River.
The next two nights are spent at Hurunui Jacks, a Canopy Camping glamping escape just before Hokitika. Owner Maureen Spencer explains the vagaries of the wood-chip burner and the forest bath and introduces Colin the weka. "At first the locals were sceptical about the trail, now they've embraced it," says Maureen. "There's a feeling of optimism in the air."
With time running out, the bike seat is replaced by a steering wheel. Born-and-bred Coaster Chris Steel from the Wilderness Trail Shuttle had delivered the vehicle to Hurunui Jacks. Over a coffee and a stonking lunch at the newly opened Hokitika Sandwich Company, Chris explains: "I've been deeply involved in the trail since day one. I recently joined forces with Geoff Gabites of Cycle Journeys to offer a whole raft of packages to showcase the best of the west. Visitors can base themselves in one place or ride the legs back-to-back. I take care of whatever needs to be shuttled."
Gavin and Cindy Hopper live several kilometres south of "Hoki". The couple bought their land with the idea of living a self-sustaining lifestyle, however "a knock at our door and a request to allow the trail through our property changed all that," laughs Cindy. They set up West Coast Scenic Waterways, offering cruises and canoe hire in the Lake Mahinapua Scenic Reserve, one of New Zealand's most significant wetland areas.
Gavin takes us up the creek lined with rushes, flax and water lilies. It feels like the Everglades. We spy a rare kotuku (white heron). An endangered matuku (Australasian bittern) takes flight. Gavin is delighted: "Like a canary, that indicates air quality in a mine, the bittern is only found in water that's up to scratch."
The river opens up into Lake Mahinapua. Kahikatea stand like sentinels in the tannin-tinted water. Gavin drops us in a kayak to paddle back to base. Whitebait ripple the surface.
The final stretch to Ross takes cyclists through the Mahinapua Reserve and along the historic tramline. Our last night is spent at the Ross Beach Top10 Holiday Park, beachfront accommodation made from upcycled shipping containers initiated by Andy and Sue Stile when the trail opened.
Locals are justly proud of their West Coast Wilderness Trail. It has brought about a rural rebirth in a region rich in history and hardship, and with 18,000 visitors expected this season, it obviously ain't fool's gold.
Air New Zealand flies to Hokitika via Christchurch. The red-eye flight from Auckland lands at 8.45am, ready to hit the trail the same day.
The 132-kilometre West Coast Wilderness Trail is an easy grade 2 cycleway that is immaculately made and maintained, open all year, and can be ridden in either direction.
Chris Steel runs shuttle services and day trips.
Cycle Journeys offer an extensive range of guided or self-guided packages.