Harry's bike was poorly equipped for the rocky walking track that is the Big River Trail, and with the recent rain we were also concerned about the water crossings.
Due to this rain, the ride organisers allowed us to bypass the trail and detour down the highway.
Dan headed off up to the Big River Trail and I joined Harry, justifying the easy detour with the intention of taking a two day detour up the Croesus Track to Ces Clark Hut.
Before I left for the Tour I'd seen pictures of the mountaintop hut and promised myself to get to it given the opportunity.
I was ahead of schedule and the forecast was great, so there was no reason not to.
The sky was clear, the air was cool, the road was flat and the traffic was light. Given the rain and thrills of the day before it was refreshing to have such a relaxed start to the day. After an hour we turned off the highway, followed a quiet road through cow farms and along the foot of the coal-rich Paparoa Range, past the Pike River Memorial and all the way to the old coal town of Blackball. I headed to the general store and started stocking up on food from the small selection of the two shelves. My plans were soon thwarted as the store owner did not accept credit card and I didn't enough have cash on hand. Disappointed, I consoled myself with a venison burger from the famous Blackball Hilton then headed onwards to Greymouth.
Harry and I resupplied in Greymouth then met up again. Waiting for Dan to complete the Big River Trail, we enjoyed the sunshine, ate afternoon tea snacks and napped in a grassy park. I was keen to camp while I had the opportunity, so I left Harry to wait for Dan, and headed onwards along the start of the Westcoast Wilderness Trail with the aim of camping at Kapitea Reservoir. Shortly before sunset I arrived at the campsite, which is nothing more than a grass patch by the lake and a port-a-loo. I set up my tent on the water's edge among the small flock of campervans and enjoyed dinner with a view of the mountains we'd be riding through the next day. A curious weka kept me company as the sun set.
It wasn't raining when I woke but I could see the mountains ahead of me disappearing into a wall of grey rain. I checked the tracking app and saw that Harry and Dan were on their way from Greymouth, so I packed up and found some shelter while waiting for their arrival. By the time they arrived just after 8am the rain had set in properly and wouldn't stop until we reached Hokitika late in the afternoon.
The Westcoast Wilderness Trail started tame and flat, but got tighter and twistier as we headed into the mountains. The rain never subsided. Our views were hampered by the clouds but they provided their own moodiness and atmosphere. At the peak of the trail, and in the middle of a solid downpour, we arrived at Cowboy Paradise with about five other riders. Cowboy Paradise is a partially built, gimmicky, faux-western town that caters mainly to cyclists passing through. We overlooked the sloppily built, half-finished walls as we were totally captivated by and desperately crowded around their diesel powered fan heater. We warmed up and dried off, even though we know it will only last as long as we were indoors, and gobbled up the most generously sized serves of chips we've ever seen.
By the time Harry, Dan and I were ready to leave the rain was still hanging around so we pushed on despite it, blazing around the downhill switchbacks.
We made it out of the mountains and onto a sealed road just as the worst of the cold front hit. Buckets of sideways rain smashed us in the face. I put my head down and struggled on.
We got relief from the wind but not the rain once we got back on a trail and into the forest. Our stoke levels were high as we teared along; we couldn't get any more wet so we just enjoyed it.
With water hitting us from the sky and rushing beside us through the water races each side of the trail, there was no point in dodging the puddles.
The 7 hours of rain finally relented as we approached the outskirts of Hokitika, the famous setting of the Man Booker prize winning The Luminaries.
Dan and Harry stopped for afternoon tea but I was keen to push on and dry out. On the road out of town I saw my first patches of NZ snow on a mountain peak on the horizon.
The final stages of the trail consisted of a converted rail trail, a short section of road then 10km of painfully flat, straight and dull gravel.
Nearing the end of five days of riding, I was feeling weary and slow, but grateful to now be dry and have the sun shining.
Dan and Harry reached Ross shortly after I did. The $20 each we paid for a dorm at the Historic Empire Hotel seemed a little overpriced given the quality of the place. The early beer ad posters must have been up since the 90's, and were probably as old as the rest of the meagre room furnishings. In addition, the lack of lights and toilet door locks didn't seem up to code. The buffet dinner, including my three servings of spicy slow cooked pork, almost made up for it all. Dry, warm and fed, we felt good. Too bad the 12 German backpackers in the room next door then kept us until after midnight.
We woke before dawn, and made enough noise to get revenge on the backpackers next door. Rolling out of town down State Highway 6, which we'd stay on for most of the next 400km down the West Coast to Wanaka, we caught a long and glorious sunrise. It was our coldest morning in NZ so far, and Harry was regretting his lack of gloves. It warmed up soon enough as the golden light peaked over the mountains. After an hour along a quiet gravel road skirting the coast, we got back on SH6 and headed inland. The highway poked in and out intermittently between forest and farmland, until about Lake Ianthe. We stopped for a photo but then kept moving. The road skirted the mountains, following the edge of a flat alluvial valley. On the final approach to Harihari, as we crossed the bridge over the Wanganui River, we listened to the almighty howl of the wind through the pass.
We stopped at Harihari for morning tea and to shed our warmer layers. For some reason, maybe a combination of a lack of sleep and maintaining the same position on the bike for too long, a sharp pain around my collarbone struck up. Stretching and getting back on the bike helped a little, but it flared back even worse an hour later as we passed through Whataora. I downed a dose of panadeine, which helped more, as did the knowledge that I'd be stopping soon in Franz Josef. Franz Josef was not at all what I expected. Knowing Franz Josef Glacier emerged from between mountains, I thought its namesake town would be somewhat alpine. To the contrary, Franz Josef township isn't alpine at all; it sits on the edge of the alluvial plain at only 122m above sea level. The serenity usually present in such a remote location was overwhelmed by the constant roaring of endless stream of tour helicopters and hundreds of tourists roaming the streets.
I had lunch with Harry and Dan before saying goodbye as they continued on to Haast. I was now out of riding partners and would complete the rest of the tour solo. I checked in at the YHA, set up my tent on their grass and headed to the glacier for the sunset. Seeing the glacier was one of my tops goals for the trip, so I was excited to finally be there. I made my way up to one of the viewing platforms and set up my camera for a time lapse of the sunset. A few minutes later I was joined by a young American woman. While we watched the sunset we chatted about bike touring and travel. The sky turned purple after the sunset and I was lucky to get a photo of it over the river on my way back to town just before it faded. Back at the YHA I ran into Henry, who I'd last seen at Karen and Willie's house in Masterton. We chatted briefly about how we were travelling then hit the sack. I got to sleep early, but, as seems the way, got woken up at 1am by drunks coming home from the pub and talking loudly outside my tent.
I woke at sunrise, decidedly unrested, to the sounds of birds and helicopters. I didn't have any particular destination in mind, but I knew the next settlement of any decent size was the town of Haast, 145km away.
On my way down the street to get a bacon and egg roll for breakfast, I once again bumped into Fay, Christien, Phil and Jack, and decided to ride out to Fox Glacier with them.
We slowly ground our way up a decent size hill, definitely the largest we'd ridden for several days, then zoomed down into Fox Glacier. None of us were in a hurry to get moving. One rider took the opportunity to dry out her tent in the sunshine and Christien loaded his bike up with a care package from home.
We trundled along the cycle/walking trail to the carpark at the glacier, but none of us felt inspired to hike the several more kilometres to where the glacier has now retreated, especially not since we would have to leave our bikes there. The view of Fox was a lot less glorious than Fran Josef so I also didn't bother going any further. As I was leaving, I bumped into the girl from the lookout the night before at Franz Josef. She was on her way up to the face so we wished each other well and went on our ways. Fay, Christien, Phil and Jack went ahead as I detoured up a road on the other side of the river, hoping for a better view from which to take a photo. Not knowing how far it went, I didn't bother reaching the end and finding a viewpoint, but the road itself was beautiful enough to photograph. I trundled on alone down the highway, not feeling too bad but also not feeling great. As I crossed the bridge over the mighty Karangarua River, Fay and co called out to me from below. They'd stopped there for lunch on the rocks by the river bank so I joined them.
Not long after we set off again I suddenly felt immensely lousy; most probably caused by a combination of sleep deprivation and my sore shoulder, and a little hypoglycaemia. It was the worst I've ever felt while riding. Luckily I was only minutes away from the Pine Prove Motel, a cosy set of cabins run by a couple on their farm, so I booked in for the night. I immediately dropped onto the bed and slept for 3 hours until 5pm. I ate dinner, stretched out my shoulder, read most of an abridged Reader's Digest novel, then slept for another 12 hours. I'd hit my low point of the tour, and rather suddenly and unexpectedly at that. Obviously I really needed a rest.