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Lost in time on Wilderness Trail

Jo Ferris has been tripping around New Zealand’s backyard for a while now — long before Covid-19 changed the way Kiwis might travel in future. Her last venture, prior to lockdown, was cycling the West Coast Wilderness Trail . . .

Covid-19 changed New Zealand forever — if not the world. As the Level 4 lockdown decimated international tourism overnight, the ripple effect promised to change Kiwis' travel choices in future. It could be the silver lining for domestic operators — perhaps not this year — but hopefully next.

The plea for backyard trips harks back to the 1980s' mantra: ‘Don't leave home ‘til you've seen the country'. Funny how life goes full circle. An Auckland exhibition a couple of years ago revisited promotions and photographs from New Zealand Tourism's archives.

Other initiatives have since featured in several publications, also brandishing the mantra as articles focus on beautiful parts of the country.

Unable to afford pricey airfares back then to the South Island, Grabaseat made it possible in recent years, thankfully. I am living the mantra, on a mission to visit all corners of the South Island before I'm too old to care.

A cycling trip around the West Coast Wilderness Trail had been planned for a year. Its timing, at the beginning of March, beat the deluge that soon followed. Looking back, observing how rapidly coronavirus tromped through the country, our small group of 70-plus women was lucky to escape possible contact.

During four days riding the trail, we encountered tourists from all corners of the globe — Australians, Canadians, Germans, Israelis, South Africans, English — and that's just who we spoke with.

The sheer numbers prove the value of this country's cycle trails. As Kiwis, we should support them with vigour — especially now.

This route is one of the best. Not as challenging as some, this easy 132kms between Ross and Greymouth, is picturesque, historical and enlightening. Ride it either way, do as little or as much as you want, and take as long as you want.

Depending on personal preference for the starting point, there are trail operators in Greymouth and Hokitika. We used Hokitika Cycles and Sports World because Hokitika is a great place to stay for a couple of days and our package included a shuttle to our starting point at nearby Ross and pick-up at Greymouth. Airfares and driving to Hokitika aside, it was pleasantly reasonable.

Ross to Hokitika is a doddle and gives time to linger. Unknown to many, Ross — small as the place is — was where New Zealand's heaviest gold nugget was found. The ride passes by West Coast's Treetop Walk — entry a separate cost — but a must-do and an ideal lunch stop.

Aim simply to enjoy the ride

From there, the trail weaves through the historic Mahinapua waterways to Hokitika for the night — a lazy stroll to sunset point and scrummy pizza at Fat Pipi Pizzas.

Day two was equally picturesque, following the footsteps of pioneers through gold-mining sites and old forestry water races. Weaving through virgin forest, the path passes Lake Kaniere into the Upper Arahura Valley to the inimitable Cowboy Paradise.

Reputation precedes this place. The owner, Mike Milne, originally set it up for, yes, cowboys itching to head for the hills and shoot at targets. Now a partner of the Wilderness Trail — and with lodgings and meals — a night at Cowboy Paradise shouldn't be missed.

Book early. The place is a story on its own. Planning to create a complete cowboy village eventually, Mike comes with his own reputation. Take him as you find him, don't break the house rules, arrive with a sense of humour and you'll leave with warm memories.

The trails up to and out of Cowboy Paradise are slightly challenging — especially in the rain. Walking parts makes life easy. Did I mention e-bikes? Given our age group, they're a prerequisite. That's not to say serious lycra bikers weren't on the trail in force — at speed. We simply don't have anything to prove. The aim was simply to enjoy the ride.

Day three followed idyllic trails through virgin forests, around lakes and hydro reservoirs, through boardwalk swamps and historic rail bridges to Kumara.

Best known for its annual Gold Nuggets race meeting, Kumara's history is founded on gold. It was also the long-time home of Richard Seddon, gold digger, businessman, MP and eventual Prime Minister from 1893 to 1906.

Rebuilt in 2012 to replicate its former glory, the Royal Theatre Hotel is a fitting place to stay, dine and wine — there's whitebait on the menu if you're lucky. It fuels the energy to breeze along the final leg by the coast to Greymouth the next day. It can be a blustery ride up to the river mouth before cruising along its banks to journey's end, and a well-earned drink.

With that backyard trip ticked off, plans are already in place for Nelson's Great Taste Trail next March. Let's hope Covid-19 is but a distant memory and tourist operators have survived in order to greet us with latte and wine.

Idyllic trails through virgin forest. Pictures by Jo Ferris
The spiral tower in West Coast's Treetop Walk.
The trail reveals a diverse landscape of ancient sites and idyllic countryside.
A cyclist on a board walk section of the trail.
The saloon at Cowboy Paradise in the misty hills around Upper Arahura Valley.
Jo Ferris (above left) and Barbara Grieve at Cowboy Paradise.
Greymouth River’s rugged bar is an obstacle course for local fishers.
Passing cyclists are a friendly bunch.