Pedalling the West Coast Wilderness Trail

We arrived in Hokitika with just enough time to hotfoot it to the beach for sunset, accompanied by the obligatory glass of wine and pre-dinner nibble. Despite being just a stone’s throw from the town centre, the beach was empty save for a few dog walkers, which I still struggle to get my head around given its flawless setting.

As with Ross and Arrowtown, Hokitika contains a handful of restored gold rush-era buildings. However, Hokitika also has lots going on in the present, and the town boasts plenty of restaurants and cafes, and also plays host to a number of cultural events too. For example, we arrived on the eve of a 100 km ultramarathon, which concluded on the beachfront promenade.

I’m not sure whether it was inspiration from the ultramarathon or guilt from all the Tim Tam Slams (we’ve discovered that they come in 20-biscuit family packs, which we can polish off in three days!), but we decided to spend a day getting a taste of the West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail.

Controversially, the section we cycled barely followed the coast at all, and instead started by weaving its way through forest on what felt more like mountain bike trail than a rail trail.

The forest trail led to a bridge over a perfectly still lake, stained nearly black by tannins – an organic substance found in some barks and plants. Despite not being named as such, this lake’s reflective qualities surpassed both the Milford Highway’s mirror lake and Lake Matheson. We had great fun taking photos of the very confusing perspective – check out the last photo below, which was taken looking straight down into the lake from the bridge.

The route continued along a boardwalk, which while beautiful, posed quite the photography challenge. With no safety barriers, Sara still took the risk of photographing while cycling, and somehow managed to avoid both dropping her phone and cycling off the edge into the wetland. 😬

Determined to see the sea before turning around and heading back to Hokitika, we pushed on to the tiny village of Ruatapu, which I spotted on Google Maps contained the encouragingly named “Beach Road”. We followed this track and traversed some sand dunes to find yet another huge, sandy, wild and empty beach, which made the perfect spot to enjoy our lunchtime purchases from The Hokitika Sandwich Company. I think Sara might have won the lunch-off, with her pastrami and havarti sandwich, containing plenty of aioli, mustard and salad, although both sandwiches seemed to evaporate shortly after we opened them!

On the way back to Hokitika, we stopped at the Tree Top Walkway cafe for a quick coffee (and a cheeky Tim Tam Slam, of course). Just as we were leaving, a handful of silver-haired e-bikers turned up, one of whom immediately struck up a conversation with Sara and heavily recommended e-bikes over our traditional cycles. Searching for something polite to say that didn’t involve the word ‘cheating’ (we’re still very bitter from our rivalry on the Otago Central Rail Trail!), Sara told him that we needed the exercise because we eat far too much chocolate. He immediately replied, “Oh, but you need to pedal these too!” This really made us smile since it was one of two conversation topics that always seems to come up when we speak to the e-biker crowd. “So I hear,” Sara replied as we cycled off, “Next you’ll be telling us how rarely you need to charge the battery!” thereby checking off the second conversation topic.

Arriving back in Hokitika, we returned the bikes and celebrated with fush & chups in a ship-come-picnic-spot at Sunset Point. Not only was this a very comfortable spot (the ship even had lighting and a heat lamp!), but it also acted as a memorial to the ships that had collided, wrecked or run aground just off Hokitika’s shores. This seemed to happen with alarming frequency, peaking at one incident every 10 days in 1866! Fortunately, our ship was in dry dock on top of the causeway, so we managed to avoid adding to such concerning statistics.

After sunset, we popped into the Glow Worm Dell, a woodland walk where you can spot the light of thousands of tiny glow worms in the trees. However, the glow worms don’t like light, so imagine stumbling around on a rough track in the pitch black with a handful of other people all doing the same. Somehow we managed to avoid any direct collisions, which was lucky as we only learned on the way out that we should have been keeping to the left of the path. To be honest, this would have been a bit tricky anyway, given we couldn’t see the path!

Satisfied with our 42 km taste of the West Coast Wilderness Trail, we returned to our camper van with an ambitious plan to make it to the end of the Great Coast Road the following day.

Glaciers and gold on NZ’s west coast

We managed to leave our campground at Haast without being shouted at even once by the proprietor, result! Perhaps Oli is more charming than I had thought… From Haast, we turned north up Highway 6, which we would follow for the next five days as we drove up the west coast.

Yesterday, we’d been surrounded by arid mountains and the vineyards of Central Otago, but now the landscape had really changed, with the road sandwiched between snowy alpine peaks on our right and the wild Tasman Sea on our left. We crossed countless single-track bridges spanning rivers and streams that rushed down from the mountains into the sea, and every corner brought a new vista.

New Zealand is definitely one of the most beautiful countries we’ve ever seen, and these two days’ driving covered the most breathtaking landscapes we’d seen so far. I normally fall asleep pretty much every time I get in the car (unless I’m driving, obviously), and I haven’t had a single nap yet! There’s a chance this has to do with the sheer volume of coffee and Tim Tams we’ve been consuming, but I think it’s more to do with the incredible scenery.

About 20 minutes after we left Haast, we pulled into Knight’s Point Lookout to get a good look at the wild coastline, and that was my driving done for the day. I do like to do my bit!

Our next stop was Lake Matheson, another mirror lake, this time offering a mossy lakeside trail and a reflection of the peaks of the Southern Alps. We didn’t manage to time our visit for the perfect mirror conditions (instead our visit seemed to coincide with a duck convention in the centre of the lake 🦆), but the view across the water to Mount Cook and Mount Tasman was still absolutely stunning.

Just nearby, we paused again at a nondescript parking area at the end of a track that we’d read had a decent but distant view of the fast-receding Fox Glacier. Having seen some seriously disappointing videos on YouTube of people visiting the Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers (23 km further north) where they just looked very grey and very far away, we really didn’t have high hopes for what we’d see, particularly as huge landslides in 2019 closed access roads to nearer viewpoints. We’d been driving up the track with the glacier behind us and as we hopped out of the van, the view really took our breath away! It obviously helped that we caught it on a lovely sunny day, but the glacier looked like an enormous frozen waterfall descending down the mountain (which I guess is kind of what it is, really).

We thought it was a great view, even if the cows had seen it all before

That night, we stayed at an eerily deserted campground near Franz Josef Glacier. We knew that there were other people doing a very similar route to us (because we kept awkwardly bumping into them in the supermarket) but we never did work out where they were staying as this seemed to be the only option in town. Anyway, we had a beautiful view of the Southern Alps and it was very nice to have the site to ourselves! We had expected to be doing lots more freedom camping, but it’s been seriously chilly at night the last few days so it’s been nice to be able to run our little fan heater while having our daily drinks reception (i.e. wine and crisps), and we can only do this if plugged into 240v power at a campground.

Ghost campground

The next morning, we continued our journey north. Within a few minutes of setting off, we pulled into a Department of Conservation (DOC) campground for a quick pitstop to rescue a teatowel that had gone rogue and was sweeping our floor every time we went round a corner. I hopped out of the van to run through the trees and take a quick look at the view and this (below) is what met me. I think it’s a pretty good illustration of how beautiful this part of the world is – there were no other people, no viewpoint, but the view was still spectacular.

We also popped into Ōkārito, a tiny seaside hamlet set between a peaceful lagoon and the raging sea. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of the Tasman Sea – I don’t think it comes across particularly strongly in photos, but even in the settled weather we were having, it was totally WILD! There were several DOC trails in the area, but these were all closed for an ‘aerial operation’, so we went for a walk on the beach instead. We saw lots of helicopters circling and couldn’t work out exactly what they were doing, but based on the number of poison warning signs we saw, we had a feeling it wasn’t going to end well for the wild mammals in the area… 😢


Our final stop of the day was Ross, a gold rush-era town with some nicely preserved buildings and a brilliantly obscure local museum. If you’ve ever read a Bill Bryson book, you’ll know exactly the kind I mean as he describes them so well – the ones where anything and everything relating to local history is popped in a room together, leaving you to wonder exactly why.

This might have been just ten minutes of confusing entertainment if it weren’t for the museum’s enthusiastic custodian, who popped over for a chat when he saw us looking at the “Honourable Roddy” nugget and heard we were from the UK. It was the largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand when it was discovered in 1909, but it turned out we were looking at a replica rather than the real thing, because this was gifted to George V on his coronation in 1911 – how topical!

The chap told us that it had been in the local news again recently, because the nugget went missing when it reached the UK and no one knows where it ended up. Even before this, it had an interesting story, because despite being an exciting find, it was too big (and thus too expensive) for any one gold buyer to purchase. As a result, Sharpe and Scott didn’t know what to do with their find and for a while, it was used as a doorstop in the local pub! Eventually, the local hospital bought it, took it on a tour of NZ and sold raffle tickets to win it. The eventual winner was offered money by the government so they could use it as a coronation gift. But before doing so, they put it into an incredibly elaborate setting that was rumoured to be worth more than the nugget itself. I loved everything about this story – some properly good local history!

After our unexpectedly fascinating chat with the custodian (I think he kept the museum open late especially!) we set off for Hokitika, just a few minutes up the road. Here, we planned to stop for a day or two so that we could get some proper exercise and perhaps kick our Tim Tam Slam habit.

Joining the Great Coast Road

After a few quick errands in Queenstown (the biggest city for some distance) we set out towards Haast on the wild west coast.

Our first stop was in Arrowtown, a beautifully restored gold mining town, which was no stranger to tourism. We joined the other day-trippers in taking photos along the town’s main street, which looked like it had been lifted straight out of a western movie. We then plonked ourselves down in the sun with a cone each of Hokey Pokey (vanilla and honeycomb) ice cream. Sara swears this Hokey Pokey was way better than the first time we tried it in Akaroa, although I think it’s just the first time she had a cone to herself.

Arrowtown is also famous for the preservation of its Chinese settlement located just outside the main town. This settlement was home to many gold mining immigrants, who were invited to New Zealand to work in gold mining and hoped to earn their fortune. Many ended up staying even after the gold boom, which was particularly surprising given the discrimination that they experienced, including verbal abuse, racist newspaper articles, and discriminatory government policies. In 2002, the New Zealand government officially apologised to the Chinese community for their treatment.

Back on the main road, we passed the iconic Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, built in 1880 for access to the goldfields. However, after traffic was moved to a new two-way bridge in 1963, it became the world’s first commercial bungee jumping site. We watched one guy throw himself off the bridge before quickly concluding that it was our budget stopping us follow suit, and nothing to do with fear.

That evening, we stayed in the lakefront town of Wānaka. Maybe this says something about the town itself, but one of its top attractions is a tree which appears to be growing straight out of the lake. We enjoyed a cold but sunny morning walk along the lakefront to see what all the fuss was about, and with a typical “huh”, confirmed that the tree does, indeed, exist. The best bit was actually watching other people’s photoshoots in front of the tree – we just couldn’t compete. Instead, we took the obligatory quick selfie, and got back on the road.

As much as we’ve enjoyed taking public transport over the past few months, we’ve also missed the option of stopping on the spur of the moment as we pass a worthy-looking detour. And it was exactly this reason that made us pull over as we approached the Lake Hawea Lookout, which consisted of a single picnic bench with absolutely breathtaking views across the glistening lake. After enjoying our lunch, it felt only right to top it off with yet another Tim Tam Slam.

That night we stayed in the frontier town of Haast, which to be honest was less of a town and more of a gas station, a pub and a holiday park. We’d read mixed reviews about the owners of our holiday park, who appeared to shout at visitors for the most minor faux pas. For this reason, Sara opted to stay in the van, and sent me to the site office to check in. I told Sara that it would be fine and I’d just turn on the charm. She looked extremely doubtful, but I swear, I nearly forced a smile out of the site manager.

Still, the site was only a stone’s throw from Haast beach – our first proper look at the wild west coast. Standing on the stunning but completely empty beach that stretched for miles in both directions, it became clear that we’d left the Queenstown day-trippers well behind, and this was where Great Coast Road really begins.