Day 74: Greymouth, NZ to near Milltown, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 8, 2014

Day 74: Greymouth, NZ to near Milltown, NZ

Unlike the other mornings we've experienced here, today there's no chorus of little voices, no rumble of feet, and the air doesn't vibrate with the unique sort of energy that you only find as a household with three young children comes to life with the deadline of the school bell hanging over all of their heads. Yesterday afternoon everyone left for the weekend, heading north to Westport and leaving their home and their chooks in our care. The result is that all we hear from the moment we slide away from our dreams is the sound of the sea falling into the shore with a crash and a rush that never fade, just as they would if this was the dawn of the morning last week, last year, or ten-thousand years ago.

On our way into town we run into one of New Zealand's great frustrations. Every grocery store has a dozen types of condoms, at least ten types of lube, seventy-three kinds of toothpaste, and more dishwashing detergent than anyone could ever need, but finding saline solution or eye drops or band-aids is impossible. To get those you have to make a separate trip to a drug store, which they call a chemist's. But of course the chemist is only open on alternating Saturdays, and of course this Saturday isn't one of them. It's like we've stepped back in time by four decades.

At least they have pies.
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Heading out of Greymouth on a quiet side road, a green and tan pickup truck passes by at twenty-five miles per hour within a foot of my right arm, even though there's no other traffic, even though he gave Kristen plenty of room, and even though I'm the most obvious thing on the road because I'm wearing a yellow jacket that's so bright and eye-catching and unattractive that it's unintentionally the world's most effective form of birth control.

Soon we pick up the West Coast Wilderness Trail. Wilderness turns out to be a stretch, given the holiday park, the rugby pitch, the farmer spraying weed killer in his paddock, and the pipe welding company that we cycle past. Then there are the two bathtubs sitting next to each other in a field, like we've been dropped into a real-life erectile dysfunction commercial. But questionable naming aside, we get to ride among only a few joggers and cyclists alongside native grasses and wildflowers and endless numbers of flaxes that grow half a dozen feet above the tops of our heads. When gaps in the brush appear we're able to look out at the sea, which appears flat and featureless except for its solid shade of turquoise on this warm and windless morning.

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We think that the character of the trail is about to change when we cross into a forest of beech trees, where the tannin leeches from the bark and into the creeks and puddles along the trail's edge, turning them into the same color of rust that we've seen so many times in the past week. But within a mile the path just ends up paralleling empty country roads, which means we ride slow, pound over rocks and gravel, and speed past tourists on rented hybrid bikes with the handlebars set almost at chest level — the kind who wear fluorescent yellow safety vests that accent their thick layers of makeup, and who make sure to carry adequate hydration in sensible-sized backpacks.

The word we keep coming back to is lame; it's really lame; it's totally lame. The problem is that the trail suffers from on obvious and fundamental flaw: you can't have a wilderness trail if there's no wilderness left for it to travel through.

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We consider all of this while stopped in the little town of Kumara. That's where Kristen buys some kind of blackcurrant-flavored energy drink with carbonation that turns her into a belching machine that produces brapping noises at high volumes and then follows them up with intense smiling and giggling. Together with rocks flying up and deflecting off the spokes with a ping, this becomes the soundtrack to an afternoon where we head past sheep, cows, and high-capacity pipelines. Although we enjoy some interesting bits that switchback up hills, run in sheltered sections through the trees, and end up by a lake, all of them are just as easily reached by the nearby gravel road, and the lake is the result of a long series of dams and canals. We see thick forests on the other side of the lake, but we ride in areas that have been clear cut for timber or to leave a path for 66,000-volt power lines. The best we can say is that at least we're off the highway. Once every forty-five minutes or so we're passed by a pack of touristy-looking mountain bikers headed the other way, but as soon as the crunch of the gravel beneath their tires fades we're back to riding all alone.

Wilderness van.
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Wilderness pipeline.
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Wilderness mine shafts.
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And then everything changes. The trail starts to trend upward, pointing us toward hills where it looks as if every square foot is covered with native trees and plants. We start to ride along rivers so clear that even as we're pedaling we can see every rock along the bottom. Soon the path leaves the road behind and cuts through sections of forest so thick we can't see more than fifty feet into them, where ferns grow over the edge of the trail, and where a thin coat of moss wraps around the curves of every tree trunk and stump.

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Sometimes we head over cascading streams on a suspension bridge that's constructed with modern materials and to modern standards, but that still wobbles up and down as we crest over it on our heavy bicycles. Other times there's no bridge, so we cross the pale sapphire-colored water of the creeks by riding through it. We stand on the pedals to crank our way up the short but steep climbs, and then put death grips on the brake levers as we fly down the back sides far faster than people on road bikes with narrow tires ever should. It's all such great fun — enough to make us take back most of the unkind things we said about the trail that came before.

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After we reach the highest point of the trail we bomb down the other side, zig-zagging left and right, never going straight for more than fifty feet at a time. When the path reaches a steep dropoff it starts to switchback aggressively. To make sure we don't fly off the edge, we pull back on the levers with as much force as we can, which turns the forest into a symphony of squeaking brake pads and makes our hands and wrists ache. It's a difficult, unsteady, and kind of dangerous ride on a loaded touring bicycle, but it's such a ridiculous good time that all of those concerns get pushed into the background. Better still is the fact that what's around us isn't farms or homes or clear cut land, but dense native forest, the heavy sound of a creek rushing far below, the dark outline of hills in the distance, and the flapping of big wings as birds move from one perch to another in the branches above. It's exactly what we hoped we'd find when we set out this morning.

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We see signs for Cowboy Paradise for an hour before we get there. When we finally come across it, we see spread out before us something that's designed to look like the main street of a town you'd find in the American Wild West. But it's put together in such a haphazard sort of way that we can't tell if it's half-completed or if it was meant to look abandoned like a ghost town. Today it seems like the latter, because even though there's a restaurant and some cabins for rent and a bathroom, everything's closed and we're the only two souls around. But thinking about the place in these terms seems like splitting hairs, because the bigger fact is that there's a replica of a Wild West town in the middle of a wilderness trail, dozens of miles from any kind of city, at the top of a valley on the South Island of New Zealand. On the list of possible unlikely things we could have stumbled onto today, this place is up near the top.

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We'd pay a lot for a cold beer or cider, and we look through the windows at the dark interior of the closed restaurant with longing. But instead we're content to sit on the porch and eat yellow peppers stuffed with rice and beans and quinoa, where the only sounds we hear are the motion of branches and leaves on the breeze, the uncoordinated chorus of bird calls, and the clank of the spoon against the sides of the metal pot that holds the leftover beans.

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Cowboy Paradise gives us a wide open view of what's to come, which in this case is a broad and flat river valley where finding a camping spot is almost sure to be difficult. Knowing this, as soon as we find a narrow path of grass leading up and away from one of the trails' hairpin corners about a mile farther on we follow it. Within a few hundred feet we find a flat patch of grass that's backed by a wide sweep of trees, and as soon as we see it we know that we've found our home for the night.

Wekas snuffle about in the brush and sandflies bounce off the roof of the tent with such force that they sound like raindrops. But except for those guys and the far-off static of a rushing creek, this corner of New Zealand seems as ready for night to come as we are. It's our first time back in the tent in a week and everything about that feels very right.

Today's ride: 45 miles (72 km)
Total: 2,385 miles (3,838 km)

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