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Jamie Nicoll: Journey West


Longitude 1563450.89 Latitude 5501652.9 Lands you out west from the top of the South Island of New Zealand, roughly in the location of this adventure, continuing my mission of exploring with 4x4 and mountain bikes strapped to the back, driving until the road ends, then heading out further to look for unknown trails and landscapes by bike!

Stretching south lies the Kahurangi National park and tracts of private farmland with the wild pounding waves of the Tasman sea.

I had been here before but not with the plan of riding the coastal hard sands of low tide and staying in an old lighthouse keepers house.

Five days away was the plan, so west we went then south down the coast winding along on golden gravel roads, bordered by big native trees and coastal wetlands rimmed with copper grasses, before opening into old farmland dotted with fluted limestone cliffs and groves of the gracefully shaped Nikau palms. Reaching the first of the bridgeless river crossings we made camp for the night, I was keen to try out the borrowed rooftop tent, I’ve been planning to fit one but it was great to have one to try first! It was an early start, making hot drinks and a quick breakfast prepared at the back of the wagon, it was cold, damp and dark but the pressure was on to make the difficult tidal river crossings before the tide turned, difficult because the place to cross always changes, sometimes far up in the lagoon and sometimes on the edges of the pounding breakers.

Packed up well before sunrise we drove across the first river and along the last 5km’s of the farm road before it really ends and you are met by huge sand dunes and long stretches of beach with the lighthouse beacon flashing out far far away. We left the wagon as dawn was just colouring the sky, soaking in the freedom you feel on a crisp winter sunrise mission, we easily pedaled along the sand, the yellow and pinks thrown past us lit up the white tips of the waves and created a golden-green on the forest scape.

One river crossed, in a very straight forward condition, but this was not the tricky one, approaching Big River, the one that could turn us back, the feeling of pressure rose in me, I had to figure this one out quick rose, I cursed, we should not have stopped to take photos before this one. I stripped off my shorts and waded out testing the depth at the mouth, the water was really cold and even with my warm tops pulled up under my arms the water licked at the hems, no, no good there, or there, quick let’s try up in the lagoon, the tide had now definitely turned and the big swell and waves had not allowed the lagoon to drain as much as normal, after more aborted attempts and now chattering teeth I heading up further than ever before over slimy sticky mudflats, again I waded out, still walking wast deep I passed halfway, I think this might be the spot, then further, yes this will work!

Returning, both Freya and I lifted our bikes over our heads resting them on our loaded packs and across we went. Just in time, I said as we watched the rapidly advancing water filling the lagoon and freshly laid footprints.

A bit of rock hopping before the beach resumed the easy sand travel of the early morning and allowed my tense cold muscles to relax. It wasn’t long before we were pushing our bikes up through a forested track and out onto the grass of the hut clearing. What a spot this old lighthouse keepers house is, cups of tea on the sunny verandah talking to a local hunter, and some exploring around with a quick sunset pedal to the old lighthouse sitting above the point.

A starry cold night with the old coal range burning saw us through to the morning to repeat the journey in reverse, we knew where to cross and were treated to riding into that golden wintery glow to the north. Back at the truck set up camp in the dunes early for a relaxing day of coffee and reading, as smooth as that sounds it all got a bit windy and so we relocated to a more sheltered spot, campfires, and treated to another clear night, I woke early and sat out in the dunes watching the dawn break over the magnificent coastline, I felt very lucky right then!

Two rivers to ford and many km’s of gravel road to drive, it was still with a little sadness when we were back in reception and jolted from the comparable clear wilderness, but turning left out to Wharariki beach for a night at the local campground soon put pay to that.