Sunday, June 17, 2007

Great Rides - The West Coast

Great Ride Number Three: West Coast, South Island

It’s really hard to pick great rides from merely good rides in the South Island – any ride in the South Island is a great experience. There’s always good scenery, mostly good roads and generally less traffic.

The West Coast is really a selection of great rides that start with just getting there via Nelson, Wakefield, Golden Downs, Murchison, Inangahua and finally the Buller Gorge and on to the Coast proper. Or you can of course come straight through from Picton, Blenheim and up the Wairau Valley.

Weather seems to be the main reason that people shy away from the West Coast and that’s a shame – sure I’ve been as wet as you can get down there but I’ve also experienced some superb weather which combined with the ride made for a truly magic day. On one of my trips down the Coast, we got rained on (vigorously) from Punakaiki all the Way to Franz Josef and I was soaked through and freezing by the end of it. But the next morning was fantastic and we enjoyed an awesome flight over the glaciers followed by a stunning ride all the way through to Wanaka and Queenstown. If you’re going to let a little weather put you off experiencing the Coast then you’ll be seriously missing out – pack your wet weather gear and just go!

If you’re heading to Westport or going down to check out Cape Foulwind or the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki then from Inangahua you’ll have to go through the Buller Gorge. This road twists and winds following the Buller River to the Coast and is a lot of fun (had fun chasing a Morgan V8 through there one day) but watch the narrow, one-way sections.

Once through the gorge you can turn North towards Westport (and Karamea – haven’t gone that far yet) or Southwards to Punakaiki and Greymouth. It’s worth stopping at Punakaiki for a look at the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. There’s a cafĂ© there and the local wekas will come out to say gidday.

The ride from Westport all the way down to Hokitika is more or less all coastal highway and nothing too demanding. On a rough day the surf really crashes in and the place really does look pretty wild.

South of Hokitika you get away from the Coast at times and ride through scenery that alternates from dairy farms to native bush. Traffic thins out a bit more, although the tourists are well represented in there motor homes and rental cars. Once you hit Franz Josef you’re in postcard country – bush clad hills, snowy mountains etc.

As mentioned above, I’ve taken a flight over the glaciers and would highly recommend it. We passed on the chopper ride and landing on the glaciers and took a fixed-wing flight which took us over both glaciers as well as along the Coast and over the Franz Josef township – the views were spectacular and we got some great photos.

Between the glaciers you can find motorcycle heaven – a great winding road that actually has two corners marked 15km/h! Great fun if you don’t get stuck behind a camper and the weather is good.

Once a bit further South you alternate between great roads through native bush to small sections of coastal highway. Keep an eye out for a lookout on your right – on a good day you can see Mount Cook form here. Another good place to stop is Knights Point were you can get a good view up and down the Coast.

Then it’s on down the road to Haast and on into the Haast Pass through to Wanaka. Now we’re talking – this is why you came down here. A truly magnificent ride which has everything – a fantastic winding road surrounded by awesome scenery. There’s plenty of places to stop and checkout waterfalls, lakes and the bush clad hills. I’d rate this ride 2nd only to the Milford Road for its scenery and the brilliant ride. You’re not a motorcyclist if you don’t enjoy this ride!

After riding around the Eastern side of Lake Wanaka and the West side of Lake Hawea (fantastic roads and views all the way) you eventually get to an intersection where you can go on into Wanaka or off to Cromwell and Queenstown. Personally, if I was going to Queenstown, I’d go into Wanaka and then cross over Crown Range Road to Queenstown – another great ride…

Well that’s the West Coast (and my favourite of the South Island’s coasts) and it’s got you to Queenstown where you can find plenty to do and is pretty close to some more great rides. So what else do you need to know:

- petrol: there’s plenty but you’ll have to pay for it (especially at Haast Beach and you may want some here – it’s a reasonable ride through to Wanaka)
- the roads are all in good condition but watch for roadkill and be careful in the wet or cold
- you will get stuck behind campers but you’ll soon be past them
- not to many cops around but watch it around Wanaka/Queenstown
- take ya camera and enjoy the scenery
- get on ya bike and do it – no excuses!

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