My wilderness trail experience started at the northern trailhead, with a brisk introduction to the local ‘barber’. He’s a particularly fearsome character and Greymouth residents tell me he cuts right to the bone! However, this is no barber with a pair of scissors in hand but is in fact a local wind; a unique phenomenon of cool katabatic air that often flows down the mountains and along the Grey Valley. As the flow squeezes between the narrow gap in the hills it accelerates to quite a blast. If the barber is operating, during the cooler months it’s worth warming up with a hot chocolate at a local café before setting off.
The start of the trail begins on the stopbank beside the Grey River, just above the train station, and many riders choose to take the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to arrive at the trailhead – which would be a fine way to begin the adventure. For me, the adventure began when I powered up my three GPS units, the barber making itself known by causing my fingers to tremble on the keypads. Then I was off, warming up as I cycled past the massive dock shipping cranes towards the mouth of the Grey River. The trail hugs the shoreline, meandering its way around the harbour where fishing boats shelter, before delivering me at the river mouth.
Here I sight the notorious Grey Bar where the massive rolling Tasman Sea swells gather in a tumbling crescendo before spilling exhausted onto the beach. Watching those boats leave the shelter of the harbour and take on these rolling giants is both a thrilling and terrifying sight. The vantage point is a must-visit, but I don’t linger long after reading the numerous memorial plaques at the site – it is clear that not all vessels return safely over the bar with their catch.
I ride on southward beside the coastline as the trail weaves its way through the flax. To the left are the forested foothills, to my right is the roaring surf break that pounds the pebbles on the shore. Despite the surf spray mist hovering over the beach, I can see straight ahead in the distance the white peaks of our tallest mountains, some 150 kilometres away. After crossing the Taramakau River bridge, the trail leads me inland on the former alignment of a tramway and through a corridor of trees so tall my mouth drops in awe as I ride. Gobsmacked! After crossing a swinging suspension bridge I reach the village of Kumara.
Kumara is a transformed town since when I last visited. It has shaken off the image of a West Coast tumbleweed town, and is embracing its heritage through stories and the renovated buildings which brim with vitality. The grandest of the establishments is the Theatre Royal Hotel – the finest of stays and the best spot to quench your thirst at the end of this section of the trail.
Tonight I elect to stay across the road in the historic undertaker’s cottage. It’s the restored former home of the local mortician who must have undertaken some challenging jobs given the terrifying mining exploits, harrowing river crossings and health epidemics of his day. As the accommodation website claims, the stay is a ‘rest in peace … in the dead centre of town’ – and rest I did; I wake refreshed and ready for my next day of wilderness riding.