Take 3  The Long Ride Home

Each year, university student Marina Comeskey makes her annual commute home to Wellington from Christchurch … by bike, that is.

By Marina Comeskey (November 2020)

Since moving to Christchurch three years ago to study, I have undertaken an annual commute home to Wellington. On the bike, of course. I love nonchalantly telling people I rode home and then watching them double take as they realise I mean the 350 km to Wellington, not the 3 km from uni. What usually follows is one of two reactions; ‘you’re crazy’ or ‘oh yeah I once spent two months cycle touring Asia/Europe/America.’ Both are good conversation starters. Anyways this year I decided to go via the West Coast, as I had done the Molesworth and the Rainbow the two years previously. I had also organised a UC climbing club trip to Punakaiki, which would therefore be on the way.

And so on the 10th of November I set out across the Canterbury Plains. This was approximately 42 hours (one rest day to pack) after having completed the NZ (Unofficial World) 24 hour Rogaine Champs and riding along West Coast Road (and later up Porters Pass). I started thinking maybe another rest day would have gone hard — this brief rest period also influenced my packing as, after being snowed upon and mildly hypothermic for a substantial part of the Rogaine, I may have been slightly traumatised by the cold and was taking no chances. Somewhat fortunately the weather would prove to be absolutely stunning and the extra thermals packed would be used for nothing more than a pillow (which is still very important of course). 

Any way out of Christchurch, the first day is going to be long and boring. The 80 km to the foothills has just enough of a gradient to make you feel slow, followed by the steep but fairly short grunt up to Porters Pass. I had been planning on camping at Mistletoe Flat, but happened to run into a friend who was staying in Castle Hill Village and decided that one more night in a warm bed would be very pleasant (thanks Becky!). 

The following day I set out early aiming to make it to Moana. The morning was overcast and blessedly cool but by the time I made it to Klondlyke Corner for lunch, it was proving to be a scorcher. Cycling through Castle Hill Basin and on to Arthur’s Pass I was reminded why I was doing this. The mountains, the trees and the rivers are absolutely stunning and the slower pace on the bike lets you see so much more.

After stopping for coffee in Arthur’s Pass Village, I set out for the last push up to Arthur’s Pass and on to Otira Gorge. Otira Gorge is steep, and it was somewhat with nervous anticipation that I kicked off down the hill. But flying down, wind in the hair, breaks screaming like kea, splashed by the flume outfall, trying not to tailgate a cattle truck is truly the full exhilarating experience. The fun was not particularly long lived unfortunately, as a head wind was quick to slow me down. This was to stick with me until Moana made the last 40 km of the day a slow hot grind. FORTUNATELY, Moana is host to a lovely lake and pub and both were gladly taken advantage of after such a long hot day.

The third day dawned very similar to the previous except with weka alarms and very hot hands, thanks to the sunburn obtained the day before. Feeling rather achy and tired after two long days, I cursed uni for not keeping me fit and wondered if for once in my life I had overestimated myself. Alas there was little more I could do but ease myself back onto the saddle and put one foot in front of the other until I made it to Punakaiki where I looked forward to a couple of days ‘rest’. At Brunner, I wandered around the mine memorial and marvelled at the bridge, as well as how far (or not so far in the case of Pike River) workplace health and safety has come.

Cruising down the Grey and on to Rapahoe brought me to the coast where there was nothing more to do but marvel at how stunning it is (and keep pushing the pedals). Someone once claimed The Great Coast Road (between Greymouth and Westport) to be one of the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world and this is no exaggeration. Again, being on the bike, going that little bit slower lets you appreciate it so much more. West Coast Best Coast, as they say. 

However, being beautiful doesn’t make the wheels turn any easier and I was exhausted when I made it to Punakaiki Beach Camp where I was to be meeting my friends. Friends nowhere to be found, I hit the sack at the very reasonable hour of 7 pm, only to be bribed out of bed at 7:30 pm by chocolate milk when they made it back from climbing. The chocolate milk was worth it though.

The next two days were spent exploring the heights of the Punakaiki and Bullock Creek Valleys. Since this is a bikepacking story I won’t go into much detail, except to say that while different muscles were used, it was two fairly full days of climbing and would not constitute most people’s definition of rest days. 

Sunday brought another uncharacteristically hot day to the West Coast, as I again made my way north to Westport. With a modest 56 km to achieve, I made the most of the weather and took my sweet time admiring the scenery. Stopping for a wander at the Truman Track, Fox River markets, Charleston and literally every lookout spot, I never ceased to be blown away by how stunning the country is and how lucky we are to be here. 

In Westport, staying with family, two proper rest days were had. The first was spent in the garage in true Paul Comeskey style taking apart my bike and putting it back together again. After well over 2000 km with very little TLC, the trusty Surly had little wear to show for it. The second rest day was spent doing a track inspection and taking signs down on the Kawatiri Trail network. It also consisted of checking, double checking and triple checking the forecast to see if there was any way of avoiding the imminent rain while also making it back in time to start work. 

On Wednesday I established the rain was inevitable, so set off up the Buller Gorge for Lyell. A pleasant change from the coast and just as stunning, the road undulates upriver and lets you forget you’re slowly climbing. As it happened, I was in luck with the weather and it didn’t start raining until just after Iron Bridge. But in true West Coast style, it rained hard. After eating dinner in the shelter, observing which bits were flooding in downpours and which were not, I set up the fly and went to bed hoping I would wake up dry. I did wake up dry. But so did the sandflies. This led to a very efficient breakfast and pack up before continuing up the gorge. 

After lunch in Murchison, I took a turn off the main road and ambled on up the Tutaki Valley. As well as being lovely to be off the main road, the valley was beautiful and the buttercup meadows and serene beech forest were relatively effective at taking your mind off the climb up to Braeburn Saddle. Dropping into Gowan Valley, I promptly made it down to the jetty and jumped off the end, only to have an eel remind me that this was his territory. Still and dry, there was no stopping the sandflies and dinner was made doing the sandfly dance before retreating to bed to curse myself for not bringing a tent instead of a fly.

Woken early by a chorus of birds, I mentally prepared myself for a big day with the aim of making it to Nelson. While it was a big day — of the 125 km only 14 km were spent on the main road, which made for a very pleasant day’s riding. At Glenhope, I turned onto the Glenhope-Tadmor Road, which led over Tadmor Saddle to Tapawera. Another beautiful hot day, I was treated with full views of the Lookout and Hope Ranges. At Tapawera, I jumped on the Great Taste Trail which took me the rest of the way into Nelson. This was a lovely trail and it was bliss not having to share the road with big scary trucks. The highlight would have to be the 1.35 km Spooner’s Tunnel.

As a final farewell to the South Island, I was blessed with a strong tail wind to blow me down Pelorus through to Havelock and finally Picton. I alternated between road and cool single track from Havelock to Picton, trying to avoid the extra hills but enjoy the flowy descents. I will definitely be back to try it with a slightly less loaded bike! I reached Picton with time to have a swim, find some fish and chips and make the 7pm ferry. Bliss. On Sunday, I finished my book. Rest days are nice.

Wilderlife