We’d heard rumors of a stunning beach, a quirky private bach, a firebath, amazing sunsets – but also of a long and rather flat track to walk. So we instantly thought this would be an ideal overnight trip to undertake with our bikes. Having recently acquired a couple of fatbikes, Matt and I knew that the opportunity to ride them on the beach was too good to miss, so choosing which wheels to bring was easy.
Now I need to set things clear right at the start. I am not a (real) mountain biker, and I am not the ultra fit kind of woman either. I just like to ride a bike at my own pace and discovering new terrains. I’m also always up for an adventure, which is why I decided to join the three guys who’d cooked the trip up. But the following trip report needs to be read with this in mind: you may actually find riding this trail a piece of cake!
A party of four, probably a bit too keen, we decided to leave the car at the turn-off from the road heading to Jackson Bay. The actual Barn Bay track looked a little short on the map (18km) and we wanted a decent ride, so we added the approximately 20km on gravel road that would take us to the locked gate where you’d normally leave your car. En route, we also added the short return side trip to Lake Ellery – a great wee track with a lovely picnic spot on the lake’s edge, totally worth it, but by the end of the day we realised we would have been wise to skip this one!
The gravel road turned out to be quite a drag as it was in the process of being re-graded. Bumpy gravel – better than corrugated iron mind you- with lots of ups and downs, and only thick forest for view with occasional glimpses of Jackson River to distract you isn’t my favourite riding environment. Add to that some seriously dangerous drivers (flying by at 100km in the middle of the road, leaving you in the ditch covered in dust) and you’ve got a good reason for NOT doing this stretch on your bikes.
So trust me, just drive your car to the road end, and use any spare time you’ll get down on the beach!
From the appropriately named Martyr Saddle, we got some great views down into the large estuary we’d be riding along, which is home to one of NZ’s largest wetland, the Heritage Swamp. It was fun riding downhill for a few kms and passing the actual gate at the end of the road marked the beginning of the real adventure – not without leaving a bitter aftertaste in my mouth… after all, this is where we should have started our trip, and I already felt like I had done enough riding for the weekend!
Once off the public road, the riding became much more pleasurable as the fat layer of fresh gravel gave way to a smooth 4WD track out in the open.
We passed Martyr Homestead – part of the West Coast’s most southern farming operation – and after about 4km crossed Cascade River. At this time of the year, and after a few dry days, the level of the river was only knee deep and rather easy to cross. We simply wheeled our bikes across it. I have heard of friends who walked the track that they had to cross a dangerously fast flowing, mid-thigh-high river, hooked-in for safe river-crossing, which would have been impossible with bikes, so pick your days carefully!
Soon after the first river crossing, we were back in the bush and after another 5km of easy riding we reached a clearing with farm buildings. Don’t make the same mistake as us: make sure you take a left before the clearing ends – the track isn’t marked very well, but if you see a clear 4WD track leading due South, take it. It will bring you back into the bush, to the beginning of the lovely winding track that takes you all the way to the coast.
This is where the fun begins. Huge trees fallen across the track/gouged out road – at times filled with up to 40cm of water, quite a few up hills, followed by very rocky downhills. If you’ve got good bike skills, you’ll love this section. At times you will wonder whether you’ve missed the track and mistakenly continued on a riverbed, but then you’ll spot an entry in the thick bush, and resume on the old 4WD track.
Some good advice: when you see your first big puddle, don’t try to avoid it. There will be many more and your feet will get wet, no matter what. So just ride straight into it… and hope for the best – a bit of mud never hurt anyone! Fatbikes are definitely a plus in this kind of situation, as the fat tyres simply chew sticky mud. Our two companions were finding it a bit less fun on their skinny 29ers!
It is quite hard to know where exactly you are on this kind of track. Even with good map-reading skills, the contours and the thick bush seem to be a bit same same all along. That’s when a GPS can be handy. Not that we felt lost at any stage – there’s only one way! But when the end of the day is nearing and you feel like the beach should be just around the corner, and you’re running out of steam and could do with a cuppa… it’s good to know you only have 2km to go.
I really enjoyed the loud birdsong prevalent throughout the bush. A huge highlight was the spotting of a flock of 8 kakas, those wonderful bush parrots, which we heard long before they were in our line of sight. They were playful and indulged in a bit of song-versation with us, seeming rather curious at our progress through the bush!
With all the extra kilometres at the beginning of our trip, I was getting a bit tired as we neared the bach. So when we hit what appeared to be the “end of the road”, with a drop into a river and our first close views of the sea, I thought I would be able to have my first sip of wine within minutes while admiring the setting sun. (Erm… that would be ONE hour later – minus the setting sun!)
Looking at the map, we saw we could either:
Matt and I gave the second option a go, but I soon gave up when I got stuck trying to push my bike through a 50cm layer of very sticky mud and almost lost both shoes. It was so bad that I even considered leaving my bike there and pushing through the bush on foot…. But then that would have meant no biking on the beach! So we turned around and went the wet way, while the two others continued, obviously enjoying the bush bashing a bit more than us.
By then we had missed the sunset. It was getting dark by the minute, but the views over Hope estuary were still stunning. We didn’t mind giving our bikes and outfits a proper wash by crossing the Hope River – which was surprisingly deep close to the sea. I wasn’t too happy however to suddenly feel ice-cold water reaching higher than the bottom hem of my shorts… not a biggie if it wasn’t for my smartphone – which I was casually carrying in my shorts’ pocket. Needless to say it got drenched. I guess I was lucky that it didn’t die completely.
The private bach is fantastic. It’s huge, with many nooks and crannies. A labour of love, obviously built over the years with bits and bobs, drift wood, artwork, funky furniture.
I can’t remember how the hot water was meant to function, but we got there too late for it to heat up enough. Instead, we made a huge fire, Paolo cooked up a storm and we shared wine, fine port and stories, before crashing out, completely exhausted! I slept like a log in the very comfortable king bed!
With the road between Haast and Makarora closing at 5pm due to the Diana Falls slip, we knew we had to be back at the car at the latest by 3.30pm the next day. As we weren’t sure how much longer the ride in reverse would be – with a considerable further amount of climbing hills – we decided that we would leave Barn Bay at 10am, planning for breaks along the way.
This didn’t really allow for much sleep-in or beach exploration, but we managed to indulge in a fantastic cooked breakfast with Jeremy’s delicious sourdough bread, fresh eggs and copious amounts of coffee. After a few fun rides on the sand, off we went, across the ice cold Hope River.
It is surprising how much faster you travel, once you know what the track is like (and don’t try to avoid the puddles)! We comfortably managed to be back in time, despite the fact the public gravel road seemed even more of a drag without the midday sun warming us. Indeed, the whole road was in the shade and we all got chilled to the bones.
We even had time to stop at the Hard Antler pub in Haast, for a basket of fried seafood and a well-deserved beer.
I got home with very sore muscles, a few sandfly bites, and a dysfunctional smartphone. But compared to the amazing time we spent out there, that’s a very acceptable price to pay! The last 10km before the coast are true adventure terrain, and you need to enjoy groveling* to a certain extent. I’ll be back, but next time with at least 3 days to play.
*Groveling: the art of groveling, concept mostly used in difficult tramping terrain, involving bush bashing, fighting the elements, possibly crawling and generally-speaking referring to an inclement environment. You know you’ll be enjoying this trip if you don’t mind the idea of being wet and cold on the lower part of your body, muddy possibly everywhere, sweaty and wondering if you’re biking in circles… as progress has never seemed so slow!
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