A gravel road that winds and climbs through the rainforest is the only access to Gillepsies Beach. Like so many of the little settlements along New Zealand’s west coast, the one at Gillespies was founded in the 1860s at the height of the gold rush. Little remains from the heyday, just a couple of shacks and a miners’ cemetery tucked away in the bush. The beach is covered with large, flat pebbles and dotted with big chunks of driftwood. It’s pounded by the wild Tasman Sea and huge waves crash into shore, sending up a hazy mist all along the coastline. There were more people here than the last time I visited which was before the Lord of the Rings films made New Zealand so popular (and so expensive) but a long walk along the beach soon got me away from the others.
There was something else new as well. On the road to the beach there was a very sad memorial to nine people who had died in a plane crash at Fox Glacier in 2010. They were tourists taking a skydiving trip over the mountains, no doubt the highlight of their holiday, but paid for it with their lives. I remembered at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia there was a similar memorial to thirteen people who had died in a vehicle crash out on the salt flats. Again they were just on holiday and taking a day trip. But the most poignant story I came across was in Argentina. On my way pedalling north up through the Andes, I stayed at Rosa’s hospedaje in the tiny, middle-of-nowhere settlement of Pituil. Rosa showed me a single line entry in her guest book written by a Swiss girl, Annie - just the date, her name, country and passport number. Like me, Annie was cycling alone through South America, living the dream that I am living now. But just after Annie wrote that one line in the guest book and cycled out of Pituil, she disappeared and has never been seen again since.
Oh dear, that’s all terribly sombre considering I’m pedalling up one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world … where you might still find gold in the hills. Further north from Gillespies is a town called Ross, also known as the “Gold Town” for there is still an active goldmine here. I took a long walk through the bush above the town up to the old goldfields. I was hoping for a find similar in size to the Honourable Roddy which at a whopping 3.6kg was the largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand and unearthed at Ross in 1909. It subsequently became tableware for the toffs at Buckingham Palace. But I was out of luck and continued cycling north to the very pleasant coastal town of Hokitika which is famous not for gold but for jade or, as it’s called in New Zealand, greenstone. It is collected locally and in the workshops in town on a wet day I watched the artisans craft it into beautiful trinkets and jewellery.
Cycling up the west coast through these little towns that retain a hint of a bygone era has been quite idyllic. My route has been a narrow corridor through fern-filled, damp and drippy rainforest that deafens you with its insect cacophony as you pedal along and every now and again pops you out at a beautiful bay. It takes your breath away with its stunning vistas as the mountains send down icy fingers of glaciers into the rainforests below. But in my mind, the view to beat all views is that from Gillespies Beach as the snow-capped Mount Cook rises above the green of the rainforests. I enjoyed the view relaxing against a large chunk of driftwood in the evening sun and listening to the surf break with a cup of tea in my hand. On Gillespies Beach, I had struck gold.
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