Next, we are taken to the cutting room where huge circular saws cut the rock into workable slabs. Skilled craftspeople extract the best value from the raw stones by slicing them in different orientations. This water-lubricated process still produces a fine white powder which settles in every nook and cranny of the room. Punters like us stay clean in a glassed-off area that affords perfect viewing of the goings-on. The freshly cut stone slabs are then transported into the manufacturing room where artists transform raw pieces of the green rock into valuable and delicate artworks. We watch through a glass partition as a woman sitting quietly on a stool skilfully shapes and smooths the small stones. It is a fascinating process watching a jewel becoming jewellery.
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After leaving the jade factory we grab a bite to eat nearby and feel restored. Restoration of another kind takes place just south along the track at the restored Mahinapua Bridge where the trail crosses the highway, and we ride smoothly along the timber planks of the former railway truss bridge. It has been meticulously upgraded since the last train rolled by some 40 years ago. Now it keeps riders safe from the road traffic and stands ready to protect future generations of cyclists. We stop for a moment in the middle of the bridge and look down into the dark waters of the lake-fed creek. Flax bushes line its banks and submerged water plants wave with the current’s oscillations, mesmerisingly drawing one into deep contemplation.
We just sit and stare. Before roads and rail arrived in the area, this waterway together with the lake and coastal lagoons were used as a transport route by settlers to link the towns of Hokitika and Ross. Then early in the 20th century, the Ross branch railway line was built for freight and passenger transport before it eventually closed at the turn of the century. It is fantastic that this Great Ride can run beside the former travel routes of the waterways using part of the former railway infrastructure to once again transport people to Ross.
We roll off the bridge and enter the lowland forest taking us from bright sunlight to dappled green and golden light patterns as we ride into the wilderness. The trail here is sublime. The surface is wide and flat and the gravel path winds its way around kāmahi trees. The dark waters we cross are tannin rich, and I’m not fooled as to what creatures may live in the dark water. My imagination is on fire and I don’t want to jump in. Soon we encounter another bridge over the creek and on the opposite bank is Greenie’s Grotto. ‘Grotta’ is an Italian word for cave and while this one is mostly boarded off, you can still peek inside this dark tunnel. I never knew Greenie, but I picture a short, stocky gold miner who a century back built the low tunnel into the hillside in the hopes of finding his fortune. I wonder if he did? Or perhaps living in this beautiful forest was all the reward he needed? I decide it was probably a pretty ghastly life for Greenie back then. We’re in the sun on a good track on modern bikes and are well-fed, in his day in this wet part of New Zealand life probably wasn’t as carefree and sunny.
Back on the trail we head up and over the bank that supports the grotto and descend to the former site of the Mananui sawmill. Little remains of the mill, just the rusting relics of drive wheels, boilers and the mill foundation that once housed the industrious operations here, over a hundred years ago. A small town once supported the timber mill but it is long gone and is, ironically, now overtaken by regenerating forest. The trees won! The logs of huge trees that were felled in the area were transported to the mill by the timber tramline along which we are about to cycle. Leaving the mill site we clatter along a 300-metre long boardwalk perched improbably over a wetland before reaching the straights of the timber tramline. I enjoy the scattered relics, the rail cuttings and ease of riding along this forested stretch. It’s hard to imagine steam locomotives passing through here with freshly felled rimu and kahikatea logs in tow. Soon we reach the end of the tramline at the junction with a former highway that now takes us to another top spot.
Just down the old highway a smidge, we park our bikes beside the trail at the West Coast Treetop Walk and take a short stroll. It’s a welcome change to walk rather than ride. We climb a small terrace which leads us towards a ledge. Walking to the end of this bank we are stunned by a wondrous elevated steel walkway structure – it is impressive in scale and appears to magically levitate near the canopy of the trees we are peering over from the bank we are on. A few more steps and we are up high in the canopy with the birds, drifting safely along the platform 20 metres up! Both of us are in awe of how this half-kilometre walkway transforms our experience of the podocarp forest. In front of us are giant rimu with their drooping branchlets, normally well out of reach but now within our gentle grasp.
We climb a viewing tower and go even higher; its spiral staircase around a central column takes us to 40 metres above the forest floor. We’re flying now. We are well above the canopy and look right over it to Lake Mahinapua, the forest of the timber tramline, and beyond to the Tasman Sea where we started earlier in the day. Spiralling downward we return to the lower steel structure to experience the cantilevered part of the walkway – just like a diving springboard, it protrudes well beyond its last support. The gentle flex and spring we feel and its extension away from the support masts make it seem like you could almost dive into the lake from this viewpoint. Returning to the base building and resisting the enormous temptation of the fabulous array of food on offer, we hop on our bikes and feel blessed that the historic timber mill did not gobble up all these standing giants.
The trail from here leads south past Ruatapu and onto the former Ross branch railway line. The line runs parallel with the coastline and the ride is straightforward as well as straight as an arrow. We cruise along the trail with the Alps over our left shoulder and the sea on our right. After another lovely long truss bridge, the trail shoots through to Ross.
Ross was home to one of the richest goldfields and largest ever gold nugget finds (‘Honourable Roddy’ at 3.09kg) in the country. The place is rich in history too. At the southern trailhead is the Ross museum. Kim from the museum shows us the displays containing all sorts of historical photos, artefacts and models. I am drawn to the miniature models and dioramas. The scale and all the intricate details that replicate the workings of the goldfield from a time long past is impressive. Putting my head over the miniature buildings I instantly feel like part of yesterday’s gold rush, like a foreman overseeing the mining operation and moving ore carts on rails. We turn to leave and gaze at the replica nugget of Roddy in the room – this gets us excited to discover our own goldfield.
We are in luck; the museum hires out gold pans, and our excitement intensifies. Kim gives us a rundown on how to pan in the outside troughs. She offers us two choices; to pan in the confines of the trough or pan for our own riches in a nearby creek. With no discussion between us, as soon as the pans are in our hands we head to the hills to see if we can find Roddy’s mates. ‘Thar’s gold in them thar hills, boy!’ we (half) joke. Struck by gold fever we walk away from the museum. I glance at my prospector buddy – he’s humming that classic, Fever. The decision of where to look for our nuggets is determined quickly as the heavens open up and we look for a sheltered spot. The creek turns out to be overgrown by scrub and bush and provides an umbrella of sorts under which we start our fossicking. We ditch our shoes and drop into the creek. Initially we just search any old spot in the waters but soon refine our process by searching out calm eddies where our elusive flakes may have settled. How much time went by as we hunched over our pans in the pouring rain, I have no idea. Time is irrelevant when finding your fortune. Each golden fleck I discover spurs me on to search for more.
Soon my little vial of water has golden flakes scattering the bottom. But the fever lasts only so long in this rain. Cold and soaked through we return to the museum to hand back the gold pans and show Kim our finds. I hand over my loot but Kim is not convinced. She passes it to a more experienced colleague who took, shook, looked and returned it with a big smile while gently giving us the bad news that it’s fool’s gold – this was graciously accepted by my companion but I was less convinced. Had we really been fooled by Ross’s golden metallic lookalike? Weary and wet we leave the museum far richer in experiences than when we arrived. As for what happened to my vial of treasure or trash – I’m no fool and have kept my riches to display proudly on my desk. The flecks sparkle in the sun and its golden contents dance for me as I punch hard on the keyboard writing this story. These are the memories and moments that bring wealth to my life and I don’t feel the least bit foolish admitting it.