Back from a wet bike trip: Blackball-Reefton-Westport-Charleston-Punakaiki-home. It rained every day. Biking in a soft drizzle is pleasant, but as it becomes heavier, one is torn between donning the rain gear which makes one sweat and suffering the drenching. The Lower Buller Gorge seemed particularly malevolent and I felt for Thomas Brunner on his dreadful journey. And then there’s the business of a wet tent, which inevitably leads to a damp sleeping bag. It was one of those weeks when the rain refuses to budge, like a dementia patient. The sky almost lightens, a patch of blue, but then another shower arrives.

Nevertheless, cycling, as well as massaging the cardio-vascular system, unclogs the thought patterns.

Visiting these tourist spots gave me a chance to think about tourism and tourist towns (or visitor towns – an interesting difference perhaps?). Reefton does the visitor town well – it’s on a good scale and it has managed to dramatise itself tastefully.  The shopfronts are all painted, each with a flag above the veranda. There are good cafes, a quality art gallery run by a co-op of artists and splendid second hand shops spread among the more functional day to day shops for the locals. There’s heritage in the mining school and the Blacks Point Museum. What do visitors need?  To pass the time by eating, drinking, looking at interesting things and sometimes  venturing on a walk or a cycle. Hokitika has a similar culture, with locals taking advantage of the increased market that visitors provide. There’s no singular attraction in either place and this is, I suspect, an advantage.

Westport tries, but lacks the artists and the second hand shops, so the visitor is stuck with the everyday (other than a couple of art nouveau buildings) and an awareness of marginality. Charleston is a potpourri: limestone caves and a fine bay, the business headquarters for a national company, a camp ground and the smallest club in New Zealand, which made me feel at home when I popped in for a beer. Wet through, I hired a cabin, the tiniest of rooms but absolute luxury, especially as there was access to a drier.

Punakaiki is a tourist spot, cursed with the Pancake Rocks attracting thousands for the photo op, before  most move on. There’s immense infrastructure pressure for sixty rate payers and a confusing array of councils and DOC to deal with. The water has to be boiled, the accommodation is booked out and there’s no space for expansion. The glacier towns are the same. There’s not a lot of point in this meeting between nature and capital, the photos have all been taken and a gormlessness sets in. But cycling along the Coast Road I appreciated the attraction for those life-stylers tucked away in the bush with a resplendent empty ocean in the foreground.

Greymouth lacks just about everything: there’s a couple of decent craft shops, but little art, no second hand shops, nothing to look at other than Shantytown which is on the outskirts, some tolerable cafes, but hard to kill time in a place locked into franchises and suburbia, with an inability to dramatise itself. To do so, it would have to adopt a tangatawhenua/turangawaewae framework, but instead holds on grittily and determinedly to a 1950s settler culture.

Where is Blackball in this? Puzzled I suspect. It’s possible, but difficult to dramatise an activist past – it requires  cultural and historical understanding and an ongoing political sympathy for the progressive (participatory democracy, co-operatives and the like), which is asking a lot of a small West Coast village. There’s  some craft, an excellent salami company, an iconic pub, a working men’s club that survives, a museum that does dramatise the activist past on a shoe string budget, and now a suburban infrastructure (a car park and a dunny) being overlaid to provide for the walk. There will be some local opportunism around the edges, but coherence?

The racks of bikes will pass through, someone might build a motel – maybe, as in Punakaiki, staff will come from Greymouth. In the past it has been a discreet visitor town, now it will become a minor tourist town.  Locals will keep to the back streets and wait for winter. Or am I being overly pessimistic?

As I write, the sun has come out – briefly.

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