I’ve covered a lot of km since the last blog but thankfully less so on foot and more with my car (which so far has been an absolute trooper). The first few weeks of the road trip were dominated by beautiful mountains and lots of hiking. Having ended the last blog with the completion of the Brewster Hut hike, I pick up now making my way towards Haast and the West Coast of NZ. It was amazing how quickly the landscape changed from beautiful snow-capped mountains and ice melt rivers to golden sandy beaches and dense rainforests. All in the space of an hours drive. The mountains were to be left behind although still ever present, and the ocean would become the theme for the coming weeks. The West Coast is a very rugged place, again conjuring up images in my mind from Jurassic Park, a Pterodactyl wouldn’t be out of place flying overhead. I drove northward with the Tasman Sea to my left and the thick luxurious forest on my right, snaking my way up empty, winding coastal roads. For the first section of the drive from Haast up to Fox Glacier, the weather was lovely, the sun was shining and spring was certainly in the air. Sadly that would change for the remainder of the West Coast, but rain is the modus operandi of the place. With the vast expanse of the ocean turning swiftly into rising mountains the moist air has nowhere to go and quickly condenses turning to rain. Ask anyone about their West Coast experience and it’s often synonymous with either sandflies or rain. Yet people still love the place. There were a few notable stops between Haast and Fox, Ships Creek which was a little 30-minute return boardwalk and gave insightful information as to the geography of the area, followed by Knights Point Lookout, which had decent views along the shore from its vantage point.
I arrived in Fox Glacier early afternoon and knew the weather was to turn the following day so quickly headed out to a viewpoint with distant views of Fox Glacier itself and also of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, plus the many other peaks within this portion of the Southern Alps. From here I drove onto Lake Matherson, which offers a short walk around the lake, formed from past glaciers and ice ages. The real attraction is with the right weather you get amazing reflective images of the Southern Alps and Mt Cook, on the water itself. Again a quick look on Instagram shows you what the pros can do. Sadly although the weather was okay conditions were far from ideal, plus my equipment was a little lacking, but I was able to get a half-decent snap of the mountains reflected on the water. The following day the skies opened and it poured all day long, but I was more than okay with this, after the past 2 weeks of hiking I needed a day just chilling out, doing life admin and it’s also when I wrote the previous blog. I potentially wanted to do another hike in the area, the Copeland Track which takes through the valley and ends at Welcome Flat Hut which has a thermal hot spring, but to be honest, I needed a break from hiking and the weather was rubbish, so gave it a miss. The hostel I was staying in also had a hot tub, a good enough substitute for thermal pools, so I made the most of this and had a soak while the rain fell around me. After my day chilling out I had booked a helicopter tour to land on Fox Glacier and explore but sadly the weather hadn’t improved enough so this was cancelled. I therefore left Fox and continued up the coast, passing through Franz Josef, stopping quickly to see the glacier here, which I didn’t actually see as it was too cloudy. After the brief stop, I continued to Hokitika where I would spend the night.
Once in Hokitika, I drove out to Hokitika Gorge, which is famed for its blue waters, but alas the grey skies kind of diminished the effect rendering them more milky grey. It was still a cool spectacle and a little stroll around for an hour or so. Back in Hokitika, I made it to sunset point, where even with the cloud there was still a half-decent sunset. Plus the way the cloud fell, at one point it looked like parts of the sea were actually on fire which was quite the sight. There is also this concrete ship monument there to honour all the ships that run ashore here over a period of time. I forget the specifics but it must have been quite the image as many were beached around the same time back in the 1800s. Once the sun had set I then drove to the glow worm dell just off the main highway 6. I didn’t really know what to expect, but honestly, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. You park up on the side of the highway, walk 20 meters into what I imagine is a dingy little forest and then before you know it all around you are these tiny little blue fluorescent lights of the glow worms (which aren’t actually worms, but the larvae of a certain type of fly). I was mainly there alone and in the darkness, it almost felt like I had been transported into the middle of the Milky Way itself. I tried to take some photos but it was really difficult and doesn’t do justice to how beautiful the scene was. It reminded me of the fluorescent plankton that I swam in off an island of Cambodia. It was beautiful and so not expected.
After my night in Hokitika, the journey continued up towards Westport, first passing Motukiekie beach, which would have been a beautiful spot on a sunny day, before arriving in Punakaiki, where the aptly named Pancake Rocks are located. The name comes from their distinct layering which is a result of weather and erosion to the various rock layers. The weathering occurs at different rates due to the different strengths of each layer creating a stacked pancake effect. There were also lots of sea birds nesting here and the boardwalk viewing platforms were very informative regarding the geology and ecology of the place. Just out of Punakaiki I stopped and walked the 30-minute return Truman Track which took you to another beach, again beautiful on a sunny day but when overcast and windy wasn’t much going on. From here there was a quick stop at Irimahuwhero lockout before bombing on up to Westport my destination for the night.
Once up in Westport which has some good surf for those interested, I drove out to Cape Foulwind, named by James Cook himself, where there is a lighthouse and a coastal walk. From here you can walk from the lighthouse to Tauranga Bay where there is a large seal colony. The walk is about 1 hour 1 way which I’m sure would be lovely but I decided to just drive around to the colony instead again as the weather was rather gloomy. There were loads of seals on the rock though and some even splashing around in the waves, certainly worth the time to stop and take a look if ever out that way. Thankfully the foul winds weren’t blowing too much either so I managed to get the drone up and snap a few shots of the beach too.
From Westport, I then made a beeline for Nelson. Stopping en-route at the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge, which as the name suggests is just a big bridge over a river. You do have the option to zip line back across, which I did just for the hell of it, although it lasted all of 10s for the cost of 40 bucks haha. I knew it would be but pretty underwhelming although it did break up the 3 hour drive. The real attraction here would have been the Buller Gorge Jetboat ride. One of the best in the country supposedly but sadly wasn’t running when I was passing through.
And just like that, I had zoomed up the west coast, all the way from Wanaka to Nelson. Near enough 800km (500 miles) in the space of about 5-6 days. I’d say the perfect amount of time to fit all the major attractions in although you could certainly spend longer if you wanted to add a few hikes in. I had originally planned to head over Arthurs Pass and potentially Lewis Pass which take you from the West Coast back inland, or out depending on your direction. Here there are some national parks and nice hikes to do. But what with the car potentially being a bit of an issue I didn’t want to risk the high mountain passes which these roads ultimately are. Arthurs pass has a 16% gradient in places. Although I have subsequently gone over Takaka hill twice, which is pretty similar I believe and the car has been great so I probably would have been alright. With a road trip, you always have to sacrifice certain things as you are never able to really see it all. But I digress, the West Coast was a welcome change to the alpine nature of my past few weeks and break from hiking which was certainly needed. The roads were great fun to drive along, always something to look at and practically empty. In fact, most of the West Coast was deserted. I truly felt like the only traveller at times, I would check into hostels and no one else would be staying there. I’d pay for the cheapest room but get upgraded for free into the private doubles simply because no one was about. Everywhere I went I’d be lucky if I saw one other person while there. It honestly was pretty surreal and made what is already a sparsely populated part of the country even more empty. This is in part due to the lack of international tourists but even 2 million + kiwi tourists are still not allowed outside of Auckland due to being in lockdown meaning even domestic tourism is sparse. Travelling during this time is going to be something I’m likely to never experience again. I do genuinely feel like the only tourist in New Zealand. The weather, however, was pretty rough, either raining or very overcast most of the time, but as I said this is almost to be expected and didn’t really stop me from doing what I had planned. Besides, I’m sure it could have been worse. It was a very unique part of the country though with such contrast to the landscape. You also pass through all these tiny little kiwi farming towns, which transports you back in time 40 years. But having been on my own for almost two weeks now, the emptiness of the West Coast had started to get to me. Arriving in Nelson, it was refreshing to be surrounded by a bit more life. I also had some friends here and the weather would be beautiful. In the next blog, I shall detail my time up the top end of the South Island which is quickly coming to an end now.