off we go! travel blog

A very windy night, and still so this morning, sunshine and clouds, a bit too cold to try out the saltwater baths just by the beach, pity, but we are not really cold water beings!

Off on the road to Westport, we drove the Motueka Valley Highway, a really pretty drive. The valley sides closed in as we ascended and the land use changed; we passed through orchards, fields of soft fruit, lots of hop fields and finally, pasture to wards the top of the valley. The river was impressive, the whole area was green and lush until we reached the saddle, then down the other side to the Owen River, thence to Murchison. We visited the library for our usual email check; it was in the old municipal offices, complete with a strong room to hold the cash people paid for the local rates/taxes.

From Murchison we followed highway 6 along the Buller River valley. This river has the greatest flood discharge in NZ, in 2012, in the gorge the river rose 18 metres! We visited the swing bridge across the gorge, at 160 metres long it swayed and bounced as we walked, carefully, across. On the other side there is a trail around some old alluvial gold workings and an interpretive trail on the 1929 earthquake which lifted the fault-line some four and a half metres, temporarily blocked the river and cut the road. 

We encountered more little black flies and were told by the receptionist at the bridge that they were very common on the west coast. We had met them on the beach in Abel Tasman while we were waiting for the boat to pick us up. They may be small but they can bite and before you can swat them they are full of blood. Messy. We still have the scars.

The Buller Gorge has some soaring river cliffs and the road twists and winds around the banks. In one part, at Hawks Crag, the road is reduced to one lane as it has been cut into the granite cliff, with a sheer drop into the river on the other side. We continued down the riverside to Westport where we planned to stay for the night. We chose a campsite to the north of the town, at the end of a little road, right by the beach. We were the only people there and whilst it was very windy it seemed perfect. The beach was miles long in either direction, huge piles of tree trunks, stumps and branches pushed up to the back of the beach by the waves. We saw some beautiful birds, Pukeko, with bright red beak and purple iridescent plumage and some much plainer brown birds called Waka, they cannot fly and only survive in these parts due to lack of predators (rats, stoats and wombats) through a programme of trapping/poisoning.

The wind had dropped overnight so the morning was peaceful and beautifully sunny. Another walk along the beach, the tide was out, and it went out a very long way and on the way back we met a Kiwi with his daughter and granddaughter. He had lived in the area for a long time and told tales of the rainfall, fishing and just life on the west coast.

So we set off, driving through Westport, the largest town in this part of the coast, started as a gold mining town and latterly, bituminous coal. Lots of arts and crafts, touristy shops, some older buildings survive, but their features hidden behind retail facades at street level. So on and out on the coast road to Cape Foulwind, so called because when Captain Cook visited the weather was so bad for days on end. It is nonetheless a beautiful rugged coast, with expanses of grey/black sand, low cliffs and a few sea stacks. Nearby Tuaranga Bay has a small seal colony in the bouldery shore behind one of the sea stacks. We saw about half a dozen seals including some pups, who were the most lively. A good interpretive walk provided by the DOC identified the local flora and bird life.

Back on the highway to Charleston, another ex-gold mining town, where we rejoined the coast, and spectacular it was, small bays, large sweeping bays, craggy outcrops jutting into the sea. It helped that it was a beautifully sunny day with little wind. We stopped for lunch by a tiny little bay part of the larger Woodpecker Bay near Tiromoana. Just south of here was a long island which from a distance looks like a seal, and indeed it is called Seal Island!

We stopped at Punakaiki for the 'pancake' rocks and blowholes. The limestone rocks were finely layered and did indeed look like layers of pancakes. They were deeply eroded making a weird landscape, this combined with the large swell from the Tasman Sea created blowholes where the waves would force air and water up several metres through water worn 'chimneys' producing a blast of fine spray and mist. Spectacular! There were are constricted areas where the surge would blast out spray from undercut caves. A sea stack just off the point was home to a breeding colony of sooty shearwaters, unique to NZ, according to the information boards thoughtfully provided by the DOC. A great stop.

We have to say, at this point, that we are totally impressed with everything touched by the DOC. All their facilities are excellent, even the so-called freedom campsites and the access roads are very good even if not always sealed. They do make a small charge for the campsites but nothing for all their other sites. They have information huts or notice boards at all their sites and these are always very informative. A strong theme running through them is conservation and protection for native species, even if their methods of controlling foreign species

South again, and still spectacular scenery, that is was until we headed inland for Greymouth, another former gold mining town, perhaps the name of the town gives it away. It was very flat and uninteresting. The town is the largest on the west coast but we found it quite uninteresting. It's saving grace was just off the entrance to the river was the home of a number of Hector's Dolphins; we drove out there and looked, and looked, but no dolphins, so back on the road. Another uninspiring stretch of coast, flat, stretches of forest with stretches of open rough land. A complete contrast to the earlier stretch, but we had to cover the miles.

Highway 6 is a pretty good road, mostly well surfaced and in very good condition, but occasionally there are one lane river crossings, there a re give way signs well in advance, but it is fortunate there is very little traffic! One place in particular was very odd; the road joined the railway for a particularly long river crossing. They had simply tarmac'd between the rails and to the edge of the bridge. The train service is so infrequent it obviously doesn't cause a problem for the train.

Finally we arrived at Hokitika for the night. A lovely campsite 'Shining Star', with excellent amenities (including a laundry, which we more or less took over!) right by the beach. After laundry and dinner we walked down to the beach, there was a notice by the beach advising of a breeding colony of Blue Penguins in the area, so we waited to see them. Apparently they emerge from the sea after dark and head for the dunes behind the beach, and sometime further. But not tonight!! Bed.

Next day dawned bright and sunny and we set off south again. Fairly uninteresting part of the trip, passing through very small settlements, formerly gold mining towns, and the road swung inland to avoid the huge delta type area caused by the fast runoff from the mountains. We stopped for lunch at the Whataroa scenic reserve, alongside a fast running river, a beautiful shade of ice blue.

On towards the Franz Josef Glacier we drove through the temperate rainforest of the Tai Poutini National Park; the road climbed up, twisting and winding and eventually down the other side on on towards the glacier town. The town was pretty unimpressive, full of shops offering helicopter flights over the glacier, or to land, and all sorts of guided walks and a few cafés and motels. We checked at the I-site and they advised the weather was about to change and very heavy rainfall, between 90 to 120 mm, was forecast to arrive about 1 in the morning so rather than wait until tomorrow we decided to go to see the glacier that evening.

We drove on to the the car park near the foot of the glacier and walked up the trail to within 500 metres of the glacier, well at least I did, Ruth opted for another path which offered a different view. The trail was quite steep in parts and at the top it was obvious why we were not allowed closer. A huge chunk of the glacier had remained behind as the main glacier retreated, and it was covered in moraine materials and there were fears of rock falls as the ice melted, and when you saw the size of the rocks it was quite understandable. The observation point was where the end of the glacier had been in 2007; the end was now 500 metres away! I did see a Kea - a NZ parrot, at the top of the trail looking to be fed, but there were warning notices about that, so he was disappointed.

Back to meet Ruth in the car park and we decided as the weather hadn't completely closed in to have a look at the Fox Glacier some 23km away. Down to highway six again and up, twisting and winding, through another saddle and down to the little settlement of Fox Glacier. This was similar to the Franz Josef town so we only stopped to top up fuel then followed the road to the glacier.

The walk here was about an hour, round trip, but proved to be much steeper the closer we got to the glacier, but we were rewarded with a great view; the glacier was about 200 metres away. We could see more of this glacier as it steeply descended the valley. It too had calfed a huge chunk of ice but it was to one side of the valley and posed little threat. The clouds were increasing but there were occasional glimpses of the sun which lit up the glacier. Very pretty, but awesome all the same. The road in had markers showing where the end of the glacier had been in the past; it is still retreating, but faster than ever. Global warming?

Down to the plain below to find a campsite. Another freedom site, simply a patch beside a small river, Clearwater Creek, absolutely no facilities, but had great views of Fox Glacier and through the clouds, glimpses of Mount Cook, though we didn't see the full extent of that mountain.

During the night the forecast rain started, and the wind howled, the camper rocked and swayed, and the rain poured harder and harder. A dirty night. Fortunately the wind eased around 7.30 in the morning so we were able to catch another couple hours sleep. Clearwater Creek was now decidedly unclear, a raging torrent but fortunately for us still within its banks.

It didn't look as if the rain was going to stop so as we were not going to get a clear view of Mount Cook we decided to head south again as the forecast was a little better. Back on highway 6 across the Cook flats, a vast area of rivers winding their way to the sea with great stretches of sand, gravels, pebbles and boulders between. Finally, the road returned to the coast at Bruce Bay and we stopped for lunch - in the camper! Bruce Bay was the beginning of 40 km of beach and it was said that Elephant Seals drop in to rest on the beach and dolphins play, but we didn't see any. The road turned inland again and just about Lake Paringa it stopped raining; it was still cloudy and there were small patches of blue sky, but the world looked better.

We stopped at Knights Point Lookout for fabulous views along the coast, but still no animals. We tried again at Ships Creek but no luck. The creek was dark brown as it flowed from miles of swamps and marshes and it even coloured the crashing waves on the beach. Another fantastic wild beach, waves crashing in on vast expanses of sand with driftwood scattered along the shore. Some of these appeared to have been growing here! So it looks as if the forest had been overcome by the sea, or the land just sank in an earthquake; must make a note to check this out. This is one of the few places to find a NZ native tree, the Kahikatea tree or white pine, it is NZs tallest tree, spared in this region because it was so inaccessible until relatively recently.

On down the coast to Haast where we called in at the DOC information centre. They had a great gallery all about local natural history; it was really interesting to walk around and learn. The warden was really helpful about our route to Lake Wanaka. The road would be closed after 6 pm as there had been a huge land slip and they didn't want people driving through at night in case of further slips. As it was only 4 we decided to go.

The Haast River at its mouth is very wide as it meanders through all the glacial debris, there were several channels, but when the river floods........

Highway 6 follows the Haast River up to Haast Pass, and on the way past a very narrow gorge know as The Gates of Haast! Sounds a bit Tolkien but it's had that name for a while. The scenery is stunning, even though for us the clouds were quite low and it rained on and off. The effect of the mist and murk parting to reveal great mountain slopes was wonderful. There are many waterfalls, some high up and appearing pencil thin and others like the Roaring Billy Falls were full on falls and as the name suggests very noisy. We stopped at these falls, following a 30 minute round track through the forest to see them. Very impressive after the recent rains.

The Gates of Haast were impressive too, the valley narrowed to a gorge where the river thundered through and between huge boulders and the road crossed the gorge on a very old steel girder bridge which bounced a bit as a vehicle crossed (I was trying to take a photograph of the falls as a car passed!). On to Fantail Falls, a more subdued falls but still quite pretty. Over the Pass the road follows the Makaroa River and we drove on until the car park for the Blue Pools. It was a half an hour walk through ancient native forest in the rain down to the river, across another steel cable suspension bridge to the pools. Sadly the pools were not performing, they were a bit of a dirty green colour due to the rains. Oh well, next time. The forest was fascinating though, many very old trees, some covered with all sorts of mosses and ferns and 'old man's beard' type of fungi. Also the ubiquitous tree ferns were everywhere.

We pressed on as it was about 7 pm and we needed to find somewhere to stop for the night. We passed up a few sites until we reached Lake Wanaka and a lovely DOC site on a little peninsula on the lake, Boundary Creek Campsite. We managed to find a site with a lake view and settled down for the night. It was still raining. Tomorrow we head for Queenstown hoping the weather improves.

So, the west coast; beautiful and dramatic scenery, long wild beaches and soaring mountains. Glaciers, lots of rivers and streams, few people and towns, great roads, very changeable weather, but on the whole we liked it a lot. Would do parts of it again.

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