“ Country: New Zealand / World Region: Australasia / Pacific „
Most visitors to the New Zealand's South Island (or at least those who aspire to covering more than one location) attempt to cover the West Coast: one of the many scenic routes on an island where, as somebody said, everywhere is scenic. Stretching in a relatively narrow strip along most of the western coast of the South Island, between the Southern Alps (one often despairs the colonists' lack of imagination when naming geographical features) and the Tasman Sea, the district of the West Coast is one of the wilder and less developed parts of the country.
The standard route goes from Greymouth or Hokitika (the settlements on the West Coast that mark the crossing of the Southern Alps from Christchurch by Lewis' or Arthur's Passes) to Haast (to cross the mountains by Haast Pass) and then on to Wanaka.
The road along the coast was only completed in 1965, and the final bit of tarmac did not appear on the Haast Pass until 1995. Wilderness is a relative concept and we have often been surprised on this trip by what people here referred to as wild: but this is certainly one of the least inhabited and developed parts of the country that is still accessible by (nowadays very good) road, particularly in the stretch between Fox Glacier and Wanaka, which for us falls on the first day of our journey. Most people seem to do the route the other way round - quite a few cars and campers going the opposite way, but very few in our lane.
At first, we drive by Dunstan lake north and then the road starts following the shore of Lake Hawea, which, surrounded by even more dramatically picturesque mountains that Lake Wakatipu, looks utterly stunning in the sunshine. The wind is trying to blow our heads off as we eat our sandwiches on a very blustery gravel beach. The water s covered in little choppy waves, the clouds are racing, the dark massifs of craggy mountains streaked and topped with blazingly white snow face us, while the hills behind are more rounded and lower. A thinks it's a bit like the West Coast of Scotland. There is nobody here, and hardly a car passes on the road. Even the sheep are, blissfully (albeit temporarily) gone.
We cross the Southern Alps via the lowest of the passes, the Haast pass. The change in landscape and vegetation is couldn't be more striking, and is underlined by the weather today. As we leave Otago and enter the West Coast (as well as Mount Aspiring National Park), the blustery sunshine is replaced by an apparently normal West Coast state of overcast and rain varying from pouring to drizzle.
The sheep disappear again, the road is now running in a - nomen omen - rainforest, a temperate one uncannily similar to the one we travelled through on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The rock face to the left of the car is often enveloped in sheets of flowing water, and the hill sides covered in curly vegetation, peering from behind the mist, form a background for numerous waterfalls cascading down the mountain side. Some of these waterfalls are lower down, and accessible from the road, and we stop by a couple for a look and a photo.
The Haast pass itself is at slightly above 500m, and has some snow on the roadside, but the black ice warnings are groundless and we uneventfully descend on the western side of the mountains, by the wide gravel bed of the river Haast.
Haast itself (or rather the three separate settlements that bear that name with different suffixes) is hardly a village, more like scattering of a farm and tourist-service buildings. We get fish and chips in a strange hotel-cum-bar-cum take away decorated with giant moose and deer heads (I do a double take, but no, we are not back in Canada) and, disappointed in quantity but fairly satisfied with quality, drive on across the long, low bridge across the river Haast and onto what is officially the Glacier Highway.
We are about eighty miles from the glaciers though and we are driving through a wild land indeed. That is, wild, if you forget the metalled road with cats' eyes and side posts, frequent camping and picnic spots with warnings about rubbish, fires and even occasionally a loo as well as an ever-present danger of livestock appearing in a field round the corner.
But fields don't appear for a while and the woolly rainforest surrounds the road in its rich, yellowy, almost reddish greens. We cross many streams in deep, vegetation-covered gorges and can still see the coast every so often, and we stop at Knight's Point to admire rocky outcrops and black cliff falling into the Tasman Sea and at Bruce Bay to look at an amazing driftwood-strewn beach. The sea, is, strangely, blueish green despite the grey cloud and white mist descending lower and lower.
The road veers inland after Bruce Bay and the livestock reappears as land along the road flattens out a bit. We drive into the settlement and the tourist centre of Fox Glacier in the dark, but as we pass the turn-off for the glacier itself, we can see it - just- a faint eerie pale glow on the mountain side in the gully raising above the road side.
We stop at in a cabin at the Fox Glacier Holiday Park (very overpriced but adequate for a resort: try somewhere else if you can afford it or better yet, don't stop in Fox) and hope for less rain tomorrow: we want to see the grand Cloud Piercer of Aoraki (Mt Cook).
We wake up in Fox Glacier to a morning that is cloudy, misty and overcast. Mt Cook is somewhere up there, but we can't see it. Still, a quick drive to and walk around the famous Matheson Lake is due, although chances for a postcard-pretty reflection snap are very slim: instead we get moody clouds. Nice lake, nevertheless.
We backtrack a bit towards the Fox Glacier itself and instead of walking up to the face of it, get a view from a distance. It's raining - sort of, but with a hope of clearing, maybe, later. We traipse up a hillside for about half an hour of a path to a higher lookout, but a wide and rumbling stream to deep to ford and too wide to jump blocks our way. The rain grows, so we turn back without too much regret.
Twenty-odd kilometres on is Franz Josef, the second of the tourist-trap villages as well as the other of the West Coast glaciers: a noticeably bigger and more impressive one than Fox. In fact, both of them are quite impressive, particularly the fact that they come down so low into the temperate zone instead of staying at the usual Alpine glacier heights.
Franz Josef is sunny for us which makes a nice change as well as instantly beautifying the waterfalls coming down the wooded hillsides with a sparkle. We climb up steep but very well maintained path to the lookout at the Sentinel Rock and marvel at the great tongue of dirty ice worming its way down the steep, narrow valley. Higher up, the rocks and sand on top disappear and all we see is a wrinkled sheet of blazing blue ice.
I wonder about fascination that glaciers hold: A doesn't like them, but I think them wonderful and would, in other circumstances, even pay to walk on one (another of the countless "adventure pursuits" the very efficient NZ tourist industry offers). I think it's the knowledge that those things actually create the landscape, or a large part of it, that surrounds us; plus the sheer size of them. Sleeping ice dragons.
From Franz Josef (a tourist service town full of overpriced cafes and tour operators) we get a last look at the huge tent of Mt Cook, now almost completely visible up above us. The weather stays sunny and the road meanders up and down through a country increasingly more developed than the area between Haast and Fox. The mountains are still there, slightly lower at least by the road side, lushly forested, brimming with green life.
We decide to go the whole hog and drive through Arthur's Pass today: we pass the seaside town of Hokitika and turn inland at Kumara Junction.
The road from Kumara Junction (one wonders what living in a place named "sweet potato" does to the inhabitants) climbs, first gently and then much more steeply, mostly through Otira Gorge.
The road is bendy but not particularly difficult, at least in today's sunny conditions. It's a different landscape that I expected, with mountains still green and water-logged, and a wide, flat valley looking as if it was recently formed by a glacier. The pass itself, with a formidable viaduct in a steeply-sided gorge, feels wild and desolate: at over 900m above the sea level it's a true high country, and the falling darkness makes it even more atmospheric.
After the pass things change: the eastern side of the mountains is strikingly drier, with the lush woods replaced by tussock grass. The night falls as we drive across the Waimakariri River, with the dusk pink and saphire and the Evening Star shining incredibly brightly above us.
From then on it's a quick (since in the dark) run into Springfield.
The practicalities of the West Coast are fairly simple: most people drive the whole route themselves either in a car or a camper van, although I have seen many tour buses disgorging young backpackers at several stops on the route. You can also use a public transport bus to travel along the west coast road, although the service beyond Fox Glacier towards Haast and Central Otago seems more erratic. Surprisingly, we have not seen any hitch-hikers, at least going our way, but there is a fair amount of traffic and hitch-hiking should be easy, especially going north-south. There is a train from Christchurch to Greymouth which crosses the Southern Alps on a route sightly different from the road.
The distances involved are not particularly long (which is a nice thing about New Zealand: everywhere is not only scenic but quite near to everywhere else). It's about 600km from the Wanaka area to Christchurch via the Arthur's pass, but Greymouth to Haast is only 314km (ad 100km if you want to detour north to see the famous Pancake Rocks): easily driven in half a day, even factoring in a couple of short stops/walks, although to give the area any kind of justice you need at least a couple of days.
Having crossed New Zealand's Southern Alps and reached the coast at Greymouth, you may be tempted to head south straight away. This is, after all, the direction of the Westland National Park, in which the highest mountains, the deepest rainforest and the remotest tracts of wilderness are to be found. And if you haven't come to see mountains, forest and wilderness, you've come to the wrong place.
Resist the temptation. First, cross the Grey River and take a small diversion up the coast to the north, just an hour's drive to the Paparoa National Park. You will thereby ensure that your first taste of the west coast is not the relatively drab and developed stretch immediately south of Greymouth (only relatively, since nothing along this coast is drab or developed by European standards). North of the Grey River the country is hardly touched, and the drive takes you round rocky hillsides and parallels surf-swept beaches where the Tasman Sea pounds the shore. The main purpose of the diversion, though, is to reach Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks.
There are wonderful things to see all the way down the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, but the odd thing about them is that few are actually on the coast. Punakaiki is an exception, the Pancake Rocks being located on a headland jutting out into the sea.
A geological freak, these limestone rocks were formed in layers from the skeletons of molluscs and other sea creatures interspersed with layers of compacted mud. Millennia ago earthquakes forced the layers to the surface, since when they have been sculpted by waves and weather into weird designs. The sea has also burrowed blowholes through the rocks, and water spouts shoot skywards through them to relieve the pressure of the surging tides.
Standing on the headland at Punakaiki, amid the crashing of the breakers and the taste of salt spray in the wind, the visitor shivers with a sense of the untamed nature of this coastland, and the appetite to explore it more fully is aroused.
One way to explore the immediate vicinity would be to take a trek inland from Punakaiki through the Paparoa National Park, which is noted for caves and canyons half-hidden amid forests of tree ferns and native Nikau palms. Having not allowed ourselves time to do this, my wife and I headed on south.
Hokitika, twenty-five miles or so south of Greymouth, boomed briefly in the 1860s and 1870s as a Gold Rush port, and still has something of a frontier feel to it. Not far away is Shantytown, a reconstruction of a prospectors' settlement, where for a small fee you can try your hand at panning for gold, but we did not visit it. In Hokitika itself we walked along the driftwood-strewn shore to the mouth of the Hokitika River, where many steamers crammed with fortune-seekers came to grief amid the shifting sandbanks and sudden storms.
Gold Rush nostalgia apart, Hokitika is full of arts and crafts shops, with jade carvings, knitwear and leatherwear the main specialities. My wife found plenty of opportunity to add to her collection of unusual knitting wools, for which it appears New Zealand is outstanding. The town's other claim to fame lies in its hosting of the Wild Food Festival, a rather bizarre celebration of unconventional carnivore cuisine. "All God's creatures have their place - between two slices of bread," proclaims a roadside sign on the way into town. Somehow, we were rather glad we were there in the wrong month for the Festival.
Hokitika is a good place to stay, though, with plenty of accommodation of all types and price ranges, and plenty of places to eat. We stayed at Teichelmans B&B, located in the middle of town and comfortably-furnished, where we were given a warm and friendly welcome by the owners, Brian and Frances. The nightly tariff of NZ$170 (approx £62) for the two of us together included not just the copious breakfast, but tea on arrival and a nightcap before bed. Good value and recommended accordingly (0064 3 755 8232).
Inland from the town is the Hokitika Gorge, which offers a short steep drive up beside spearmint green torrents of glacial water to reach Lake Kaniere. Here there is a visitor centre, the starting point for many scenic walks around the lakeshore or into the surrounding hills.
Once south of Hokitika human habitations rapidly thin out, although a railway track runs parallel with the coast road as far as Ross, another Gold Rush relic. It is a relief to leave the railtrack behind, if only because bridges across rivers are frequently shared between road and rail, with room only for one mode of transport at a time. Notices state that trains have priority, not a point that I would care to dispute, although what one does as a driver if one meets a train head-on halfway across I am not quite clear. Hope that the drivers behind are as quick to find reverse gear as you are, I guess.
After Ross the road veers away from the shore and the settlements become smaller - which is to say practically non-existent - and further between. From Ross down to Franz Joseph Glacier, a distance of about a hundred miles, one sees only about half-a-dozen hamlets, and the occasional sheep station. Moving south, the hilly pastures increasingly give way to forests, and the peaks loom ever higher up ahead.
Somewhere along this road we enter the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, which encompasses thousands of square miles of wilderness, stretching all the way down beyond Westland into Fiordland with its dramatic deep-water sounds. They will be covered in a separate review. Long before we reach them, there is still plenty to be seen in Westland, starting with the glaciers.
The Westland National Park, encompassing the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers, lies in the shadow of Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, which is permanently capped with ice and frequently with cloud.
The rain is pelting down by the time we reach Franz Joseph, and we skulk in the Visitor Centre for a while, absorbing information from the well-presented exhibits while waiting for the weather to clear. It doesn't clear. Perennially heavy rainfall is one of the drawbacks to visiting the area - in places exceeding 4000 mm a year it is over three times as heavy as in the Highlands of Scotland, Britain's wettest region.
Eventually we give up waiting, don our wet weather gear, and trudge up the trail - about two or three miles - to the face of the glacier, the point where it breaks up and begins to melt away. With climate change, the face has advanced and receded over the years, and the approach is across stony streams in a deeply gouged valley that was previously filled with ice. The slatey surface of the surrounding rock-faces is veined with torrents of white water.
Up ahead, the rain-clouds clear briefly to reveal the full length of the glacier, like a gigantic worm wriggling down the mountainside, white at the top, greyer lower down where the debris from rockfalls is carried on its icy back. More colours are revealed as one approaches the face - amid the translucent whiteness are blues and greys and greens. Coldness radiates out of it and sends a shiver down the spine.
Regaining our warmth and composure over a sandwich and a glass of something in Fox Glacier village twenty miles of dramatic driving further down the road, we debate whether or not to walk up to Fox as well. Isn't one glacier enough? No, we decide; we haven't come twelve thousand miles to be deterred by a drop of rain.
A good decision as it turns out. Fox is different from Franz Joseph, in a narrower, greener valley with a more distinct river descending from it, and more ups and downs along the way. It is harder here to see the upper body of the glacier as it grinds its gradual way down from the clouds, but the face is fascinating, forming a hollow ellipse as if to provide an acoustic shell beneath which some icebound orchestra might perform.
For the formidably fit, there are long walks feasible up the mountains beyond the faces of both glaciers, but we do not feel up to tackling them in the rain. For the lazily affluent, helicopters can be hired to buzz one up onto the icecap itself. To us, this has little appeal. But I would heartily recommend the walks up-valley to both the faces, each of them enthralling in its own way.
Returning to the car park, we find a kea (a local species of wild parrot) perched beside our rented car. This alarms us for a moment, since they are notorious for pecking out the sealing rubber around car-windows and windscreen wipers. But this one seems only interested in the remains of our sandwiches and in posing for photographs.
Before leaving the Westland National Park, it is in fine weather well worth visiting Lake Matheson, known as the mirror lake. On its still surface one can see reflected the peak of Mount Cook and the long sweep of the slopes down which the glaciers descend. When the peak is lost in clouds and the surface tufted by raindrops, however, the effect is not quite so startling. It's still a picturesque lake all the same.
From Lake Matheson down to Lake Moeraki is another seventy miles. On the winding road, it seems a long drive after a long day on the glaciers, and I'd advise anyone following this route to stay over in Fox or Franz Joseph, where there are several hotels, hostels and B&Bs. Once south of Fox they are hard to find because the road, which already seemed deserted, becomes more deserted still. Ten miles or more can easily pass without a sign of human life. This is not surprising; the through route down this coast was not completed until 1965 by which time the New Zealand conservation movement was already in full swing and development discouraged.
Such places to stay as exist tend to be either very cheap and basic or rather on the expensive side. After much debate we plumped for the latter, and stayed two nights (the minimum booking) at the Wilderness Lodge near Lake Moeraki. It's a beautiful place, looking out over well-tended gardens to the river descending from the lake with rainforest beyond
From one side of the Lodge one can walk down a forest track through densely dripping native trees of ancient lineage (kahikatea, rimu, matai) and tree-ferns, all entangled with creepers and epiphytes - plants like perching lilies and orchids that flourish on the damp bark of the trees. The track brings one, after a mile or two, to a secluded cove, girded by rocks and seething surf, the mist of its spray occluding the horizon.
Seals, including elephant seals, and tawaki crested penguins are often found here, although not alas by us on this occasion. Sandflies - insects as insidious as mosquitoes and with quite as irritating a bite - are also frequently encountered everywhere in this area, and we met many more than we would have liked.
From the other side of the Lodge, one can canoe up the river and around the lake, which we did in the afternoon when we were there. The scenery is stunning - forest down to the water's edge all around, a backdrop of rocky peaks beyond - and the tranquillity barely impinged on by the fact that the main round passes down one bank, so infrequent is the traffic. Out by the far shore of the lake we could pause our paddling and hear nothing except the trill of insects and the call of birds, and then the sudden beat of the black swans' wings as they took off from water, displaying their white tips.
The Wilderness Lodge has ecological ambitions (see www.wildernesslodge.co.nz) which I have to say we found less than wholly convincing. In the short time we were there, we did not go on any of their longer (and rather expensive) guided nature-discovery expeditions. The shorter, more local ones, included in the price, were brief and rather elementary.
In fairness to the Wilderness Lodge most things - excellent breakfast and dinner, use of canoes and facilities - are included in the price. But at NZ$250 (£92 approx) per person per night, the price is hefty; indeed, it was the most expensive place we stayed in the whole of our round-the-world trip. In our view, pleasant though it was, it didn't quite measure up in terms of value for money. The bedrooms, in particular, were pretty ordinary.
In the interests of taking the smooth with the rough, it was an experience and I don't regret having stayed there. But I wouldn't do so if I visited the area again, and I wouldn't recommend it.
Driving on from Lake Moeraki, the road soon swings back to the coast, reaching it at Knight's Point - a lookout platform with sweeping views along the shore. A few miles further at Ship Creek, there are walks along seemingly endless beaches, and through dunes and marshland behind them, full of exotic birdlife.
Haast, where the main road turns inland again, is a rather forlorn little settlement with a filling-station and motel, its bleakness relieved by the presence of yet another outstanding Visitor Centre. The New Zealand Department of Conservation is extraordinarily good at installing these places, cramming them with interesting exhibits displaying both the natural and human sides of the local heritage.
From Haast a side road runs down thirty more miles of windswept coastline to Jackson's Bay, the southernmost settlement on the west coast, beyond which lie only the cliffs and inlets of Fiordland. We almost took this road, tempted by its promise of empty beaches and coastal wildlife, but were short of time. So, instead, we followed the main road inland up the Haast River Valley, into the Mount Aspiring National Park, amid more neck-craning vistas, and frequent tracks through dense forest to off-road waterfalls. Wonderful country, but almost before we knew it we were out of Westland and into Otago.
The ideal way to explore Westland is by car or campervan, a method that allows you to take your own time and venture off-track at will. It is, however, possible by bus; for example, the InterCity and Atomic Shuttle services seem to run the length of the route we took, and on down to Wanaka and Queenstown further south inland. There are, of course, guided inclusive tours available from a number of operators.
Places to stay are numerous and varied around Greymouth and Hokitika, sufficient around the glaciers but very sparse further south. It is definitely advisable to book ahead, especially in the high season (December-February).
New Zealand's Westland isn't quite unique. I can't even say I've never been anywhere like it before. I have - the Pacific north-west coast of America, in Washington State between the ocean and Olympic National Park. That too has glacier-capped mountains, rugged shores and temperate rain forests. It's wild country, but Westland is wilder. Wilder, but somehow more welcoming.
Reflecting on the time we spent in Westland, I find it hard to justify my five-star verdict on the place. The shortcomings are easy to enumerate: it rains too much for comfortable sight-seeing; in most areas it's hard to reach the coast itself, or for that matter high into the mountains; the sandflies are horrid. But when I look back on it without detailed reflection, all those things are outweighed by the things I loved about it, which were many.
Maybe, coming from our densely-packed, polluted British Islands, it's simply wonderful to find in New Zealand another set of islands, of similar size and climate, inhabited by people of similar cultural background and speaking the same language, but islands that aren't polluted or densely packed. Rather, the best bits are sparsely populated, pristine and scenically stupendous. And Westland is definitely one of the best bits.
This is wilderness for which you do not have to brave climactic extremes, dangerous wildlife or hostile natives. It is accessible wilderness - not easily accessible, for that would negate the value of its accessibility and rapidly destroy its character, but accessible to anyone ready to go to the effort and expense to find their way there and to explore.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, April 21st 2005.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park is located in New Zealand's South Island. Established in 1960, the centenary of the European settlement of Westland, it covers 1,175 km², and extends from the highest peaks of the Southern Alps to a wild and remote coastline.