After our employment term ended and we took our quick trip around Cape Farewell, Max, Jeff and I decided we were in desperate need of a road trip. So we packed our bags, rented a bright blue Subaru station wagon, said goodbye to our lovely neighbor Manea and her two beautiful children, and set out on an 8-day trip down the West Coast!
While we didn’t have any specific plans other than ‘Go South’ and ‘See the West Coast’, our trip took us south from Motueka via the famous Buller Gorge Highway (State Highway 6). We spent the first day getting as far away from Mot as we possibly could, and slept that night at a campsite in Lyell in Upper Buller Gorge. Since we weren’t sure that we could all fit together in the back of the car, we flipped a coin and two of us spent the night outside in a tent – fairness first, right? But when we woke up in the morning after a wet, frigid, and sleepless night, we decided that we’d rather be sardines.
Despite our lack of shuteye, that day (Wednesday, May 16th) found us hitting the coast and turning north for a while to drive towards the little town of Karamea (which is really only popular as the endpoint of the Heaphy Track, one of NZ’s Great Walks). SH6 turned into a winding, narrow dirt road that snaked in and out of native bush forest, dotted every now and then with views of coastal plains that stretched straight out into the sea. We stopped a few kms north of Karamea in the Oparara Basin to see the Honeycomb Hill Caves (two huge limestone caves that are free to visitors) and the Oparara Arch (a 37m high, 200m long natural arch over a thundering waterfall). In the carpark at the caves we also met our first weka, a strangely self-confident bird that looks like a combination between a kiwi, a chicken, and a pukeko. (And, of course, Max had to feed it.) We slept on the beach that night, sandwiched together in the back of our car while we fell asleep to the sound of waves.
The next morning (May 17th) we continued on our way south towards Westport, but we had to stop along the way for a walk across the Cape Foulwind shore. The ocean along the West Coast of New Zealand is especially turbulent due to the ‘subtropical convergence’ of warm and cold currents, and the winds of the Roaring Forties – especially on gray, rainy days, the coast has a rugged, sad quality to it that’s almost impossible to describe in words. We all stood on the sand for a while absorbing the ambiance, and Max and Jeff climbed the boulders along the shore. We also stopped to see the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, the result of centuries of ‘stylobedding’ (in which the forces of wind and water have worn away thin seams of mudstone from between layers of limestone to produce what look like giant stacks of pancakes). None of us were particularly impressed (yes, we’re jaded tourists with high expectations), but we took lots of pictures anyway.
We finally got our first view of the Southern Alps on the morning of our fourth day (May 18th), when we drove from our campsite in Lake Mahinapua towards the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. Ever the dutiful roadtrippers, we had to stop along the way in Okarito to celebrate the obscenely beautiful blue sky and white-tipped ocean on our right. Walking along the beach we suddenly decided that, cold weather be damned, we were going to touch the ocean – so we stripped down and ran into the freezing cold, slightly dangerous Tasman Sea. Feeling the power of the water was a terrifying, exhilarating, and numbing experience – the waves were huge and powerful enough to knock you over, and the water was frigid and full of stones that scraped your legs and pummeled you where you stood. Keeping one’s balance was a bit precarious, but the joy of the moment was palpable. Plus, we decided to splurge and spend the night in a hostel in Franz Josef town that had a free spa pool and free veggie soup! Add to that the luxuries of a real bed and our first shower in days, and it was an absolutely perfect day.
The next morning, I added to my list of big ‘firsts’ when we visited my first glacier(s)! Franz Josef moves at about 10 times the rate of other glaciers (it advances up to 70cm a day!) and you can’t actually touch the ice unless you’re on a guided tour, but a walkway leads up to a viewpoint a few hundred metres from the foot of the mountains. There’s even a friendly cardboard cutout DOC Officer there to remind you not to cross the barriers! (So sweet.) In reality glaciers seem rather dull, until you realize that they’re solid mountains of ice formed by thousands of years of precipitation, their bodies in perpetual back-and-forth motion, flattening everything underneath their thousands of tons and occasionally crushing people under avalanches of stone and ice. Turns out they’re a pretty awesome force of nature! We intended to drive to Fox Glacier as well (just a few kilometers down the road), but instead we stopped to take pictures of the views of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook reflected in the water of Lake Matheson and never actually made it to the glacier itself. But, as if we hadn’t seen enough insane beauty for one day, we did finish the day watching the sun set over the sea…. again. Life is really hard these days.
The next morning, we continued down SH6 and Haast Pass Road past Makaroa, where we stopped briefly to see the Blue Pools (more beautiful blue water in the middle of pristine native bush in the Southern Alps, blah blah blah). The best part of the day was finding our campsite at Lake Paringa though, where we sat on the beach and caught another insane sunset over the mountains. The weather gods were smiling!
When we woke up the morning of May 21st, our journey took us even further south past Lake Hawea and into the skiing city of Wanaka. We indulged in coffees and croissants, beers and good company, and soaked up the perfect autumn weather of the mountains. On the dock overlooking Lake Wanaka I met a Maori man who pointed out the huge eels swimming in the crystal clear water underneath us, and he spoke to me for a while about everything from WWOOFing to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the last few hours of sunlight we even took a short drive to nearby Mt Aspiring National Park, where a pitted dirt road leads through a river valley surrounded by mountains. Farmland covered almost every spare patch of grass, and more than once we had to wait while farmers drove a herd of sheep or cows down the road with a 4-wheeler under their feet and a pack of dogs at their heels. While we’d spent the past few days seeing spectacular scenery and natural wonders, somehow the experience of that valley was more striking than almost anything we’d done so far. Some landscapes touch the soul, and that was especially true of Mt Aspiring that day…
The next morning was the final day of our road trip, and we found ourselves looking forward once again to hot showers and real beds in the winter sports Meccha of Queenstown. We passed through Arrowtown (a historic gold mining town straight out of the Wild West) along the way, and took a few minutes to stand over Roaring Meg (a waterfall that powers a local hydroelectric power station). By the middle of the afternoon we found ourselves in Queenstown, and not a moment too soon – we were hungry! First stop: Fergburger, a nationally famous, local Queesntown burger joint known for making ‘the best burgers in the world’. Their burgers are as massive as their storefront is small, and they’re even surprisingly affordable by New Zealand standards, where food is outrageously expensive and you’re lucky to get a meal for under $25! Max, also known as the Black Hole due to his seemingly bottomless stomach, ordered a half pound burger aptly named ‘Mr Big Stuff’… and then he finished the rest of my burger, as well! We spent a couple of days in the city (as long as we could stomach the reek of money and the constant stream of obnoxious backpackers) and then decided to extend our road trip by another week to Fiordland and the Bluff Oyster Festival! But that’s another story… ;)