Along the West Coast

Our new CarQueenstown was not only one of our most comfortable accommodations, it was also our gate to the West Coast. Deterred by the imminent wet weather conditions on the coast and the heavy traffic load on the Highway 6, the only link between the southern tip of the West Coast and the Northern region of the South Island, we decided to speed up our journey for a while and take a rental car. It turned out that that’s easier said than done. It took us a whole weekend and a public holiday (who really cares about weekdays when travelling?) plus far too much money to get a certified translation for Gui’s driving licenses (who could guess that “nom” really means “name”?!) before we could finally set out for our West Coast tour – with a thoroughly unfamiliar way of transport!

From Glaciers to Greenstone

Alpine Crossing to WanakaFrom Queenstown we took the insanely steep – with our motorized transport no problem 🙂 – alpine road over Crown Range, with 1076m New Zealand’s highest sealed road, to Wanaka that offered amazing views on tussock-covered ridgelines that shimmer in warm gold tones as the sun sinks behind the horizon that appears like an endless ocean of swaying grassy waves. Past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea the road clambers around sheer-sided valley walls, following an early Maori transport route called Tioripatea, meaning “Clear Path”, that was travelled on their quest for precious pounamu (greenstone), until it climbs up to Haast pass, one of the view east-west gateways in the Southern Alps, before dropping into the vast, flax and rata forest covered wetland along the coast.

First West Coast Beach

Instead of heading north, drunken with the mere endless possibilities that such a fast means of transport offers, we took the junction southwards to Jackson Bay, literally the end of the line – just because we can! – and got rewarded with a sheer endless stretch of isolated beach whose ends disappear in the mist of the ocean spray.

A Piece of Home

Back on SH6 our next destinations were the imposing Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The glaciers’ staggering development is mainly due to the West Coast’s ample rain and nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers come so close to the ocean. Though the Franz Josef glacier was originally known to Maori as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (Tears of the Avalanche Girl), nowadays the glacier is named after Austrian’s longest-reigning emperor, providing a little feeling of home at the other end of the world.

Hokitika Gorge
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Midway up the West Coast we passed through the “cool little town of Hokitika”. Like so many other towns in New Zealand originally founded on gold, today the town is the stronghold of indigenous pounamu and home to some of the NZ’s best carving artists. Apart from overpriced greenstone necklaces, the town also offers a nice walk along a gorge that admittedly has an outstanding milky blue color.

Pancake Rocks and Knife Forging

Westcoast at its Best

Halfway up the West Coast we started to wonder where the dramatic cliffs and wind-tossed crags are hiding, that made this route such a famous tourist destination. So far we had mainly travelled through vast, flat kahikatea and rata forests, flax overgrown sand dunes, and swampy wetlands. Fortunately, we were able to cross this region in a couple of hours instead of spending dreary days in the boring up and down of this monotonous, scenery. Exposed to the ElementsBut just before our sullenness about the dullness of the landscape and the omnipresent moisture that left our tent and everything inside damp every morning, would turn into real frustration we finally reached the “real” West Coast! A winding street clambering along steep mountain ranges on one side and flanked by white-capped waves and rocky bays on the other that culminated in the stunning Pancake Rock formations where the wild sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through blowholes.

Melting the Raw SteelNot far from Punakaiki lies another highlight of our West Coast experience, the Barrytown Knifemaking. In a day long course we made our own knife from the very beginning of hand-forging the steel, grinding the blade to crafting a handle from native rimu timber. All this accompanied by an endless stream of entertainingly bad jokes from Steve, our not always political correct master smith 🙂

Gui & Emmanuel

This perfect day was rounded off by an enjoyable dinner with Emmanuel, a friend of Gui from Tahiti who happened to be in New Zealand at this time and with a barbecue at sunset and numerous glasses of wine, they were indulging in good memories of joyful times in Coincy at the other end of the world.

Tasman goes Top North

Oparara Arch

Following the advice of the world’s most sold travel guidebook, we continued the way north after Westport for 150km to see a “natural spectacle of the highest order”. We were never happier about our rental car than at the moment when the “hidden valley concealed its wonder such as limestone arches” *cough, cough*. I guess we would have cried if we would have come all this way by bicycle…

Pristine Bays
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But the West Coast was keeping one last highlight for us ready that was worth all the extra kilometers and this was the coastal Abel Tasman National Park that blankets the northern end of the South Island. The idyllic track there is arguably one of the most beautiful Great Walks, providing crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand, washed by the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay.

Waiting for the Ferry

This last outstanding trail was a perfect completion for our South Island experience and with a last delicious seafood lunch we bid adieu and as the ferry was slowly chugging north through the winding Queen Charlotte Sound, we waved a farewell to this marvelous island that is holding so many treasures in the middle of the sea.

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