A WILD WEST encounter
The two coasts of the South Island are as different as chalk and cheese. On the eastern side, the usually - but not always - benign Pacific Ocean gently laps against the coastline, bringing with it warm waters and light winds. But just two hundred kilomet
The West Coast of the Southern Alps; a thin strip of green and blue sandwiched between mountain peaks and a raging ocean that mostly brings big swells crashing onto its beaches from a distant land until recently known as the Lucky Country. Having done the trip from the ferry at Picton, down the eastern seaboard to Christchurch and then through the Mackenzie Country to Queenstown many times, I’m now seeking new adventures. This time I’ve opted for the cheese, not the chalk! There are any number of routes to the West Coast. From Nelson and Tasman Bay at the top of the South access is provided via State Highway 6 on the banks of the stunningly wild and wonderful Buller Gorge. For the movie buff, another alternative worthy of consideration is the scenic drive from Christchurch to the small West Coast settlement of Kumara. It really is like being on a movie set, with the golden grasslands of the Canterbury Plains giving way to a many hues of green as the mountain pass named after a fella called Arthur looms into view. On this outing however I’ve opted to take yet another route, unfamiliar to me personally but one which is easily navigated and used by thousands of visitors to the wild West Coast each year. This is known as the Inland Road, which parts company with State Highway 1 just a few kilometres south of the marine wildlife centre of Kaikoura. Part of my reason for heading inland is the allure of the thermal hot pools and range of spa therapies on which Hanmer Springs bases its claim to glory. Yes, the constant barrage of television advertising has worked
on my subconscious, just as it’s designed to do. A stop-over there is a must - and absolute bliss for travel-weary bodies. Tearing a body away from such heavenly experiences was never going to be easy, but I am a man on a mission, with the crashing waves of the mighty Tasman Sea, just a hundred and forty kilometres away, squarely on the radar. The two hour drive to the historic gold and coal mining township of Reefton is conducted with no great haste. That’s as it should be, as I’ve been well briefed that the pace of life on The Coast is a lot less hectic than the one I’m emerging from. While any journey to the West Coast is often one of the best decisions a traveller will ever make, traversing this region at the speed of a Formula One motor racer would constitute a grave error of judgment. Like fine vintage cheese, a good thing takes time to percolate. From Reefton it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the black sands of what is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular coast drives anywhere on Planet Earth. Dotted along that highway - officially it’s known as Number 6 - is a succession of towns and townships, each one providing experiences and adventures amid tales of an earlier time when man sought to tame a land which, more often than not, beat back its invaders. Coal mining, gold mining, agricultural enterprise and shipping up and down one of the most challenging coastlines in the world, created a myriad of tales, most true, but not all. At every turn down this coast, history was created, over centuries. And I find that not only are the Coasters willing to share it with visitors, they live it as well. From the wide river that carries the name of George Grey - undoubtedly the best known of New Zealand’s colonial governors - through to Hokitika, Highway 6 hugs the coast. My research has shown that iconic visitor attractions exist along this road and my stop-over at the Shantytown Heritage Park proves every bit as interesting as the websites depict. South of Hokitika the main highway darts and dives inland before coming back to the sea that separates the South Pacific’s two biggest nations. It’s a great mix of driving through pristine rainforest, with its multitude of species, on the one hand and being able to stop for one magnificent coastal vista after another on the other. I can’t think of any other region of the country I’ve visited where such diversity exists within such a small distance. As autumn gives way to winter, subtle changes are occurring on The Coast, with the snowline gradually descending on the slopes of the mountains that form a barrier between this Wild West and the more docile eastern side of the island. Any time of the year is a good time to be visiting these parts, but this trip will go down as one of the best yet. The throng of travellers always seen in the peak summer months is thinning, the gentle mantle of white is beginning to settle on the ground in the mornings and stunningly warm days are being enjoyed.
Reaching the twin glaciers - Fox and Franz Josef - is the pinnacle of this coastal excursion and it’s not far beyond Harihari that one enters this magical frozen world, one formed of millions of years of icy twists and turns. Glacier Country, as it is known, is a magnet for travellers from around the world and I am happy to be able to spend a few days here, not only getting up close and personal with the giant walls of ice at first Franz Josef and then Fox, but having the opportunity to join in some of the other excursions on offer from both alpine villages. Skydiving at Fox, kayaking on the still waters of nearby lakes, short walks - and even longer ones - there seems no end to the adventures available in an area that is jaw-dropping beautiful. My leisurely jaunt around Lake Matheson, just to the west of Fox Glacier village, has been written into my memory bank - and is likely to remain there forever. The reflections of the rich rainforest and snow-topped peaks of Mount Tasman and Aoraki/Mount Cook in the distance are pure magic - guaranteed to take your breath away. It’s no wonder they’ve been appearing on all manner of promotional material for half a century or more. The delicious afternoon tea at the Lake Matheson Café is a great way to finish this part of my journey. And it’s no wonder the art gallery in that location is called ReflectioNZ. It’s impossible to capture all the coming and goings of a travel-holic within the confines of an article such as this, but there are a couple of hot tips I’d like to give those who are planning on following in my footsteps. Firstly, there’s every reason to make a number of excursions into the West Coast of the Southern Alps. There is just so much to do and so much to see and experience that driving over Highway 6 at breakneck speed would be doing oneself a great disservice. My other revelation that is one of my own misconceptions has been well and truly dispelled on this journey. I now know that it does not rain cats and dogs for all of the autumn and winter on the West Coast. In fact, this region is almost sub-tropical and I’m impressed when I read the National Institute of Water and Atmospherics’ report that the West Coast gets more hours of sunshine annually than Auckland! Armed with those findings a trip to The Coast should be on the must-do list for those who value warmth of reception by the hardy souls that have chosen to make this region home and for those who have a thirst for history, heritage and a pristine physical environment as Mother Nature intended it. But as I’ve learned from many travels to many parts of Aotearoa New Zealand, a few days on the West Coast of the Southern Alps is never enough.