MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Hokitika”

Spring Roadie – Coast to Coast

I was so over driving by the time we pulled in to Hokitika on the last night of my brother’s and my road trip. My brother had booked a room in a B&B who’s garden opened almost directly onto the beach. After catching our breaths for a moment, we headed out under a moody sky and wandered along the foreshore. Past the driftwood sign that the town is famous for, we meandered further to the mouth of the river as the sun lowered down. Eventually hunger drove us in search of food and finally we headed to bed.

 

After a communal breakfast with the other guests at the B&B, everybody parted company and we too made our way out of town. I drove us down the convoluted route to the busy car park at Hokitika Gorge. Like many places in New Zealand, this place has gotten busier and busier with each subsequent visit, and this day was no exception. Although it’s a bit of a drive out of town to reach it, the walk is short and easy enough to make it accessible, as long as you have your own set of wheels to get you to the start. We joined the other visitors on the familiar route through the bush towards the suspension bridge across the gorge and down to the rocky water’s edge. Due to the glacier sedimentation of this river, the colour can vary so much from one visit to the next. The first time I came here it was a milky grey, and the next a brilliant blue. This time round it was blue, but the cloud kept the brilliance of the sun hidden, meaning it was a paler shade, and I felt my brother wasn’t quite seeing it in its full glory. To him it was probably still impressive enough, not having anything like it in our native Scotland.

 

After winding our way back to Hokitika, it was time to make the journey back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. New Zealand has so many scenic drives, and this coast to coast road is the one I’m most familiar with, having driven it many times, especially the eastern half. At Kumara Junction, we cut inland, traversing the long valley eastward into the Southern Alps before turning south as the road turned into the Otira Valley. As the road starts to snake uphill here and wind its way up into the hills, it passes under a viaduct and over a road bridge, after which a couple of lookouts are located. These are almost guaranteed kea spotting sites, and I’ll always stop here to see if there’s any around. They are very popular to spot, and are immensely intelligent and cheeky birds, often working in pairs or mobs to try and snatch something of interest. Despite the frequency of sightings in this area, they are sadly endangered and suffer at the hands of people feeding them inappropriate food, despite signs advocating against this at these locations. This was the first time I’d stopped here that there wasn’t a parrot in sight.

 

In Arthur’s Pass village we took the walk to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. It can be viewed from near the car park, or from the road, or from the opposite mountain, but it’s still nice to get up close to it and hear the water gushing down. The walk involves a lot of stairs, but it is a relatively short walk making it a reasonable achievement when just passing through. The sun broke through in places whilst we were there but as we headed south east, the rest of the way home was overcast. For the rest of the drive to Porter’s Pass, we were surrounded by the Southern Alps, steep-sided mountains interspersed by lakes and rivers. I stopped a few times so that my brother could take some photographs, and there’s plenty of pull-ins to choose from along the route.

 

Eventually we reached Cave Stream Scenic Reserve where it is possible to traverse through a flooded cave system. One of these days, I hope to go through it, but I just haven’t gotten round to it yet. Even without going caving, it’s still an interesting landscape to walk around. From here through to Castle Hill, the landscape is scattered with giant rocky boulders and outcrops, and it looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a movie. In fact, a nearby area was used as a film location for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at Castle Hill. Another popular tourist spot, the car park here is often packed. We were lucky to get a spot on this occasion and I let my brother lead the way, picking his route through the behemoths. There are many worn paths round here and you can choose to circumnavigate the site or get into the thick of it, clambering up slopes and up and over boulders to get a higher perspective of it all. The cloud was down over the surrounding peaks and it was a little gloomy, but I always love exploring this place. Eventually we found ourselves down with the cows at the neighbouring field and skirting back along the front of the rock face, we returned to the car and soon headed into rain for the rest of the journey back to Christchurch.

 

For my brother’s last full day in New Zealand, we stayed local. He decided to go to the Canterbury Museum so I dropped him off there and met up with him later once he’d had the chance to wander round some of it. Later in the day we took a walk round North Hagley Park and on to Mona Vale, a homestead with a lovely waterway and garden, a little way along the Avon River. The day my brother left was a gloriously sunny one. His flight wasn’t till later in the day so we had some time in the morning to go for a walk. Driving up to Summit Road in the Port Hills, we did a section of the Crater Rim walkway that started behind the Sign of the Kiwi cafe. It was a section I hadn’t done before so it was nice to do something new and we had a beautiful view down over the harbour.

 

But eventually it was time to drive my brother to the airport. He had a couple of days in Sydney ahead of him to enjoy, but I was sad to say goodbye. His 2 week visit had been the longest time we’d spent together since we were in high school, and although I was informed that I snored, and I suspect I slightly took over his holiday, I think we did pretty well living in each other’s pockets. After all the years I’ve now lived in New Zealand, he is the first and only member of my family to visit me, and I was glad I’d finally been able to show off my new homeland to someone. His inevitable departure though reminded me sorely of the distance that I have chosen to keep between myself and my family. The choice to emigrate had been an easy one to make, but boy do I miss my family sometimes.

West Coast Wonders

One of the great benefits of being an immigrant, is that I get to be both tourist and local at the same time. I can find new places to explore, and take part in tourist activities, whilst having the benefit of being able to return or stay longer than many tourists, as well as gaining insider knowledge which is often invaluable. I’ve seen more of New Zealand than many Kiwis that I know, and more of the country than many tourists I’ve encountered, but yet there are parts of the country that I have still to explore, including a few key tourist zones.

With a 4 day break over New Year, it was time to head to one of these spots for the first time. The New Year was welcomed in listening to Six60 perform in Christchurch, then after some sleep, we headed off early for the long drive west. The road through Arthur’s Pass is one of my favourites in the South Island. Once across Porter’s Pass, the road nestles and winds its way across the Southern Alps, and there is so much to look at from mountains, to villages, to braided rivers. There are plenty of options for stops: Castle Hill, Cave Stream Scenic Reserve and Arthur’s Pass village are three good ones, but on this occasion, we ploughed onwards, pushing on to Hokitika on the west coast. It had been some time since I’d seen the Tasman Sea, and it was lovely and calm, crashing onto the stony beach whilst families relaxed on the shore. The west coast of the South Island is quite a battered coast, and the beaches are generally stony rather than sandy, and often littered with driftwood. Hokitika has embraced this by erecting a sign on the beach made out of exactly that.

 

After a respite and some much needed lunch, we continued south down the coast. It was a lovely day for a drive, but one of the down sides of the level of tourism in New Zealand is the sometimes dangerous nature of driving witnessed on the roads. Often campervans and hire cars drive too slow causing back logs of traffic and driver frustration, or they don’t know what to do at one of the many one-lane bridges in the country. The dangerous part is their hesitation or last-minute decision making which sees cars suddenly pull over or emergency stop in order to take photos or because they’ve seen something they want to look at. I’ve witnessed repeatedly, tourists stopped on the road round corners, or at bends, when oncoming cars can’t see them till the last minute, and worse, I’ve had a few occasions of the car in front of me pull to an emergency stop in front of me, throw their driver door open into the traffic, and jump out to take a photo. Frankly, when it comes to driving round New Zealand’s roads in the peak season, it pays to have a sixth sense. So it was unsurprising to have several emergency response vehicles whizz past us, and to eventually come across a closed section of road where a car had driven off the road. This was just a day after a tourist bus crashed into a car driven by tourists near Arthur’s Pass. Thankfully, this latest incident appeared to have no obvious casualties and the blockage was cleared swiftly.

 

Finally, we rounded the mountains where the ice field and glaciers were coming into view, and we pulled into Franz Josef village. At the back of the village, nestled in the mountains is the glacier of the same name, and over 20kms further south, lies Fox glacier and the village of the same name. Collectively they are a big tourist draw, but the village of Franz Josef is bigger and more developed with more options for eating and sleeping. On a good day, the sound of helicopters constantly fills the air as group after group are flown up onto the glaciers for a hike, or up and over the mountains for a scenic flight. We wandered around town and down to the helipads to watch the comings and goings of the various choppers. From the village itself, the glacier isn’t really in sight, but we watched as the helicopters became distant specks as they headed up the valley. The local cinema plays Imax-style movies and we watched a fascinating National Geographic piece about the ‘Age of the Airplane’ before going out for dinner.

 

The next day, the weather was not looking promising. We had an early rise and a sharp exit to make the drive south to Fox glacier where we were booked in for a heli-hike tour. The village of Fox glacier is much more sedate compared to Franz Josef, and I liked it much better. We’d booked to hike Fox glacier for the simple reason that Franz Josef was fully booked for our entire stay. When we arrived to check in, we were given a weather briefing: cancellation or curtailment were a high possibility due to the weather. We went through the helicopter safety briefing, boarded the bus and headed out to the helipad. After getting booted up and weighed, we were divided into flight groups, the weight of the passengers being precisely calculated for each helicopter’s load. We were in the second flight, and before long we were on board and sailing up the valley, the glacier suddenly in front of us. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the cloud was thick on top, but it was still an awesome view. Landing on the glacier was simple and quick, and we were out and on the ice fast to allow another load to come up.

 

With 5 loads to come up, there was time to absorb the view, and with everyone present and geared up with crampons and walking poles, we were off to explore. I’ve been lucky to hike on a glacier before: on the Athabasca glacier in the Canadian Rockies, and Viedma glacier in Patagonian Chile. But each glacier is different, and every time it is amazing. Like a frozen tumbling waterfall, Fox glacier is a maze of crevasses and caves and tunnels. We stepped around flowing water and watched it fall deep into chasms in the ice. We hunkered down to crawl through tunnels and peeked into caves created by the ever changing ice flow. Both Fox and Franz Josef are relatively fast moving glaciers and are currently retreating. Fox is longer and faster flowing than Franz Josef, and despite moving an incredible 200m in a year, it feels still and quiet and a world away from civilisation.

 

The cloud dropped and rose again repeatedly, and we got rained on for a while, but yet the call never came to decamp, and with relief, we got to experience the full length of the tour. Our guides were great fun, as was our group and we had plenty of time to negotiate a reasonably large area of the glacier. But after a few hours, it was time to summon the helicopters, and we bundled back in in groups to head back down to the village. With the weather closing in, the rest of the day’s tours had been cancelled and we realised that we had been very lucky indeed to get up there. I had wanted to do some exploring in the area whilst we were there, but it continued to rain, so after lunch we were forced to head back to Franz Josef where at least there were more options.

 

The fantastic receptionist at our hostel helped us organise our next excursion and with a bit of time to kill, we headed to the Franz Josef hot pools at the back of town. A little steeply priced and very packed on such a dismal weather day, they were still lovely to soak in and pass some time. Directly across the road was our meeting point, and after bundling into the bus, we headed north to nearby Lake Mapourika for a kayaking trip. This was sand fly heaven, and kitted up, the group spread out across the smooth surface of the water. Halfway across the lake, the drizzle became more of a downpour and it wasn’t long before we were all quite wet. But it didn’t detract from the beautiful and peaceful location, and we paddled on, rounding a spit of land and heading to a small opening into a narrow channel. It was fun paddling up the creek even if we did get stuck on some vegetation briefly, and we continued along until we hit the edge of kiwi country where we could go no further. Thankfully the return leg was a lot drier (at least outside the kayak it was, inside I was soaked), and after some obligatory group photos and a couple of challenges where people got out the kayak and ran across the rest of us, we headed back to shore. A few of us raced each other for a while, and back at the pier we headed back to town where following a quick change of clothes, we headed out to eat.

 

The next morning after breakfast, we headed back to Fox glacier village. Despite being close together, the lay of the land means that the weather in the two places can be very different. When we reached the village, the mountains were shrouded in cloud with only the base visible. With no spare time to try on another day, we headed out to Lake Matheson, a famous mirror lake not far from the village. I was surprised to find a gift shop and cafe here, and it was very busy despite the less than ideal conditions. On a good day, the mountain range, including New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki/Mount Cook reflects on the surface of the lake to give a stunning picture postcard view. It was an easy 1hr walk through the bush round the lake, and despite the lack of visible mountains and the grey sky, it was still a pretty place to be.

 

Further down the same road, and progressing onto a winding unsealed road was Gillespies beach. Here there was no cloud at all and the sunshine was beaming down on the coastline. Like most west coast beaches, it was stony and covered in driftwood. There were a few walks in the area, including one north along the coast to a seal colony. We had a deadline to get back for so didn’t have time to do it, instead we went for a shorter walk to visit the remnants of a gold mine. Dotted up the west coast of the south island are multiple remnants to the gold rush of the 19th century. Heading back towards Fox we re-entered the overcast sky zone and headed back towards Franz Josef. This 22km drive is itself exceedingly stunning.

 

Whilst my partner went quad biking, I drove out the back road up the valley towards Franz Josef glacier. Despite being into the evening, the car park was still packed. The walk from here to the terminal face of the glacier is listed as 1.5hr return. It is a well marked but stony path that cuts down to the river bed and follows the river upstream, eventually cutting across several scree slopes left behind from the retreating glacier until eventually it ends at a fence and a sign. Having been up on Fox glacier the day before, I was rather underwhelmed by the dirty and seemingly small glacier that tumbled down the wall of the valley in front of me. It wasn’t very clear where the helicopters landed for the hiking tours as this late in the day they had all finished. The sun poked through the clouds in fits and starts, finally illuminating the glacier as I readied to leave around 6pm. The wind speed had suddenly raised dramatically and dust was whipping along down the river valley. Even on the return leg, there were still loads of people on their way out there. I passed some waterfalls, and then took a couple of detours from the returning path to get a differing viewpoint along the valley and back towards the glacier. But my favourite view was actually from a completely separate walk that led off to the far side of the valley. I only went as far as Peter’s Pool, just 15mins along the track, where despite the drizzle that had by now started, there was a mirror reflection of the glacier on its surface. The sand flies were an unfortunate distraction and it was impossible to get much time to enjoy the view without other tourists wanting to take photos so after only 5 minutes or so, I headed back to the car park and back towards the village.

 

That night we experienced the culmination of a few days of frustratingly poor service in an eatery in Franz Josef village. Eating out for breakfast and dinner, we had utilised 4 different eateries during our stay there, and with 1 exception, we endured rudeness, laziness, confusion and general ineptitude amongst the staff, as well as extortionate surcharges by the establishments. It became rather irksome and an annoyance that hung over what was otherwise a rather enjoyable trip. Franz Josef village would not exist were it not for the tourist draw of the nearby glacier, and it felt very obvious that the eateries in town were more about fleecing tourists out of a good buck rather than good service and tasty food. It was exceedingly disappointing.

We left early the next morning eager to avoid eating in Franz Josef again. Heading north back to Hokitika, we stopped here for brunch before heading up the river to Hokitika Gorge. Last time we were here, the river was a milky grey colour, and with the sun shining up above, I had my fingers crossed to see it in its full glory. Thankfully this time, we joined the path from the rather packed car park, and quickly discovered that the river was resilient blue. It is a short and easy walk round a few bends to the swing bridge that crosses the river, and round from here the track goes to a viewpoint. The track had been upgraded since last time too, and now there was a gated entrance to go down to the rocks by the river’s edge. It was a busy place to be but surprisingly peaceful, and there were plenty of spots to choose from for a differing view of the river as it wound its way through the gorge.

 

Eventually though, it was time to head back home to Christchurch, and so we got back on the road and retraced our steps through the stunning highway through Arthur’s Pass National Park, a road that never fails to impress. It is one of my favourite areas to go hiking in and has so much to offer for hiking enthusiasts. Nestled into the passenger seat with camera in hand, I merrily spent the drive home making the most of the opportunity to photograph the mountainous landscape. I have high hopes for the coming months of summer to conquer a few of the peaks here. Fingers crossed the weather obliges.

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