19 November 2017

The South Island, or 2176km of it

Day 1: Wellington > Blenheim

Finally after many years I organised another driving holiday to the West Coast, and now it was time to depart on the Saturday morning Interislander crossing. The cloud-light burst over Wellington Harbour as the Kaitaki prepared for its 9am departure, and naturally I arrived far too early. A stiff northerly whipped up as we departed, and I enjoyed the harbour view from the top deck as far as the heads, when the chill became too much. I felt sympathy for the Tongan school group onboard whose South Island adventure may have been the coldest experience of their lives.

Following a grey-skied cruise up the sound to Picton, I spent half an hour in town perusing the shops, picking up a vintage book of Norse mythology to add to my already overtaxed bookshelves. Then it was on to the main destination of the day: the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which I had so enjoyed on my first visit in 2012. The World War 1 collection is still spectacular, and since my last time they've added an additional World War 2 gallery featuring impressive aircraft including a Hurricane, Spitfire, Kittyhawk and Stuka. A must-see for aviation buffs. 

After a stroll around the quiet centre of Blenheim - only one or two places seemed populated despite it being Saturday night - I returned to my room at the Grapevine Hostel for an early night in preparation for more driving tomorrow.
Kaitaki top deck

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XIV

Day 2: Blenheim > Westport

After breakfast I departed sleepy Blenheim for the drive west along State Highway 63 up the Wairau River. Passing packed Army camps full of military personnel gathered for Exercise Southern Katipo, vineyard country and then into the ranges, I paused for lunch at beautiful St Arnaud. An hour-long bush walk along the shore of Lake Rotoiti from Kerr Bay to West Bay and back kept me occupied, and the onward journey to the West Coast was punctuated by a short break for icecream in tiny Murchison (epicentre of a major earthquake in 1929) and a climb up a bush trail to visit the cemetery of the now vanished ghost town of Lyell.

Traditional West Coast heavy rain greeted me as I rolled into Westport for the first time in around a decade. After checking into the grand merchant house that now hosts the town's YHA, I wandered along the main road, Palmerston St, and did a spot of people-watching while eating takeaways from the Buller Cafe, a local fast food institution, where the proprietor's daughter had returned from Christchurch for the long weekend and had naturally been pressed into working the counter; everyone who came in seemed to know everyone else. Nearby, a historical curiosity: a plaque commemorating the centennial of port activities in Westport, unveiled in September 1984 by the then Minister of Transport, Hon Richard Prebble. A fairly narrow window of opportunity for such occasions before his popularity declined rapidly, I would imagine.

Wairau River

Lake Rotoiti view from St Arnaud

Lyell ghost-town cemetery

Day 3: Westport and parts north

As is often the way, as soon as I book a week off I come down with a cold. It was always the same with University holidays. The headcold that took hold overnight stayed with me for the rest of my roadtrip, but with all the accommodation booked I just pretended I was 100 percent. Taking in a possibly-ill-advised coffee from the excellent Whanake Cafe, I then drove north on the road to Karamea to meet my cousin Steven, who has lived in the hamlet of Granity north of Westport since around the turn of the century. Meeting at Waimangaroa, Steven treated me to a ride up to the trig station atop Mt Rochfort (1040m), which is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sadly, the summit was in the clouds with zero visibility, and similarly there was no view from the lookout at the famous Denniston Incline. Nevertheless, it was interesting to revisit the historic mine remains and hunt for the elusive burning mine vents around Burnett's Face. 

We followed the road further north to drive past Seddonville and up the Mokihinui River, just about at the end of whitebaiting season, for lunch at the marvellously isolated Rough & Tumble Bush Lodge. The establishment, which is wreathed in net-clad verandas to ward off the ferocious West Coast sandflies, mainly caters to the mountain-bikers who now flock to the 85km Old Ghost Road trail that traverses the Lyell Range and begins way back at the Lyell ghost town I had visited the day before. We were the only customers for our late lunch, and our splendid pizzas were prepared by a friendly French chef. Rounding out my visit we walked the Charming Creek rail track, which I recalled visiting with Steven on my first visit to the Coast many years ago, and hunted for interesting rocks on Gentle Annie Beach, where the wild Tasman surf breaks on the driftwood-laden stony shore.

After stopping in to visit Steven and his family in Granity, I headed back for a quiet and early night in Westport - although the town does have a cinema I preferred to have an early night to give my cold its due respect.

Denniston Incline wreckage

Day 4: Westport > Franz Josef

After a refreshing hot chocolate sitting outside Whanake watching myriad utes come and go, it was time to drive south down the beautiful, rugged West Coast. After pausing for some cake at Charleston, I spent the rest of the morning on an entertaining detour. Just north of Punakaiki I turned left to drive inland around six kilometres on a rough track to reach the walk to Cave Creek. In from the coast the temperature climbed and the only people around were a couple of DoC rangers who upon seeing me apologised for swearing. Having never seen pictures of the creek, the visual impact on first viewing is spectacular, with its fantasy-land moss-covered stones and trees like some elven haven. At a discreet distance there's a plaque commemorating the 14 young visitors who tragically lost their lives here in the 1995 viewing platform collapse that shocked New Zealand.

Back on the main highway it was only a short drive south to the famed Punakaiki pancake rocks, which seemed to be dwelling in the same subtropical microclimate as Cave Creek - palm trees waved at the roadside, at the latitude of Chile and Tasmania. In a sign of the times, a notice firmly reminds visitors that no drones are permitted to fly over the rocks. After half an hour admiring the rock stacks, blowholes and plentiful bird life, it was on to Greymouth for supplies and a quick walk. One day I will discover something to do in Greymouth! But not this day. (I didn't try all that hard, I admit - there's Shantytown to explore, one day). Hokitika was more inviting, as I walked along the foreshore and back down crooked Revell St, trying to remind myself of the convoluted plot of The Luminaries and picture all those gold-rush barques stranded on the bar.

Finally there came the long drive south to Franz Josef and my room at the YHA. Cold-related low energy levels meant I called off a planned detour to beautiful Okarito, so instead I walked around the village, still relatively quiet in the pre-season, and spied a clever kea perched atop a tall tree, keeping lookout over the Waiho River's tumbling waters.

Cave Creek


Day 5: Franz Josef & Lake Matheson

Despite earnest preparations at no time on the West Coast was I bothered by its fearsome mosquitoes, but on this day I was definitely beset by traditional West Coast rain. But this wasn't a major impediment to my visit to the Franz Josef glacier in the morning; if anything, it helped because it meant the glacier valley wasn't disturbed by clattering helicopters every few minutes (they don't fly when it's that wet) and the combination of my Wellington rainwear and the sturdy umbrellas of the Eco Tour folks meant I kept nice and dry. Guide Cliff took me and a pleasant young couple from Hong Kong for a walk up the valley, on and off the tracks, to view the glacier as close as it's possible to get without being a proper climber. The glacier has retreated hundreds of metres since my last visit in the early 2000s, and Cliff was able to convey an interesting overview of the valley ecosystem and the glacier's life cycle.

After a couple of hours back in the warmth of the YHA and a dinner of Chinese takeaways, it was time for my second Eco Tour walk of the day, this time with Taranaki guide Rose, who took a pair of Hong Kong ladies, a young English backpacker and me for a dusk walk around the beautiful Lake Matheson reserve. The lake, which is famous for its glassy reflections, is surrounded by an impressive stand of pristine native bush as a reminder of the West Coast ecosystem before farmers came along and hacked much of it down for pastures. After a rewarding walk learning about ferns and fungi, we drove the 25km back to Franz Josef, arriving back to the village in the still, dark night.

Franz Josef Glacier

Lake Matheson at dusk

Day 6: Franz Josef > Fox Glacier > Haast > Wanaka

The rain had eased overnight, so my morning drive south to the Fox Glacier was decidedly more pleasant. The walk to view the Fox is more challenging than at Franz Josef, with the best view requiring a steep hill climb for the optimum vantage. All those daily stair climbs to level 8 at work finally proved useful! But given I saw an elderly woman on crutches doing the same walk, maybe it wasn't that big a deal after all. In the fine and warm conditions the valley had a splendid appearance, with sheer cliffs rising from the dead flat river plain and the jagged, dirty blue-black glacier boiling over the lip of the valley like an eruption.

On the long drive south I paused for lunch and some beachcombing at the sunny, wind-swept expanses of Bruce Bay and a brief detour to revisit the pretty campsite at Lake Paringa, which I remembered passing many years before. I also took a bloody-minded detour south of Haast to drive the long, isolated road to Jackson Bay, just to see what was down there. It turned out this was prime whitebaiting territory, with many jetties and fishing huts and a fine collection of utes south of the Arawhata River prospecting for the Coast's 'white gold'.

Then it was time to head inland through the Haast Pass, keeping an eye out for the fabled 15km/h corner warnings and entering the ranges that signalled the end of the West Coast and the beginnings of Central Otago. The road to Wanaka passes the stunning vistas of both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, so there was always the temptation to pull over for more photos. Finally I made it to sleepy Wanaka - I've always preferred its laidback charms to the more flashy atmosphere of Queenstown - for a night at the YHA.

Fox Glacier

Bruce Bay

Jackson Bay

Haast Pass

Day 7: Wanaka > Lyttelton

It was a sleepless night in the YHA dorm, thanks to both my headcold and the nocturnal ways of American retiree Bob, who proceeded to reorganise all his bags until late at night in preparation for an early departure, and then had to be shaken awake when his shuttle arrived at 7am. Hardly restful, but on the plus side the Wanaka weather was spectacular. This was the longest driving day of the trip, a northeasterly haul of 450km through the Lindis Pass to Christchurch, so there wasn't much opportunity to linger. Luckily I had covered much of this territory on a lower South Island road trip two years earlier, so I wasn't missing out.

There was time to pause for photos at the stunning Lindis Pass viewing area, before lunching at the one-horse town of Omarama, which was sweltering under temperatures I'd not yet seen on my trip. I managed brief detours for photos of Mt Cook from the shore of Lake Pukaki and of the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo, with the latter requiring a good deal of patience to get the shot without including the pair of Chinese tourists who lingered for what seemed an age bang in the middle of the frame. But this was far easier than my 2015 visit, when a tour bus of 40 passengers thronged the place and prevented any decent photos at all.

Aside from the excitement of trying to navigate through rush-hour traffic in sleepy Geraldine, where clearly no-one walks to work, it was a long, straight drive to Christchurch, with State Highway 1 noticeably packed with southbound traffic and many double tractor-trailer trucks, making passing mostly impossible. Then came the joys of the car-laden Christchurch traffic (you guys seriously need light rail, stat) to reach my destination for the night, an Air B'n'B room in the Lyttelton flat of two pleasant German chaps. Following an enjoyable walk along pretty London St and some dinner, I turned in early for the night, to try to beat my nagging cough.


Lindis Pass

Mt Cook Aoraki


Day 8: Lyttelton > Nelson

As the pretty morning sun lightened the crater valley I walked down to a bustling London St for scrambled eggs at the Shroom Room cafe, which I had enjoyed dining at during my Easter 2017 visit. As I had a long way to drive north, my only activity in Christchurch was revisiting the excellent Christchurch Art Gallery, where a fascinating Len Lye exhibition included half a dozen of his kinetic sculptures and a selection of his highly influential short films (including A Colour Box, Lambeth Walk, and N or N.W.). There were also appealing exhibitions of British artist Bridget Riley and Canterbury photographer Laurence Aberhart.

After taking lunch to the wild and windy Amberley Beach north of Christchurch, there was time for a brief detour to the North Canterbury hamlet of Hawarden, which I visited in January 2013 for a friend's wedding. Unsurprisingly, everything was shut! Then it was on northwards through the spectacular mountain scenery of the Lewis Pass, a route now overburdened with freight traffic thanks to the Kaikoura detour in place until December. A plaque halfway extolled the exploits of five European explorers who ventured through here (presumably with Maori guides) from 1860 onwards, and claimed that 'Cannibal Gorge was an important Maori east-west route'. Possibly no longer known by that name, I'm guessing.

Finally I made it to Nelson at dusk, in time for a walk around the town centre and a slap-up meal at the Turkish kebab shop on Bridge St, before listening to podcasts and turning in at the handily located YHA.

Len Lye kinetic sculptures

Lewis Pass near the St James walkway

Day 9: Nelson > Picton > Wellington

Rain covered the 80km drive to Picton, so there was little opportunity for sightseeing, but in Picton itself there was a treat as I revisited the superb Edwin Fox museum, which houses the hull of an 1853 merchantman that once brought colonists to New Zealand, troops to the Crimea and convicts to Australia. It's a must-see for those interested in maritime or colonial history - it's possible that Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimea aboard the ship. Then after lunch it was time to board a different, much larger vessel: the Kaitaki for the crossing back to Wellington. A sunnier day than the outbound journey was perfect for photographing Navy ships in the sound for the Katipo exercise, the West Wind turbines above the Wellington south coast and re-reading Alan Bennett's entertaining 2007 novella, The Uncommon Reader.

Edwin Fox hull, Picton

West Wind
See also:
Blog: Gold has been all-in-all to us, 4 October 2011
Blog: Bad meat & bad blood, 20 April 2011
BlogA Cook Strait tunnel, 16 April 2008

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