The west coast lived up to its reputation most of the time for us with rain, drizzle and wind but we managed to get good weather in the right places. We headed south down the coast visiting lots of old gold mining areas because we can’t resist all those tunnels. The first one was one of the best, the Charming Creek walkway, which followed an old rail line that had been build through a wild gorge. We had tunnels, old machinery and to cap it off a superb waterfall.
We timed our visit to Pancake Rocks with high tide and they performed for us in the rough seas. We followed a walk up a canyon and visited some of the local sights – Truman track leading to a colourful curved cliff and a huge sea cave that used to be used by the maoris. We revisited Pancake Rocks at low tide in better weather but not performing well.
Maori sea cave
At high tide
At low tide
The wild weather causes the sea to create lots of foam which is rich in nutrients but also is fascinating to watch as it gloops its way onto the shore and flubs over rocks. Another pretty waterfall and then a visit to a secret beach as recommended by our guidebook and only able to be accessed at low tide. It gave us lots of sea stacks, holes in rocks and arches and as the tide retreated, rock shelves covered with huge mussels and clusters of starfish.
More gold mining tunnels, tailraces dug out by hand that were 10 metres deep and a recreated site where NZ’s worst mining disaster occurred with the loss of 67 lives in 1896. We visited Hokitika where their sign was looking a little lopsided. It is the home of jade (greenstone) carvers on the coast and we took a tour but only saw someone putting holes in pieces. It also shares its name with the river which slowly flows through a gorge giving it a chance to show off its amazing turquoise colour even in the rain. The rain also caused Dorothy Falls to thunder though they quickly dropped overnight with no rain.
We finally had good weather in the morning when we were at Franz Josef glacier so we quickly made us dash to Lake Matheson to catch the almost perfect reflections. The clouds started coming over again soon after as we visited the two glaciers. We found the less visited Fox glacier much more impressive as we got closer to the snout and didn’t have those annoying helicopters flying overhead delivering tourists to their glacier walk.
Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef glacier
Gillespies Beach is a free campsite with a view of the mountains that is apparently packed in summer. We didn’t have the crowds but we only got glimpses of the mountains until we were driving out the next morning.
Everyone went to the beach to watch the sunset
Mt La Perouse
After watching the whitebait fishermen (and women) all down the coast we finally stopped to try some. There is only a ten week season to catch them and lots of people spend the whole time fishing. Lots sell their catch (for $100 kg) and others freeze it to feast on during the year. Some have permanent shacks and structures to put out their nets and have to pay an annual fee while those who walk the rivers with their nets do it for free. We bought our pattie from an authentic shed on the river bank made with whitebait caught the previous day. They mix the fish with egg and fry it and serve it on white bread. We added some salt, pepper and lemon and were surprised to find it had a very subtle fishy flavour as we were expecting something much stronger. We are glad we tried but won’t go out of our way to have more.
We left the west coast via the Haast Pass which brought back memories of our last trip through after 200mm of rain fell overnight at Fox Glacier. On that occasion the river filled the banks while this time it was a narrow band of water with large shingle beds. We camped on the way through with the sand flies and explored some extra side canyons.
Thunder Ck Falls
Thunder Ck Falls 2004
Fantail Falls 2004
Gates of Haast
Gates of Haast 2004
Mountains from Pleasant Flat
Mountains from Pleasant Flat
With a good forecast (our usual criteria for setting off on a walk) we got ourselves organized to walk the Heaphy Track. The selling point for this track is that it is varied and it certainly lived up to that with each day having a different setting. The hardest part with the Heaphy (and the part that Ray didn’t like) is that it is 460km by road from one end to the other. Ray nearly opted out and said he’d drive around and collect me but he thought I might fall over and hurt myself! We found the option that suited us best was to pay a local service that would drive your car to the other end and this ended up working very well for us. We had to take five days instead of four to fit in with another group and this also worked as our extra night was at our favourite hut and setting as featured above on the frosty morning. The first day was a very steady climb to Perry Saddle Hut and in fact the whole track was always at a very easy gradient as it was originally surveyed for a road. We got a shock with a couple of minor steep pinches on the last day as we were used to the easy hills. We were surprised by warning signs for snails but they were to protect the snails not us. We did see one but it wasn’t a giant one as some grow to a shell the size of a fist.
Day two saw us out of the trees and into the downs, high areas of grassland though not alpine. It reminded me of our high country and was very picturesque. A boot tree was a feature of the day with slippers and old boots with the nailed on soles. We ended at Saxon Hut where a visit from a helicopter (three times) enlivened the peaceful afternoon. Unfortunately there are reports of a missing helicopter in the area this week and I’m afraid it might be this one.
Our frosty morning was warmed by the morning sun as we strolled on to the next hut which was perched on the edges of the hills looking down to our next destination, the Heaphy river mouth.
We set off down hill through a pretty forest to meet the Heaphy and the next sandfly surrounded hut. The bridge across the river was very impressive and led us into a different world. The walk by the river took us through a nikau palm forest that gave it a tropical feel though the weather didn’t back it up. We ended at the Heaphy hut, yet another brand new hut with all the mod cons – bunks with mattresses, gas fires and solar powered lights. This was set overlooking the beach at the mouth of the river and we made it just in time to beat the afternoon rain.
Heaphy river bridge
Nikau palm forest
The last day promised rain but it had all fallen previously and all we saw were showers. It made for a lovely walk along the coast through nikau forest, across beaches with warnings against waves ( we were not at high tide when three people were washed away in 1980), swing bridges over raging torrents and one last hill to keep us on our toes. The final swingbridge gave us a rollercoaster ride and swayed alarmingly in the wind that was channelled up the river valley but finally we were reunited with our car with a bonus apple.
We were now in the Karamea area on the west coast, an area that has been bypassed by the tourists as it it on a 100 km dead end road. We made the most of being in the area by visiting it’s fantastic limestone arches. It had hailed during the night and as we headed up the road in the morning there was more and more hail on the road until it looked like snow. The van almost made it to the top but slipped on the last hill and we were stuck. Ray tried to back to a safe place to leave the car but it ended up on a soft spot off the road. After I walked and ran back down the hill I found a helpful 4WD driver who pulled us back on the road with ease. By now the hail was slushier and easier to drive on but we were taking no chances and turned the van before parking and walking the last three km to the walks.
We walked to Oparara Arch and were amazed at the size of it. The river runs through and it is a huge cavernous space where we had to bypass the ‘Do not pass this point’ sign to explore and try to capture in photography. The rain had caused numerous drips and even a waterfall through a hole in the roof.
We then completed a loop walk past Mirror Tarn and over and under Moria Gate Arch, a much smaller but pretty arch.