The Wild West Coast

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.

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.

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.

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.

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