West Coast and Canterbury parts of our New Zealand trip
by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 1, 2010
The scenic alpine route from Christchurch to the West Coast that leads through the Porters' and Arthur's Passes is spectacularly scenic, and crosses some excellent hill-walking land too. There are many short and day hikes in the vicinity of Arthur's Pass village, but perhaps the most unique and also very accessible site is twenty kilometres or so west from Springfield, just past the Porters' Pass towards the Arthur's Pass. It's called the Castle Hill, and it's an extensive area of limestone outcrops forming a veritable labyrinth on a hillside. We drive there from Springfield on a sunny and pleasantly warm day and spend at three hours there: but you can go for as little as half an hour and it will still be fun. We walk around, attempt bouldering, pose on and hide beneath the rocks which vary in size from small stones to larger than a house. The variety of shapes is fascinating: smooth, Henry-Mooresque, organic, the young sharp edges of just-cracked rock worn to flowing curves by the years of wind and water.To the side of the main three groups of outcrops is a raising hillside, with more boulders and a high ridge behind which one of the Narnia films was partially made. We set off to climb it rather fool-hardily. The path up is relatively short but extremely steep: at times I feel I am going to actually fall off backwards and luckily it is dry and we eventually make it: it is much higher than it appears, or at least it feels much higher. We scramble down (partially shuffling down on our bottoms, which is fun on the tussocks of grass and less fun when one hits a stone). After three hours in the sun on the hillside and all this hillwalking we are tired and sun-dazed, but the views were fabulous, the boulders fascinating and the whole experience a fitting last day to our whole New Zealand trip. Very much recommended if you are in the area and easily worth a day trip from Christchurch too.
Arthur's Pass is an every-day name for the State Highway 73, a road that was originally traced in 1865–66 to connect Christchurch to the West Coast goldfields. The road includes actually two two passes, the more famous and higher Arthur's Pass at over 900m and perhaps more beautiful but lower Porters' Pass at over 700m. The whole route is spectacularly scenic even in a country that does scenic on an everyday basis, and what makes it more attractive is the great variety of landscapes in what is a barley 200km stretch of a road that can be driven, if not stopping, in about three hours flat. But it's much better to devote a whole day to the Arthur's Pass, to allow time for photo and picnic stops, even if you don't include any proper hiking (or tramping as Kiwis would have it). Even better, spend some days exploring the Alpine glories of the high country on foot, or if you are a skier, take advantage of several ski fields in the eastern section of the route. The SH73 (also called the Great Alpine Highway) leads from Christchurch (Canterbury district) on the east coast to Greymouth/Hokitika on the west. We drove it west to east in late September, in a lovely, sunny and dry weather. The Arthur's Pass route branches off the main west coast highway between Hokitika and Greymouth, at a place called Kumara Junction and near a village called Kumara (one wonders what living in a place named "sweet potato" does to the inhabitants). It starts climbing, at first gently, and then much more steeply, through the Otira Gorge. The road itself is bendy but not particularly difficult, at least in our sunny conditions. But I have seen wind and snow warnings for this route and the road, as any alpine road, can be closed or limited in its opening, as well as requiring chains because of snow and ice. At first, it's a different landscape that I expected, with mountains still green and water-logged, and deep valleys: we are clearly still in the west, with its high rainfall and steep mountainsides covered in vegetation. The pass itself, with a formidable viaduct in a steeply-sided gorge, and a waterfall streaming over a specially constructed tunnel-bridge inside which cars travel, feels wild and desolate: at over 900m above the sea level it's a true high country, and the falling darkness makes it even more atmospheric. After the pass things change very noticeably: the eastern side of the mountains is strikingly drier, with the lush woods replaced by tussock grass. The night falls as we drive across the Waimakariri River, with the dusk pink and saphire and the Evening Star shining incredibly brightly above us. The land between Arthur's Pass and Porters Pass is a real alpine paradise with ski fields and fantastic walking country as well as some good caves. The road itself is wildly scenic in the manner that the South Island makes one quite complacent about: wild-looking mountains covered in reddish-yellow, tufty tussocks of grass, regular sequence of triangles like from a child's drawing, with snowy tops shining in the blazing sun. Twenty kilometers or so, before the high country thrills finish past the supendous curve of the Porters' Pass, there is Castle Hill Basin, a lovely area surrounded by mountain ranges, and with a an extensive area of limestone outcrops in its centre. The rocks form a veritable labirynth on a hillside, and a magnificent place for a walk, be it a ten minute stroll, a spot of bouldering or a more energetic and longer but less skilled climb to the top of the ridge where the boulders finish.After that, Porters' Pass and then a quick drive to Springfield and then on to Christchurch through flat farmland.
We arrive in Christchurch two days after the big Sep-2010 earthquake. We stay in a suburb that has hardly been affected, but the city as a whole is still in a state of (excuse the pun) shock. Not only psychologically, but also literally: smaller and bigger aftershocks are still felt, like a rumble in the foundations, some like a large lorry passing by or somebody slamming a heavy door, and one or two get rather scary: a real, sharp jolt or two, the power going out for a few minutes, and then the wait – will there be another, bigger one? I can't imagine what it must be for people who lived through the disastrous one on Saturday. The city is a little bit eerie, empty, obviously shaken (excuse the pun), the CBD still cordoned off and the public buses are not running, as buildings are being checked. But the Kiwi spirit seems to be holding up pretty well, the lack of casualties shows how important both luck (the quake hit at 4.30am) and good planning and regulations (NZ has strict building standards) are: the NZ quake was actually stronger than the one that ravaged Haiti and yet not a single life was lost.The earthquake and its aftermath make one realise how new New Zealand is. New, quite obviously, because the European colonisation is a fairly recent phenomenon (150 years roughly), just as - and yet quite differently – it was in Australia. But it's also new in relative terms - the Maoris only arrived here about 800 years ago from Polynesia, as opposed to the Aboriginal people in Australia, who have been living there for 40,000 years plus. But New Zealand is also new geologically, very much a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (cf the earthquake): not an old, parched and eroded continent ground down to red dust by the millennia, but a sharp and jagged rocky island still frequently shaken up by the volcanic and seismic activity.Altogether, it seems incredibly different from Australia. The colours are different too: lost of green, blues of all kinds, silvery greys and greyinsh blues. There was no mammals in New Zealand before the Pakeha arrived. There is no venomous creatures. And as you look out from the East Coast, the next land is Antarctic.
The practicalities of the West Coast are fairly simple: most people drive the whole route themselves either in a car or a camper van, although I have seen many tour buses disgorging young backpackers at several stops on the route. You can also use a public transport (train or bus from Christchurch to Greymouth, then bus) to travel along the west coast road, although the service beyond Fox Glacier towards Haast and Central Otago seems more erratic. Surprisingly, we have not seen any hitch-hikers, at least going our way, but there is a fair amount of traffic and hitch-hiking should be easy, especially going north-south. There is a train from Christchurch to Greymouth which crosses the Southern Alps on a route sightly different from the road. The distances involved are not particularly long (which is a nice thing about New Zealand: everywhere is not only scenic but quite near to everywhere else). It's about 600km from the Wanaka area to Christchurch via the Arthur's Pass, but Greymouth to Haast is only 314km (add 100km if you want to detour north to see the famous Pancake Rocks): easily driven in half a day, even factoring in a couple of short stops/walks, although to give the area any kind of justice you need at least a couple of days. In fact, considering the weather, I would allocate more than that to the West Coast, to give it a chance for at least half day of not raining. The optimal schedule would depend on the rest of your time in New Zealand as well as on your interests and manner of travel. If self-driving, I would suggest doing the route from the south to the north, which is what we did. We saw much more traffic the opposite way to the one we took, although obviously it could have been a coincidence. But even if it's not true, I think there are advantages here: you are likely to be less tired on the most interesting part of the route, and you are more likely to have some flexibility around the glaciers (and this is where you want it, for weather reasons if nothing else). If you are not camping, Haast and Franz Josef are expensive accommodation wise, but their central location is such and advantage that you are bound to need a place in or near one of the accommodation: do your research and maybe even book before departure to get a chance of a better value place. Fox and Franz Josef are also centres of all the "tourist activities", from normal walks to helicopter rides. There are many walks ranging from short half-hour loops to whole or even several-day hikes, all covered in local maps and leaflets available from tourist information centres. The only way to walk ON the actual glacier is with a guided group (think close to 100 NZD per 3 hour walk minimum), but you can walk to within 100m of the face for free. Past Franz Josef there is more development, plenty of small resort or semi-resort type villages, but also less interest. I would suggest stopping somewhere between Hokitika and Greymouth and using a whole day (or more) for crossing the Southern Alps. Arthur's Pass has some fantastic walking options, and the Castle Hill area of limestone outcrops near Porter's Pass further on towards Christchurch on the same road is pretty amazing too. Lewis' Pass has Hamner Springs, which are great too.
Stretching in a relatively narrow strip along most of the western coast of the South Island, between the Southern Alps (one often despairs the colonists' lack of imagination when naming geographical features) and the Tasman Sea, the district of the West Coast is one of the wilder and less developed parts of the country. The standard route goes from Greymouth or Hokitika (the settlements on the West Coast that mark the crossing of the Southern Alps from Christchurch by Lewis' or Arthur's Passes) to Haast (to cross the mountains by Haast Pass) and then on to Wanaka. The road along the coast was only completed in 1965, and the final bit of tarmac did not appear on the Haast Pass until 1995. ***At first, we drive by Dunstan lake north and then the road starts following the shore of Lake Hawea, which, surrounded by even more dramatically picturesque mountains that Lake Wakatipu, looks utterly stunning in the sunshine. The wind is trying to blow our heads off as we eat our sandwiches on a very blustery gravel beach. The water s covered in little choppy waves, the clouds are racing, the dark massifs of craggy mountains streaked and topped with blazingly white snow face us, while the hills behind are more rounded and lower. A thinks it's a bit like the West Coast of Scotland. There is nobody here, and hardly a car passes on the road. Even the sheep are, blissfully (albeit temporarily) gone. We cross the Southern Alps via the lowest of the passes, the Haast pass. The change in landscape and vegetation is couldn't be more striking, and is underlined by the weather today. As we leave Otago and enter the West Coast (as well as Mount Aspiring National Park), the blustery sunshine is replaced by an apparently normal West Coast state of overcast and rain varying from pouring to drizzle. The sheep disappear again, the road is now running in a - nomen omen - rainforest, a temperate one uncannily similar to the one we travelled through on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The rock face to the left of the car is often enveloped in sheets of flowing water, and the hill sides covered in curly vegetation, peering from behind the mist, form a background for numerous waterfalls cascading down the mountain side. Some of these waterfalls are lower down, and accessible from the road, and we stop by a couple for a look and a photo. The Haast pass itself is at slightly above 500m, and has some snow on the roadside, but the black ice warnings are groundless and we uneventfully descend on the western side of the mountains, by the wide gravel bed of the river Haast. Haast itself (or rather the three separate settlements that bear that name with different suffixes) is hardly a village, more like scattering of a farm and tourist-service buildings. We get fish and chips in a strange hotel-cum-bar-cum take away decorated with giant moose and deer heads (I do a double take, but no, we are not back in Canada) and, disappointed in quantity but fairly satisfied with quality, drive on across the long, low bridge across the river Haast and onto what is officially the Glacier Highway.We are about eighty miles from the glaciers though and we are driving through a wild land indeed. That is, wild, if you forget the metalled road with cats' eyes and side posts, frequent camping and picnic spots with warnings about rubbish, fires and even occasionally a loo as well as an ever-present danger of livestock appearing in a field round the corner. But fields don't appear for a while and the woolly rainforest surrounds the road in its rich, yellowy, almost reddish greens. We cross many streams in deep, vegetation-covered gorges and can still see the coast every so often, and we stop at Knight's Point to admire rocky outcrops and black cliff falling into the Tasman Sea and at Bruce Bay to look at an amazing driftwood-strewn beach. The sea, is, strangely, blueish green despite the grey cloud and white mist descending lower and lower. The road veers inland after Bruce Bay and the livestock reappears as land along the road flattens out a bit. We drive into the settlement and the tourist centre of Fox Glacier in the dark, but as we pass the turn-off for the glacier itself, we can see it - just- a faint eerie pale glow on the mountain side in the gully raising above the road side. We stop at in a cabin at the Fox Glacier Holiday Park (very overpriced but adequate for a resort: try somewhere else if you can afford it or better yet, don't stop in Fox) and hope for less rain tomorrow: we want to see the grand Cloud Piercer of Aoraki (Mt Cook).We wake up in Fox Glacier to a morning that is cloudy, misty and overcast. Mt Cook is somewhere up there, but we can't see it. Still, a quick drive to and walk around the famous Matheson Lake is due, although chances for a postcard-pretty reflection snap are very slim: instead we get moody clouds. Nice lake, nevertheless.We backtrack a bit towards the Fox Glacier itself and instead of walking up to the face of it, get a view from a distance. It's raining - sort of, but with a hope of clearing, maybe, later. We traipse up a hillside for about half an hour of a path to a higher lookout, but a wide and rumbling stream to deep to ford and too wide to jump blocks our way. The rain grows, so we turn back without too much regret. Twenty-odd kilometres on is Franz Josef, the second of the tourist-trap villages as well as the other of the West Coast glaciers: a noticeably bigger and more impressive one than Fox. In fact, both of them are quite impressive, particularly the fact that they come down so low into the temperate zone instead of staying at the usual Alpine glacier heights. Franz Josef is sunny for us which makes a nice change as well as instantly beautifying the waterfalls coming down the wooded hillsides with a sparkle. We climb up steep but very well maintained path to the lookout at the Sentinel Rock and marvel at the great tongue of dirty ice worming its way down the steep, narrow valley. Higher up, the rocks and sand on top disappear and all we see is a wrinkled sheet of blazing blue ice. I wonder about fascination that glaciers hold: A doesn't like them, but I think them wonderful and would, in other circumstances, even pay to walk on one (another of the countless "adventure pursuits" the very efficient NZ tourist industry offers). I think it's the knowledge that those things actually create the landscape, or a large part of it, that surrounds us; plus the sheer size of them. Sleeping ice dragons. From Franz Josef (a tourist service town full of overpriced cafes and tour operators) we get a last look at the huge tent of Mt Cook, now almost completely visible up above us. The weather stays sunny and the road meanders up and down through a country increasingly more developed than the area between Haast and Fox. The mountains are still there, slightly lower at least by the road side, lushly forested, brimming with green life. We decide to go the whole hog and drive through Arthur's Pass today: we pass the seaside town of Hokitika and turn inland and towards Arthur's Pass at Kumara Junction.
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