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.