So we worked our way down the West Coast, en route to Queenstown, and our first port of call was Punakaiki, or Pancake Rocks. These weathered limestone formations are one of the finest examples worldwide of a geological process called Stylobedding. They resemble stacks and stacks of pancakes…
Further down we took a turn inland, climbing steeply to Arthur’s Pass. Our wee van almost didn’t make it, overheating on the crazy incline, at the bottom of which a sign said: “Otira Gorge – No Towing”! The landscape around Arthur’s Pass National Park is high Alpine, and very rugged and beautiful, with steep-sided valleys, and sharp peaks rising thousands of feet above the bushline. We camped in the free DOC sites nearby, and picked up a couple of hitchhikers: 2 mice, who for 3 nights in a row kept us awake, and ruined our food, until an upturned Chinese carton and a piece of chorizo served as a make shift trap and one of them was swiftly dispatched out the door. The other we didn’t see again. 3 sleepless nights, coupled with fighting off the Kea during the day left us utterly exhausted. The Kea are part of the parrot family, but they are very big, measuring nearly 50m in length, and they love to scrape their claws on metal roofs, tear open rubbish bags and rip apart windscreen wipers, as we discovered!
Even though we were exhausted, we were determined to make the best of our time in Arthur’s Pass, and began climbing Avalanche Peak via Scott’s track. After several hours of being battered by the wind and rain, we gave up, within 200m climb of the summit. As disappointing as it felt, by the time we’d got back down, the storm was well and truly in, so we made the call just in time. It’ll still be there another day.
We drove back down the Otira Gorge (oh, how we love the smell of burning brakes) and went further South down the coast to Hokitika. They had had a beach sculpture competition called Driftwood and Sand on all week, and we arrived in time to see all the displays before the tides got them. Some were intricate (like a Penguin House), some huge (like a 2.5 metre cube), and some just plain funny (like a 6 foot giraffe).
Further South again we drove through Ross, an old Gold Mining town. We didn’t find any ourselves, but after soaking up a bit of history we headed on and encountered a 6 foot Sand Fly. The normal 6mm sand flies are a major annoyance: The males live on tree sap and flowers, but the female needs protein to lay her eggs and she is the one that bites. Sound familiar… This particular Sand Fly was attached to the outside of the Bushman’s Centre, a rustic building with eccentric owners and an eclectic collection of all things weird and wonderful. Carvings, artwork, sculpture, furs, you name it. They even collect Possum roadkill, and turn them in to Possum Pies. These used to be for sale, until the New Zealand government banned the sale of possum meat. So now if you donate $4, they’ll give you one for free! One of the most amusing things was a collection of letters of complaint about their serving roadkill, and their sarcastic responses, proudly on display for everyone’s enjoyment.
Next on our journey was a stop off at the Glaciers. Franz-Joseph Glacier and Fox Glacier are two townships on the West Coast, and rising above them from almost sea level is the central section of the Southern Alps. They rise to a height of over 3,700 metres, and the valleys above these towns are still being shaped by the huge glaciers that flow down from these high, jagged peaks. We took a cloudy but pleasant stroll up to the face of the Franz-Joseph glacier, and spent most of our time being enthralled by the spectacular landscape. Some of the waterfalls are hundreds of metres high, and the cliffs are just begging to be climbed. The glacier itself disappeared some 2,500m up into the cloud to its beginnings in the nevé below the summit of Mount Tasman. We spent that evening wandering round the beautiful Lake Matheson, renowned for its great reflections, before parking up with other travellers with an awe-inspiring view of the whole range as the cloud lifted and the glaciers and snow-capped peaks came into view.
Sadly the weather beat us again, and a land slip had closed the access road to the Fox Glacier, so we pushed on South, heading through Haast and up into Mount Aspiring National Park. There we spent a wet 2 days as we passed through, seemingly in the eye of another Alpine storm the whole time. The rivers were high, and the narrow one-lane bridges provided ample opportunity to appreciate their power as the raging torrent thundered underneath.
The following day the weather was much improved, and we drove the last hundred kilometres to Wanaka in hot sunshine, along the side of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, with stunning backdrops of chains of jagged mountains, their profile like a saw, and deep valleys still in shadow.
In Wanaka we dived into the lake, realised it was ice cold, and jumped straight back out again. We also investigated Puzzling World, a must if you are ever there. It houses a collection of optical illusions, tricks, puzzles and other things similarly cool. We spent several hours getting lost in the giant maze, trying every puzzle in the café, being amazed by the following faces, and defying gravity.