January 8-12 South Island
Abel Tasman and West Coast
Our ferry to the South Island is called the Kaitaki and carries 1600 passengers and 600 cars. She was fully booked this morning and you could certainly tell ...people, big and little, everywhere.
There are basically two passenger decks, with food services on both – a large cafeteria and several coffee bars that also serve sandwiches, sweets, etc. There is a bar/ lounge, a children’s playroom and cinemas. The cinemas were closed, to the consternation to the 5-12 aged crowd. Finding themselves with nothing to sedate them, they burnt off energy chasing each other from deck to deck. So it seemed like there were three times as many hobbits flying about as there probably were.
It was a three-hour trip and it passed very quickly. Looking at the map, there really doesn’t seem to be that much open water to cross over. What seems to take the time is the passage through all the small islands as you approach the South Island. Of necessity, the ship passes through them very slowly. It’s a scenic passage, no time to get bored.
The sky was blue for the most part, with clouds now and again. They came and went all day. At moments the sky appeared to be all blue, then you looked five minutes later and there was total cloud cover. The weather systems pass over this island very quickly. Have never been any place that so fully epitomizes the quip, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”
We landed in Picton, a pretty little port town. The ferry slip is right alongside a city park with a myriad of things for kids to do. There is a playground and a small midway. A miniature train with an old guy playing engineer chugs around, 20 cents a turn. You can also rent boats to sail on the pond there, 20 cents each for as long as you like. No, the boats are not remote controlled. They are powered by the wind. Seems like we’ve found a gentler time and place.
Sunny day, a bench on the beach ...begs an ice cream cone and we found them at a little orange trailer in the park. $1.50 for a “single” scoop cone that is pretty much all you can eat. It was very hard to find an actual ice cream cone in Australia, but here they are everywhere. Very fine ice cream too.
With no plan at all, we set off down the back road to Blenheim. This road winds up and down through the mountains, dipping into a myriad of picturesque little bays along the way. They have the largest, most beautiful fern-palms here – similar to what we saw in Australia, but different. Makes for a rich, lush, and jungle-like landscape.
Spent the evening consulting the map and making a plan. Come morning we are going to head for the northwest then drive down the west coast to the middle and cross over towards Christchurch through Arthur’s Pass. That’s the first week – as far as we need to plan ahead.
Come morning we took Hwy 6 to Nelson and Motueka. Along the way we stopped at some very pretty beaches. Everything was going exceedingly well until we stopped for lunch at a picturesque little bay ...and the sand flys found us. By the time we realized it, they had already gotten quite a few good ones in. Drove me crazy trying to itch my feet while I was driving.
There is a big controversy here on the west coast. A German tourist crossed the centre line and caused a fatal accident. Concerned citizens are trying to get a law passed that says tourists must take a driving course here in New Zealand before they are allowed to drive. They think the accident was because the tourist forgot what side of the road to drive on and a course will cement that into his brain.
But the sand flies are legendary here and I respectfully suggest that more accidents are caused by people trying to itch sand fly bites on their feet and legs than by forgetting which side of the road to drive on.
Arrive, finally, in Motueka, a small town on the ocean where we have booked into a cabin ...this is truly like summer camp ...tiny little cabins all parked one on top of each other. So much so I can smell the neighbour’s cigarette smoke when she sits on her stoop. But the cabin has everything we need, is spotlessly clean, and only $36 per night.
Up this morning and off to the top of the northwest corner of the South Island – Golden Bay to the east, the Tasman Sea to the West. We were going to head right up to the tip at Collingwood, but were waylaid when we drove into Kaiteriteri.
This small resort town is the front door of the Abel Tasman Park. The park is a mecca for sturdy looking outdoor types – hikers and bikers and kayakers striding around in huge, clunky hiking boots. Lots of hairy legs and faces. We didn’t believe it would be accessible to us, with my inhibited walking right now ...but not so.
We discovered that we could take the sea taxi from one end of the park to the other, visiting many of the beautiful little bays and beaches ...for only $55. The taxi has a neat bridge off the back that in most cases, the driver lowers directly onto the beach sand, so there is no need to get wet ...most of the time. The trip up and back takes 4-5 hours.
The full extent of the park foreshore has developed trails, followed by walkers from bay to bay to bay. Some of the walks are as short as one hour, the longest four hours. Walkers or “trampers” as this kind of activity is termed here, book the water taxi to drop them off at one point and pick them up at another. In other cases, people book kayaks to complete specific segments of the route.
In our case we opted to take the water taxi up to Tonga Bay where we got off to explore for an hour, then got back on and rode back to Kaiteriteri again. We noticed that the beaches closer to Kaiteriteri look a lot like Waikiki, wall-to-wall tanning bodies, beach umbrellas, and kids boogy boarding in the surf. But the further on up you go, the less people you encounter. At Tonga Bay, where we stopped, we were alone until a party of four kayakers, in their 60s at least, came ashore. They had a camp up in the bush a bit and were kayaking through the area, staying over for the night in the park.
It was a lovely day – weather warm and sunny, but not too hot.
While in the area, we also drove north to Takaka ...an arty little town about half way up the coastline. Incredible drive up there ...literally up, up, up and over a very high mountains and then back down them again. This is the area that was used for Chetwood Forest in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The mountains we passed through and the ranges to the west of us were truly awesome in size and appearance. It was an exciting drive.
Today we left Motueka and headed south and then west, down Hwy 6. This brought us to the foot of awe-inspiring mountains and into lush, fertile valleys. We crossed through the Buller Gorge, a narrow cut through the mountain range by the Buller River. I hesitate to say which mountain range because when I look at the map, range runs into range runs into range. This is all mountainous territory.
This is also earthquake territory with a quake measuring some 7.8 on the Richter Scale tearing through here in 1929. You can still see where the earth heaved and slipped away.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is the area of Dimrill Dale. Must confess that I was not a huge LOR fan before this trip. Yes, I have seen every minute of the trilogy – except the bits where I fell asleep. But after seeing the land they were made in, I know I want to see them again. There is something about the vastness of the vistas ...this landscape is the natural setting for Tolkien’s visions of Middle Earth. I get it now.
Shortly after Murchison we came to Swing Bridge. This is a very long and narrow suspension bridge over a river gorge. For $5 you can cross it ...yes, we PAID real money to do this! Once on the other side there are trails to follow – lovely, lush, rainforest-type scenery. There is lots of abandoned and rusting out mining equipment as well, since this was the site of a goldrush in the 1800s. In fact, mining of one sort or another continued right up to recent years. I was reading in the local paper, that not too far away, near Arrowtown, a fellow came upon a very large nugget just last week. They figure the nugget is worth about $8,000, so it’s not over yet.
For the return across the gorge you can either gird up your courage and re-cross the suspension bridge, or reach into your wallet and choose to cross Superman style. You do this by allowing yourself to be harnessed into a zip line then cross the gorge on your belly – arms flung wide like Superman. This will cost you $35. If you just want to sit in a seat and zing across you can do this for $25. If you would like a CD with video and stills of your amazing feat, that is another $20. The cheap, but more importantly, timid Ushers walked back across the gorge.
Further along the road we came to Westport, a mid-sized town a few km from the ocean. We enjoyed a light lunch there. I ordered a hot dog ...and to my surprise got a deep fried wiener on a stick. Oh well.
From Westport we headed north to Karamea. The travel guide we are using, “Rough Guide” was very negative about this area but we have the time and Steve wanted to have a look, something about “the biggest spiders in the world” in the caves up there ...so we headed north.
Lovely drive again through pretty valleys and grand mountain passes. Came eventually to the sleepy little town of Karamea. Checked into the caravan park here and have a roomy cabin for $35. Those are New Zealand dollars too!
There is a big queen-sized bed as well as two bunks, a stove and fridge, toaster and kettle. There is a good-sized kitchen table and chairs. In the campers kitchen there is everything else you need from pots to microwaves and freezers. There is a lounge and games room with television, and a laundry.
In the morning we set off up the coast in a northerly direction towards Kohaihai. Along the way we drive 16 km inland to Box Canyon and Crazy Paving Caves. These are just a short walk from the car park ...too short really as I was really enjoying the lush, semi-tropical rainforest. Just a jungle of ferns and palms and super-saturated greenery.
The first cave, Crazy Paving Caves was quite interesting. It is famous for having these huge spiders. Well .....we have bigger spiders at home thank you very much. These are only medium-sized spiders.
Then we walked over to the Box Canyon Cave and there was a steep staircase descending down into a very dark cave. There is no lighting other than the torch you carry – in our case, we each had a tiny little toy torch with an AA battery ...on its way out. I don’t really like caves much so I gave Steve my torch for added light and stayed at the entrance, standing guard.
Against what? Well, against the weka bird for one thing. This pesky brown bird, the size of a brown hen had attached itself to us as soon as we arrived in the carpark. I guess it is accustomed to people feeding it and we didn’t. When Steve held out his hand towards it, the weka pecked him! Then when I left the car door open for a moment the bird jumped inside with its muddy feet and trounced all over the place looking for food. In the boot ...you stupid bird! But he was cute. Anywhere we went, down a walkway, off to a cave, out to the toilet ...that bird faithfully followed us.
Steve also hiked to Oparara Arch and a little further down the road, to Maria Gate Arch. Each of these hikes is about an hour, but well worth the effort as the geological formations and the terrain are beautiful.
From there we continued back up to Kohaihai where we planned to take the Nikau Walk to Scotts Hill Lookout. By then, however, it was literally pouring with rain. As I didn’t have hiking boots and the trail was a mudpit I decided to stay in the car. Steve followed the track for about 15 minutes but then turned back because he was slip sliding all over the place in the mud, the rain was slipping under his jacket ...and he wondered what on earth he was doing out there.
But the terrain looked magnificent ...all misty mountains and rushing rivers. There are masses of bright orange flowers alongside the roads everywhere.
Back in the car we headed south till we found a cafe with cappuccinos. We thoroughly enjoyed excellent coffee, fresh-from-the-oven muffins: banana-boysenberry-chocolate chip and a good read through the newspaper in this cosy cafe. It never fails to amaze me that the issues in one country are exactly the same as the issues in another country. Rarely does the news change except in the details. It also reinforces the understanding that there really are no greener pastures. Canada is a damn fine place to call home.
Happy tummys once again, we continued south to Westport. There we took the 67A diversion to Cape Foulwind, Touranga Bay and the Seal Colony. This was a very worthwhile diversion with magnificent ocean vistas, surf crashing on rugged rock formations, miles of clean sandy beaches. Steve saw lots of seals at Touranga Bay while I walked the beach and came on some very interesting little blue jelly fish. These little fellas had a sail attached to the top of them that they were using to sail themselves into shore.
Did I mention ice cream? Yes there was a caravan with ice cream cones at the beach. There always is in New Zealand. I think it must be written into their constitution or something. Every town has a clean public toilet and every town has an ice cream outlet. Most beaches too – they drag a caravan out to the beach or park and serve it from there. You can absolutely rely on getting an ice cream fix in New Zealand.
Heading south again we were totally blown away by the ocean vistas between Westport and Greymouth. I have seen the Great Ocean Road in Australia and Big Sur in California and this is right up there ...in contention for the most scenic ocean drive in the world.
Yet they don’t advertise it. There are virtually no tourist brochures here. In Australia the tourism publications industry is huge ....every time you go into an info centre there you walk out lugging a bag full of paper ...but here in New Zealand the visitor centre staff person takes you to a big map on the wall and point out stuff ...then scribble a few directions on a post-it note.
Oh well. When I asked the lady here at the holiday park what they call the coast here ...she looked at me strangely.
“Why it’s the west coast.”
“Yes, I know that, but don’t you have a snazzy name for it like ‘Coral Coast’ or ‘Wild Coast’ or ‘Golden Coast’ or....”
“Nope, just west coast.”
They do signpost a lovely area known as Pancake Rocks and Blowhole. It’s an area of quite outstanding rock formations – bring to mind the Bungle Bungles, but on a much smaller scale. It’s a fifteen-minute walk around the path and to all the lookouts. Well worth taking.
So ...we are at our cabin at the Top Ten here in Greymouth. This cabin is $45 and it is huge – two rooms. The bedroom has a queen sized bed and tons of room for our clothes. Then the “front” room has a single bed, cupboards and a large table and chairs. Perfect for working on our photos and sorting stuff out.
The park is right on the water, but we’ve already had our fill of walking on beaches for today.