September 24, 2012

Road Trippin’ The West Coast

Whether it deserves the highest recognition or not, the South Island’s West Coast is probably the most popular of all New Zealand tourist destinations. I didn’t even realize what a broad spectrum of things that we saw until I sat down to write this...

Eight of New Zealand’s most popular hiking trails are classified as “Great Walks”. The Great Walks usually take 3-4 days to complete and have huts for sleeping along the trail. We didn’t have 3 days to dedicate to one hike, so we decided to sample sections of a couple of different Great Walks. Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most popular, particularly because it’s easy to combine hiking the bush and kayaking the blue waters into one trip.

We started with a 6-hour kayak along the southern end of the Abel Tasman track from Marahau to Stillwater Bay.

The stretch of coast that we kayaked is notoriously crowded, but we only ever saw 3 other kayaks the entire time. Oh, the joys of traveling during the shoulder season! It was peaceful and beautiful.

Adele Island lies just offshore and harbors a colony of fur seals. From water level in our kayak, we observed them for a good hour while they played, contorted, and spun themselves right in front of us. We were so close we could have reached out and touched them with our paddles.

We followed that up with a 5-hour hike along the northern end of the Abel Tasman track from Totaranui to Separation Point. Once again, complete solitude on one of the most popular tracks in the country. The most company we had all day was when we rounded a corner and ran straight into a hissing seal who had made his way up onto the trail. He scared the bejesus out of us!

We’d hike through the rainforest bush, pop out onto a white sand beach, head back into the bush, and just kept alternating like that the entire way.

The highlight was definitely the turn-around at stunning Separation Point.

Before saying goodbye to Abel Tasman, we had to make a stop at Rawhiti Cave. This is where special lighting circumstances have given way to…oh, I don’t know...millions of stalactites. The pictures just don’t do this place justice. You can’t even begin to see all of the tiny little ones, which are jostled in-between the medium-sized ones, which are dwarfed by the large ones in this picture.

As with the North Island, there are countless short hikes along the roadside that we found too enticing. We did the quick and easy Grove Scenic Reserve jungle hike just in time for a gorgeous sunset. 

We also hit up the Charming Creek Walkway, which leads you through timber and coal mining ruins, past waterfalls, and over swing bridges. 

After these fun little distractions, we were finally making our way down famed SH6.

In between the two West Coast anchor towns of Westport and Greymouth, there’s a terrific stop at one of New Zealand’s most touristy spots, Pancake Rocks.

These layered rock formations are interesting enough on their own, but at high tide things get interesting. The scary West Coast waves begin to pound and the blowholes go OFF!

The ground rumbles as the water bursts through the rocks. Instead of running as the water was coming after us, we stuck out our tongues. Pancake Rocks are to be seen, heard, felt, and tasted!

Further south, we started getting into glacier territory. We could tell because the rivers are the most amazing blue, like at Hokitika Gorge

When a glacier moves, rocks get ground down into a fine powder called glacial flour. It’s the flour which gives the water its distinctive color. Oh, and my fear of swing bridges has really waned with all of this practice.

At last the clouds parted long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the Southern Alps. From this spot we could see the western faces of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. 

It would be almost two weeks before we would visit them more closely from their eastern sides (more to come on these in a later post). But it also meant that we had finally reached Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, something we had been using as a benchmark for over a year.

These are just two of New Zealand’s many glaciers, but they’re the most well known because of their accessibility…only 250 meters above sea level! It’s one of the only places where you can see glacier and rainforest together. 

These are some of the world’s fastest moving glaciers, and they’ve also been known to buck the trend by advancing instead of receding with a good couple of winters (although they’re both receding at the moment).

Franz Josef was our first stop, and boy was it disappointing! It has not been a good year for poor Franz, who hasn’t been this recessed since 1970. The snow has been bad, the mouth has become really unstable, and there was a rock slide 5 days before we visited. It really wasn’t worth our time to hike to the obstructed viewpoint. This picture perfectly captures how we were feeling about Franz and the Department of Conservation’s way too conservative stance on the public viewing barriers.

Luckily, Fox is only a 30-minute drive away. But we got there and confirmed a valuable lesson. Glaciers are BOR-ING! They just sit there looking like Vail ski runs in mid-May. To get any excitement out of these slow-moving slugs, you’ve gotta go up on them. So we suited up in crampons and took to the ice with the help of a guide.

There are not-so-glamorous sides to glacial hiking, like how much rock debris you actually have to wade through. The highlights are the crevasses and seracs, which look like huge upside-down icicles.

The Holy Grail is pristine blue ice.

The South Island’s West Coast took us from the blue waters of Abel Tasman to the blue ice of Fox Glacier. If you can’t make up your mind between a beach vacation or a mountain vacation, you could just forget about your indecision in the place that has it all.

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