Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dispatch 66 The Wild West

5-13 March, 2011
Our last frontier on the South Island was the west coast. Like the US west, this is still a wild area and some of the settlements are, thanks to mining interests and the brief gold rush here, much like the US west. In fact, they have a shanty town preserved from the mining days. We admit, we weren’t very interested in that part of the history as it is so similar to the US.

But we were very interested in the beautiful terrain. Our route to the west coast took us purposely a little out of ourway to drive a road we had not yet been on that follows the “rail trail”, a disused railroad path, now a bike path, well used by bicyclists. It goes through central Otago, an area with a climate that is good for growing Pinot grapes and is thus full of wineries. Again, we were struck that the area is virtually treeless. Geologically in its past, apparently, it was a giant inland lake, but now it is undulating plains and hills with various low mountainranges leading up to the beginning of the Southern Alps. We stopped at a small railway museum to get the flavor of the area’s past, tried to go to a winery whose wine I had enjoyed (called Three Miners) only to findit closed, and finally pulled into Wanaka for a couplenights. Wanaka had been our base when I did my little ski adventure in the winter.

We love Wanaka. It is a stunning place, full of
young people, with an atmosphere of excited
physical activity. The morning after
we arrived we headed down the lake road past triathletes, some finishing their swim and others already on the bike leg. The day was gorgeous and clear after a heavy rain the night before left the first dusting of snow for the
season (we are headinginto fall here) on
the mountains ringing thelake. The snowwas melted by afternoon but made for a beautiful scene that morning. Half the road was unsealed, but pretty smooth gravel so we toodled along the valley
floor next to the lake and then its source river happily.

Then we came upon a pull off and a sign warning of “Ford!”
—not a car
advertisement—this was a warning that the road goes through a river without the benefit of a bridge. There was also a sign warning the next 9 km was rough road with multiple fords. Well, as we’ve mentioned before, we have
this flash car, an Audi A4, which might accelerate like the dickens but doesn’t have much road clearance, so we pulled off to
think things through. Alo
ng came an SUV
and we stopped them to ask if they knew the road conditions and the driver encouraged us that the fords
were probably OK as there really hadn’t been much run off and, if we were careful, “And your
wife gets out to find the shallow spots for you,” (?!) we should be fine.
Sure enough, they went racing off, then another Audi came racing along and splashed across the river without stalling, so off we went. We crossed 9 fords, the first of which was almost the worst and all went fine. When we arrived at our planned trailhead, we saw 30 or so cars and
vehicles who had also all braved the road, and ours was surely not the smallest or lowest car.

Our trail took us to the foot of the Rob Roy glacier. It was a stunning walk through meadows
with cows and sheep, over a suspension bridge and then up a very beautiful river gorge.
The track was very well maintained except for a couple areas of slide. At the top, we were
rewarded with a panorama of the glacier while we sat on rocks and ate lunch in the company of Keas (the parrot-like
birds that each windscreen rubber) who
were actually rather well behaved and posed for
heaps of tourist pictures. Because far from being a wilderness experience, this rugged little 10 km hike attracted quite a crowd. We ate that night at our now favorite restaurant in Wanaka, the Spice Room, with Indian food that is
truly gorgeous
(that is the adjective most often used for good food in NZ, not merely referring to its looks, but mostly to its flavor.)

The next day we drove a drop dead gorgeous road along several lakes out to the west coast and up alongside the coast and the coastal rain forest all the way to the Fox glacier. The weather on the west coast, just like our Olympic peninsula in Washington state, has such a high rainfall (around 300 inches), that it is a temperate rainforest. The weather was sunny so we enjoyed the lush greenery in sunshine.

Of the hundreds of glaciers in the Southern Alps, two of them are large enough to carry on down to near sea level: Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
They are similar and are only a 30 minute drive from one another. We stayed at the little village at the base of Franz Josef while we enjoyed adventures at both spots. We walked up the river valley that is spawned from the foot of each glacier to get as close as the trails would allow us.
From there, we actually watched calved icebergsfloat downstream and tried to take in the size and grandeur of these rivers of ice.

We had not planned it this way, but, once we had seen these glaciers, we spontaneously decided that getting onto the glacier by helicopter would be worth the trip.
a 6 seater helicopter for a 15 minute ride up and around the Franz Josef glacier. We were deposited at the base of the “black hole”, a huge upthrusted rock face that the glacier had melted around so that it was bare of ice, about
So one morning, we went to the helicopter company, got suited up in glacier pants and rain jacket, their waterproof boots and heavy socks, and boarded midway up the glacier. There our guides helped us put on crampons and gave us ice axes and off we went to explore some of the ice formations on the glacier. The glacier is always active so we saw and/or heard rock and icefalls often while we were up there.
Our guides took us through ice caves, over to a huge
waterfall from the melting ice and through a little ice tunnel.
Our little group consisted of 2 other couples who might have had 5 or 6 cameras between the 4 of them, so much time was spent in various camera poses and less time than I would have liked was spent in actual hiking. But it was a stupendous experience from the helicopter ride to the glacier walk and I was thrilled we did it.Did I mention it was a gorgeous sunny day?
The area also offered beautiful little rainforest walks which reminded us of the cloud forest in Costa Rica, so heavy was the growth of mosses and other air plants on the trees. One night we went out after dark to have our first encounter with glow worms, little phosphorescent worms (actually fly larvae) that hang on the dirt under uprooted trees and on cave walls. They look like stars in the sky when you come across a whole wall of them—fascinating.

Despite our gorgeous weather, we managed to get to the “Reflection
Lake” just late enough in the morning to miss the panorama of mountains reflected in the lake as the mountains accumulated a cloud curtain each day by late morning. But, when we went off kayaking at the Okarito lagoon nearby, we were early enough to see the Alps
before they became enshrouded
—a stunning panorama and backdrop to the
paddle through the wetland lagoon where we also enjoyed white herons, various shorebirds and our favorite little songbirds, the bell birds.

As we signed up for our kayak, we noticed on their picnic table a very large container of in
sect repellant. In fact, when talking to the people at work about our west coast trip, the most common advice was, “bring insect repellant.” The sand flies, those pests we mentioned early on in our NZ travels, are at their worst on the west coast. But it was late enough in the year for us to mainly do our adventures with long pants and long shirts. Still, we took advantage of the offered repellant to help our bare feet stay protected and it seemed to work well. Our only really bad encounter was when we pulled off at a scenic overlook where we intended to have our lunch at the picnic table and lasted, at most, 3 minutes before we retreated to the car to eat away from the swarms.

For a break from our outdoor adventures, we stopped in Hokitika, a town best known for its jade carving artistry. Pounamu, or nephrite jade, or greenstone, is a valued stone, and sacred to the Maoris. It is found in the rivers of the west coast and on the beaches and is carved into some beautiful sculptures as well as abundant jewelery. We, naturally, found a couple pieces to our liking while we enjoyed the little town.

Our last stop on the west coast was Punakaiki where there is a very unusual limestone formation right on the coast that makes the rocks look like stacks of pancakes, so it is also referred to as “Pancake Rocks.” The information signs at this well visited tourist attraction made it clear, with their long obtuse explanations, that nobody really knows how this rock formation occurred, but it was certainly interesting.
Meanwhile, we spent the night at a treehouse-like hotel room in the rainforest and enjoyed the sound of kiwis after dark. It was a wonderful, peaceful place, our first night without a television, and, wouldn’t you know it, the night of the huge Japanese earthquake. So, when we went to check out, we learned all about the earthquake and the tsunami. We seem to have a knack for belated awareness of large world disasters as it was a full day after 9/11 before we learned of that disaster, oblivious as we were on our sailboat heading home from Alaska. No matter.

The rest of our trip home took us through Arthur’s pass,
the highest pass in NZ and a beautiful place in the mountains, and down onto the Canterbury plains through lovely farmland. We took some short hikes in the Peel Forest to see some of the largest trees in NZ, smaller by far than the North Island Kauris, but impressive nonetheless. The most impressive thing was the guy, Peel, who had the foresight in the late 1800’s when the area was being rapidly de-forested for house timber, to buy land and preserve it from logging so these majestic trees could survive. Well done!

Once home in Oamaru, our attention is now focussed on our upcoming departure and return to the US by way of Australia. There is much to do to close up our lives here, not the least of which includes the sale of our car and boat.