The South Island’s West Coast is a spectacular strip of forest, rivers, lakes and glaciers sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Aotearoa’s highest mountains. If you can time your visit for a few days in winter, the weather is likely to be perfect and the tourists few.
With a clear spell predicted after heavy snowfalls, we load the van with essentials, park Bert the dog with family and head south from Dunedin.
First stop is Jimmy’s Pies in Roxburgh to visit a friend and buy pies for an early lunch – one Lamb Shank and one Dressed Pie (mince with potato topping). The former is superb, the latter passable.
Snow covers the mountaintops. The harrier hawks are cruising but there’s not a rabbit to be seen dead or alive.
Alexandra is sitting under a layer of smoke. At the Salvation Army charity shop I find beautifully ironed old white pillowslips and a fat feather pillow, damask table napkins and an apron. The Sallies rarely disappoint me.
As we drive into Cromwell the source of the smoke becomes clear. A bonfire of grapevine prunings is creating a mushroom cloud and the air is sweet with woodsmoke.
John reads the paper while I visit Cromwell’s trademark giant fruit, like the waxy fake fruit of childhood.
We take the Wanaka road where the hillsides are riddled with rabbit holes. The grapevines are held rigidly to attention here unlike the relaxed old vines we’ve seen in Europe.
We’re surrounded by low snow covered mountains with the smoothest contours. In the distance the outlines of farm tracks appear stencilled under the snow.
The upper reaches of Lake Wanaka are smooth and shiny. A thaw is underway so water gushes from waterfalls and pours off rocks.
We reach Makarora the last outpost of settlement, with deer in the paddocks and black backed gulls far from home. Then we’re in the forest and a blurred line of green slime runs between the wheel tracks on each side of the road.
The Cameron Flat Dept of Conservation camp is a welcome sight. With less than an hour of daylight left we find a sheltered possie and stake our claim on a table.
Mountains surround us, cloud hangs low in the valley and random birdsong creeps in at the edges.
John retreats into the back of the van and I’m out in the rapidly cooling evening laying out the dinner things. This is the very best part. My kitchen is a wide valley and there are no lights. The space is intoxicating.
I heat venison stew, make up instant mashed potato and then there’s a delay while the gas cooker struggles with the Surprise peas. Darkness comes down as we eat.
Next morning as we get closer to Haast Pass snow is thick on the roadside and the river flats, and it’s even penetrated the forest. Hi viz green moss clings to rock faces supersaturated with wetness.
We stop and walk a short distance to the Fantail Falls, gumboots sinking into the deep snow. The call of a kea is stark in the silence.
We’re nearly at the pass and it’s a comfort to be reminded that if our brakes fail we can splutter to a halt on the Runaway Vehicle Ramp rather than take the more spectacular option.
The Gates of Haast bridge whisks us across steep rapids tumbling through massive jumbled rocks. The mega West Coast starts now.
As we arrive at Haast township a strong wind blows sand from the riverbed so it looks like mist. The place has a frontier feel with pukekos (purple swamp hens), geese and gorse.
We stop at the sleek corrugated iron Visitor Centre, a superb fit in its dimpled pool of water. It’s so clever how they’ve merged it with the site. Here on the Coast the natural features dwarf all manmade structures.
Okuru is a cluster of houses, baches and tiny whitebaiters’ huts. Then the West Coast presents us with the classic vista: an estuary, low islands and river mouth with snow topped mountains at the back.
A big black dog is asleep on a four wheeler beside a whitebait stand and hut. More tiny huts are tucked into vegetation along the riverbank.
The harriers are cruising above Haast Beach.
The road plunges into tall forest with layered punga (tree ferns) underneath.
We reach the Waiatoto River where the whitebait stands consist of a long metal gantry suspended at a 45 degree angle, ready to be lowered out over the river.
On the wharf at Jackson Bay I souvenir a barracouta fish box from a pile of rubbish. The deep water is a luscious dimpled green. To the north Mt Cook stands clear of cloud.
Sealers and whalers worked this remote strip of coast, then in 1875 assisted immigrants were brought in from Scandanavia, Germany, Poland, Italy, Ireland and England. Farming didn’t go well for them and most of the survivors eventually departed. A tiny cluster of graves in the forest is all that remains of their cemetery.
Maori lived in this area for several centuries before Captain James Cook sailed past in 1770. They walked to the West Coast to collect pounamu (jade or greenstone) and gather food. Their name for Haast Pass was Tioripatea which means “the way ahead is clear”.
We stop for lunch at an idyllic picnic spot beside the Arawhata River with a memorial to Dan Greany (1900 – 1972) the Jackson Bay roadman. We stash a few dry branches in the van in case we have a campfire later.
Bridges are lifesavers and the one across the mouth of the Haast River is the longest on the Coast at 737 metres. The “Mobil World Heritage Highway Guide: South Westland and Haast Pass” (Dept of Conservation) has a salutary quote from the Scottish explorer Charles Douglas:
the Haast River was navigated in a baker’s dough trough, sluice boxes, tin pumps and various other impossible looking contrivances.
As we drive north, the right hand side of the road is edged with humped vegetation backed with wind sculpted trees. On the left there’s a thin strip of paddock before the wild beach. Then the road heads inland snaking through the forest.
We pass Lake Moeraki and Lake Paringa and see dairy cows. Then a sign warns CAUTION DEBRIS ON THE ROAD DURING HIGH SEAS.
Heading to Jacob’s River we’re blown away when we realise Mt Cook is there in the windscreen. It’s New Zealand’s highest mountain, 3754 metres. The view from here is unfamiliar because we’re so used to seeing it from a plane on the eastern side.
We pass a tiny wooden community church Our Lady of the River then cross the Karangaroa River
We’ve seen the odd patch of kahikatea forest – slim trees growing in watery swamps. They are the remnants of our oldest trees, here for 100 million years, originally growing throughout New Zealand.
Driving past Fox Glacier we pick up some texts at last, and spot Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.
Franz Josef Glacier is a tourist magnet but we just stop for newspapers and a big bag of potato chips to keep up morale for the last few kilometres.
We drive past the McDonalds Creek camp at Lake Mapourika and have to do a u-turn. Parking the van in a good spot we go down to the river to gather firewood and stones.
We can’t wait to light a fire and the thermette for a pot of tea. Aah the satisfaction. What could be better than a crackling campfire as the sun goes down?
The forest at the top of the ridge blazes red with the last of the sun and jet trails form a giant St Andrews cross in the blue sky. A grey warbler trills.
Later spur winged plovers make their imperious cry, then the moreporks call out.
We wake to a heavy frost and mist but the firewood’s dry in a sack under the van so we light a fire to heat the last of the venison stew and make toast. Paradise shelducks are zonking away and there’s the singsong call of a tui.
I struggle to write some doggerel about the glories of Doc camps and come up with “ransom” rhyming with “handsome” but no suitable rhyme for “bush”. The last piece of toast on a dying fire tastes more smoked than toasted.
We drive north past farm deer grazing the frosty grass then turn off towards Okarito.
The beach is vast and littered with driftwood and stones. I don’t notice the small banded dotterels running among the stones until I hear their cries. Someone’s made a tiny driftwood house.
Builders have been busy here in the last 20 years and immaculate new houses have sprung up everywhere. The mist has gone and some big mountains appear behind the lagoon and forested hills.
We find the deserted Okarito camping ground and help ourselves to a dollar in the slot shower. Big ups to free camping New Zealand style!
The centrepiece of the village is an obelisk installed in 1940 with inscriptions on four sides to Abel Tasman (the first European to spot New Zealand in 1642), James Cook (the second), McKay (who arranged the sale of land from the Maori) and the people who settled Westland. After centuries of Maori occupation, Okarito was the site of a short lived gold rush, and an important port until the 1940s.
We visit the historic wharf and take in the view – rippled reflections in the water, dark ruffled forest and jutting white mountains. White feathers of cloud fill the sky.
As we continue our journey the erratic mobile phone coverage kicks in so we pull over to read our texts. We’re surprised to see a paddock of sheep with tiny lambs. Mature native trees are dotted around the pasture.
At Whataroa the tiny square colonial courthouse has a sign explaining that it’s open four times a year. We visit the Kotuku Gallery with its superb Maori carving, weaving, paintings and jewellery.
Turning off the main road we head up the Whataroa River to a recreation area. A strong easterly is coming down the valley so we set up the gas cooker on the verandah of a hut to boil the kettle for lunch.
A short distance along the track we come across an old corrugated iron hut with a stone hearth and wide iron chimney. It’s strangely homely with bunks and a single bed, old food containers and umpteen empty spirit bottles.
Back on the road the stately old wooden villas contrast sharply with small kitset farm workers’ cottages. And where else would you see the Bowhunters’ Society Lodge?
Many of the paddocks are dotted with reeds and encroaching scrub. Unlike dairy farmers in Canterbury and Southland, the farmers here don’t appear to spend big bucks on milking sheds or tractors.
Forest is reflected in the mirror of Lake Ianthe. Radiating circles and black swans are the only disturbance.
We pull off the road to see if we can penetrate the forest. It’s so secure you need a password to get in and a little black and white robin flies down to console us.
At the southern end of Ross the crusty golden craters of an open cast gold mine reveal what’s under the velvet skin of this place.
At the honey shop the kamahi and hinau bush honey is cheap and the talk is on the house. It’s been a bad season for the bees with no honey made since Christmas.
We park outside the historic Empire Hotel and I enter through the swing doors like John Wayne. Yes we can park in the camper van area for $7.50 each a night. I get a key to the kitchen and bathrooms. Good value or what?
The dearly departed at the cemetery are the only ones in town with mobile coverage so we drive up there to see if anyone wants us.
Back at the hotel we hang out in the van and devour the pile of newspapers. The Greymouth Star’s headlines start Youtube video clips in my head:
Pike River inquiry: Escape shaft “temporary”
Early whitebait squatter moved on
Gold nugget stolen
Fishing trip crime spree admitted
Pet sheep missing
Plus there’s a lovely photo of the egg carton house made by the Cobden Preschool.
We join the locals in the bar for a meal and watch the All Blacks play Fiji – their last game at Carisbrook. The Empire’s interior is a perfect match for the exterior with old farm paraphernalia, a huge open fire of driftwood slabs, and Michael Joseph Savage (New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister in 1935) looking down from a rafter.
In the morning we hear that the east coast has a weather warning of snow to sea level for the next day so we decide to cut our trip short.
We head along the flat coastal stretch towards Hokitika. Wind sculpted trees lean east towards the few small mountains. It’s ten acre block territory – big new houses with stunning sea views.
At Hokitika the sea is flat and there’s a haze of woodsmoke. We park by the beach and look out at the Tasman. Super sized driftwood is the dominant feature. A Jack Russell waits patiently while his owner does press-ups beside the waves.
We have a flawless coffee at the Hokitika Cheese and Deli with a couple of Dunedin ex-pats. They’ve singled this cafe out by a process of elimination. It’s tough when you come from the Seattle of the south.
An extraordinary roof on a new house catches our eye on the road north. It’s cantilevered towards the sea at a 135 degree angle from the back wall.
We turn east and pass through Kumara, famed for its January race meeting and the annual Coast to Coast multisport race. A sign advertises PSYCHIC READINGS – PUNGAS – SOAP.
Sheep and cattle graze the grassy flats of the Taramakau River and we experience a kiwi sense of revulsion when we see large islands of gorse in the braided riverbed.
The old railway village of Otira started out as a staging post for coaches between Canterbury and the West Coast. A couple bought it for $80,000 in 1998 and now it’s on the market again. It comes with a hotel and several houses on leasehold land.
The fabulous Otira Viaduct looks Italian: a narrow strip of road balanced on elegant legs, spanning an unstable and dangerous slope. We’re over it in a flash.
At this altitude the beech trees are stunted and we notice that their trunks are covered in dark moss.
A flying kea leads us down the main street of Arthur’s Pass village, still a cute cluster of alpine cottages, some dating back a hundred years.
Pretty as the snowy landscape appears, this is no place for wusses. My mind goes back to Easter 1974 when a flooded river and inexperience caused four of us to spend a wet night on a high pass near here. Back in Dunedin we learn that a couple called Botur were struggling for survival in the deep snow in the Craigieburn area as we drove through. An interview on Radio New Zealand tells the tale of their stoicism, fitness and sheer courage in a life threatening drama that went on for several days until they were rescued by helicopter.
After Bealey we see merino sheep on the flats and familiar conifer hedges. Then Lake Grasmere is lovely with hedges of tall pines. Near Castle Hill people are out tobogganing and at Lake Coleridge they’re sliding down the snow on boogie boards.
Then we’re through Porter’s Pass and the sheep on the flats are fat and woolly. It’s all pine shelter belts, magpies and paradise ducks. We know we’re back on the east coast when we pass a lime works and a vast irrigator. They’re building a huge new dairy factory at Darfield. The entire West Coast is covered by Westland Milk Products, an independent dairy company with factories in Hokitika.
We’re back to kitsch as well with a lake in front of an expensive house sporting a giant pink fake waterlily.
Hundreds of wooden fence posts are stacked in bundles like giant asparagus.
We’re relieved to reach Christchurch for a warm night with family and no after shocks.
At six the next morning we decide to make a run for it and try to get home before snow closes the road north of Dunedin. There’s a bit of sleet, frost in the paddocks, a dead hare on the road and a few early lambs as we head south. A sign advertises CHAFF FOR SALE AND HORSE POO TOMORROW.
An hour north of Dunedin it’s like driving in a snow globe. At the top of the motorway the snow has frozen and there’s been a four car pileup coming the other way. The first kilometre downhill is in first gear on a sheet of ice.
It’s hailing when we stop to pick Bert up from his holiday. After a cup of tea we emerge to discover that snow is lying, and we only manage to drive 100 metres in the van.
Taking a few necessities (coffee, coffee pot, feather pillow, laptop, camera) and donning gumboots we trek back to the house where we’re offered a four wheel drive to get home.
We feel like royalty cruising through the white and silent streets.
Later I take Bert for a walk across a sports field of pristine snow and remember my childhood autograph book (the Facebook wall of the 1960s?) where the mother of one of my friends wrote this:
Your life lies before you
Like a field of fresh untrodden snow
Be careful how you tread it
For every step will show.
Even then those words made me feel uneasy.
Back home I take photos of our garlic shoots which are poking through the snow, then make a fish pie and Aunt Daisy’s fruit loaf.
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