Published: December 9th 2011December 9th 2011
After skirting the beauty of the lakes and driving through the rain-soaked forests of the mounainous Haast pass, we're heading down to the West Coast of the South Island.
This place is harsh and windswept. Sheer hardwork and determination allow the locals to eek out a meagre living from the land and its unforgiving coastline, and they do so with pride. They take a certain satisfaction from knowing that not many people could do what they do. In fact, they regard the strangers who enter their lands with suspicion. This is the impression we get on arriving for the first time on the West Coast.
We walk into the pub in Haast, hopeful for a snack that will keep us going on the last leg of our journey. The group around the pool tables turns towards us, their flannel shirts and steel toe-capped boots dirty from a hard day’s work. White knuckles appear as they clench their huge hands tighter around their pitchers of beer. They rub their roughly-shaven, square-cut jaws as they consider us with suspicion. Then their husbands walk in. We eat up our sandwiches and leave.
The mood mellows when we find our spot
for the night, even if the weather doesn’t. We’re right on the coast, and the wind and the rain batter the campsite. We spend the night with the van being relentlessly buffeted around.
The next day we drive to Jackson’s Bay, a fishing settlement at the end of the road. The road’s deserted, save for all the roadkill. The trees between us and the sea are all bent in submission to the wind, their branches reaching over the road like a combover canopy. The settlement is quiet, with all the fishing boats seemingly morred up for the weekend. We turn around and head North, toward the glaciers.
We’re making good progress but, as we cross Waita River we pass a sign for whitebait patties. The West Coast is famed for its whitebait, so we swing the van around and follow the signs down a dirt track. We’re met by a huge, friendly Kiwi who tells us that the whitebait here are different to the small, herring-like whitebait that has become a traditional treat for us on sunny Majorcan holidays. But we nevertheless try a couple of patties – a ladle full of tiny-eel like fish, held together by
fried egg and presented on an open sandwich. Don’t tell the kiwis, but we think we prefer our imagined sandwich: floury, soft white bap smothered in melted butter and stuffed with a good handful of deep fried European whitebait, a dollop of tartare sauce and a squidge of lemon. Mmmmmmmmmm.
The drive on is straightforward. We’re going to be having one of our blow-outs here – a guided walk on a glacier. The toss-up is between the Franz Joseph or the Fox. We opt for a half day walk on the Fox Glacier Mint.
There’s a good bunch of us when we meet the next day – we get split into two groups and get boots, crampons and a safety briefing. Our guide is Canadian, and fantastically enthusiastic about her subject. She gives us a running commentary on the hour or so’s walk to the glacial face - every few metres we hear, “and this is where the glacier came up to in 1827”, “and this is where it came up to in 1826” and so on. The rate at which the glacier is retreating is amazing, and could no doubt engender a heated debate among climatologists as
to whether it is caused by the cyclical nature of ice ages or man’s influence on global warming. Our guide responds lucidly to all the geological and glacialogical queries of our co-walkers before Iv gets in there with the really important question: “Was the Fox Glacier Mint named after this?”. Disappointingly not, which means that Iv has to stop referring to the glacier as a mint.
It’s pretty special when we reach the ice. We follow our guide in single file across the ice and through cravasses, mindful that each step is supported by a firm grip from our crampons. The single file bit is import – what looks like a uniform coverage of ice can be misleading, with hidden wells and new cravasses laying in wait for the careless. It’s a completely unique experience – ice is something that one tends to avoid in day-to-day life, but here it forms all manner of magical features. Though its face is caked in the dirt of neighbouring rocks, our walk across it allows us to peer into its deep blue innards, and see the snowmelt flow throgh its veins. It’s definitley one of our highlights so far.
we travel North along the coast to Hokitika, a placename we feel compelled to pronounce as if it were a bout-winning martial art move. It’s unremarkable and wet when we visit, but it’s been a long day so we park up for the night.
The next day we turn inland and head into the mountains via Arthur’s Pass. We had planned to do a short walk up in the hills, but it’s still pouring. We decide to make instead for a highly recommended campsite in the rainforest. Boris has other ideas. High in the hills he gets a strop on, and refuses to get out of first or second gear. Uh oh.
We manage to get to a layby, where we pull in. Getting under the bonnet of a car ranks up there with chopping wood and firing up the BBQ in the macho stakes, so Iv manfully gets out in the rain to assess the situation. It’s at this point that Iv remembers that he knows nothing of car mechanics. He nevertheless puts oil where the big ‘Engine Oil’ cap indicates might be an appropriate place, cunningly dribbles some of the rest of the engine in the
hope that it might find its way to the gearbox, and twists any knobs that look like they might turn. Dropping the hood back down, he scuffs his palms together in a ‘job done’ manner. We start up again and, miraculously, Boris clunks through the gears (we both suspect that our going over a speed bump a bit too quickly did more good than Iv’s interventions). We make it to the campsite, where we spend the evening drying off.
The next day, our final day on the West Coast, we drive to Pancake Rocks. The rocks remain a bit of a mystery, with geologists uncertain how they came to be formed of such thin layers as to resemble stacks of pancakes. We’ve planned our arrival to co-incide with high-tide, when the lap, slap, and boom of the waves continue to sculpt the rock as the sea feasts on pancakes. Blowholes emit gallons of water to signal the arrival of the biggest waves, but the absence of a large, westerly swell saves us from getting too wet.
Our quick loop of the South Island is coming to an end, with a few days left to spend at its Northern
tip, where we hope it is dry...