Roadtripping with Jeff and Betty

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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island » West Coast
February 26th 2012
Published: March 12th 2012
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My Aussie mate Jeffrey had never visited mainland New Zealand in his many years on this earth, despite his home town of Sydney being located on the West Island of NZ!! He's accumulated enough Kiwi (and temporarily Kiwiland-located) buddies during his travels around the rest of the world though and we all persuaded him it was about time he visited. As I was about to leave this wonderful country we decided to travel around the South Island together, visiting friends and seeing some nice stuff along the way.

I collected our little hire car - quickly christened Betty - in Christchurch and drove back up to Nelson to pick up Jeff. The radio worked for 40 minutes of the 5½ hour journey so I was very pleased to meet up with friends in Nelson for a farewell drink and a leaving present of a stack of CDs for the car – Gemma you are a lifesaver I would have gone insane without your music for the roadtrip! The next morning we were up early to buy supplies and then we were off down the West Coast on our roadtrip.

The sun was shining on us
Sea Cow!Sea Cow!Sea Cow!

Hokitika driftwood sculptures
this time round and being in the driving seat meant that I didn't feel sick for the journey down towards Greymouth. The roads are very winding, and the scenery very beautiful, so our progress was fairly slow. We stopped at Punakaki for a picnic and for afternoon tea at Hokitika. I was rather excited to discover that the beach at Hokitika was scattered with driftwood sculptures - just like it had been when I was there six years ago - so we had a quick walk along the beach to admire the cows, giraffes, monsters and mermaids created from things washed up with the tide. I have never seen anything written about these sculptures on the beach but they are fantastic and they should really encourage more visitors to stop and have a look.

Our destination for the first couple of days of the roadtrip was Okarito, a tiny settlement on the coast a few kilometres north of Franz Josef. We were staying here in the middle of nowhere, rather than the bright lights and tourist buzz of the glacier towns, for a very special reason...the chance to see a kiwi in the wild. Okarito is one of the few places in New Zealand where you have any kind of chance of seeing kiwis in the wild. Luckily the odds were in our favour and it was an awesome experience, which I have written about in a separate blog. Okarito was also a nice place to chill out for a couple of days, walk along the windswept beach, and convenient to get to the big drawcards of the West Coast – the glaciers.

In Franz Josef I met a friend from my Malaysia travels, Andrea, for a morning coffee. She is cycling across New Zealand for charity with another girl, Sharee, so I heard all about their adventures so far and gave them encouragement and support in the shape of a big bag of sweets and stealing sachets of sugar from the breakfast buffet! We waved them off on the next leg of their journey and then walked out to the terminal faces of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. These glaciers are special because they terminate so close to the sea, protruding through areas of temperate rainforest, unlike almost every other glacier in the world, which is usually high up in the mountain zone. You can walk over the rocky river bed (as long as it's not flooding!) and get within a hundred metres or so of the ice at both glaciers. Huge grey piles of rocks and scree are everywhere, ground out by the glaciers and dumped as the ice melts, or tumbled from the surrounding mountains during regular rock falls. In fact the path I last walked to Fox Glacier has been totally destroyed by a huge landslide during the intervening years.

The two glaciers are similar but were worth the walk to see both. From Franz Josef you get a really good view up the valley and a sense of the scale of the glacier as it flows down from the mountains. While at Fox we could get a lot closer to the glacier and appreciate its depth and the details of the crevasses and blue tint of the ice.

Also in Franz Josef we watched a terrible tourist film – Flowing West – because Jeff's scenic flight over the glaciers and Mt Cook had been cancelled due to bad weather. The film was only 15 minutes long but cost the same to view as a feature film, unfortunately it was nowhere near as professional. Instead of keeping things simple and filming a picturesque flight over the mountains and down the glaciers to the sea, they insisted on speeding up the film to sea-sick inducing momentum and twisting the camera all over the place. They spent more time focussing on two guys from the 80's skiing than on the stunning ice formations on the higher reaches of the glaciers. I'd rather have my feet covered in sandfly bites than pay to watch that film again, and that is really saying something considering how insane those bites have driven me the past few weeks!

We gave up waiting for the clouds to clear so Jeff could do his flight and set off south to Haast. On the way we stopped at Lake Mathieson, famous from a million postcard shots of the mountains reflected in its dark waters. The morning we were there the only thing reflecting was the rain drops as they splattered on the surface of the lake. They did at least have a nice cafe for a warming cup of tea. The only other time we ventured out that day was to huddle around a road side stall to try the local delicacy – whitebait patties. Whitebait are baby fish about an inch long, and the traditional way to eat them is whole, fried with some egg and seasoning, in a fritter. Bizarrely this expensive delicacy is then sandwiched between two slices of the cheapest white bread they can find, but if you pick around this they are delicious. As we continued south the weather got wetter and we bundled our bags into the hostel in Haast just before a huge storm dumped on us. That evening we listened to the rain pounding on the roof of the hostel and were reminded that the West Coast of NZ is one of the wettest places in the world!

The next morning could not have been more different. The sky was so bright it hurt and not a single cloud tarnished its blue expanse. We backtracked up the coast to lookouts that had been obscured in mist and cloud the day before and were rewarded with views of the sparkling sea washing up against endless miles of sand and rocky outcrops holding back the dense green rainforest. The drive across Haast Pass to Wanaka should have taken us no more than three hours, instead it took six because we stopped so many times for photos. This stretch of road is littered with signs for lookouts, waterfalls, nature walks and picnic spots. After all the rain the night before, the forest floor was steaming and the shafts of sunlight pouring through the canopy made the ferns and mosses even more mysterious and beautiful than usual. The road followed river channels and hugged the edges of lakes for most of the journey. Each bend revealed more snow-speckled mountains in the distance. After refuelling on tea and ice-cream in Wanaka we wound our way up over the Crown Range to another spectacular lookout. The road down to Queenstown was full of hairpins, a cruel test for drivers distracted by such dramatic scenery laid out in front of them.

In Queenstown we were in the hospitable hands of Lisa and Luke, friends from my first big trip to Africa five years ago. We had plenty to reminisce over while downing delicious homemade tagine and wine. They took us to see and sample the most important delights of the area, including the famous Fergburger and Patagonia's ice cream and hot chocolate in Queenstown, and the best pies and coffee in nearby quaint Arrowtown. We browsed the market at the lakeside, admired the trees Luke has trimmed in the Botanical Gardens (he's a tree surgeon) and ogled at nuggets of gold the size of apricots. Not the usual activities Queenstown is famous for you may think, but I'd done enough crazy things when I first visited NZ and Jeff has done plenty more during his time working in Africa, so it was nice to just chill out and hang out with friends. Jeff did do the Shotover Jet boat ride, so he didn't completely fail at the traditional Queenstown experience!

From Queenstown we headed to Fiordland for the weekend (subject of yet another blog!) and then it was time to turn Betty north and start making our way back to Christchurch. On the way we stopped at Twizel for the night. The sun was setting as we arrived so we quickly dumped our bags and drove out of town to see the last rays of sun catching the snow covered slopes of Mount Cook, making a rare appearance from behind its curtain of clouds. We admired the views from Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, although with a chilly wind and a blanket of cloud they were less startling turquoise and more ashen-blue than usual.

Back in Christchurch we negotiated the red zone and ever-changing one-way systems to return Betty to her owners for some rest. I think right now she is probably making jam and knitting a scarf ready for her next trip! Yet again I failed to feel a single tremor while staying in Christchurch, although the bunk beds we stayed in were terrible so to be fair a magnitude 10 could have hit us and I'd have just thought it was the person on the bunk below me rolling over!

Singing with Dolphins

The fun was not quite over, even if the roadtrip was. We hopped on a bus for an overnight trip to Kaikoura, a couple of hours up the coast. Once again the weather turned wintery but we managed to battle against a freezing wind to walk out to the seal colony and see some fur seals slumbering through the approaching storm. On the way back we stopped at a roadside van to warm up with a cup of tea and another Kiwi curiosity, Paua. Similar to Abalone, this is a big black mollusc that lives inside a beautiful, green and blue pearlescant shell. Once again, what should be a carefully prepared delicacy, was minced up and fried into a fritter with white bread. This time, instead of beady whitebait eyes adorning the patty, the black flesh of the Paua had turned the fritter into a grey, spongy disc. It tasted slightly better than it looked!

The main reason for coming to Kaikoura (other than to take advantage of the generosity of Sally and Nathan – thanks again guys!), was to get up close with the local wildlife. Because of a deep sea trench just a couple of kilometres offshore, thousands of marine mammals, fish and birds are attracted to the Kaikoura area. Amongst them are resident Sperm Whales, Dusky and Hectors Dolphins, a large colony of Fur Seals, as well as visiting Orcas, Albatross and Blue Whales, and migrating Humpback Whales. I'd have been happy to see them all, but on this trip the Dusky Dolphins were the headline attraction.

I dragged myself out of bed at 5am, half wishing that the weather was too bad to go out and I could go back to sleep, but also excited when I found out the trip was going ahead. Prewarned that conditions would be rough, I downed a couple of Kaikoura Cracker (the local miracle cure for sea sickness and highly recommended), donned full wetsuit gear, and climbed aboard our boat, which bounced across the waves out into the bay south of Kaikoura. While our skipper and guide searched in the dawn light for tell-tale dorsel fins or splashes, I stood at the back of the boat trying not to get thrown overboard with each wave, and admired the graceful gliding of gigantic Wandering Albatross skimming the waters alongside us. Before we knew it we were being ushered out on to the back steps of the boat and plunging into the cold water; not that I noticed it at the time, the thrill of having a dolphin torpedo centimetres underneath you is enough to make you forget your name, location and that you have feet at all, let alone frozen toes!

Swimming with dolphins is one of those standard 'things I must do before I die' on most people's lists that surprisingly has not ranked higher on my personal must dos. However, it turned out to be one of the most fun wildlife encounters I have ever had. Usually when you are watching wild animals you have to creep around on tip toes, whispering and peering through binoculars; swimming with dolphins is the complete opposite experience. I think the whole thing should be renamed 'Singing with Dolphins' though, because that's what the guides encourage you to do. We must have sounded like a herd of cows from the boat as we all sang and squealed and ahh'd through our snorkels – dolphins are inquisitive creatures attracted by sound. They also love to investigate new things in their environment and play, so they will come and circle you and look you in the eye (another thing you are usually discouraged from doing with most wildlife), and keep going for as long as you can keep up spinning round in circles with them. The skipper estimated that we saw between two and three hundred dolphins over the course of four snorkels, it was certainly exhausting trying to keep up with them all. As soon as I had caught my breath from swimming in circles with one dolphin, another two or three would swim up under me and start spiralling. Dusky dolphins are renowned for being the most acrobatic of all dolphin species and they certainly lived up to it, propelling themselves into the air and performing back flips. It was incredible to have such an intimate and adrenaline fuelled encounter with these friendly creatures.

The adrenalin wore off pretty quickly once the boat turned back for the harbour and I realised just how cold I was. My feet had turned yellow and took more than an hour, even with a hot shower, to de-numb. All the way back to town my teeth chattered and I shivered uncontrollably despite wrapping up in warm, dry clothes. It was all worth it though to leave New Zealand on such a high note.

Additional photos below
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Hokitika driftwood sculptures

Hokitika driftwood sculptures

Hokitika driftwood sculptures

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