Thursday, September 25, 2014

West Assured


Days 22 & 23:  Greymouth to Christchurch.  Sandwiched between the mighty Tasman Sea on one side and the rugged Southern Alps on the other, the South Island's west coast is a place of isolation and open spaces.  Only one percent of New Zealand's population lives on this coast.  Determined to learn more about this daunting area on Wednesday morning, we left our hotel in Greymouth (pop. 9.932), the west coast's largest town, headed south.

A 25-mile drive down the coast on State Highway 6 took us to the town of Hokitika, a quaint little village popular with tourists.  Clearly, Hokitika is a seasonal town.  Many of the shops and restaurants in town were closed at 10:30 on this Wednesday morning in early spring, some bearing signs indicating they would open on the weekend.  No worries, mate.  We were not there to shop; we were looking for a letterbox on the beach.  

Latest iteration of the Hokitika beach sign
When we arrived on the beach, we were astounded by the amount and variety of driftwood littering the sand.  And Hokitika is a town that knows what to do when dealt lemons.  In every brochure or web site used by local promoters in presenting the city to potential visitors, there is a photo of the city name executed in driftwood "font" on the local beach.  As the "letters" deteriorate, new ones are created.

Hokitika Driftwood contest entries (photos from
Further exploiting its surplus of castaways, Hokitika holds an annual driftwood and sand sculpture festival each summer with everyone from kids to professional artists invited to submit entries, each judged in the appropriate category.  The New Zealand tourism web site offers some examples of creations in this celebration of beach culture.  Some years, as many as 70 sculptures adorn the Hokitika beach.  Today there were no sculptures except the city name, but there was a letterbox and we found it.

After stamping in, we hopped back in the car and drove inland about 20 miles to look for another box at Hokitika Gorge.  With the highest rainfall in New Zealand, the west coast is blessed with lush rain forests.  From the car park, we walked along a trail lined with tree-sized ferns and large podocarps to an overlook offering our first sighting of the granite ravine and the milky, blue-green Hokitika River

Hokitika Gorge
Continuing on the trail another ten minutes led us to the swing bridge over the canyon.  On the other side of the bridge, the trail continued through the dense foliage, opening up to more excellent views of the gorge.  Hidden under the exposed root of a tree along the way, we found our second letter box of the day.  A bonus was included in the letterbox clue, a tip to make this trip a circuit by driving around Lake Kaniere Scenic Preserve.  This took us along a well-maintained gravel road to Dorothy Falls, a 210-ft multi-stage fall definitely worth a bit of a detour.

Dorothy Falls
But the west coast had much more to offer.  Though we are not going as far south as the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on this trip, we were aiming to see a national park which promised a special kind of rock formation.  So back north we drove to Greymouth, and past it another 30 miles to Punakaiki and the Visitor Centre for Paparoa National Park. Across the street at Dolomite Point, we accessed the brilliantly designed and well-maintained trail to the pancake rocks and blowholes that form the main attraction of this park.

Along the trail, interpretive signs offered handy information about the native plants growing in thick profusion nearby. When we reached the coast, the Pancake Rocks came into view.  These heavily eroded layered limestone stacks were formed over many millions of years by massive pressure exerted on alternating layers of marine creatures and soft sediment.

Pancake Rocks
Ensconced among the stacks are several vertical blowholes where the sea bursts through during high tides.  Since we had arrived in late afternoon, the tide had rolled back out to sea, and all was calm in the erstwhile water vents.  There was nothing to be done but return on Thursday morning.  Our 1:45 train departure to Christchurch left us the full morning to make a comeback to Paparoa.  What a difference a tide makes!  There was no shortage of action upon our return.

Chimney Pot blowhole
Surge Pool
These rock formations are so extensive and so interesting, we were unable to resist making a comparison with Victoria's Twelve Apostates Apostles on the Great Ocean Road that we saw a couple of weeks ago in Australia.  Let us just say we're glad we saw the Pancake Rocks second.  They would be a very difficult act to follow.  In fact, we planted one of our "Love This Spot" letterboxes on the trail to the rocks.  Thanks to our letterboxing friend Jane, aka Wise Old Owl, the letterboxes in this series now contain beautifully hand-carved stamps, offering the finders the double bonus of visiting a compelling location and seeing a remarkable work of art.

After our return visit to Paparoa National Park, we made it back to Greymouth in plenty of time to have lunch at the quirky DP1 Cafe near the train station.  With a Hertz agent on site at the station, drop-off of the rental car could not have been more convenient.  Having read rave reviews of the TranzAlpine scenic train route, we were eager to begin the journey.  And though there were some impressive panoramic vistas crossing from Greymouth on the west coast to Christchurch on the east coast, much of the railroad paralleled the highway.  So, yes, we had seen most of these views a couple of days before.  Though not new, they were still impressive, and the rail journey was a great break from driving and a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Ken listens to the narrative commentary about the scenes we're passing.
Upon our arrival in Christchurch, we caught a taxi to our hotel and were delighted to learn that our gracious host Carol had upgraded us to the beautiful two-bedroom penthouse.  Not only was it luxurious and spacious, it was equipped with a laundry room, a supreme stroke of luck today when we had run out of clean clothes.

For the next couple of days, we will explore Christchurch, a city wracked by devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

Road Noise

Extra Grip So You Don't Slip:  On tramping tracks in New Zealand (hiking trails, as we call them), almost every time we see a wooden footbridge or boardwalk, some kind of material is stapled to it to provide traction.  In especially moist areas like the Hokitika Gorge and Paparoa National Park, the wood is drenched more often than not, so this antidote to slipperiness prevents many falls.

Chicken wire for extra grip

All Hands on Deck:  About the size of Illinois, the South Island of New Zealand is home to only one million people.  Due to this low density of both population and traffic, the island still has many single lane bridges.  A few are road-rail bridges on which cars and trains share the same bridge deck, giving an entirely new meaning to sharing the road.

Taramakau River road-rail bridge near Hokitika

Camping It Up:  In both Australia and New Zealand, we have seen a steady stream of rented camper vans on the highways.  They vary wildly from the bohemian Wicked Camper minivans with their spray painted pop designs and sometimes controversial slogans to more mainstream truck-style campers with custom coaches.  Today we talked with Aussie mother and daughter campers that we met at Hokitika Gorge.  They're traveling about three weeks in their conventional camper van and have found it comfortable and convenient.  Maybe an idea worth considering...

Camper van at Paparoa National Park

Two-Day Stats:
  • Started in Greymouth, ended in Christchurch
  • Two-day mileage - 371   (Trip total: 14,460)
  • Weather - 47° to 58°, sunny to partly cloudy
  • One-lane bridges - 45
  • Rock formations at Paparoa NP - 115
  • Visitors at Paparoa - 23 
  • Passengers on train - 60
  • Beef cattle - 1,369
  • Gorse plants - 176,399
  • Mountains - 79

More Photos

Hokitika Gorge trail
Swing bridge over gorge (Impressionist look from Paper Camera iPhone app)
Hokitika Gorge trail
Dolomite Point at Paparoa National Park 
More pancakes
House of Pancakes
A brief view of the front of the train from our coach near the back on a curve

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Over the Mountains into the Woods


Day 21:  Ashburton to Greymouth, NZ.  After fueling up in Ashburton, a dozen miles from the east coast, we left around 9 a.m. headed west, back across the Southern Alps.  Today we would follow Route 73 through the legendary Arthur's Pass.  This time we knew what to expect.  These are not the Rocky Mountains of the American west.  Arthur's Pass has an elevation of 3,000 feet, so we had no fear of snow or ice on the roadway today.

Leaving Ashburton on Route 77, we pushed north through Methven and Windwhistle (you know we couldn't make that up) to Darfield, where we picked up Route 73, the Great Alpine Highway, which would take us all the way to the west coast.  Like yesterday, we saw thousands of gorse plants, very noticeable at this time of year because of their brilliant yellow blooms.  Introduced as ornamental hedges by Europeans in the very early settlement stages of New Zealand, the plant spread rapidly in the country's temperate climate.  Today it is considered a major invasive species due to its aggressive seed dispersal.  Millions of dollars have been spent trying to control it. Unfortunately, the very methods most useful in removing the noxious weed are also effective at spreading its seed.

Common gorse, New Zealand's own kind of kudzu
The Great Alpine Highway bisects Arthur's Pass National Park, which is centered on the mountain pass and the village of the same name.  Because it provides easy access to some treacherous mountain terrain, the park has developed an unfortunate and perhaps undeserved reputation as one of the most dangerous national parks in New Zealand. Rather than having a day's trek to ease into the mountains like other areas, the close proximity of extreme trails from the village has lured hikers in over their heads and has led to the deaths of adventurers who lacked the equipment and skill level for the terrain or found themselves trapped by rapidly changing weather.  As we passed through the village, we saw signs advertising free use of locator beacons for hikers.

Otira Viaduct
Driving through the pass was not particularly scenic, but on the western side, the engineering marvel of the Otira Viaduct was another story.  Completed in 1999, this four-span bridge carries traffic away from the rockslide-prone mountainside through the Otira River valley.  At just over a quarter-mile long, the viaduct sits on piers 131 feet above the valley floor.  A photo on the web site of Numa Hammers, which provided equipment for setting the piers, shows the road as it was before this modern improvement.

Frequently closed by avalanches and rockslides, the old road before the viaduct.  (photo from Numa Hammers)
More engineering prowess just beyond the viaduct has further enhanced safety near the pass.  An aqueduct was installed to redirect the water from Reid Falls over the highway rather than onto it, followed by a rockslide shelter with a sloped roof that deflects landslides to the valley below.

Reid Falls takes a new course
Five miles past Otira we stopped to check out the Morrison Footbridge across the Otira River.  This bridge marks the beginning of a 15-mile mountain run course that is part of New Zealand's Coast-to-Coast race.  Top athletes complete the section in about three hours.  Most hikers take two days.

Morrison Footbridge
On the east side of the pass, most of the terrain had little vegetation other than short grasses and tussocky clumps.  Once we descended to the western side, we began to see thick forests, growing more lush as we neared the west coast.   By the time we reached our destination of Greymouth on the west coast, we were in a full-blown rain forest with tree-sized ferns and tangled undergrowth beneath looming palms and cabbage trees.  Tomorrow we plan to explore some spots north and south of Greymouth in search of some of New Zealand's coastal beauty.

Road Noise:

Near the viaduct we saw another kea, the New Zealand South Island parrot, and the world's only alpine parrot.  With their numbers dwindling, keas are now considered a protected species.  Highly intelligent, they have been documented solving puzzles and using tools to obtain food by researchers.  Their keen curiosity often puts them in close contact with tourists, whom they will investigate and sometimes pester.  At rest, their plumage is an olive green, but in flight brilliant orange feathers on the bottom of their wings are revealed.

Daily Stats:
  • Started in Ashburton, NZ ended in Greymouth, NZ
  • Mileage -  175    (Trip total: 14,089)
  • Weather - 40° to 54°, partly cloudy, light rain, occasional sun
  • Sheep - 14,167
  • Camper vans - 112
  • Curve signs - 93
  • Possum roadkill - 14

More Photos from Today

View from Konai bridge near Springfield
Mt White bridge over Waimakariri River near Bealy
Mount Rolleston (?)
You gotta love driving down a road with views like this.
Railroad near Morrison Footbridge
Another remarkable view through the windshield

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