West Assured

Thursday, September 25, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

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.  

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 (latest iteration pictured above).  As the "letters" deteriorate, new ones are created.
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

Hokitika Gorge trail
Dolomite Point at Paparoa National Park 
More pancakes