A few weeks ago, we had 3 days before either of us had to work; and decided to take advantage of the time off by taking a little road trip. We gathered a list of top suggestions from friends, and set off to the West Coast.
To get across the island, you have to pass through the Southern Alps, and the best crossing for our route was through Arthur’s Pass. We stopped to hike up to the Devils Punchbowl. It was a short hike, with lots of thoughtfully placed wooden steps to make the uphill climb more manageable.
In total, it took us about 4 hours (excluding our stop) to get to the other side of the island. Not bad at all! We came out in Greymouth, and from there headed North- to Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks.
The drive from Greymouth to Punakaiki was stunning. Each corner we rounded gave a perfect view of the huge rolling hills meeting beach and ocean-the little coastal road cutting right through the middle. We couldn’t resist the beach, so we spent some time walking the coast and wandering among the large rocks.
We had been told about a cool little drive (thanks Chris!) down a road called Bullocks Creek, just North of Punakaiki, so we headed towards it. The lane was paved with loose gravel in some places, and river rock in others. Our car manages pretty well, so we felt okay continuing on- even if it was slow going at times. We knew there was supposed to be a parking lot at the end, and the view was good, and that was about it. After a bit we started wondering if we were in the right spot… the road just kept going and it was mostly thick shrubbery and rock on either side of us. Until we saw the cliffs… and the view was good.
We never found the parking lot, a collapse in the road meant the end of our venture. We spent a bit of time standing in awe of the misty cliff sides, taking in the silence and solitude. A 12-point turn to get our car turned around- and we were headed back. The whole time we were on the road we only saw one other person, pretty crazy!
We spent the night in Greymouth, with a host we found through Couchsurfing. The guy we stayed with was super nice, he and his sister gave us the local perspective on their small town and the sights nearby. Bright and early the next morning we headed out again- this time South- towards the glaciers.
In Hokitika we took a detour inland. The Hokitike Gorge is a 30 minute drive from town, and well worth the time.
We considered taking a swim…. (Alec was especially down) but it there was still a chill to the morning- and we didn’t quite know where the best place would be to jump in. The stunning cloudy blue of the water made it difficult to tell depth, and we didn’t want to land in the shallows.
We kept going South until we reached the township of Fox Glacier- and made our way to Lake Matheson. On a clear day, this lake has a glass-like surface that displays a perfect reflection of the Alps behind it. It was cloudy when we arrived, but the view was still pretty great. The trail running around the lake was full of lush greenery that felt almost like walking through a rain forest.
After we left the lake, we were a bit confused about how to get to the glacier itself. We had taken a turn in town that led us to the lake, but the road continued on… so we followed it to what was marked a lookout point. The point was relatively underwhelming due to the clouds that covered the majority of the upper Alps, but the road kept going…
We pulled up our map out of curiosity when a sign warned “No Outlet”, wondering what was at the end of the dirt road. It looked like a beach, and we had time to spare… so we kept going. At the end we found the historical remains of a gold dredge, and a beach with rolling waves so big that we abandoned hope of going for a swim.
Then, the glacier. We found the correct road through the town, and set off on the hike. Each morning the Department of Conservation does an assessment to see the safety of the glacier and determine how close visitors should go. We were super lucky that on the days we visited both Fox and Franz Josef- the pathways were open all the way to the end!
Fox and Franz Josef are sister glaciers, and are the only glaciers in the world that extend into the tropics. The hike to Fox was across a valley and up a steep hill (with signs that warned “No Stopping!” due to rock slides). The valley was high cliffs on both sides that had a number of waterfalls in view, and a fair amount of small streams to hop over.
After our hike we drove the 45 minutes back up to Franz Josef. We were pretty pooped after all our hikes that day and decided to make the trek to the second glacier, the next day. We had dinner in town and then drove to a nearby campsite to sleep in our car for the night.
Over breakfast the next morning, we made friends with a couple who were biking their way across New Zealand. They’d been on the road for nearly 2 months and were nearing their final destination- Bluff. After being thoroughly impressed, we said goodbye and went on to see the glacier. Franz Josef was also located at the end of a valley which included an impressively sized waterfall and some vibrantly colored rocks.
Finished with our list of destinations, we made our way back to Christchurch. The only stop we made on our way back was an outlook in Arthur’s pass that was rumored to be frequented by Kea. The massive parrots are kind of a big deal in New Zealand and we really wanted to see one. As promised, shortly after we parked our car, one appeared.
All in all, we had a blast on the West Coast. We didn’t have quite enough time to make it all the way up to Westport, but hopefully we’ll have a chance later on.
If you’d like to see some video footage of the things we’ve mentioned, you can find them at the end of our January video!