No, this post has nothing to do with the States and its iconic West, it’s the name given to a long strip of the South Island along its western side, and in particular all the sites along State Highway 6 north of Wanaka. There were several areas we were planning to visit on our way to the very north of the island, starting with the twin glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef.
This thin strip of land has a peculiar topography: almost directly off the coast of the Tasman Sea there is a tropical-looking rainforest, and barely a few more kilometers inland lie the rugged Southern Alps with its couple of glaciers.
So we were standing on the side of this highway, in Makarora, waiting for a car stop. There wasn’t much traffic and we waited something like 45 minutes until a large 4 by 4 stopped. The wealthy Austrian tourist who was renting the vehicle drove us all the way to Fox Glacier village, a good 3 hour drive from where we started.
The place was tiny: two streets, and a few tour coaches to fill the hotels up. We just stayed one night there. In the morning we walked to Fox Glacier and were unimpressed. The poor thing is retreating like crazy and looks quite bleak compared to glaciers in Iceland or even France. We got a lift to Franz Josef Glacier, thirty minutes from Fox, in the afternoon, and checked into our coolest hostel so far: 26$ for a bed, free soup in the evening, free breakfast, free wifi, free spa… it was so nice we immediately decided to stay a second night there. This meant we had a whole day to explore the stunning area surrounded by mountains, and decided on a 20 km hike up a peak (surprise surprise!) where we got wonderful views on Franz Josef Glacier, who seems to be in better shape than its twin.
Most of the walk uphill was in the lush rainforest, until we reached the bushline.
Clouds were quickly picking up however and by the time we reached the top at 1303 m the view down the valley was completely concealed. It was still quite early in the afternoon when we got back to town, and we simply hung out at the hostel chatting with other travellers to decide where to stop next on the West Coast on our way north. Punakaiki it is! And a friend of Julien’s, Jime (they met while tramping here before I arrived) was joining us the next day or the day after.
Punakaiki is a cute little township built around natural rock formations people call pancake rocks (I’ll get back to them in a minute). But there’s much more to the place than those mere geological curiosities: the rugged and wild coastline is as beautiful as ever, and the landscape looking away from the coast really reminded us of South East Asia with its limestone cliffs and tropical rainforest. Despite all this, few tourists stop to explore what we thought of as a hidden gem of the West Coast. It took us almost all day and three lifts to cover the 150 km from Franz Josef. Our third driver was a funny local man who did numerous stops along the way to show us around and explain about the mining history of the region.
We first stopped at our hostel, a small retreat right in the forest and a five minute walk from the beach, to drop off our packs, and then directly headed to the Pancake Rocks, which we caught at sunset. Their name comes from the vertical stacking of thin layers of rock, separated by softer minerals eroded over time (you can zoom in to see the layers). And the weather was still bearing with us! After that it was time to go back to our accomodation to make food.
We were up quite early the next day, the plan for me was to take a short three- hour through the forest, and then hitch to Westport. Julien was up for something more challenging (a good 25 km marked as a two-day walk, and without much food because we were running out and there were no shops in Punakaiki!). Once I was back from my stroll I ran into Jime at the information centre (I recognised her from Julien’s description), we chatted for a bit and I left for Westport while she visited the area.
This next stop on our way north was only intended for resupplying. Westport was the last large town before our next tramp: the Heaphy track, 82 km connecting us to the Golden Bay on the North coast of the island. I got to our backpacker hostel first, followed by Jime two hours later and exhausted and hungry Julien just before dark. On the next day we just went shopping and hitched to Karamea, the last town before the tramping trail, and found a really nice hostel. A lot of artists go there on residence and decorate the place with their creations, and they even have their own radio studio and broadcast random music from trance to irish jigs. The owners and the community built around this place are all very interesting people. Again, I got there first and relaxed and chatted with the people around while waiting for the others. We were unsure of our plans because the weather the next day was supposed to be really bad… In the evening we were offered sake and wine by the people around, listening to balkan-style music.
But the next morning it turned out being fine. We were finally going to walk the Heaphy track I’ve heard so much about!