From the ice-blue waters of Lake Wanaka to the grandeur of the Haast Pass, SH6 cuts a winding route through dense forest in Mt Aspiring National Park, before continuing on up the spectacular West Coast of the South Island. This epic journey provides the traveller with fresh inspiration at every turn. Here, where towering rainforests, rugged mountains, icy glaciers, and rivers meet a moody, ever-changing shore, the friendly West Coaster, a hardy, creative type of New Zealander, makes his home. We take four days to explore the route from Queenstown to Greymouth. We kick start our journey with a horse trek in the Cardrona Valley, then Bob takes an impromptu Spitfire flight and I tease my brain at Puzzling World in Wanaka. Together we join a thrilling jet boat ride on the Waiatoto River, admire Mt Cook’s sunset reflection in Lake Matheson, do a challenging hike on Franz Josef glacier, spy on nesting herons, dine on fresh whitebait and a unique possum stew, and in the manner of true West Coasters, wash it all down with a jug of Monteiths!
It’s 10.30 am in the Cardrona Valley and ahead of me Bob teeters precariously atop an extremely well-behaved Appaloosa which picks its way sedately along a trail to the top of a ridge. The views of the dry, rounded, tussock-filled landscape below are incredible.
“This isn’t so bad,” he says, in reference to the ride. “I’m glad I gave it a go!”
Bob left his comfort zone to join me on this ride with Backcountry Saddle Expeditions but somehow I think it was the well-timed comments of our guide, Debbie Thompson, about western saddles and cowboys that really piqued his interest. Debbie, an intriguing southern belle who appears in Kevyn Male’s book, Grassroots Kiwi, amuses us on the descent with her lively banter. Apparently she and her husband (none other than the Speights billboard man!) bought the business when he grew tired of dragging home deer he’d shot in the bush. A horse was required and when they went to find a suitable steed, they ended up with several Appaloosas. “I’ve been riding ever since,” says Debbie as we depart, well satisfied with our ride.
After enjoying lunch overlooking Lake Wanaka, we check into our accommodation, then Bob and I go our separate ways. He drives to the Wanaka Transport and Toy Museum where there’s an interesting collection of rare and unusual aircraft, trucks, motorcycles, fire engines, tractors and military vehicles. It’s also the site of the Southern Hemisphere’s best regarded vintage air-show, Warbirds over Wanaka, held bi-annually over Easter.
Meanwhile I venture to Puzzling World to put my grey matter to the test with its array of crazy architecture and brain teasers. Then, once I’ve had my fill, I walk back into town and relax at our accommodation by the lake.
Bob returns in the late afternoon and over dinner at the Tuatara Pizza Company he’s still buzzing. In true Bob-fashion he struck a rapport with an enthusiast who took him for a ride in his Spitfire. “It was amazing, you should have seen it go!”
We leave Wanaka early and drive north on SH6, past the still, reflective waters of Lake Hawea and on through thick rainforest in the magnificent Haast Pass. True to form it’s raining – cats and dogs!
“Wow,” says Bob, opening the window then shutting it abruptly as he’s hit by a deluge, “this really is RAINforest.”
We continue on to Haast keeping the windows firmly closed and just as we ready ourselves to dive into the information centre the rain stops as abruptly as it started and out comes the sun. It’s perfect timing: just in time for a spin in a jet boat on the Waiatoto River. Before we board, our skilled jetboat guide Wayne passes out lifejackets and we climb aboard.
It’s a thrilling ride packed with spins and whitewater excitement, and en route Wayne names the mountains of the Haast and the Selbourne Ranges and provides a commentary on the local area. We pass several interesting sites including the alpine fault line where botanists have discovered trees growing slower than elsewhere, and a place where Haast kiwi, the only alpine species, are protected then released into the wild by the Department of Conservation.
Afterwards we eat filled rolls at Fantail Café then cross the Haast River Bridge, the longest single- lane bridge in NZ. Before the bridge was built travellers would set off explosives to attract the attention of a rower, who would fetch them across the river. Local legend tells of the rower being held hostage by those isolated in the north who were keen to catch up on world news!
And there’s no doubt that we’re in a remote corner of the world. Few other cars pass and those who do, wave. Bob gets into the spirit of things and pre-empts their greetings on the drive to Lake Moeraki, where we stop to stretch our legs then continue on through towering kahikatea forest to Fox Glacier township, nestled in the shadow of the glacier’s icy tongue. We call into the DOC centre where there are some extremely informative display boards describing the forming of the glaciers, and then, after checking into our accommodation, we hike the Chalet Lookout Walk crossing several streams to a viewpoint that gives magical views of the lower icefall.
On our return we debate whether to do a guided glacier hike on Fox or Franz Josef Glacier – in the end Franz Josef wins out. Back in the village, we pick up takeaways then drive to Lake Matheson for a picnic dinner. Here we admire perfect sunset views of the summit of Mt Cook and Fox Glacier mirrored in the waters of the lake before carefully making our way back through still forest in the dark, guided by our flashlights.
In the morning we take SH6 north and half an hour later arrive in Franz Josef. It’s somewhat larger and definitely busier than its nearby cousin and as rain threatens, we dash into Franz Josef Glacier Guides to check that the glacier hike is still on. It is, and so we emerge wearing standard glacier hiking gear: a Gore-Tex jacket, socks, boots and gloves. A short bus ride leads us to the start of the track. Back in 1930 this was the base of the glacier; today it’s a three kilometre hike!
En route our informative and friendly guide, Rob Knox, tells us that Franz Josef is the world’s steepest and fastest-flowing commercially guided glacier. “The glacier’s head receives enormous amounts of snow which ‘drive’ the glacier at speeds of up to ten metres per day,” he says.
The weight of the snow compresses into glacier ice, which melts and forms tunnels which carry the ice-melt away.
At the base of the glacier – it looks really slippery – we strap ‘Ice Talonz’ over our boots for grip. Bob dances on the spot then topples as his feet touch and the Talonz catch.
Slowly and with an ungainly gait, we begin to make our way up the face of the glacier. At first it’s pretty scary, but we gain confidence and before long we’re scruffing our Talonz firmly into the ice and walking “positively” as instructed by Rob.
And it’s just as well for soon the descent begins through stunning, icy blue tunnels and past deep crevasses which emit incredibly intense shades of blue – even on a dull day like today. It’s such fun that our four-and-a-half hour tour seems to pass by in a flash and before we know it we’re back in town.
After hungrily wolfing down lunch at Beeches we drive past Lake Mapourika (famous for its trout and salmon) and Lake Wahapo en route to Whataroa, which boasts NZ’s only nesting colony of white heron.
Here we join a small group aboard a jet boat and after following the Waitangitaona and Waitangiroto Rivers, we land at a small jetty surrounded by towering kahikatea forest. Our White Heron Sanctuary Tour guide, Deon, leads us along a boardwalk to a hide from which we have perfect views of these magnificent birds sitting on their nests across the river. Amongst other interesting facts, Deon tells us that the herons arrive in early September to breed and the nearby Okarito Lagoon provides a plentiful supply of food.
Spotting a rare royal spoonbill Bob thinks it’s a heron with a deformed beak. “Oh no,” laughs Deon, “we’ve also got 30 royal spoonbill nests.” At 3 pm we hit the road again, driving north to the small township of Harihari, past Lake Ianthe and on to Ross, home to the famous Ross Goldfields. NZ’s largest gold nugget was unearthed here in 1909. It weighed 3.6 kilograms and was presented to King George V as a coronation present. We stretch our legs on the tailings by the river and then continue on to Hokitika where we treat ourselves to a stay at the Beachfront Hotel, which is modern and right on the beach front.
Today it’s a short drive from Hokitika to Greymouth and so after a light breakfast in-house we spend the morning exploring the jade galleries and studios of Hokitika’s talented artisans. The town’s range of raw materials – jade, gold, timber, clay, shell, bone and fibres – combined with its inspiring surrounds has produced a vibrant arts community and we join others who zigzag between the studios of glassblowers, jewellers, woodturners and potters.
We enjoy coffee on a sunny pavement outside Café de Paris, then after viewing the displays at The West Coast Historical Museum, housed inside the historic Carnegie Complex, we pop into Jacquie Grant’s Eco World to see – amongst other creatures – her rare collection of NZ long-finned eels, most of which are over 100 years old.
Before leaving town we enjoy a tasty possum stew at Trappers, Hokitika’s original wild food restaurant, where Bob learns all about the town’s annual Wild Foods Festival held in March. It’s well known for its untamed gastronomic creativity and the festival provides all manner of culinary delights – everything from eel stew to worm sushi is up for grabs!
Then we drive towards Greymouth, crossing rivers that are lined with the tell-tale huts of whitebaiters, and turn off for Shantytown, shortly after Kumara Junction. “Wow,” exclaims Bob, as we’re transported back to the 1860s gold rush in this replica West Coast settlement. There are more than 30 historic buildings to see including a sawmill, stables, bank, hotel, barber’s shop, miners’ hall, printing works and blacksmith.
We take a ride on one of Shantytown’s steam trains, the 25-ton Kaitangata, built in 1897. Its tracks follow the route of an old sawmill tramline, and like many of the first bush tramways in NZ, it was originally wooden railed and worked by horses. Steel rails and steam locomotives became common from 1900, when bushmen began to work steeper country further from the mills.
On the return journey Bob’s eyes light up when he spots an opportunity to pan for gold even though he had more than his fair share in Central Otago. Scott Arnold provides expert instruction but Bob’s already well versed; however when he discovers Scott’s a champion gold panner and can shake a Shantytown pan down in nine seconds flat (which he proves) Bob goes hard out to try and beat his time – to no avail! It’s another ten kilometres into Greymouth and here we end the day at Monteith’s Brewery, where we watch every step of the brewing process from malting through to bottling. The highlight comes at the end when we get to sit down and taste Monteith’s range of thirst quenching and naturally fermented beers.
“It’s a great way to end any day on the West Coast,” says our tour guide to Bob, who responds by taking a deep slug on his glass of Monteith’s Black. He then wipes its froth from his bristling upper lip with a quick brush of his sleeve like a wild West Coast gold miner of old, and growls: “Sure is.”