Monday 16th October: Westport to Franz Josef Glacier - MADNESS "Uncle Sam"
When we woke it was still raining intermittently. The wet grass and very damp looking Weka that walked past suggested it had been raining heavily overnight. However, the sky actually looked fairly clear and it stopped raining, so we were hopeful of still being able to raft. Time passed. The expected phone call had failed to come through. We were getting worried. If they left it any later, there may not be enough time to arrange an alternative daytime excursion. More time passed and still no call. We decided to bite the bullet and call them ourselves, even if it did seem rude.
"Oh sorry. It’s cancelled. The river's too high."
Great. Stuck in Westport with nothing to do. As quickly as we could, we drove to the i-Site to find to alternative. The woman behind the counter suggested the local museum as an option to replace rafting (!?!) It turned out we'd left it too late to do anything 'adventurous'. The underground rafting had already left and all the other rafting companies were either closed for Winter/Spring or weren't running because of the high water levels. Buller Adventure Tours' lack of customer service had prevented us from doing anything adventurous in Westport.
In the absence of adventure, we opted for tea and coffee to re-plan the day ahead. The plan had always been to head South to Franz Josef Glacier in the afternoon. The cancellation meant we could take it a little easier and make a few stops along the way. The places we earmarked for stops were a seal colony just outside Westport, the Pancake Rocks halfway between Westport and Greymouth and finally Hokitika, a small coastal town about halfway between Westport and Franz Josef.
Just before leaving Westport, I stopped back in the i-Site to ask a quick question. Unfortunately, a group of four 20-something Americans beat me there. And the asked question after question after question - obviously little planning had gone into their trip, if any. After a seemingly never-ending succession of inane questions, they were happy and left. After the minute or so it took to answer my question, we were off to the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony, a short 20 minute drive away.
The drive took us up a bleak windswept lane, past tussock covered lowlands and flats. Occasionally, a short shower would sweep past and be gone in a couple of minutes, but the journey there was trouble free.
Having parked up in the DOC (Department of Conservation) car park, we could see that a coach load of tourist had just arrived, so our timing could have been better. However, as coach loads of tourists go, this bunch was fairly inconspicuous. On the walk up to the rocks, we were hit by the smell of freshly cut grass, which was quite surprising until we reached a couple of chaps with lawn edgers slowly clipping the long grass. Shortly afterwards, we caught up with the coach party, quietly looking down on the seals below, occasionally taking photographs. We joined in with the photo session whilst a couple of young seal pups played rough and tumble on the rocks.
As we headed back down to the car, we passed the four Americans from the Westport i-Site. After a short acknowledgement, we were back at the van and back on the road.
The next stop on our grand West Coast tour was at Purakaiki, about 50km South of Westport. This little coastal village is famous for its bizarre rock formations that sit in layers like a stack of pancakes. In addition to this, where the rocks have eroded, these have formed little open caves where the water will spout out of when the sea is choppy. On our visit, the sea was quite choppy and these 'blowholes' made some spectacular bursts. The walk around the rocks took about another half an hour, during which time we again passed the four young Americans.
After a quick stop in at the local souvenir shop and stopping to take a picture of a passing Weka, we were again cruising South on State Highway 6.
The road hugged the coastline for the remaining distance to the town of Greymouth, affording some spectacular views of the raging Tasman Sea. The road was often punctuated by signs warning of the possibilities of penguins crossing. Unsurprisingly, we failed to see any and reached Greymouth with the minimum of fuss. My memories of Greymouth back in 2002 were of a fairly shabby, run-down industrial type working port. Since then, it appeared as though a significant amount of money was being spent there. Greymouth is the West Coast terminus of the TranzAlpine railway from Christchurch, one of the world's most spectacular train journeys. Hence, a lot of tourist cash is coming in, which I can only guess is helping Greymouth to regain some respectability.
However, we were more interested in visiting quaint little Hokitika, a few miles further down the coast from Greymouth. So we carried on through Greymouth, past verdant hills and pasture and more spectacular coastline, alongside an obsolete railway branch line South to the end of the line at Hokitika. We had visited Hokitika four years previously, albeit in the middle of winter. At that time, the cold and bleak nature had made the place seem very dark, and we'd pretty much missed out on the coastal aspect of the place. This time, we decided to avoid the overpriced and shabby Kiwi House where a few examples of the live New Zealand icons can be witnessed during daylight hours. Instead, we just poked around in a few shops, most of which had some influence from the local Greenstone trade, where overly friendly and eager proprietors keenly showed off their wares. Whether this overly friendly attitude put us off purchasing anything, I don't know, but we didn't buy a thing!
|The crashing waves at Hokitika Beach. A very nice beach in fact. On the beach, there were a load of quartz filled rocks as well as a very old looking 50 cent piece that turned out to be only a year old.|
After browsing round the shops, we walked down to the beach. Hokitika seemed to make no fuss about the beach; there was very little development along the front, just a slightly weatherworn road running parallel to the sea. The sand was strewn with rocks that sparkled in the sunshine, illuminating a dull eye for a brief second whilst passing. The beach stretched away to the North and to the South for as far as the eye could see. Rocky outcrops in the distance the only sign that the coast didn't carry on as beach in a straight North/South alignment. As we walked along the beach, one new development, set back a few yards from the beach was the only sign that the locals were planning to cash in on the beach to any extent. I thought to myself that thus far, Hokitika has been spared the garish coloured lights and amusements that would populate any similar length of golden-sanded coast in the UK.
Then it was back to the car, making a slight detour via the i-Site, pausing there to enquire about possible excursions in Queenstown. Then it was back to the car for the long final stage of the day's drive down to Franz Josef on the long, slow, meandering West Coast Highway.
At this point, I think it only fair, and probably a little useful to note one of the games that Jenny and I devised to keep us 'sane' and awake whilst driving such long distances, and for extended periods. The main one was 'Share the Campervan Love'; not as sordid as it sounds, this was a game involving waving at each passing campervan and scoring a point if they waved back. A complex grading of point scoring acknowledgements was devised, particularly if you managed a wave from a Maui Campervan driver as they all seemed to be excessively prim. A highlight of this game was when driving past a teenage farm hand sitting on the bonnet of his Ute; I pretended to doff my cap in a very stylised, over emphasised gesture. Imagine my delight when he reciprocated, showing me the same gesture in return. On this particular section of road, there seemed little to do but admire the views and wait for the next campervan to come along.
On this stretch, we did make one stop worthy of note. This was at the Bushman's Centre, somewhere between Hokitika and Franz Josef. This is a bizarre place that I feel that only Kiwis could have devised. It celebrates the people who inhabit and live their lives in the native bush of New Zealand. We watched a video there regaling us with tales of deer hunting in days past. Methods devised to capture feral deer included jumping out of a helicopter on top of them, or the very nifty invention of the 'net gun' which fired nets at the deer with a large explosive charge. One can only say these people must be insane, or possibly they had devoured one too many of the Bushman's Centre's local delicacy - Possum Pies.
After this diversion, our next stop was finally Franz Josef, and our chosen accommodation, the Rainforest Retreat. We'd selected this one for the fact it had a spa pool in which we could relax our weary road-worn limbs. Unfortunately, the spa pool was closed for cleaning (spa pools can be a haven for legionella and need regular cleaning, a recent out break had been detected in a spa pool somewhere in the South Island which seemed to have precipitated a sudden wave of spa pool cleaning throughout the length of New Zealand). After a bit of a sulk at having paid but not having been told that one of their facilities was unavailable, it turned out that there was another private spa pool available at a cost of only $6 per half hour. It was fantastic. Set behind the reception area under cover, but in the midst of some native bush, it made for a very, very relaxing experience. It also had a host of different jets designed to massage different areas of your back.
A short shower later, and after a wander around the twilight of Franz Josef village, it was time for dinner at the Rainforest Retreat's own bar and restaurant. The restaurant successfully catered for a diverse range of people from backpackers staying in the hostel rooms to families in campervans. This included a family of four that we'd last seen at the Nelson City Holiday Park. Worn out due to the long drive, we were soon in bed for a sleep interrupted by the noise from the restaurant. The noise eventually subsided and we slept soundly.