The wild we(s)t coast of South Island

30 January 2020

Friday 24 January. Lake Hawea to Pleasant Flat camping area.  81 km.

From the minute we set off at 7.30 today it was straight into the hills of Mount Aspiring National Park.  But the puffing and panting was worth every minute because once again every corner we turned was into one amazing view after another. The first part took us above Lake Hawea, giving us a different perspective of the lake from what we saw from our boat trip last night…

 

We then went through “The Neck” which took us alongside Lake Wanaka at a more northern point than the township of Wanaka where we had been two days ago.

We are pretty remote and will be for the next week or so….

 

…..but there was still a coffee shop with some pretty scrummy cakes perfectly located at the 45km mark, so we just HAD TO indulge to keep our strength up for the big climb of the day – The Haast Pass.   Although I am on navigation duties I hadn’t expected to go into hills so quickly and as the climb got steeper I kept thinking we were still on the run-in to it….until it was too late to stop! It was a bit of a grunt to the summit at 564metres above sea level, but as we were mostly in the shade it made it slightly more bearable.  

At the top we stopped to get our breath back and have some lunch before starting a really steep descent. And if we thought our climb had been tough it definitely wasn’t as tough or as long as it would have been travelling in the opposite direction.  Cruising down we saw a couple of cyclists almost at the summit looking remarkably happy and fresh considering the strenuous push they were on, so we cheered them along for their last 200 metres.  But a sign for a “Runaway Ramp” freaked me out shortly after that.  I have never seen one before and it’s basically like an uphill exit off the main road if you have brake failure! So I kept my brakes on, tried to ignore all the “what ifs” in my head and eventually the gradient got less so I could start to enjoy the views.  Everything around us was huge: big majestic mountains that were much greener and more lush than they had been on the other side of the pass – and definitely worth the effort and adrenalin to get there.

We stopped off at two waterfalls on our descent – the Fantail Falls, which we didn’t find that impressive but it had lovely crystal clear drinkable water so we filled up our water bottles. A little further down the hill we stopped at Thunder Creek which was much more impressive….

 

…and then it was into our very basic campsite with its impressive view of Mount Hooker.  And we were just in time to make afternoon tea and chill out…or so we thought. First of all the sandflies came out in force to attack us and despite our efforts to cover ourselves up as much as possible, as well as douse ourselves in insect repellent, nothing seemed to have any impact.  They are like a cross between a mosquito and midgies, swarm in their hundreds and have a very itchy itchy bite.  Even worse is that you don’t feel them bite until you start scratching and by then it’s to late. Horrendous!

As we were fighting off the flies some drama unfolded at the entrance to the campsite with the arrival of an ambulance, the police, the fire brigade and then an air ambulance.   A poor motorcyclist had had an accident up the hill (where we’d just come from) and because there was no phone signal a Spanish couple took him in their camper van to the first source of help – our campsite.  There was an SOS phone at our site so they used it to alert emergency services that all arrived together. It was all very active for a while but when the air ambulance left we’d had enough of the flies so took refuge in our tent.  Getting in without hundred of the little blighters following us was like a military operation, but we managed it and enjoyed a fly-free episode of House of Cards!

Saturday 25 January.  Pleasant Flat to Haast.  45 km.

We were woken in the night by rain as well as the sound of something snuffling around our bags and when we got up this morning we discovered that whatever animal it was had eaten its way through two of our food bags!  A Kiwi camper reckoned it was a rat, but it could also have been a kea (a native parrot) or a possum – we just don’t know.  But whatever it was had teeth sharp enough to completely eat a chunk out of our dry bags and into a loaf of bread!

The rain eased to allow us to pack up hassle-free but we headed off into a rain cloud that had completely obscured the lovely view of Mount Hooker that we’d had yesterday.  We only had a short run of 45km into Haast and although the hills were undulating it was nowhere near as tough as yesterday had been.  But the rain came on and boy did it lash for the 2.5 hours it took to get to Haast.  We are aware that it rains a lot on the West Coast, which obviously explains the green lush landscape – but let’s hope it eases off a bit so we can at least see some of the views.  We saw very little today. 

We were like 2 drowned rats when we arrived at our motel and although check-in wasn’t until 2pm and we didn’t have a booking, the lovely French lady working there felt sorry for us and let us check in at 11am – even though there would be no hot water for showers until 2pm. But it did mean we could dry off, warm up and hang the tent up to dry.  The rain continued for most of the day so we had a very lazy afternoon….and as the heavy rain had taken the internet out in the entire area there wasn’t much else to do except snooze and eat!

Sunday 26 January.  Haast to Bruce Bay.  87km.

We headed out wearing yesterday’s damp shoes which wasn’t very nice.  It was also very humid so none of our clothes had dried either so things went into bags wet or we wore them damp.  But the rain had eased overnight and the road was fairly flat for the first 20km so despite the damp feeling it was quite nice riding. 

The scenery has changed and we are definitely in rainforest country as it was lush rainforest everywhere with lots of new wildlife calls and sounds.  After the 20km mark we had a couple of hours of climbing that took us right into the rain clouds and definitely got our heart rates going.  But with some stunning scenery along the way once again it was worth it….

 

The rain came on quite heavy at one point so it was tough going for a while and just as we were commenting on how good it would be to see a cafe we turned a corner and one magically appeared….with excellent chocolate chip cookies on the menu!!

Our last 30km were relatively dry but the heavy rain clouds completely obscured what we can only assume was stunning landscape and huge mountains.  But I guess that’s why it’s called a rain forest… it just rains a lot!

With the current wet weather we have absolutely no desire to camp so had booked a cabin at a motel/campsite, which was in the middle of nowhere.  It was very basic but had decent cooking facilities and hot showers so it was a welcome respite from the rain.  And arriving at 2.30 we had made really good time considering it had been a pretty strenuous ride.  Typically the rain stopped about 20 minutes after we arrived!

We got talking to a lovely young Dutch couple who were car-camping at the motel (ie sleeping in a bed in their car) and they mentioned a local beach within walking distance that was worth a visit, so we decided on a walk before bedtime.  Hunts Beach is where the rainforest literally goes down into the sea.  It’s absolutely wild with huge waves that crash away at the forest and have created an amazing shoreline that could only be described as a tree graveyard.  Absolutely amazing and unlike anything we have seen before…..

 

There was even a fresh water spring that popped out on the beach!  What was even better about it all is that there were only 2 other people there, so for the first time since we have arrived in NZ we didn’t feel part of a procession of tourists.

We have been in New Zealand exactly 3 weeks now and it still amazes us how touristy everywhere is. We have never been to a country that has felt as crowed with tourists and to be honest it’s not our greatest experience. NZ tourism is obviously a victim of its own marketing success and there is no doubt that the scenery is absolutely spectacular.  But there are just endless cars, vans, bikes, motorbikes and camper vans nearly everywhere we go. There are very few places that really feel off the beaten track, regardless of their remote location, and every car park, campsite, holiday park and rest area is full to bursting – whether it’s a paid-for holiday park in a town or a rural Department of Conversation (DOC) camping site. And on South Island where we are, there is only one main road on the west coast that everyone travels on so there is no avoiding the traffic.  We are very aware that we are also tourists and are obviously part of the problem; we’re also right in the middle of peak holiday season. But if we feel like this, how must the Kiwis feel when it’s their country and they are trying to go about daily business or enjoy their own summer holidays?! This article on NZ tourism, which we read a few days ago had some interesting stats…

 

Through the 1990s, international tourist numbers were 1.8 million.  These numbers have grown over the past five years to 3.9 million a year and are expected to reach 5.1 million by 2025, with Queenstown being the most popular destination.  While tourism is definitely the biggest industry here there is currently lots of debate about how sustainable it is for their beautiful environment and how well the country’s infrastructure can cope with these huge numbers. And we can definitely feel that with locals generally being the most aggressive towards us on the roads.  Off-road they are of course really nice and friendly…something happens when they get behind a steering wheel! 

Monday 27 Jan.  Bruce Bay to Franz Josef Glacier. 60km.

Over breakfast in the camp kitchen we met to a possum trapper who was living temporarily at the motel and getting ready to head out for his days work. We didn’t get his name but he’s 63 year old, normally lives further north in Westport but comes specifically to this area on a regular basis to trap and kill possums for their fur, which he then sells for $7 a skin – for which there is a large market! Not for the faint-hearted as it’s a tough and lonely old job and the fact that it was absolutely pouring with rain meant he wasn’t too keen to get started for the day so happily chatted to us to tell us all about his job.  But we had to drag ourselves away and face the rain for what we knew would be a tough day regardless….we had three big hills to get over to get to Franz Josef Glacier.

We could see very little of the scenery around us when we set out in very damp clothes and shoes that now had 2 days of moisture in them – and the rain just got heavier and heavier. 

 

The first 20km as far as Fox Glacier was flat and we stopped for a coffee break there to psych ourselves up for the climb into Franz Josef. The hills were definitely strenuous but it was the torrential rain that was the toughest – and the more we got soaked on the outside the more we sweated on the inside so it was a pretty uncomfortable ride. But surprisingly we didn’t hate it and it actually felt quite atmospheric with the rain forests and huge trees and ferns all around us.  

We arrived at our hostel absolutely soaked through…

 

….to be greeted by a lovely girl from Uruguay who let us straight into our room, and within minutes we had dried off and were tucking into lunch in a nice warm lounge.

Instead of our usual relaxing afternoon routine we took advantage of a break in the clouds to chance a visit to Franz Josef Glacier in the hope of seeing something of it.  Thinking it was a 1.5 hour return walk from the town centre we set off.  About 45 minutes later when we reached the Glacier car park we were surprised to see a sign showing a 1.5 hour walk from there…!  We had gotten our information wrong so it turned into a 3 hour walk there and back!! But it was worth it as the walk initially took us through the rain forest where we could hear keas calling….

 

….and then a climb through the Glacier valley to get really clear views of the top of the Glacier.  Currently the only way to get onto the Glacier is via helicopter, which I’m sure is an amazing experience, but we had only planned to walk to see it. We had heard that the helicopter traffic can be very overbearing and ruin the walking experience but the crap weather in the morning had actually served a purpose because there were no flights – so it was only walkers like us in the valley and it was pretty fantastic.  Not to bang on about climate change and global warming but it was very interesting to see how much the Glacier has shrunk in size since the early 1900s when it came whole way down the valley.  Whereas now it’s just really a mountain backdrop, but an impressive one at that, although photos doesn’t do it the justice it deserves.  

 

In our haste to beat the rain one very foolish thing we did was leave our hostel without dousing ourselves in sandfly repellent  – not that we are convinced it was doing much good anyway, but walking through a humid rainforest with no protection was just stupid. And I paid the price in being savaged by gazillions of sandflies on our walk, which I only discovered when I got back.  Aargh!!  Made for a particularly itchy and uncomfortable night – and I only had myself to blame.

Tuesday 28 January.  Franz Josef Glacier to Hari Hari. 63km.

A lovely clear morning when we headed off today so we could see a few more glaciers and some snow-capped mountains on our journey. 

 

We had also done some laundry yesterday so apart from shoes our clothes were dry so it was a much more comfortable ride.

We had just come out of the mountains when we passed a very funky camper van parked at the side of the road, which we both commented on as we were cycling passed. The owners shouted out to us to take a break for a cuppa, so we did! Rudi and Else are a Dutch couple who have lived in NZ for 42 years and have been travelling in their bus for 10 years.  It’s a 1965 Bedford bus, which they have converted into a brilliant and comfortable home on wheels ….

 

…where we enjoyed a lovely cuppa, plenty of chat and lots of story sharing. Both of them are absolute characters and we could have stayed much longer than the 45 minutes we did, but it definitely made our morning!

 

Else also have me a home-made solution of dettol and baby oil, which apparently the locals swear by it deter sandflies.  We will see….but I still smothered myself in it and set off smelling like a hospital wing!

We have come across quite a few road works associated with landslides (called ‘land slips’ to the Kiwis) in this region, but today there seemed to be so many more than usual. We can only assume they have had a harsh winter here as there are so many areas of hills just washed into the road, like this….

 

And as this is the only main road around South Island the transport authorities have a busy job keeping it clear so that traffic can keep moving.  Not long after we left Rudi and Else we came across our longest road works yet where the side of Mount Hercules had been washed away and the authorities were out in force to rebuild it and protect against the next bout of bad weather. We had to navigate a monster hill on a single lane hoping that the traffic lights at the far end would be kind enough to us so that we wouldn’t meet oncoming traffic in an unpassable place, or on a bend where we would have to get off our bikes and then not be able to get back in again. We were lucky.  We had one stop to let traffic through, but it wasn’t in a bad spot so we were able to continue cycling to the top and get through it relatively stress-free.

And then it was downhill for a few kilometres to Hari Hari where we had planned to put down roots for the night.  Hari Hari is where Scottish pilot Guy Menzies completed the first solo crossing of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand in January 1931 – by crash-landing in a swamp here! It’s a smart-looking village with a main road running through it and our only accommodation option was some backpacker rooms at the back of a motel.  The beds and rooms were clean but the kitchen was filthy, but it was only for a night so did the job. After dinner we ventured to the bar, which was full of locals….farmers, who had to leave their wellies outside and were all sitting around in socks, a truck driver and other random locals all having a few beers and lively conversations.  Great people-watching and eavesdropping into local rural life for a few hours, which we both really enjoyed! 

2 comments

  1. Comment by Will & Jenny Colquhoun

    Will & Jenny Colquhoun Reply 2 February 2020 at 2:11 am

    Hi Nigel & Martina,
    Definitely right about to many tourists in peak season. Visiting during the shoulder season is the way to go. That advise would apply to nearly every popular tourist destination. Enjoy the ride.
    Will & Jenny.

    • Comment by Nigel

      Nigel Reply 7 February 2020 at 5:44 am

      Yes indeed. It is hard to time everything well on a world trip and it has definitely got better now that schools have gone back!

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