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Travel in New Zealand's South Island: Christchurch, Arthur's Pass & the West Coast; Pancake Rocks, Karamea, Heaphy Track
Australia and New Zealand - how many of us long to go there! If we’ve been, how we wonder at its beauty and long to see more! Both countries offer so much to see; the vast open areas of Australia and the beautiful blues and greens of the rivers, mountains and trees of New Zealand.
I had listened to my partner’s tales of travel in the 70s and 80s, overland via Europe and Asia to the antipodes, tales of adventure and exploration in beautiful places under the sun. At last I was able to see some of these places.
The Colours of New Zealand
Both countries lived up to my expectations but I begin with New Zealand. I love the land of the Kiwi for its rich colours, the striking, breath-taking contrast of deep blue sky, lush green vegetation and aquamarine rivers. Christchurch was our base for a few weeks.
Christchurch before the Quake.....
Christchurch was then a city intact, before the earthquakes of 2011 took everyone by surprise, destroyed the city and changed lives for ever. There stood original, stylish buildings with a backdrop of beautiful surrounding hills and plains. I have memories and photos of many areas which will never be the same again.
The city had an open square in front of the cathedral, a pretty building of grey and cream stone. We spent New Year’s Eve 2002/03 in that square, listening to live music, absorbing the festive atmosphere and enjoying the company of family and friends.
The River Avon runs through Christchurch, willows and shrubs on its banks, winding its way through suburbs, walkways alongside it providing peaceful strolls. The Port Hills provide a backdrop and Littleton Harbour is reached by a tunnel through the hill.
It was a city with beautiful historical buildings but is even now a scene of rubble and devastation, its inhabitants trying to reassemble their lives. Streets and pavements are contorted, riverbanks are re-shaped, hillsides redefined. Many buildings have not yet been rebuilt (2013) due to insurance and planning issues. Soil liquefaction takes place ('the process by which water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid' -en.wikiepediacom), so undermining foundations and bases of infrastructure, causing serious damage with consequential safety issues . The sense of loss is palpable.
Though mostly unreported abroad, the quakes continue...
Traveling to the west coast takes one through areas of outstanding beauty. North-west from Christchurch is the pass which links the east and west coasts of the South Island; Arthur’s Pass. It is named after a surveyor, Arthur Dobson, who was searching for a way through from coast to coast and found his path in 1864; his father decided to use it as the main route and referred to it as ‘Arthur’s Pass’.
As the highest pass over the Southern Alps, it reveals grey rugged mountains with scree slopes, wide sweeping plains and deep gorges. On the eastern side are wide shingle riverbeds and beech forests; on the wetter western side rivers flow through deep gorges and dense rainforest. The mountains themselves have peaks shrouded in snow and glaciers.
You can travel Arthur’s Pass by road or by rail. A rail tunnel had to be hewn through 8.5 kilometres of rock at Otira Gorge to enable trains to pass, an amazing engineering feat in itself. The road has been improved too; instead of an incredibly steep descent through the gorge with unparalleled hairpin bends, there is now a bridge going straight across the deepest part. On his exploratory journey Arthur Dobson found the Otira Gorge almost impossible to negotiate and had to leave his horse at the top and lower his dog on a rope so you can imagine how steep and perilous it must have been. Even on the new road, our car’s brakes became overheated after the steep descent. We had to stop to let them cool down!
The Long & Winding Road
The road winds through wide plains and between craggy rocks, over scary descents and under shelters which protect you from rock falls, all offering spectacular scenery. You can imagine how hostile the landscape must have seemed to the pioneer explorers; indeed it can still be inhospitable, cold and dangerous for those who hike and explore.
Walks within the Pass take you to intriguingly named places like The Devil's Punchbowl Falls, Bridal Veil Track, Temple Basin and along the Dobson Nature Walk. Longer hikes can be taken to Avalanche Peak, Mount Aicken and Mount Bealey. Birdlife includes keas and alpine parrots, the latter having an extremely inquisitive nature. Winter sports include skiing and snowboarding. There are many climbing routes for mountaineers plus more challenging suggestions for ice and rock climbers!
Down towards Greymouth
From Wild Wilderness to Lush Leaves
A contrast between the brown/grey colourless landscape on the first part of the route and the lush vegetation to the west side makes you feel as though you’ve entered a completely different land. The descent to Greymouth, winding through yet more vibrant green trees and shrubs, leads you down onto the narrow coastal strip which defines the West Coast. Looking back at the mountains all you can see is deep rainforest, often shrouded in mist. The journey’s driving time is about three hours.
The coastal town of Greymouth is aptly named. There is frequently a mist enveloping the coast, drifting down from the mountains or in from the sea; it gives the region an air of mystery and isolation. Indeed, this area is isolated. The Southern Alps are to the south of you, Arthur’s Pass to the east and a road northwards that eventually runs out! It is not an area teeming with tourists but it is well worth visiting.
The West Coast
Pancake Rocks & Penguins
Punakaiki - what a great name! It’s the Maori name for Pancake Rocks and, yes, they do look like big stacks of pancakes. The many stacks which amaze and intrigue have been weathered by pounding seas, eroded to form blow holes which boom and forcibly eject impressively high jets of spray. Walkways take you around, above and between the best viewpoints.
It’s worth stopping for a picnic lunch or just a stroll to take in the unrivaled views of cliffs and sea. A little further north, you’ll see the best road sign ever, to protect the local penguins. The road drops down to a narrow part between sea and rockface; this is where the penguins have their own chosen crossing to access their shelters and nests, so you have to take care to avoid any which might be waddling across. It’s their road, not yours!
As you journey further north, the landscape becomes more and more remote, the rocks closer to the sea, the mists rolling from sea to shore and from mountain to coast; an atmosphere of ancient times and a land much older and wiser than any being.
PunakaikiClick thumbnail to view full-size
Beware of Penguins!
Follow the road to Karamea, a small habitation which serves a long, narrow area of flat land giving up to mist-shrouded mountains to the east and grey-misted seas to the west. Walk across a broad expanse of grassland where tufted mounds make quad-riding fun, to reach a long, wide beach; from there you walk across soft sand to meet the sea before it stretches out into empty infinity.
Serious shopping has to be done in Westport or Greymouth; stocking up is essential if you want to avoid several long journeys, though the local stores will get things in for you.
Occasionally a few locals might set out fishing lines here - just long metal pegs hammered into the sand with ropes attached carrying vertical nets and stretched out to sea as far as one can manage. Come back the next morning and you’ll find small (about 3 feet long), toothless sharks called Rig Shark, Lemonfish or sometimes Gummyfish! They make delicious steaks, barbecued or steamed. You need the quad-bike to take them home!
Karamea & the Gummyfish
The Heaphy Track
The road continues a while, the rocks come close to the shore, then a little further and you’ve reached the end of the road! Here you’ll find the Kohaihai River across which is an entrance to Kahurangi National Park where the Heaphy Track begins; a hikers’ track which meanders through the mountains, across the Tasman peninsular, eventually reaching Golden Bay. It’s a treck that takes up to 3 days or more; there are simple shacks along the way for intrepid explorers to use at night for taking food and shelter or just for a rest if you’re not tackling the whole length. Where the track begins, a beautiful inlet joining tropical vegetation with the rocks and the sea provides a peaceful, shady area to sit, relax, picnic or just take in the stunning scenery.
The track, 80 km long, has connected Karamea on the west coast with Golden Bay in the North since 1893, due to the Gold Rush. Its name comes from Charles Heaphy, an explorer, artist and soldier, who was one of the first to explore this coastline and the forest inland.
There is a diversity and number of plant species here and there are strict rules for users: no dogs are allowed as the area shelters many kiwis, the notoriously shy and elusive emblem of New Zealand, and you are expected to take out any litter you might generate.
The Heaphy Track
If you take an eastward turn just north of Karamea, up a winding lane into the forest, you can look down into a huge bowl; impossible to see the bottom through the thick vegetation but its size is all-enveloping, offering, almost threatening, to swallow you up. You are looking down onto the Oparara Basin, an ancient area of forest, drained by the Oparara River.
Oparara BasinClick thumbnail to view full-size
Carry on until you reach a parking area, then follow the path through the trees; it meanders by the Oparara River. The river water is a clear, strong orange, coloured by naturally occurring tannins. The winding path takes you further into the forest, abruptly turns, dips and rises. At the side of the path are strange earth formations looking like mini-high-rise cities.
Even in the car park, you are likely to encounter the weka, a bird which is flightless like the kiwi but bigger and without the long beak. It's not nearly as shy; in fact they're out looking for any biscuits or sandwiches you have to offer! They're regarded locally as a pest but nonetheless are intriguing little creatures.
Oparara RiverClick thumbnail to view full-size
Moria Gate Arch
After about half an hour of easy walking look for the narrow entrance to the Moria Gate Arch, a limestone formation over the river. Blink and you’ll miss the low portway amidst the rocks but there’s a small sign informing you of the route down through slippery rocks, to the river cave. It’s passable with comparative ease (there are railings and a chain to hold onto) but you need to be agile. The broad, level cave floor gives out onto the narrow river, the roof and arch above you. The beauty of this hidden treasure is... well, I defy you not so say ‘Wow!’ over and over and over.
Moria Gate ArchClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Country of Beauty & Surprises round every Corner
All of New Zealand offers wonderful areas of outstanding beauty in both South and North islands. It has rivers and mountains, forests and lakes, wonderful coastlines and inland thermal valleys. You can ski or snorkel, walk or sail, visit vineyards or watch seals, bathe in thermal waters or sunbathe on clean, sandy beaches. There are no snakes but an array of indigenous wildlife.
If you get a chance to visit, snatch it and make the most of this amazing country and its friendly people.
Have you been to New Zealand?
Where have you visited in New Zealand?
© 2013 Ann Carr