Tue 25 Nov: We were up quite early and checked in with Fox Glacier Guiding about the glacier hike we’d got planned. As expected, it was off, partly because of the incessant rain, but mainly because the access road to the glacier had been washed away. In fact the news was even worse, as the roads north and south were both blocked by either landslides or flooding. And still it kept on raining. The locals seemed confident that the road north would clear quickly once it stopped raining, but I was more skeptical. Having seen size of the drainage channels, I should have had more faith!
Around 10am we headed north to Franz Josef Glacier, the slightly better known of the 2 west coast glaciers, and we were able to get up to a viewpoint overlooking it. There we bumped into a couple of Department of Conservation people who were repairing the viewpoint. They pointed out the channel where the river below the glacier normally runs. The river was several times its normal size and had engulfed the track that led up to the base of the glacier. We decided to view it from a distance!
By the time we left Franz Josef, the rain has stopped and judging from the traffic, the way north was open. We decided to chance it.
The road was still incredibly wet and we did come across the occasional landslide, but it was passable. Not doing the glacier hike had put us a day ahead of schedule, but we decided to try and spend that time up in the Nelson or Marlborough regions, where hopefully the weather was better. In fact Nelson was having just as much rain as we were, but fortunately it had improved by the time we got there. Anyway that meant we had a long day’s driving ahead of us.
We stopped for a very late lunch in Hokitika, a really pleasant town that used to have a big jade, or pounamu, industry. Pounamu is also known as greenstone, NZ jade or nephrite. Its importance has reduced in recent years, but pounamu carving is still an important part of the local economy, and there are a number of shops and carvers. We contributed to the economy by buying some nice presents for the family. The staff at the cafe where we had lunch were all very friendly and the cafe itself has a massive collection of teapots all around its walls – very unusual.
We went through Greymouth, which is one of the major population centres on the west coast and is a port, from which coal is exported. It also houses Monteith’s brewery, and we’d been sampling their products throughout our trip.
Despite the brewery, we didn’t stop in Greymouth. Instead we pressed on to Punakaiki, or the pancake rocks. These are made of limestone, which has been heavily eroded. There are also a series of blowholes which are very active at high tides.
We also saw a Weka there, which is a sort of flightless woodhen which is endemic to New Zealand. A lot of New Zealand’s birds are flightless, most famously the Kiwi. This is because up until the arrival of man, they had very few predators, so they lost the ability to fly. Anyway this weka was very patient, and allowed us to take a number of photographs before it wandered off into the bushes.
After spending some time on the rocks, we carried on to a large cave not far from the side of the road, which was quite interesting.
We carried on north and finally got to Charleston, which is between Punakaiki and Westport. It was founded as a gold mining town during a major gold rush in 1867. Now it is a lot smaller, with probably around 500 people living there. From our point of view it was the last place we were likely to be able to get a bed for the night before we turned inland towards Nelson. We stayed at a lovely little backpackers run by a woman who used to own a Westport guesthouse, but had moved south for a bit of peace and quiet. There were only 4 guest rooms, but they were very nice rooms. It’s a shame we didn’t get more time to enjoy them, but that plan fell apart as soon as we got to the pub.
We walked in to meet the landlord, who was the rudest person we’d met in New Zealand and didn’t make us feel at all welcome. However there were a couple of locals in there who assured us that he was always like that. After we’d complimented him on his pies, which were very good, and he found out that we were from Hong Kong where he’d been 6 times for the rugby sevens, he turned out to be a really good bloke. The others there were a mixed group, including the owner of another backpackers who also has a stock of good local greenstone and does some carving. Then there were a bloke who runs a company supporting the mining industry and one of his people. The company owner was originally a geologist who had worked all over Asia. He was very knowledgeable, and was complaining about the price of coal dropping from $300 a ton to $100 a ton because of a bunch of US bankers being idiots.
From them we found out a bit more about Charleston and life on the west coast. For instance I had thought that the tour guides who stay there in the tourist season would be very welcome. In a sense they are because they’re a friendly bunch and bring in some extra money, but what would be more useful to the local community is families who are there year-round. Then their children will support the school bus and the father can help out with the volunteer fire brigade.
It turned out that everyone except the landlord were part of the volunteer fire brigade, he’d left because he got fed up of Auckland imposing petty regulations that didn’t acknowledge the particular issues of local, rural life. It turns out that the fire brigade is most active with car crashes, which they blamed on tourists driving on the wrong side of the road! We promised to be very careful!
All in all it was one of the most memorable days we spent in New Zealand. Not for the scenery, which was impressive, albeit shrouded in rain all day, but for the people we met along the way. The guides who had to give us the bad news about our cancelled glacier hike, the staff at the cafe in Hokitika, the DOC guys at Franz Josef, but most of all the group we met in the pub at Charleston.
We found the West Coast people that we met to be a little reserved at first, even stand-offish. But after a few beers, they opened up and seemed to be very independent people, who live down on the west coast in tough conditions so that they don’t have people telling them what to do all the time. The ones we met in Charleston were quite critical of the Helen Clark government, the nanny state as they called it, and were more optimistic about John Key who had recently won the election.