West Coast Road Trip

From the sunny shores of the northern South Island, we turned west and kept on going until we hit the coast.

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Our first night, spent in a campground next to Hope River in Kawatiri, ushered in a cold rain that came in fits and spurts until mid-morning, when it settled in for good. We stuffed our wet tent in the boot and drove off on a curvy road carved into the mountainside, the Buller River below. A quick stop in Murchison, a main-road town of surprising brevity, then we were away. We arrived in Westport in the early afternoon and agreed to bunker down in our favorite accommodation, the Art Hotel. It was a smart move, all the temperamental weather continued all day. We spent much of the day in the kitchen cooking small feasts for ourselves, reading books and magazines, and washing off the sand and saltwater of a warmer time.

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Just as the last time we were in Westport, the shit weather we arrived in turned beautiful overnight. When we left, it was all sunshine and sweet breeze. We headed to Cape Foulwind, took a pleasant stroll along the shore, and visited Tauranga Seal Colony, where we spied on New Zealand fur seals splashing in tidal pools and sunning themselves on the rocks.

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We drove down the gorgeous highway to Greymouth, stopping again at Pancake Rocks to stretch our legs and admire the view, and then on to a scenic campground on Lake Ianthe. It was a lovely spot, but the tent sites were on swamp land. Oh well. We enjoyed the evening anyway.

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The next day would be a full one, so we tried to get up early, but nah. Thankfully, we don’t sleep much past 8am anyway. We set out for the glaciers an hour later. Franz Josef Glacier was first. A walk through the glacial valley brought us to the viewing station 500m from the glacier, which has reversed dramatically in just the last five years. Pat admired the steep walls the glacier carved out of the land; I was absorbed by the opaque river, full of rock flour. Fox Glacier was similar, but slightly more intimate. We got closer, 200m, so the glacier itself felt slightly more imposing, but a shadow of its former formidable self.

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It was now early afternoon, and we drove down to the trailhead of the Copland Track. We had a 20km trek ahead of us, to Welcome Flats Hut for an overnight. We would hike out the next morning before continuing south by car. It was an awesome tramp along the Karangarua and Copland Rivers, with snow-covered mountains shepherding us up the valley. The day was clear and hot, and we managed the trail well, arriving at the hut in five hours or so. We set up our tent and went to check out the natural hot pools nearby. It was a fantastic treat after a solid hike, but we were dogged by sandflies and soon retreated into the hut for dinner. We celebrated with a bottle of wine Pat snuck up and chilled in the river, and went to bed late.

It was misty and damp in the morning, and our hike out felt unexciting compared to the day before. We made great time and were back on the road before we knew it. Off to Haast for fish and chips, a post-hike staple. Then we took a detour to Jackson Bay, the end of the line. The highway just ends in the small, isolated community. There’s nowhere beyond.

Back to Haast, we ended up continuing on to Wanaka in search of groceries. We passed gorgeous lakes on both sides, glittering under a darkening sky. It was late by the time we reached the city, but things were still open, a rarity in New Zealand. We had a picnic at the shore of Lake Wanaka, watched the world turn to night, and drove out of town to find a quiet place to sleep in the car.

We drove back to Wanaka before dawn. I took a long run along the lake and Pat scoped out the town. I sipped a flat white outside a busy cafe and we were visited by Christian missionaries from South Korea, come to teach the heathen Kiwis about Jesus. They gave us some candy and moved to the next table.

Wanaka was an enjoyable town, but we took off in the early afternoon in hopes of finding a better library in Queenstown. The drive was lovely. Queenstown is not. Throbbing with swarms of tourists and advertisements for EXTREME ADVENTURE ACTIVITIES!!!! everywhere, I felt this awful repulsion to the place. I wished we were back in quiet Jackson Bay, or camping along a lonely river, anywhere but this wriggling mess of commercialism. The best I can say about the place was they hadn’t covered the mountains with advertisements, but I won’t be surprised if it happens soon.

We dropped off the car the next day and thumbed our way back to central Otago. It was crowded on the road out of Queenstown; our first ride crammed four of us into his car and at least got us a ways out of town. Eventually we got a ride to Cromwell with an Aussie couple on their honeymoon, and then all the way to our WWOOF destination with a transportation engineer from Dunedin. He told us he had hitched the length of New Zealand with his wife last year to raise money for charity and was happy to pass along some kindness to us. I missed this sort of sweetness while in our own car, this openness and gratitude.

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