As you may recall, Jeff and I tried to reach the West Coast during our last campervan trip but couldn’t, since several bridges had been wiped out due to flood. This year, with Cyclone Gita moving through, it looked like we might meet the same fate, but alas, we didn’t! We finally got to visit Jeff’s beloved West Coast. Yippeeee!!!!
The West Coast will always hold a special place in Jeff’s heart, as he used to visit his grandmother here growing up, and, simply stated, he loves the solitude and small town feel of the area.
But the West Coast is also unique for others who don’t have such sentimental attachments. It’s primarily a rainforest, and is the wettest part of New Zealand, making it a very lush area of the country. But before we get to that, let’s talk about our route to get there.
Getting to the West Coast – NZ roads are different
As you know, our last stop had been Manapouri, which by car, should have been 7 hours away from our destination – Okarito.
It took us 11 hours. (Eeek!) This was not entirely unexpected, as it does take longer to get places on NZ roads – especially in a campervan. In fact, they remind drivers of this often throughout the country, with the below signs.
We knew this was the case, but we had decided that one long driving day was worth it, so that we could get to our destination and stay there for several days, rather than splitting the drive in two.
Despite standing by our decision, boy was that a long day!
So what do they mean by driving on NZ roads being different?
Driving on NZ roads is challenging – it’s not like going fast on a straight highway for miles and miles, as you can in the States. Rather, there are twists and turns, traffic backups due to slow vehicles on mainly 2-lane highways (campervans, large trucks, elderly drivers, tourists taking pictures out windows, you name it), many areas of construction, the occasional sheep mustering/cattle drive etc, etc. You get the gist.
Travel Tip: When doing a long drive in New Zealand, plan at least 30 to 40% extra time for expectedly unexpected delays. (You never know what they’ll be – but more often than not, they’ll be there!)
Thankfully for us, the drive was beautiful (as are all drives here, really)! So it’s worth showing you a few shots along the way, even though we didn’t spend any time in these areas.
First things first, you can always find the below vistas.
Sheep abound in NZ (as of 2016, there are ~27 million sheep overall and ratio of 6:1 sheep to people – down from 20:1 in the 1980’s, with ~30% decrease in numbers from 2006 to 2016). I haven’t been showing you many of these, but trust me, they are everywhere! Oh, and they always run away when you stop to take pictures of them. Hence the many sheep butts in this photo.
(Except for that one who is looking at us with curiosity. I’d like to sit down and have a cup of tea with him – see what makes him different from the rest.)
While Queenstown is the most popular destination in this area (think skiing, bungee jumping, jet boating, adventurer’s paradise), it holds little appeal to us (too many tourists and people in general…shocking, right?). But the area is stunning, no doubt.
Wanaka, a smaller version of Queenstown, is just up the road apiece and is getting just as crowded. We stopped there to do some grocery shopping and couldn’t get out of there fast enough! At 2pm on a Friday, the store was a madhouse. I asked the cashier if it was normally like this on a Friday afternoon. She responded that it’s always like this. Woah.
For us, the most gorgeous features of this area are the mountain-rimmed lakes. The below pic is of Devil’s Staircase by Lake Wakatipu, called such for the “staircase” type action of the road as it winds by the lake.
Lake Hawea, further north, is the most beautiful of these lakes, to me, as I simply can’t get over the color of the water.
And only a short drive from Lake Hawea is Lake Wanaka (as close as 1km to each other at their closest point, the Neck), which is a different color altogether. The reflections of the clouds in the picture below are enchanting. To see all of these lakes and mountains when they are snow capped in the winter is simply amazing.
This area is also known for its orchards and vineyards. The number of these have skyrocketed since we have moved away with many of the hillsides covered with netted grapes.
And as indication that we are finally getting to the West Coast, below is the Haast River. Haast is best known for Haast Pass, the lowest of the Passes to pass over the Southern Alps (~560m above sea level).
Once through Haast Pass and then the town of Haast itself, we were well and truly on the West Coast.
Our time on the West Coast
Two things to note about our trip to the West Coast –
- We wanted to go here so badly that it was worth the possible miserable weather (rain was forecast for more days than not during our stay), and
- Our plan was to stay in each place for 3 nights, so we could start the relaxing part of this sabbatical. We had no plans to sightsee – only chill. The places we planned to stay were Okarito and Hokitika.
I’m happy to report that we only got one day of rain (yahoo!) but the threat of rain did cause us to cut our stay short…we only spent 5 days here. But that’s one of the reasons we have a campervan – to dodge the weather when needed. Now on to the West Coast!
The lush West Coast
The glory of the West Coast, to me, is in its environment. It’s on the westward side of the Southern Alps (which form a spine down the South Island), and the copious rain allows for a lush, green atmosphere that just makes you feel like all is ok with the world. It feels vibrant, healthy, and the air you breathe just feels clean. Or so it does to me.
In addition, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful, and…it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve walked into Jurassic Park. It has that prehistoric “you wish you’ve seen what I’ve seen” feel to it. I often expect a dinosaur or prehistoric reptile of some sort to wander out from the ferns at any moment…Maybe that’s why it’s a bit magical to me. (Or maybe it’s just because Jeff loves it so much.)
Interesting note: New Zealand does have one reptile that I half expect to see wander out of the bush at any minute – the tuatara. As “the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs” – I would faint if I saw one in person, but alas they no longer live in the wild on mainland NZ (only in the islands).
I feel at peace here.
The scene below is uber-common on the West Coast, where ferns and greenery abound.
And more…(just to make my point)
And it’s not just the lushness of the whole picture all together, but I’m also in love with the individual ferns. Tree ferns, Ponga ferns, I love them! (Though they do smell sometimes…oh wait, or was that Jeff? Sometimes it’s hard to know.)
The lushness of every fern still has me enamored. Especially after a fresh rain. Mmmmmmm.
And because the West Coast is on the “backside” of the Southern Alps, there are also glaciers to be seen and/or hiked.
Travel note: As the crow flies, it is only ~40km (~25mi) from Okarito to Mt Cook (the highest mountain in the Southern Alps), but by car the fastest route is ~500km (~310mi), which would take you 6.5 hours to get there (and don’t forget to add your 30 to 40%!).
There are 2 glaciers that can be visited from the West Coast – Fox and Franz Josef. Unfortunately, Fox Glacier was closed due to a slip after a massive rain event in early February, which took out over 200m of the road.
But Franz Josef was open to visitors, so we stopped to take a look. Luckily for us, we got there early enough to get a parking spot in the main lot. It filled up quickly, so people were having to walk a couple of kms up the road to just get to the main lot, before then walking another 20 to 30 minutes to see the glacier. Yikes!
Travel note: New Zealand is currently not equipped to handle all of the visitors they are receiving. Parking lots are often overcrowded. I have no recommendations for how to handle this – other than to schedule more time than you think you’ll need if there is something you really want to see.
Ok, back to Franz Josef. We walked to the first viewing point – seen below. Notice the sign. People have crossed barriers at these glaciers to take pictures and have died for their efforts. Stay aware and heed the signs!
When I first saw the glacier, I was taken aback. Instincts told me that this glacier had retreated considerably since we’d been here about 15 years ago (by half its length, at least, in my estimation?). To me, it looks like a stump.
I can’t wait to get home to look at my old pictures and compare, but until then, I had to settle for some good ole fashioned (or new fashioned?) googling.
And sure enough, as reported in 2016, Franz Josef had among the fastest melt rates of any glacier in the world. Gulp. In fact, it is moving at such a rate that in 2015 they banned pedestrian traffic onto the glacier by hiking, due to safety hazards. Now the only way to view the glacier, other than from afar, is by helicopter.
Fox Glacier is suffering a similar fate, as reported in 2017, with alarming before and after pictures presented for 2006 and 2015. While periods of advancement have been observed in past decades, the overall result has been rapid decline for these glaciers since 2011. Double gulp.
We’d learned of similar issues in Glacier National Park (whose glaciers could be gone by 2030) and Iceland.
Note to self: Jennifer – keep your thoughts on climate change to yourself and get back to the story, pronto!
Rightyo, then, back to the story. For now, New Zealand is one of those unique places where you can see a glacier and a rainforest waterfall in the same panorama. Stunning.
When we stopped at this viewpoint to see the glacier, there was another option – to walk another hour or so to see the glacier closer up (~750m away), but we chose not to take this route. From previous experience, I know that you typically see the dirty gravel riverbed where it meets the ice, rather than the pristine ice view you might be hoping for. Wasn’t worth it for us.
For that reason, my favorite way to see the glaciers (at least 15 years ago) was by heli-hike. This is when they take you up in a helicopter and drop you off with a guide to walk around the ice, with boots, crampons, pick axe and all.
This option was much more fulfilling, as you are surrounded by the white and blue ice, can traverse the crevasses (where safe to do so), and really feel like you are experiencing the glaciers instead of just “seeing” them. (Not to mention that I recall feeling like I’d conquered the world while I was up there. I’m not adventurous enough to be a climber, so this was close as I would get!)
This option is still available now, but I can only imagine how many people are heli-hiking, now that it is essentially the only option to see the glacier up close. What effect must this be having on the glaciers? Those thoughts never entered my head 15 years ago. Now, I choose to appreciate that the glaciers exist at all.
This visit simultaneously opened my eyes and saddened me.
Up the road about 20 minutes was our camping destination – Okarito.
Okarito is a small town of about 30 people, with approximately 30,000 tourists visiting each year. We chose to stay in Okarito since there was a campsite near the beach, plain and simple. (And since it wasn’t as far as Hokitika, which would have added to our 11-hour driving day…)
Okarito is best known for its kiwi population, including nighttime tours to see them (they are nocturnal), as well as for the lagoon, with its associated kayak and boat tours. We did none of these. Instead, we read in the hammock, fished, blogged, napped, you know the drill. We chilled out.
We did see multiple signs for kiwi, though, reminding us of their presence in the area.
And Jeff had some luck with fishing this time, though only the small one allowed his pic to be taken as the big one was camera shy. And Jeff is a catch and release kinda guy, so no evidence to share.
And, of course, we watched the sunset over the ocean, which we can’t do on the east coast of the US. Nothing spectacular, but special nonetheless. Notably, the beaches here are gray and pebbly, unlike the sandy beaches seen in Southland.
Our time in Okarito was wonderfully unhurried. We stayed at a campground, which was quaint and looked like it was still stuck in the 60’s (in a good way).
In fact, in addition to their clothesline and recycling bins (both are common in NZ), there was also an old-fashioned clothes wringer! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one, and I’ve still never used one. But it did add to the old campground atmosphere – along with the goodhearted and always chatty campground hosts.
On Day 2, the forecast was 100% rain all day. After having a lazy morning that included our morning-time favorites – jam or Marmite-smeared crumpets with copious amounts of coffee – we migrated to the “common area” so we could charge the laptop and phones as a productive way to pass the time.
Our German camping comrades had other ideas, as they made a mad dash to get what they needed to survive the rain… (pic posted with verbal permission)
Fortunately for us, it cleared up for 4 to 5 hours in the afternoon, allowing for more fishing and whatnot. We were pleasantly surprised at that turn of events.
From Okarito, we headed to Hokitika, a small town of about 3,000 people, where Jeff’s grandmother once lived. He has fond memories of visiting there as a child and a young adult, when he went camping with friends.
His memories were of driftwood on the beach, and he desperately wanted to freedom camp on the beach somewhere in Hokitika with hopes of doing some nighttime photography. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen exactly as he had hoped. But we still had a great time.
First things first, Hokitika is quite different than when we were last there, which is over a decade ago now. Not unexpectedly, things change in that amount of time, but it took us a bit to reconcile the current Hokitika with that of our memories.
When we knew it, Hokitika, and many of the small towns on the West Coast, were more humble, sometimes run down, and more homely, if you will. But now, clearly money has been infused into the area as many buildings have been updated and tourism is thriving.
That said, Hokitika has kept its charm, with the old clock on the main street in town…
…as well as the Hokitika sign made out of sticks on the beach…
But the beach has changed quite a bit, as there is now a beach wall made of stone, with little to no driftwood to be seen at the town beach.
We don’t know if Cyclone Gita cleared it all off the beach, or if someone is doing it purposefully (honestly the beach looks too clean to have been cleared by a cyclone).
Which left Jeff not wanting to camp in Hokitika after all. Bummer!
That said, we did enjoy some of their finer foods…we shared some fish and chips (authentically wrapped in newspaper, of course). They were the first of our trip and were delish!
(See Dolly photobombing in the background? We like to keep an eye on her when we can, since people have warned us that breaking into cars/vans is possible. We never experienced any trouble, though.)
And later we had a nice coffee on the beach. While in the cafe, we just had to photograph this selection of “pies” – quite a variety, eh? From Moroccan, to Indian, to Mexitarian (?), to kiwi classics…they have it all!
So now it was time to figure out what to do, since we were no longer staying in Hokitika. Fortunately for us, we had stopped into a nearby small town called Ross, to check out their beaches. They were just as Jeff had remembered the Hokitika beaches…strewn with driftwood. Superb!
Lucky for us, a new campground had just opened up nearby (which wasn’t even in our handy travel directory yet!) so we stopped in. It was pricey by our estimation ($40/nt for a non-powered site) but it was PERFECT.
We got a front row spot where we could see and hear the beach from our van…
…with all of its glorious driftwood available to photograph at will.
Some of the pieces brought up on the beach were huge – evidence of the strength of the rivers that carry them out to sea as well as the strong currents that hit the West Coast and bring them ashore.
And, similar to Slope Point in the Catlins, the strong winds shaped the trees in the area…
During our stay at Ross, we visited nearby Lake Kaniere (another of Jeff’s favorites), only to find that the road to his favorite local photographic site (Dorothy Falls) was closed. Phooey. So we stopped trying to see what we thought we’d see around Hokitika and just embraced Ross.
The universe applauded our efforts with the most perfect night of our trip thus far.
Jeff showed off his firestarting skills by successfully lighting the best bonfire on the beach (no one else could get one started due to the winds, I guess) with a brilliant sunset as the backdrop. The colors of this sunset evolved for what seemed like hours. Simply breathtaking.
And for the first and only night of the trip, we had company. A NZ couple from Blenheim joined us and we talked and photographed late into the evening. We had a blast.
Sentimental note: As it turned out, the couple we spoke to were woodturners – so we’re going to order something they make [maybe a cutting board?] as a remembrance of this perfect night, and this awesome trip overall. We had tried to look for something genuine and unique in Hokitika, but found that lots of it was now produced in bulk and geared for tourists. So yet again, Ross saved the day! You gotta love it!
Jeff went out for some nighttime shots too…(indeed, they really are nighttime shots, lit by moonlight).
The campsite was eccentric in that it had self-described “quirky” cottages that you could rent if you didn’t want to camp. These were made out of shipping containers. If you know us, you know we’re enamored by the tiny house movement, so we loved this unique twist on a campground!
In the end, this modern day, shipping container laden campsite by the beach full of driftwood and nighttime photography opportunities was meant to be. It was simply perfect for us. Thank you, Ross!!!
Travel tip: Ross is a speed trap. I had gotten my only speeding ticket there, when I lived in New Zealand, so we cracked up when we saw some poor sucker pulled over by a cop as soon as we pulled out of the campsite. Reassuredly, some things don’t change!
After a couple of decadent days in Ross, the impending rain sent us on our way.
Moving on from the West Coast
Leaving the West Coast meant traveling down about 4 to 5 hours of the same way we came, before stopping for the night in Cromwell and then heading inland the next day and driving across Central Otago to Dunedin where we would see our family and friends. (We’d learned our lesson about 11-hour drives, so we split it over 2 days!)
The drive down allowed for some new sites, including the below cattle drive…(A sheep muster and a cattle drive on the same trip?!?!?! So cool!!!!) And to be clear, these drives aren’t on side roads – we’ve seen them on the main state highway. Yet another thing that makes NZ roads different and why you should allow extra time.
Industry note: Dairy and beef cattle farming are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the NZ economy – and particularly dairy farming. As of 2016, the ratio of dairy cows to people were ~1.6:1. I can’t find specific numbers on the percentage increase over time, but we can tell you that we are passing more cattle farms on the road now than even just 5 years ago. Will be interesting to see if the number of sheep fall as the number of cows rise. NZ is already having issues with the increased stock effluent polluting local rivers – so this is another issue they are dealing with (besides increased tourism).
Hokitika and Westland have always been big dairy areas, due to the moist climate. In fact, Jeff remembers walking from his grandmother’s house to the dairy manufacturing plant up the road to buy fresh milk and cream in glass bottles. This is something I have never experienced, so it fascinates me! (It also kills me that we are now old enough to say, “back in our day…”. Yowzers, when did that happen!?!?!?!?!? Oh my.)
Along the drive, we also spotted another of NZ’s native birds, the pukeko. They seemed to like foraging in the fields along the highway, as we saw many of them.
We had thought about stopping in at some of the walks and sights along the way, but decided against it, since parking was already overloaded.
We reached our final destination in the early afternoon. We stayed at Aurum Wines near Lake Dunstan overnight.
When we were back home planning our trip, Jeff had found this site called Okay2Stay.co.nz that had entrepreneurs all over the North and South islands such as cheesemakers, brewers, winemakers, artists, etc, who would allow you to park at their establishment overnight (for free, in a self-contained campervan) as long as you tried some of their goods.
For a small fee ($45NZ/yr) we joined the site. This was the first and only night we used it on our trip, but we recommend it as a way to get a quieter camping experience and more access to locals.
So, of course, we bought a bottle of wine from them as per the site agreement. It’s a hard life, right? (In fact it was so delicious that we bought a second!)
Thanks to Okay2Stay, we got to spend the night at Aurum Wines, an organic vineyard that included olive trees (for olive oil) as well as an English garden. Again – given our love of organic gardening (and wine) this was perfect for us. It was an absolutely splendid afternoon and we enjoyed supporting the local economy.
And with that, we come to the end of our relaxing time on the West Coast. We hope you enjoyed the journey – we certainly did! Cheers!