Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Way Out West

The sky contains varied, different shades of grey, the mountains are obscured by layer upon layer of mist so that they almost look like big inverted clouds, dark grey silhouettes looming in the background, the rain light, but incessant: we are now on the west coast of the South Island. It is rumoured to rain here a lot, the storms coming in from Australia (of course, another reason for plucky Kiwis to look askance at their bigger neighbour), crossing the Tasman Sea, and dumping most of their water on the coast before migrating across the Southern Alps. In fact, it Rains Here A Helluva Lot. It begins raining as soon as we get to the coast, at Haast, and it precipitates on and off until we get to Fox Glacier.

The first thing I do is find my hotel. Speaking of rain, their plumbing is on the fritz, and so they’ve had to transfer me somewhere else. I find the alternative motel. No plumbing on the blink. I check in. I go out. It’s horrible. However, at least, unlike India and Australia, there’s no likelihood of any water crisis!!!

The setting is just stupendous. The tourist village of Fox Glacier is situated on the narrow coastal shelf that hugs the mountain ranges between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps, and the high mountains – amongst them New Zealand’s highest, Mount Cook, at over 10,000 feet - spawn enormous glaciers, 40 or 50 of them, but prominent amongst them Fox and Franz Josef, that slowly swirl and switch down to a rainforest below. There must be countless microclimates in a very small area around the glaciers. Nowhere else in the world outside of the polar regions are glaciers found extending to such low altitudes – from a height of nearly 1,000 meters above sea level they flow down to less than 300. The settings of Fox and Franz (as the locals call them – making them sound like brothers in a Grimm fairy tale!) are wondrous, hugging the bottoms of dreamy, cloud-covered mountains. In only 3 places in the world – Franz and Fox and some place in Patagonia – are glaciers adjacent to an area of rainforest.

Click here to see the scenery and the other pictures from this week. Fox is the smaller, and probably the least commercialised of the two, so I decided to base myself there.

We arrived in the late afternoon from Queenstown after a spectacular drive through some of the South Island’s wildest and most beautiful country, much of it near or in National Parks, Fjordland or Mount Aspiring or Tai Poutini/Westland. We left early in the morning, about 07:40, and our well-filled coach wended north through small pretty villages or towns such as Arrowtown (a gold-rush village), Wanaka (at the south end of Lake Wanaka), and Makarora, with some picturesque scenery in between, and plenty of grapes on vines in the fields beyond. Our coach wound back and forth on the twisty-turny roads that hugged the mountains, first climbing up the sides as if seeking the fastest way through the range, then descending just as quickly as the roadbed found its natural way back to earth. We emerged from the Southern Alps area into the coastal plain at the small town of Haast, which seemed quite suddenly flat compared to what we’d been going through, and not very interesting. The plain varies in width along the coast, sometimes being very wide, sometimes incorporating a coastal range of hills different from the Southern Alps – apparently two plates of the earth’s crust meet in this area, which explains the earthquakes – and often being very narrow, a strip really, with the road blasted out of a mountainside.

Visits to the various shops and tourist offices yield a few brochures but precious little information. I decide to book for the next helicopter ride around the glaciers at 11 the next morning. Or, it might not be, depending on…the weather. The advice? “You’re better off booking tomorrow because you’re here Monday, so if it’s not possible to fly tomorrow, you can at least postpone for Monday.” And if it’s not possible to fly on Monday???

This turns out to be excellent advice as it pelts down all night long, subsiding somewhat in the morning, but still raining intermittently as I make my way to the helicopter ride office. Glum, morose heli-guide sits behind the desk, asks my name as I walk in, then advises me that flights are off – visibility is too low. He concedes that it might get better and be possible to fly later – anything is possible – but warns of the ‘flying trap’, where it improves enough to fly, but the clouds close in again and snuff out the visibility, making it impossible to get back down. That doesn’t sound too good. So he reschedules me for tomorrow morning at 09:00. I then try to think of alternatives for the morning, including the Lake Matheson walk – another reason that I stayed in Fox, as it’s a short walk down the road from me – which is supposed to be excellent, according to someone I met in Queenstown. It’s one of the most oft-photographed lakes in New Zealand, as it has mirror views of Mount Cook. Glum, Morose was not impressed – “not a great day to go to Lake Matheson, either, really. That’s the problem – when the weather’s no good, there’s not a lot to do around here.”

So I decide on a half-day glacier walk on Fox Glacier, starting after lunch, which at least is not weather-dependent. As far as I know. Our band of 23 sets off just before 2 and climb on an old coach to the starting point for the walk. The first hour consists of a walk along a public track (fairly easy), then a steep ascent through rainforest (on a maintained track, but in about an hour we go up about 300m). Just after 3:30 we finally strap on our crampons and walk on the glacier for the next hour. At every stage the top of the glacier looms into view and dominates the landscape around us, tumbling from its highest point about 3,000m above sea level to the rainforest area beneath, pouring its melted ice into a silty stream below.

The glacier carves its way through the steep, rain-forested valley. After years of receding, about a decade ago it started advancing a metre a day. It then started receding again, and is now felt to be advancing again, but not at the previous hectic rate. It gets fed by snow from the incredible amount of moisture that dumps on the West Coast – according to one source, in isolated areas, 7 – 8 metres per year, but concentrated on relatively few days, among them the ones that I’m in Fox!!! Franz Josef is steeper than Fox, but Fox is longer and in several sections – we walk on one of the lower sections, as a round trip to one of the higher ones can take over 18 hours. The ice that we’re walking on could be 50, or possibly several hundred, years old.

Apart from the sounds of people walking around and talking, it’s perfectly silent, the stillness only punctuated by the occasional rock fall – suddenly a load of rocks will just crash down from on high, and you can’t tell from below exactly where!

After walking around the glacier with Jason, our guide, we begin to make our way down. Jase is a cool dude, not flashy with his knowledge and even, when asked a question, seemingly hesitant or offhand about some of his facts, but he always comes up with a plausible answer. Around us the clouds gird the peaks, thick and gauzy, clinging to the mountainsides and drifting slowly around, over and past them. It begins to rain as we find the public walking track at the glacier’s terminal moraine, the first rain of the afternoon. We get the old bus back to the office in Fox, all of us exhausted and sweaty and wet, and ready for showers and a glass of wine.

The next day, I get up early and survey the weather – it appears pretty clear, with one mountain peak in clear view. In an hour’s time, however, the frothy clouds have closed in and enveloped the mountains. Although I already know that my chopper ride will not be possible, I optimistically report to the office…where Glum, Morose tells me it’s a big nocando. I could try again later today at 3, but he’s not optimistic about the cloud lifting. So I decide on a 14km. walk to and from Lake Matheson, including a trail partly around the lake. The renowned scenery is surrounded by vaporous cumulus, but the forest walk around the lake is certainly enjoyable. The lake is full of clear, brown water, but never fear: it’s kanhui, a tree that bleeds tannin into the surroundings. And at least the rain holds off…

On my return to Fox, the chopper ride is, of course, a big nix, and Glum, Morose apologises. It starts to rain again, pretty hard this time, so I have some lunch and mooch back to my motel to write this and caption pictures for the afternoon. As I leave in the morning, I have missed the helicopter view of the glaciers and Mount Cook – oh, well, another to save for next time…

The next morning I take the coach to Greymouth. It is comforting to see the cloud still prevalent in the mountains, meaning that no chopper ride would have gone this morning. There was rain last night – of course – and thunder, and there is some snow dusting the mountain tops as well. The road to Franz is the most winding and twisting yet, first going south, then going north, next south, then north. We loaf by a couple of picturesque lakes – Lake Mapourika and Lake Ianthe – skirted by the road on the way north. The scenery is mountainous, perhaps not quite as spectacular as around Fox and Franz. We go thorough a village called Harihari – or ‘happy happy’ – and then finally have our morning break in the village of Pukekura.

Pukekura has the West Coast’s smallest town population – 2 – both of which I guess run the Pukekura tourist complex, a slice of rural weirdness on the west coast, consisting of a Bushman’s Centre, accommodation, craftshop, museum, café, wild game restaurant, and the Puke Pub. Our driver warned us about what we would find in the café – apparently the possum was introduced to New Zealand from Australia with disastrous results, going from 0 to 70m in a few decades, in the process destroying whole swaths of forest, birdlife in the form of eggs, etc. In its own small way, to counteract this, the café serves possum pies, and other, more conventional fare with eccentric names – a ham & egg sandwich is called ‘unborn chicken and compressed pig’!!! I didn’t get to find out if the Puke Pub serves possum piss, or whatever…but I did get some pictures!

The west coast has a mining past and present. We went through Ross, a gold town that is said to have $100m of gold still residing underneath it. People in Ross apparently do things like dig new toilets and come up with enormous gold nuggets, for example. But gold is not mined there anymore. The Government banned mining on public land and also stopped the timber trade on government land around Greymouth 5 years ago. Result: more 500 year old trees saved, less timber trade, but more tourism and more nature preserved.

We stopped in Hokitika, which was settled in the 1860s, also after the discovery of gold. Now, it’s a centre for the production of jade out of the greenstone native to the area. We then continued to follow the mountains and hills that follow the coastal shelf, at times hewing to a rough seashore, which in Fox Glacier was a whole 20 km. away. The west coast is still a sparsely populated and relatively wild area, in which the soaring mountains of the Southern Alps are the background, and the beaches are not sandy but covered in rock and pebbles and stone. On more than one occasion we cross one of the single-lane road bridges (two of them share the road with a single-line train track), which are common in the South Island, but also show how few traffic jams there are.

We finally arrive in Greymouth after midday. Most passengers alight to take the Tranz Alpine train to Christchurch, whereas I was making the town a base for the next two nights. I had an introductory walk around the town, another gold town, which now produces coal and timber and is the largest town on the coast. It’s therefore a centre for regional-distribution-of-this and local-representatives-of-that, so of less than surpassing interest. It seems to mainly consist of undifferentiated low-level non-descript sprawl around the harbour, which is enclosed by a high wall as it frequently floods. Lots of shops for sale or rent or burned down, and plenty of sheds, or warehouses, claiming to be things such as “Super Liquor” or “the west’s centre for vistanice aluminium joinery” and, I can tell you, I was longing for nice vistas by the time I’d walked around it. There are apparently a lot of short walks out of town worth doing. Rather, I can see that, despite scanning the west coast part of the Lonely Planet guide, I’d chosen to break my journey to Nelson at the wrong place. Never mind – I booked a couple of tours for the morrow, one to the Monteiths West Coast brewery, the first of my boozy tours (the next will be in Nelson), and the other to Punakaiki, up the coast road toward Westport, which has some spectacular coastal scenery. Apparently.

The brewery turns out to be a real delight, unpretentious and straightforward. You’re guided by one of the 10 ‘multi-tasking’ staff, in this case Tyra and, of course, given a beer sampling afterwards. The beers are all good, and even unusual in a couple of cases (lemon & lime? ginger & honey?). Luckily, I have a couple of hours break before the next tour…

Which is a trip up the coast, to see some of the most rugged coastline that I’ve seen so far. The road goes into and out of the valleys along the way, climbing steadily out of Greymouth. The place names were all named by gold rushing miners, who were the first to brave the wildness of the coast. Maoris named things after a feature, or a story, whereas the miners came up with names such as 10 Mile Creek. This creek was the first one to feature both a gold and a coal mine, both having been found in the area. Our guide said that there was lots of gold still around in the rivers and creeks.

We level out at a place called the Barrytown flats before starting to climb again quite steeply, passing regenerated bushland (either the Maoris or the miners cleared it, and it’s grown back lush and green, as you’d expect where the rainfall is so high) en route to Punakaiki., which is in Paparoa National Park. ‘Puna’ means ‘spring’, ‘kaiki’ ‘piles of rocks’. It’s famous for the strange rock formations spawned by the incessant crash of the surf called ‘pancake rocks’. These limestone rocks have formed into what looks like stacks of pancakes through a layering and weathering process. When there is a good tide and the surf is high, the water surges into caverns below the rocks and shoots up in geyser-like blowholes. Have a look at the pictures – they’re spectacular!!! The tour then finished in some coastal forest called the Truman Track, verdant rainforest leading down to a small beach where the cross-currents are so strong and the surf so violent that it’s not safe to swim. We went to the beach, and the incessant waves crash over the pebbles, then retreat quickly, sounding like the rattling of chains.

It then started to rain, a sign to bring the tour to an end. I highly recommend Punakaiki, and even spending some time around here walking or other activities in the park – just don’t make Greymouth your base for the coast!!!

This week, I’m a day early posting this, as I travel on Thursday to Nelson, which seems a convenient starting point for next week.

Thanks to Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus, for the title this week, fitting for my journey up the West Coast!


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

You would make a great bartender.
I am running out of adjectives.
Wonderful work. Nat. Geographic
here I come.

November 19, 2004 8:53 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home