You know those maps you get in school geography textbooks, the ones that show you all the Earth’s different environments at once? Mountains, lakes, rainforests, deserts, fields, rivers, prairie, glaciers, oceans, etc., all conveniently but implausibly connected in one neat diagram. Driving round New Zealand feels like driving through one of those maps.
The Southern Lakes region in the centre of the South Island is one of the most popular areas of the country for international tourists. Queenstown is infamous for its extreme sports and much, much too busy to be a proper part of New Zealand, but it does have excellent burgers (including the world-famous-in-New Zealand Fergburger) and is idylically sandwiched between mountains and lakes. Slightly further north, Wanaka is very much like Queenstown’s younger sibling, smaller, cuter and eager to please, and not yet obsessed with trying to be cool and perpetually drunk.
Wanaka also provides us with a super-cheap and awesome cabin (luxury is having so many beds that you can start using them as shelves) to save us from camping while we recover from falling out of a plane. (Seriously, as a tip, if there’s more than one of you, you have a car and you’re prone to the occasional anti-social tendencies, stay in a holiday park. Cheaper, quieter and generally way better than a hostel.)
Shortly after that whole plane thing, we head west from the Southern Lakes, along the Haast Pass and towards the ominously-named but ultimately underwhelming Gates of Haast. Conjuring images of a towering and iron-wrought Nordic legend, the gates turn out to be a simple bridge, but one that finally connected the west coast to the rest of the island after a long period of separation. The Haast Pass squiggles steeply down from the centre of the island to the coastal village of Haast. Scenic waterfalls and pools lie along the way, and we twice plan to stop and camp, before being driven out of each campsite by hoards of marauding sandflies.
The West Coast is remote, even by Kiwi standards. Bounded – practically gerrymandered – by the Southern Alps, this long, thin region is dense with jungle and sparse with almost everything else. The centre of the island is stitched from yellow and lime green fields, but all that vanishes as you reach the Tasman Sea. Now the single highway takes you through thick, humid rainforest, hunched beneath ragged turrets of snow. Here the colours are dark and moody: cobalt lakes, viridian leaves, steel clouds that unfurl from the mountains as fog. Signs warn you of the impending desolation: Last petrol for 120kms; Nearest bin in Fox Glacier (at the time of the sign, this was 70 kms away).
Did I say glacier? Hell yeah; this is Glacier Country! As if the mountains, rainforest and sea weren’t enough, the West Coast also boasts New Zealand’s two celebrity glaciers, icy behemoths cutting through the jungle and creating possibly the most fascinating and most dangerous environment in the country. (Oh, the West Coast also runs along the Alpine Fault.)
Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are a huge draw for tourists (without them, no-one outside of New Zealand would even be aware the South Island had a West Coast) and they’re such a remarkable experience that they get their own blog entry (NEXT TIME ON FOF’S OFF…). But actually there’s plenty of other attractions along the coast, not least the cool little town of Hokitika, such a cool little town that their website is www.coollittletown.com (no, really).
With its free glowworm grotto, its awesome driftwood-art beach, its authentically-newspaper-wrapped chips and allegedly one of the best sunsets in the country (if only it would stop raining), Hokitika is a charming place to rest for a few days. Also, thanks to a recommendation from my friend John (thanks John!), I’ve started reading The Luminaries, 2013 winner of the Man Booker prize, both written and set in Hokitika. It’s a long-enough book to read already, but my progress is further slowed by stopping every three paragraphs to exclaim Hey I know where that is!
Really the only downside to the Hokitika experience is that it rains so much that the tent floods. At first, we start zoning areas off (okay, we’ve lost that corner, call it The Lagoon and keep the sleeping bags away) but then Molly has to put a towel on top of her just to intercept the water dripping through the roof and it becomes tiresome using a mug to drain the multiple congealing pools as if we’re trying to stop the tent sinking. Molly abandons ship for the safety of the car and I spend the rest of the night floating around the canvas floor on my groundmat/raft and squashing mosquitoes into the side of the tent, until so much wet blood is splattered across the walls that it feels like I’m trying to sleep in a serial killer’s budget dungeon.
Okay, in retrospect, it was hilarious. Although I’m typing this the next day from a cabin that we totally didn’t intend to stay in.
Not this bit though. I’m typing this bit three days later from Christchurch as my attempts to parse my blog into sensible chapters disintegrate before my eyes. Arthur’s Pass, which was going to be part of the next entry, is now being shoehorned in here. SEAMLESSLY. No, I’ve changed my mind again. It’s going somewhere else. Hey, I’m a maths teacher. Don’t you know you should always show your working?
Snapshots of NZ