Friday, February 10, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Road Trip Up The West Coast Of The South Island

***This post is part 10 of a full trip report. The index can be found here*** 

After arriving back in Queenstown from Milford Sound, we picked up our rental car from Apex and began our three-day road trip up the West Coast of the South Island. Driving is an ideal way to take in the beauty of New Zealand, as it allows for more freedom in deciding the length of time to stay at each location. The only set plans we had for our three days on the road were seeing the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, visiting Paparoa National Park, and hiking and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park.

The first day, we visited several viewpoints along the route to catch a glimpse of the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Each of them can actually be reached via guided walks or helicopter rides, but unfortunately, we didn't have time to do either. To be honest though, they were a bit of a sad sight to see, with both glaciers having receded significantly in the past few years. Along the walk to the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint, several posted signs with old photographs showed just how far the glacier used to extend.

We also took a quick detour to the Peak Viewpoint, which was out in an open field literally in the middle of nowhere. But the 360° views of Fox Glacier, the Southern Alps, and everything in between was definitely worth the extra drive.

Fox Glacier

Southern Alps

Fox Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Afterwards, we continued our drive up to the small town of Hokitika. There, we visited the famous Hokitika Gorge, where the ice melt from glaciers creates a surreal turquoise blue river. It was certainly the bluest water I've ever seen - almost as if it was glowing. You can even take a dip in the river by jumping from the rocks along the bank.

Hokitika Gorge

In the evening, we stayed at the Annabelle Motel in Hokitika. While slightly outside of the downtown area, this was a great place for four people, especially with its full kitchen and extra bedroom. Since the food choices weren't great in town, we decided to shop for groceries at the local supermarket and cook dinner ourselves. This was a good way to make use of the kitchen and save some money at the same time.

The next morning, we continued our drive up the coastline, stopping for some incredible scenery of the Tasman Sea. At this point, we could tell the weather had started to change. For the entire first week in New Zealand, we had experienced nothing but beautiful clear skies and warm weather... but it was evident that rain was on its way.

Tasman Sea

We arrived at Paparoa National Park in the late morning, and headed to its most well-known spot, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. Carved out over thousands of years, the layered sediments have created an odd landscape of barren rocks literally stacked up like pancakes. The loop trail can be completed in 20 minutes, and it definitely affords some spectacular views.

Next, we visited the Punakaiki Caverns, which is just along the main road, but is easily missed due to the lack of signage and parking. Not surprisingly, there was nobody there when we arrived. There are no established trails or lighting inside the caverns, so you must bring your own flashlight or headlamp if you plan on doing some exploring. While it looks quite small from the outside, I was amazed at how deep the cave really goes once you enter. Several large rooms open up as you squeeze past small corridors. I've always been fascinated with caves, so this was the perfect opportunity to do some easy spelunking.

There were plenty of other trails inside Paparoa National Park, and we had the opportunity to do one or two additional hikes that were quick and easy. Unfortunately, we had less than one full day to see as much as we could, so we ended up skipping a number of other sights.

 End of Truman Track

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the small town of Motueka, where we checked into the White Elephant Backpackers. This was actually quite an interesting place. The main building is an old house that was probably very elegant back in its heyday. Once you go the backyard, however, it becomes a veritable trailer park, with dozens of permanent and not-so-permanent structures serving as guest rooms. Like all of our accommodations during the road trip, this was a very simple and basic lodge, with an ensuite bathroom and a shared kitchen area to be used by all guests. It was perfectly fine for our one-night stay, and again, we opted to buy groceries at the local supermarket and cook dinner ourselves. The next morning, we woke up early and headed to Abel Tasman National Park, where the rain greeted us with a vengeance.

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