Winding West Coast New Zealand

Blog 2 of our New Zealand Adventure starts on Day 4 still in Queenstown, then moves up to Wanaka and out to the West Coast to Hokatika, Punakaiki, and Nelson.

Dart River Jet Boat Experience

On the morning of Day 4, we walk from our hotel back into Queenstown for the last time. After enjoying a last breakfast at Vudu, we board yet another bus, this time bound for Glenorchy and the Dart River for our Dart River Wilderness Jet Boat Experience. The road to Glenorchy snakes alongside the east bank of Lake Wakatipu. Great views of the lake and mountains set us up for our half-day excursion. First stop is the jet boat launch at the mouth of the Dart River’s massive estuary. We are old hands at jet boating now and get settled into our boat along with a dozen others, including a group of four very voluble Russian men. The young driver revs up the boat and we are off up the river. Every so often, the driver pulls the boat into 360-degree turns, although the quantity of spray is thankfully less than on the Shotover River trip. We are allowed to keep our cameras out.

The clouds crowd into the valley and the wind whips up. We fly across the shallow waters, twisting and turning around sandbanks, roaring past the location where Isengard in the Lord of the Rings was filmed. We penetrate a fair way up the river to stop in a magical inlet of deep turquoise water and sculpted rocks. The driver gives each of us a small piece of the local jade that is still gathered from the river by the Maori and carved into jewelry. I plan to buy a piece in Hokatika on the west coast where I’ve been told many of the workshops are located.

We roar back down the estuary, reaching speeds of 90 kilometers an hour. The sharp, cold wind exhilarates corners of my brain that I’ve allowed to become far too preoccupied with work. One of the great joys of travel is the opportunity to wipe away cares and live in the present. Wind, sun, and spray command total attention.

After disembarking the jet boats, we’re herded back on the bus (it’s a tour after all) and driven a short ways to a track leading into the Mount Aspiring National Park. The guide takes us for a half-hour nature walk through groves of giant beech trees–except they aren’t really beech trees; the settlers just called them that. Even I recognize the forest as the location where poor old Sean Bean as Boromir in the first Lord of the Rings movie is set upon by orcs and of course killed. Following the walk, we’re taken into Paradise Valley where numerous movies have been shot over the years. The clouds lift as if on cue and we are treated to the full panorama of snow-clad mountains.

After arriving back in Queenstown, we ravenously indulge in our second Fergbergers and then head out on the road to Wanaka.

Queenstown to Wanaka

The drive to Wanaka is again spectacular along winding roads that lead us up and over more mountain passes. The dramatic scenery makes the drive a delight. I’m feeling more confident with my driving and slowly beginning to relax. Wanaka is a pleasant surprise. Our hotel is a very posh one-bedroom apartment on the shores of Lake Wanaka. After a short rest, we walk alongside the lake about a mile or two to the small town of Wanaka for dinner. I wish we had more time to spend in Wanaka. It’s a much more low key town than Queenstown but with the same stunning scenery and access to numerous walking and cycling tracks.

Wanaka to Hokitika

Bright and early on the morning of Day 5, we set off on what will be the longest driving day of the trip—from Wanaka north along New Zealand’s wild west coast to the beach town of Hokitika—a distance of about 419 kilometers. Google maps estimates the driving time at five hours but the people at Google maps have probably never seen the actual road. The reality is more like nine hours, but the drive is well worth the effort. We make one longish stop in the morning to walk to the Blue Gorge. Water the color of blue jay wings swirls at the base of masses of jumbled rocks. Two bouncy suspension bridges add excitement to the pleasant three-kilometer round trip walk. Unfortunately, we attract several unwanted guests. By the time we return to the car, my ankles are running with blood from sandfly bites. Nasty buggers.

The long drive up the west coast passes through the area where the Frank Josef and Fox glaciers flow across the mountains. We decide not to stop to explore the glaciers which will require significant hiking time. The clouds have rolled in to obscure the glaciers and we agree that we’ve seen lots of glaciers at home! We press on northward to the town of Hokitika and our first (and we hope only) less than stellar accommodation. Julia’s voucher specifies that we are to be upgraded to a beachfront room in the new wing if one is available but alas, the new wing is full. We trudge up the stairs to our room in the old wing. Stepping into it is like stepping into 1958, but not in a good way. However, it’s only for a night. We drop our stuff and head out to find the jade factory where I plan to buy my piece of Maori carved jade. The time is just past five pm and virtually all the stores in Hokitika (there aren’t that many) are closing up. Fortunately, one of the stores attached to a jade factory is open. After much deliberation, I purchase my lovely piece of jade. It is a twist–one of several traditional shapes. Here’s the description of the shape’s significance from the shop’s Web site:


The word ‘twist’ translates to ‘pikorua’ in Maori. The new age understanding of the twist design is that it symbolizes the bond between two people, wether founded in friendship, love, or blood. It connects the spirits of friends, family and lovers, bringing them closer together across space and time. It’s said to represent their life path. Like the continuous shape of the twist, life for both individuals will continue despite many unexpected twists and turns, inevitably bringing them together again as it travels full circle. Its design comes from the piko piko fern whose fronds curl around one another in our native bushscapes. It also resembles the path of life and eternity.

We take a walk around the historic district of Hokitika, have an excellent dinner at a pub across from the hotel, and then enjoy a magnificent sunset over the Tasman Sea.

The guidebook mentions that one of the top things to do in Hokitika apart from watching the sunset, is to walk to a glow worm dell about a kilometer out of town. As soon as it is dark, we set off. Julia’s trusty I-Phone directs us to a pitch dark glen alongside the main road. Several cars are parked nearby and an interpretative sign tells us that glow worms are ahead and to enjoy them in silence. Handrails are provided for us to grope along as we walk up a small track in total darkness. If ever there was a good location for a serial killer, this would be it. Fortunately, within about five minutes we enter glow worm fairyland. Spread out all around and above us are points of light from glow worms suspended from the trees. Our enjoyment is marred slightly by a group of German tourists who did not read the “Enjoy the Glow Worms in Silence” notice. I throw out a few well-placed “shhhs” but to little effect. Fortunately, the glow worms do not seem to mind. We stand in the glen for a good ten minutes drinking in the glow worm vibe. It really is like flying through Neverland.

Hokitika to Nelson via Punakaiki

Another long drive, although not quite as long as the day before. We must get all the way to Nelson on the north coast of the South Island, a distance of about 380 kilometers. We leave our scuzzy room very early after discovering that the shower has no hot water. Not terribly amused, but nothing can be done about it. We drive up to Greymouth—a lovely, work-a-day town with a main street that reminds me of an Ontario town about fifty years ago before WalMarts moved in and local shops went out of business. Here there are lots of small shops in heritage buildings. We have a fantastic hearty breakfast at a non-touristy joint on the main drag and then drive north to Puntakaiki.

I’ve been looking forward to Punakaiki, otherwise known as the pancake rocks. We arrive early before the tour busses and almost have the views to ourselves. A wonderful track winds around the rocks affording great views both of the stacked rocks and out to the Tasman Sea. I’ve always been a sucker for cool rock formations and the formations at Punakaiki are as good as anything I’ve ever seen. The sea is relatively calm so the famous blow holes are quiet, but I still get many wonderful shots.

From Punakaiki, we continue up the wild west coast along narrow roads hugging cliff sides. I am getting good at inching around curves and making use of pull outs to let cars behind me pass. Fortunately, the road is just about as empty as all the other roads we’ve encountered so far in New Zealand. Here’s a deserted beach alongside the road on our way north.

After many hours of driving up and over yet another mountain pass, we finally pull into our lovely hotel about 10 miles west of Nelson. The hotel is set up to look like an olde English town in the Cotswolds and is rather fey, but the apartment we are given includes a large living room and kitchen with a separate bedroom. There is also laundry.

We drop our bags and summon a taxi for a quick jaunt into Nelson before the shops close–or rather, one particular shop. Julia has her heart set on going to the shop run by the jeweler who created the original ring for Lord of the Rings. Various versions of the One Ring can be purchased from the shop which closes at 5:30. We get there just after five. The jewelry on display is fantastic. I ask about one of the rings (not THE One Ring) and am told it costs $2,500. I put it down again, quickly. The One Rings on display all cost $1000 and up. Fortunately, Julia has done her homework and knows that replica One Rings retailing for around $100 are available. She asks the young man at the counter.

“Oh, you want those ones. We keep them in the back.”

“Okay, can I see them?”

With a resigned air, he fetches a tray of “cheap” One Rings from the back and Julia makes her selection. While not solid gold, the One Ring Julia purchases is gold-plated and comes in a lovely souvenir box. She threads it through the chain around her neck and leaves the shop a happy woman. Well, why not?

Nelson is an attractive town maybe about the size of Kelowna with a compact grid of streets downtown and an interesting pioneer history. I am taken by the gorgeous botanical gardens on the hill next to Nelson Cathedral–a real doozy. We wander around the town looking for a sports store to buy water shoes. It’s 5:30 and all the stores are starting to shut. We’ve noticed that in small town New Zealand (apart from Queenstown which is in a category on its own), shops open early and close early. Closing times of 5 pm are not uncommon. Fortunately, we find an outdoor store that sells hunting and fishing equipment and, surprisingly, water shoes. The packing list for our Abel Tasman kayak/walk adventure that is to begin the next day includes water shoes. I did slip in my tattered, ten-year old pair from Bowen but am pleased to get a brand new pair that looks capable of scaling a coral reef.

We end the day with a gourmet meal at the hotel’s restaurant and then an early night. The next morning we will set off for our three-day adventure in Abel Tasman National Park–the subject of Blog 3.


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