Along the west coast, little separates the mountains from the sea. It’s a lonely, wet place. Stormy and foreboding one moment, sunny the next, every headland, beach and low hanging cloud was wild, and picture postcard perfect. Some colourful bach holiday shacks squeezed between the highway and the ocean were the few and far between reminders of civilisation. However the road is a stunning journey and I read somewhere that it’s one of the best drives in the world. We’d pass pinnacles of stranded rock, proud against the raging sea and then tiny, pub-less towns.
The road brought us to Paparoa National Park and Punakaiki, otherwise known as Pancake Rocks. (If you squint hard enough, they do look like stacks of pancakes.) (Retirement plan: open pancake parlour at the rocks some day.) As the sun dipped towards the horizon, the surge pool Devil’s Cauldron, roared with the rising tide and the blowholes spat mist high. High above the sea with flax whipping furiously in the wind, it’s an awesome experience of nature.
After dark, the town (if you can call a collection of motels that) was deserted. There’s nothing but darkness and the crashing of waves. I can’t explain it very well, but the isolation of the West Coast is special. The quiet makes the stars brighter, the night darker and the wilderness closer, even menacing. The wild is no longer a concept but right there.
The morning brought more rain. (Surprise, surprise rain on the West Coast!) With more rain, overnight , waterfalls sprang from mountainsides and creeks became torrential rivers. Crossing mountains and single lane bridges – one particularly long and memorable bridge was shared with a railroad (how does that even work?!) – we arrived in Westland. Gnarled and ancient rainforests rampant with greenery are interrupted by the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers sliding down from the alps. Because the clouds were playing hide and seek with the mountains, we missed out on hiking the glaciers. But even from afar, they are sublime, giving definition to the term glacial blue.
Southbound, we found whitebait in – literally – the middle of nowhere. Freshly cooked on a hotplate, the unidentifiable young fish taste somewhere between fish roe, sea urchin and ikan bilis. With a squeeze of lemon and chilli salt, it’s a delicious treat – a fitting farewell to the West Coast.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes | 4294 Coast Road, Punakaiki
Pancake stack rock formations, blow holes and surge pools – absolutely gorgeous at sunset. Check the visitors’ centre for tide schedules.
Aspen Court Motel Franz Josef | 76 Cron Street, Franz Josef
Just a block from the main drag, the rooms are super clean, modern and comfortable. If you’re rained in, upgrade to a spa room.
The Landing Bar | State Highway 6, Franz Josef
Surprisingly good food at this Speight’s outpost – think steak, nachos, pizza and pasta. Rugby on the TVs, Speight’s memorabilia galore and good service.
Curly Tree Whitebait Company | 10714 SH6, South Westland, Haast
Just after the Waita River bridge (or if northbound, before). Look out for the hand painted signs and turn down the dirt track. Whitebait does not get better than this.
There are plenty of companies that fly up to both glaciers for hikes and scenic flights, so look around for times and pricing. Book in the earliest possible flight as the mornings are the best times to go up. Keep in mind that cloud cover prevents helicopters from landing and taking off, so the West Coast’s wet climate can cause unforeseeable cancellations. Check the forecast (and local opinion) because if it’s going to rain for days on end (and it does, trust me) you might want to pout and move on.