the west coast

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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.

Glacier Heli-hikes
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.

 

 
 

bak zang season

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It’s been on the to-do list for years, but this year was the year – our year for bak zang. You see, it’s a lot of work making bak zang and the devil, as usual, is in the detail. Prepping the leaves, marinating the pork, soaking the mushrooms and so on, is done before even the first dumpling is wrapped, so I can see why the tradition only happens once in a while. (Well, for us anyway. For a well behaved Chinese family it’s annually. For us it’s every 5 years or so.) Also, the dumplings are meant to be eaten on during the northern summer solstice, so once that’s gone, there’s not much point to making them.

I have to admit, I was a little (okay, a lot) inspired by the TV show Poh & Co and the episode where she makes dumplings with her family. The show is pretty accurate – the first few dumplings are incredibly frustrating! Think expletives, rice everywhere and unravelling dumplings. But after the initial learning curve it becomes quite zen. Folding, stuffing, wrapping and tying – again and again.

We made about 80 dumplings stuffed with fatty pork, dried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, mung beans, dried then soaked chestnuts and salted egg yolks, which were pretty much, willy-nilly stuffed into the leaves with lightly stir fried rice. Then it’s boiled for two hours. By the way, this is the easy/lazier version. The real deal is to make a hollow in the rice, then put the ingredients in a particular order into each dumpling, so it actually does look stuffed. (This is the not-so-easy-version i.e. sadistic.)

Because everything is an estimate, it becomes a guessing game to ration everything evenly. (“Hey! Don’t put SO MUCH shrimp in! I don’t want to RUN OUT!” Then, like 15 minutes later: “HEY! Are you putting SHRIMP IN?! How come there’s so much LEFTOVER?!!” And so on.) Let’s say the last couple of dumplings are always interesting.

 

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(A really big thank you to Mum for making the bak zang! Let’s do it again next year!)

 

 
 

takaka and nelson

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Three hours return. That’s how long we drove to catch salmon. But in New Zealand the destination is really just an excuse because the journey there is always downright spectacular. We left Mapua and climbed (in the car, no actual physical exertion here) Takaka Hill, zigzagging past sheer drops and forests and hill top paddocks. It’s a freaky dangerous drive but the views! As we gained altitude, orchards were stretching out to Ruby Bay and Rabbit Island and as we descended, Golden Bay and the endless green of Takaka were saying hello.

Anatoki Salmon is sandwiched between the paddocks, hills and a pristine river. With our supplied rods and ‘murder weapon’ spike (all the better to kill the fish with), we set down on a shady spot spying the large school of salmon lazily wading by. With crickets chirping, the wind rushing through the trees and a lake teeming with fish, well you’d think catching fish at a fish farm would be easy. It’s actually not – you have to work for it (unless you’re really lucky – we saw a guy catch one on his first cast!). After two hours of reeling in a lure (the fish definitely knew better), we caught two one kilo specimens – lunch time was on! Especially for the farm’s dog, who incidentally loves hot smoked salmon. (Who could resist that face?!)

There’s a New York Times article about thin places “…where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” Pupu Springs (or Te Waikoropup? Springs), is definitely something special – a thin place, if you will. The board walk curves through rainforest, passing dark, rushing tributaries and, suddenly, the spring appears. Nothing prepares for this pool of clear water. Beneath the surface, sways a meadow of red, yellow and turquoise lushness, the underwater image warping in the tide of the spring. The water ripples from the sheer pressure of the spring escaping out of the earth. It’s pristine and ethereal and photo’s don’t do it justice.

 

Pine Hill Lodge | 112 Pine Hill Road, Ruby Bay, Mapua
A bed that looks out onto the vineyards and breakfast brought to the room!? (Jeanette and Paul’s pancakes are heavenly.) The bed and breakfast is literally in the middle of vineyards and has two views of the ocean. It’s private, modern and has a hot tub! Book it. Book it now.

Anatoki Salmon | 230 McCallum Rd, Takaka
Free use of fishing gear and plenty of salmon to have a stab at (yes you have to kill the fish yourself). The catch is paid for by the kilo and hot smoked (or cut for sashimi) on the spot. The hot smoke method is delicious – choose from 20 different flavours.

Hopgood’s | 284 Trafalgar St, Nelson
At the base of the Nelson cathedral stairs, Hopgood’s is deceptively busy, even on weeknights. Generous portions of French inspired food in a warm, jovial atmosphere. Call ahead to book.

Te Waikoropup? Springs | SH60, 6km west of Takaka township
A taonga (treasure) and w?hi tapu,Te Waikoropup? Springs is a sacred and spiritual treasure with some of the optically clearest water in the world. The circuit path takes approximately 30 minutes to complete.

Takaka Hill Lookouts | SH60
There are three notable lookouts on the hill, though the road affords amazing views too. On the Motueka side is Hawke’s lookout, which is about 10 minutes walk from SH60 and looks over Tasman Bay. The second is just outside the Ngarua Caves entry – the views is over karst rocks and towards the western part of the bay. The last, Harwood’s Lookout is perched right over the Takaka valley’s patchwork of paddocks and Kahurangi National Park.

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