We’d seen spectacular scenery, volcanic activity and beautiful beaches on our travels in New Zealand, but we were now entering the ‘Wild West’ – where the stormy Tasman Sea batters the rugged coast, giant glaciers calve through sheer rock and crumbling cliff tops create treacherous roads.
Our first stop was at Bullers Gorge to see New Zealand’s longest swingbridge. We had thought that this attraction would be free, but we were surprised to find that visitors must pay $10 just to see the bridge – let alone walk across it!
As well as the bridge, there’s also a zipline across the river that you could try (for a fee, of course), and you can also try your hand at panning for gold. But while we were there it seemed like everything besides the bridge was closed, so we amused ourselves by taking one of the short walks from the bridge to see the White Creek fault line. Although the fault line walk was interesting, the main attraction here really is the swingbridge – I’m just not sure it’s really worth the money to see…
Moving on from Bullers Gorge, we soon found the coast and arrived at Punakaiki just in time for high tide – the perfect conditions to see the Pancake Rocks.
The rocks themselves are impressive to see, but it’s the blowholes that come to life at high tide that are the most exciting aspect of this natural wonder. As the waves crash against the rocks, water gets pushed up through holes and sprays out into the sky like a fireman’s hose – I got soaked when a hidden blowhole nearby suddenly erupted and wind blew the salty sea spray all over me!
Carrying on down the coast, we came across a small town called Hokitika which has a beach that demonstrates just how destructive the wild Tasman Sea can be. The beach was covered – not just in driftwood – but in entire trees that had been washed up on the shore.
After enjoying many spectacular views of the rugged west coast from the road, which hugs the shoreline, we began moving back inland and started spotting snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were entering glacier country.
We arrived early in the morning to see the first of two glaciers in New Zealand – Franz Josef Glacier. Different to the creaking and groaning Perito Moreno glacier we saw in Argentina, this glacier started retreating in 2008, which means it is melting away rather than advancing towards the sea. It’s also smaller – just 12km long. We knew it wouldn’t be like the Perito Moreno, but what we found disappointing was how far away it was. Despite walking for around an hour to get to the viewing platform, the glacier was too far to really appreciate properly. It was clear that others have found this disappointing in the past too, because the platform was littered with signs warning people to stay inside the fence and not approach the glacier.
Another glacier popular with tourists, Fox Glacier, was even less impressive in our opinions. Recent rock falls had left the glacier with a coating of grey dust and rocks, making it look rather dirty.
Maybe we would have felt differently if we’d had the money and time to do a heli-hike on the glacier (a helicopter ride over the top of the glacier and some time on the ice itself).
Leaving the glaciers behind we agreed that although we’d been disappointed, the glaciers were still remarkable. Not because they were the best we had seen, but because they were in the same small country that had also shown us warm white sand beaches, violent volcanic displays and steamy rainforests of giant trees. New Zealand really is a country of huge diversity.
Leaving the west coast behind, we set off for the Haast Pass, which would lead us through the Southern Alps and into Wanaka.
I’d heard that it was a particularly treacherous road in the South Island, mainly because of its winding bends and occasional rock falls, but we managed to get through it without incident.
The pass is also particularly popular with tourists, who take advantage of the many short walks and viewpoints dotted along the way. One walk that we had to stop for was the Blue Pools Walk – a short walk through a native silver beech forest, ending at the pools themselves. The glacier-fed water in these is the colour of bright azure blue, and so clear that you can see right to the bottom.
We could have stayed for far longer, but both of us were getting eaten alive by the vicious sandflies – they were even biting through my jeans!
When we reached the end of the pass we were greeted with the most spectacular view of Lake Hawea and we knew we’d left the wild West Coast behind, with the Otago region yet to come.