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Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 7, 2007

After enjoying a fairly gentle start to the trip, it was time to ramp up the pace and head out across the mountains to see some of the famous New Zealand landscape.

We rose early and were on the road by 7.30am, allowing us to escape Christchurch before any serious traffic could develop. Since our destination was Hokitika on the west coast, selecting a route was easy. The only direct path is State Highway 73 over Arthur's Pass.

On the road, near Arthur's Pass

If you're in no hurry to reach the west, there are alternatives. Highway 1 will take you up and down the coast, letting you cross the Southern Alps much further north (via Lewis Pass and Highway 7) or further south (via Lindis and Haast passes).

The southern route in particular offers the chance to travel down the middle of the country and enjoy the best that the mountains have to offer, including Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook (New Zealand's highest peak).

But we already had accommodation booked for the night in Hokitika, so we headed straight out west through the suburbs and into the flat lowland surrounds.

Those expecting immediate picture postcard scenery need to be patient here. The areas around Christchurch are relatively busy (for New Zealand) and uninteresting, but it didn't take long before we discovered the two elements that were to dominate our impressions of the country: beautiful scenery and a sense of isolation.

Nor did it take long to discover the joys of driving in New Zealand: wide roads and little traffic. Once we passed Springfield, we saw few vehicles of any kind as we climbed into the mountains. No traffic doesn't mean easy driving though. The Arthur's Pass route twists and turns through the countryside, with steep drops off the edge of the road: so don't let the empty highway dull the senses!

As it was February, we had blue skies and a blazing sun, but signs declaring Arthur's Pass "open" served as a reminder that nature still has the upper hand in this region. A leisurely summer drive would be considerably less pleasant in winter, when blizzards, drifts and ice can lead to road closure or hazardous driving conditions.

The landscape leading up to the pass brings to mind the Scottish highlands, with its sparse scrubby vegetation and rocky outcrops. And the combination of blue sky with low lying mist gave the whole area a gorgeous ethereal quality.

An inquisitive kea in Arthur's Pass

We eventually reached Arthur's Pass after about two and a half hours of driving and stopped off to grab a spot of breakfast. The town is tiny but has enough infrastructure to satisfy the needs of the passing visitor. The Tranzalpine railway slices through here and the road and track follow each other for parts of the overland route.

After a quick visit to the information centre, we fell into the Arthur's Pass store to buy sunscreen and food. Armed with breakfast and an appetite, we sat outside on the terrace and enjoyed the first of our iconic New Zealand encounters: the Kea.

The Kea is an alpine parrot famous for its inquisitive nature and destructive beak. Back home, the birds are a major attraction at the zoo, where they peck and poke their way through everything the zookeepers can throw at them. And here I was at breakfast watching as the wild version decided to make our acquaintance by visiting our table.

Numerous signs make it clear that feeding Keas is not a good idea. Fortunately, the bird accepted our lack of culinary generosity with good grace, soon leaving in search of more conducive victims.

A rather delicious chicken, brie and cranberry pie

This left us able to turn our full attention to the pies we'd bought for breakfast. Anyone used to the pallid versions served up at cafes in places like the UK will marvel at the variety and size of the fillings in New Zealand pies. This one was a chicken, brie and cranberry delight.

Much refreshed, we set off for the hour's journey to the west coast and Kumara Junction. This part of the island is not densely say the least. At the Junction we turned north on Highway 6 toward Greymouth, the largest town in the area. None of the travel guides we'd brought with us recommended a visit, but we wanted to see Shantytown, a replica mining village just south of the town.

The west coast owes its development to the gold rush of the 1860s. 150 years later, the area still retains its isolated nature, and the frontier spirit still hangs in the air much like the wisps of cloud we saw crossing the mountains.

Shantytown is an attempt to capture and display this spirit through a replica of a typical gold mining town. It's one of the few man-made tourist attractions in the area and makes a pleasant alternative to "scenery and landscape".

Panning for gold under the midday sun, Shantytown

With our rushed schedule, we weren't able to explore the site in its entirety. But we took a brief wander through the historical buildings before hitting the goldmine which is the must-not-miss part of Shantytown.

We've all seen films of roughly-clad miners using pans and bowls to sift through soil and rock to find (or not) their fortune. The shantytown gold mine offers the same experience. Under expert instruction from a local guide, we got a pan, some rock and soil deposit and set to work.

Panning proved harder than it looks. The trick is to swirl the deposit in your pan until the gold falls to the bottom (it's heavier than everything else). Then you pour off a bit of the top deposit before starting the process again. That sounds simple, but the further you get in the process, the more nervous you become. And the less willing to pour off deposit in case your gold goes with it.

This rewarding, but nerve-wracking experience, wasn't helped by the heat of the midday sun. But anytime you get overwhelmed, the guides step in to finish the job for you. And after around 20 minutes of hard swirling, we returned to the town centre brandishing our little bottles of gold to take home as souvenirs.

Shantytown has a self-service cafeteria with a good selection of snacks and meals, so we took a late lunch before concluding the day's drive with a trip back down Highway 6 to the coastal town of Hokitika.

Before reaching the town itself, we headed off around the Blue Spur tourist drive, a scenic route which starts just after the Arahura river crossing and loops around 20km before coming back into Hokitika direct. We saw nothing to compare with the beauty of the Arthur's Pass crossing, though, so didn't linger on the drive. We were also keen to explore Hokitika before the shops closed.

Our chalet at the Shining Star motel complex

Like many New Zealand towns, Hokitika still has a temporary, frontier feel to it. The roads are wide and the buildings low and flat. It's not particularly big, so we found our beachfront accommodation at the Shining Star motel complex easily. It's perched on the northern edge of town, sandwiched between the glowworm dell and the beach, both of which we decided to investigate later that evening.

All the guidebooks tell you that Hokitika is famous for its greenstone (jade) industry...and they're not wrong. Much of the centre is dominated by craft shops displaying and selling greenstone jewellery and art. The pieces for sale aren't cheap, but we enjoyed visiting different shops just to appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of local craftfolk and artisans.

We didn't fall in love with any of the restaurants we saw on our walk around town, so decided instead to return to the motel with an armful of local bread, cheeses and ham instead. Our two bedroom chalet was clean and well equipped, with plenty of space for a car. But before we set about our evening meal, we took a stroll down to the beach to catch the late afternoon sun and see how many others had the same idea.

The sweeping, empty Hokitika beach

Since Hokitika is a sizeable town and it was the height of the tourist season, I fully expected a few tourists and locals to be enjoying the sea. Especially since there's just a low sand dune separating the beach from the town's houses and hotels.

Not so. The lengthy expanse of beach was almost empty.

There's something soothing about an empty seafront at the ending of the day, and Hokitika's was no exception. The atmosphere of the place was heightened by the many piles of driftwood, which make great motifs for photographers and sculptors alike. Indeed, the efforts of sculptors past could be seen wherever we went.

After returning for a quick supper, we set off again. This time to visit the nearby late night garage to arm ourselves with torches (and chocolate bars) before tackling the glowworm dell opposite the motel's entrance, adjacent to the main highway.

Sun setting over Hokitika beach

The torches proved to be a good idea as the dell is reached by a darkened path with no artificial lighting. It's just a short walk to the home of the glowworms where we expected a couple of half-hearted fireflies to entertain us. But we couldn't have been more wrong.

First, there were no fireflies at all (it seems the New Zealand glowworms are another insect entirely). Second, the dell was bursting with points of light. A spectacle comparable to the night sky outside, with the glowworms producing their own version of the Milky Way. At least until some fool fired off the flash on his camera (and yes, I know how to switch that off now).

We then swapped one natural spectacle for another, returning to the beach again to find it still empty and to enjoy the brilliant reds and oranges of the sun as it disappeared below the Tasman sea. It was only our second day in New Zealand and already we were basking in the glow of clean night air with our minds swirling with images of mountains, sea, greenstone, gold and glowworms. Next stop: glacier country!

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