You’d think that most storms hitting New Zealand come from the vast Pacific Ocean, but down here, the ocean is quite pacific indeed, and bad weather essentially comes from the Tasman Sea, which separates the country from Australia.
Furthermore, because the South Island sits on a fault born of the encounter of the Indo-Australian and the Pacific tectonic plates, it is quite mountainous: the Southern Alps dominate it from north to south, from Marlborough to Fjordland. This natural barrier, which culminates at 3724 meters at Mount Cook, blocks the clouds and pushes them to release their water. Thus, Westland, the region on the west coast of the South Island, is a rather humid place. In the mountains near Hokitika, 20 kilometers from the coast, fall 14 meters of rain a year. Maybe they should rename it Wetland.
This weather has made it a place difficult to conquer for humans, and it remains the wildest area in New Zealand, in my opinion. As you drive south along State Highway 6, settlements become smaller and fewer, and trees seem to grow taller. More of the land remains as it was when the first settlers arrived than anywhere else. It’s refreshing.
Well, coming down from Arthur’s Pass, I found a very sunny coast! I spent a night in Greymouth, a small town that’s quite lively when the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch arrives but goes back to slumber shortly after.
In the morning, I drove north, towards Punakaiki (now that sounds Finnish, doesn’t it!) and its famous Pancake Rocks. Formed by centuries of sedimentation and erosion, they are a formidable rock formation… they are also a main tourist attraction, being so close to the road, and the 20-minute walk can feel a bit crowded.
I would recommend going there for sunset, if you stay in the vicinity. I thought it would be very busy, but it wasn’t and I had a lovely evening. At first, the sun bathed the scenery in glowing warm yellow. After a few landscape images, I couldn’t resist shooting the young White-fronted terns (Sterna striata) that slept on the rocks or tirelessly begged for food from the adults.
In the end, the sun hid and I had fun with the waves that entered the arches and crevices, enjoying the power of the waves and how it endlessly sculpted the shore.
My next target was Mokihinui, a place where I hoped to find Great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii). Well I didn’t, even though I walked in the dark for a few hours. I met some Weka (Gallirallus australis) though, and in the dark, I couldn’t tell who was most scared of the other, them or me! Before that, I was lucky to meet a friendly one in the forest.
At the end of the road, on the edge of the rainforest and overlooking the sea, I felt in peace. Wild and rugged, yet soothing and incredibly beautiful: that was my first taste of the West Coast. In the evening, fishermen and families occupied the beach, under the close supervision of Kelp (Larus dominicanus) and Silver (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) gulls.
My next destination was Hokitika Gorge, a place known for its blue waters (not unlike lakes Pukaki and Tekapo, with the same origin: glacial flour, rock fragments ground by glaciers that float in the water). However, it had rained the whole afternoon (and a good part of the evening), and when we could finally get out of the car to check it out, the water was actually… brown. It was also raging furiously.
In the morning, the torrent was still not blue (more like grey this time, as you can see), but the contrast was still striking. Overnight, I think the river lost 4 or 5 meters in depth. Very impressive, a humbling reminder of the power of nature.
Like I said, Westland is first in the path of storms coming from the west. With global warming, we know that these events will become more common, and more violent. Already, roads are being temporarily closed, bridges collapse… recently, a landfill near the Fox Glacier opened, and waste was flushed down, polluting hundreds of kilometres of coast. We really need to rethink how we use our environment, it’s urgent!
All things considered, I think I had a rather good weather during that short visit to the West Coast. In Okarito, the day after, there were a few rain spells but not enough to prevent a meeting with the local Kea (Nestor notabilis) gang, and a few other locals.
A downpour hit in the evening, so I delayed my kiwi search to the late hours of the night, which turned lovely even though I missed the nocturnal birds. Then the day unfolded with no more showers. I walked towards Franz Josef Glacier, probably the most depressing time I’ve had in New Zealand: as you walk up the valley from the car park, signs signal where the end of the glacier stood year after year. It brought a cloud of gloom over my day, but it also felt like a really powerful way of reaching out to visitors about the global warming issue. On the way back, I noticed that the back of the signs displayed tips on what we can do to help. Unfortunately, individual gestures won’t save us. We need political will, but that’s been slow in the coming (euphemism).
I feel like I could have stayed a couple more days in that region, but I felt the drive to go further, and then rest. A visit to Monro beach, looking for Fjordland penguins (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus), was fruitless: after breeding, these birds swim between 4000 and 7000km to fish and gain some fat, then come back and spend three weeks on shore, moulting. They change all their feathers at once (that’s a “catastrophic moult”), so they are not able to spend time in the water lest they die.
We visited between breeding and moulting, and there was no penguin in sight. It was another wet day, trees reached for the clouds and disappeared in the mist. An eerie atmosphere, which we left for the dry hills of Central Otago.
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