24 – 26 March 2010, New Zealand
Leaving behind the sunny climate of the wine region, we headed towards the west coast, one of the wettest places on earth…literally. Annual rainfall on the coast averages 5 meters (that’s about 15 feet!) and while the rain can make traveling a challenge, it is also one reason why the scenery is so spectacular. Once we hit the coast, we headed north to Hector, a tiny town about 40 kilometers from where the highway ends. Having never been on a highway that actually ends, this was a first for us. After checking into our hostel, I was anxious to explore the surrounding bush or take a walk on the beach but it had been raining all day and there was no indication that it was going to let up. After settling into a comfy couch by the fire, hot beverage in hand, my restlessness soon subsided. The evening ended up passing quickly as we had plenty of good reading material and a chance to swap stories with other travelers.
The following morning, we decided to do some hiking. The trail we used was once a railroad line used to carry coal down the mountain. Unfortunately, the rain started to pour just as we got to the trailhead. Refusing to let the weather slow us down, we decided to do the walk anyway. Although we were completely soaked by the end of the two hour hike, the great views along the trail more than made up for it.
Having worked up an appetite, we stopped for a lunch of pies, a staple in every New Zealander’s diet. While the standard pie is filled with red meat, some places sell more interesting flavors and I was able to score a chicken and apricot pie from the local café. Washed down with a ginger beer, it was much more satisfying than the peanut butter sandwiches we had been eating for most of our lunches.
The next few days were somewhat consistent; get up each morning, peel back the curtains to discover that it was in fact still raining, pack up our stuff and drive south, oohing and aahing at the amazing scenery along the way. Around nearly every bend in the road was a national park or scenic reserve, all free of charge. We took advantage of this by doing plenty of hikes. As we reached each trailhead or scenic overlook, we would throw on our most water-resistant clothing, step out of the car and into the rain. Fortunately, the views made it all worthwhile.
One indoor activity that we managed to squeeze into our ambitious itinerary was a stop at Monteith’s, New Zealand’s oldest brewery. Having sampled more than our share of New Zealand’s finest wines, we felt compelled to taste some of the local beer as well. Our stop included a tour of the brewery and a chance to sample eight varieties in the brewery bar. After the taste testing was done, we were able to step behind the bar and pour ourselves a pint of our favorite beer. I found it difficult to keep up with the eight other people on the tour, so we soon found ourselves alone in the bar while I finished my pint. Jason took advantage of this time to pour himself a few more. We then did as our tour guide suggested and wandered down the street to order whitebait sandwiches for lunch. Whitebait is a delicacy in New Zealand and, for some of the locals, a bit of an obsession. Unfortunately, the sandwiches did not live up to our expectations but we were happy to try something that we had heard so much about.
Pancake Rocks was one of our favorite stops along the way and it provided us with at least a couple of hours of entertainment. We were lucky enough to visit during high tide and, as an added bonus, the rain stopped while we were there. The Pancake Rocks are columns of limestone that resemble thick piles of pancakes. While certainly an attraction in and of themselves, the real highlight for us was the blowholes located at the same site. We couldn’t take our eyes off the water as it came rushing in, spraying dramatically towards the sky through the blowholes.
Another compulsory stop on our road trip was Franz Josef Glacier. In order to walk on the glacier, you need to be part of a guided hike. Having already done this when I was here nearly ten years ago, we decided our money was better spent elsewhere. Instead, we chose the self-guided option which only allowed us to walk to the face of the glacier. Jason was not particularly impressed. According to him, the face of the glacier just looked like a bunch of dirty ice. The pouring rain during the entire 40 minute hike may have contributed to his negativity.
The west coast’s stunning scenery was certainly a highlight for us but the relentless rain finally started to take its toll. Having heard from other travelers that sunshine and dry weather could be found just over the Haast Mountain Pass, we decided that it was time to say farewell to the west coast and drive inland.