In this special series of posts, we present our ultimate guide to exploring New Zealand’s incredible South Island. You’ll discover the route we took, along with our recommendations for campsites, things to do and even our favourite wines.
Here in Part Five, we end our journey by heading north via the Haast Pass and up the west coast, before traversing Arthurs Pass back across to Christchurch.
The South Island’s west coast is “wild” in every sense of the word. And not just it’s rugged coastline featuring glaciers, alpine landscapes and all manner of weirdly sea-sculptured rocks, either. The weather here is just as wild. That’s because it’s exposed to the Tasman Sea on one side and the Southern Alps on the other. So, of course, we had to run into some of the worst downpours of our whole 15-month trip.
But a road trip along the Great Coast Road remains an essential part of any trip to New Zealand’s South Island.
To get there from Wanaka follow State Highway (SH) 6, past Lake Hawea and over the Haast Pass. Then continue north into what’s known as Glacier Country, before arriving at Fox Glacier.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are marketed as the most accessible rivers of ice in the world. Not surprising as they plunge down from the southern Alps through rainforests almost to sea level. Or at least they used to.
Global warming has had quite an alarming effect on both of them. In fact, the ice has retreated so far over the past few decades that visitors can now barely see what was once undoubtedly an awesome spectacle of nature.
For instance, from the car park at Fox Glacier, the walking track leads through a rugged moonscape of rocks and rubble before ending at a lookout point where there’s barely any glacier visible. Sure, the ice-field extends much further back, out of sight, but as a spectacle, this was very underwhelming. If you want to witness what global warming is doing to the planet then take a look for yourself and try to imagine what the scene behind you looked like merely a few years ago. Although there’s also an argument that it’s just part of the normal glacier cycle. Indeed there are information boards which show you the extent of the ice retreat over the decades.
Before moving on it’s worth taking a detour to Lake Matheson. Its reflective qualities and views of the Southern Alps have long been revered by photographers. There’s an easy perimeter track which takes about an hour and a half to walk around. And, if you’re lucky with the weather you’ll be treated to some of the best alpine views in New Zealand.
Suffice to say, we weren’t!
Franz Josef Glacier
Just a further 20-odd kilometres along SH6 is the second of the two famous Glaciers – Franz Josef. If we had to choose between this and Fox Glacier we’d definitely recommend this one. The walk from the car park is much more interesting for a start. You’ll pass waterfalls and witness huge ice boulders being thrown downstream by the torrent of the Waiho River.
At the furthermost point of the track, you do at least get a view of what remains of the glacier “tongue”. But any chances of a closer look are restricted because of the inherent danger of the surrounds. We were fortunate to speak to a DOC ranger who described to us just how much the ice had retreated during the ten years he’d been working in the area. Incredibly, the ice on the track we’d just walked along would have completely submerged us. And there appears to be no slow-down in its movement, either.
It’s possible to walk on the glacier by booking a guided hiking tour in Franz Josef village. As part of the tour, you also get to land on the ice in a helicopter. But by the sound of things, you’d better get on with it if you really want to do it!
Continuing north on SH6 you’ll arrive at the historic town of Hokitika, famous for its “greenstone” (or pounamu) sculptures and jewellery, and its proximity to Hokitika Gorge. We stayed over for just one night because of the awful weather. Instead, we continued northwards with a view to returning to the gorge at a later point. Which we ultimately didn’t do.
The Great Coast Road
According to Lonely Planet, the road from Greymouth to Westport is one of the great coastal drives of the world. And, if you like your coastal drives spectacularly wild then it’s probably hard to disagree.
The stretch is particularly famous for the rock formations and blowholes at Punakaiki. But first, you should take the opportunity to walk along the beach at Motukiekie, approximately 20km north of Greymouth. It’s not easy to spot from the road, though. After the Twelve-Mile hairpin bridge, it’s a further 3.7km up the road. Then, pull off onto the first lay-by after passing the last of the cottages on the left. And you need to do it within one and half hours of low tide. Otherwise, you’ll find the waves crashing against the cliffs all around you. You can check the tide times here.
After stepping onto the beach, turn left and walk for 3.5km or so back towards the sea stacks. It’s just an amazing trip past waterfalls, caves, rainforest, cliffs and arches. And, despite it being a grim, misty and wet day on our visit, we loved it. Just make sure you’re prepared to walk through gullies of water as the tide drains out in front of you.
A further 25km north and you’ll reach the tourist hotspot of Punakaiki and those incredible Pancake Rocks. Only this time you need to be there at HIGH TIDE to fully appreciate the mighty roar of the blowholes. These are created by the incoming waves smashing against the rocks and spraying out through the gaps between them. My favourite was the conically shaped Chimney.
Again, check the tide chart first. There’s a board at the Visitor Centre displaying the tide times for that day, too.
The walk from the car park is just a 20-minute loop but don’t rush the blowholes. Take just a glimpse and then move on and you’re likely to miss the whole point of the unpredictable show.
The rock formations are called Pancake Rocks because of their strange layered structure, eroded through the years by the sea.
Beyond Westport, the road north gets quieter as the majority of travellers head inland along SH6 towards Nelson Lakes National Park (north) or Reefton and Arthur’s Pass (west). Which is great for the rest of us because the coastal road through to Karamea is arguably more spectacular than the Great Coast Road itself.
We based ourselves for a couple of days at the superb Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground at Mokihinui. At NZ$10 per person, we had a landscaped pitch right next to a lovely beach. In addition, they provided excellent wifi, together with a kitchen and restaurant.
The area between Mokihinui and Westport was an important coal-mining centre for a hundred years. And the trip up to the derelict mine and open-air museum at Denniston was an unexpected treat for us. One of the highlights was standing at the top of the infamous Denniston Incline – a railway track which carried carts of coal down the incredibly steep 510-metre slope to the rail head below. Even if you’ve got no interest in coal-mining, the stories of the people who worked there will amaze you. Just as they did us.
Also nearby is the Charming Creek Walkway, which follows a disused railway line up through a gorge. Along the way, it crosses suspension bridges and onwards to a spectacular waterfall. Easy to negotiate and certainly different to your usual rainforest walks.
Kahurangi National Park
The highlight for us on the whole west coast though were the dramatic coastline and rainforest walks of Kahurangi National Park. It’s a wilderness that stretches northwards and almost as far as Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay.
The beaches here are simply outstanding – endless stretches of clean, golden sand spilling into a heavy surf of crashing waves. Just the one problem – legions of vicious sandflies that descend on you the minute you set foot on the road. You can apply as much mosquito spray as you like but they’ll find a way through to any exposed skin.
That one caveat aside, you really shouldn’t miss this area. Particularly if you want to get a feel for a relatively un-touristy part of New Zealand.
We based ourselves at another Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite at Kohaihai, north of Karamea. And it turned out to be another gem. Perfectly positioned next to the awesome beach it’s also the entrance to the famous Heaphy Track.
It also served as a great base for exploring the Oparara Basin through pristine rainforest up to sites such as Oparara Arch, Moria Gate Arch and Mirror Tarn. A feature of the rivers here is the tea-like colours of golden brown through to red. It’s caused by natural organic tannins in the water. And, with the white rocks, the green rainforest and the blue sky, it’s a magical sight.
You can do the main sights in one day, but there are longer walks for the more adventurous, too.
Meanwhile, the Heaphy Track is a 78km walk north from Kohaihai and can take up to six days to complete. But the section at the Kohaihai end is just great for a day walk. Passing through rainforest while hugging the dramatic coastline, it occasionally traverses deserted and spectacular beaches, too.
We walked as far as the gorgeous Scotts Beach (2.5 hours) before the inevitable sandflies got the better of us. But that really shouldn’t put you off. Just put it down to experiencing the real New Zealand!
Kahurangi National Park marked the end of our South Island tour. Apart, that is, from the journey back to Christchurch south on SH6 and then inland across SH7 and Arthur’s Pass, where there’s another spectacularly high waterfall. That journey took us through yet another series of landscapes that were just as surprising and jaw-droppingly gorgeous as the rest of New Zealand’s South Island.
By the end of it all, we felt we’d seen almost everything there is to see in this beautiful half of the country. But that would be kidding ourselves. We could easily have spent another six weeks and still been ready to come back for more – which we hopefully will at some point in the near future.
As a destination, it’s certainly not cheap, although we’d tried to do as much as possible that was free to keep our spending down! But if you follow our route and planning advice we’re sure you’ll find plenty of things to do and see that’ll make New Zealand your new favourite destination in the world.
As it now is for us.
Where we stayed
Kidds Bush Reserve (DOC), Lake Hawea (1 night)
MacDonald’s Camp (DOC), Franz Josef (1 night)
Shining Star Holiday Park, Hokitika (1 night)
Rapahoe Holiday Park, Rapahoe (1 night)
Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground, Mokihinui (3 nights) – recommended
Kohaihai (DOC), Kohaihai (1 night) – recommended
More from this series…
- New Zealand Campsites – 12 Of The Best From The South Island
- Is This The World’s Best Road Trip?
- Auckland To Wellington – A Kiwi Road Trip By Campervan
- 3 New Zealand Walks You Won’t Want To Miss
…or visit our New Zealand page.
What did you think? Have you been to any of the places we’ve covered? Or do you have any recommendations of your own you’d like to share? Even if you haven’t we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.