"The Wonders of the Wild West" West Coast by Kakapo2
West Coast Travel Guide: 512 reviews and 1,622 photos
It is funny with the West Coast. In some areas - especially around the glaciers - they measure the annual rainfall in metres and not in millimetres. But during the Christmas holiday season 2006/07 they attracted the whole of the so called dry eastern regions because the West Coast seemed to be the only region where the sun was shining. And often when we visit we have fine weather. So we sometimes really wonder when all the rain falls which makes this land so magically green. Must be at night... ;-) But the air seems cleaner and fresher than in other areas.
The West Coast is pure rainforest, interrupted by farmland, operating and abandoned gold and coal mines. Even the glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox, reach into the rainforest. But indigenous forests are not alike. There are areas with more tree ferns, rata and beech, and others, more to the south, with totara, kahikatea and rimu.
The many shades of green, painting the landscape under the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps, are a refreshing contrast to the browns and yellows of Canterbury and Otago.
The winters are surprisingly mild, and it seems the best time to explore the glaciers, and the peaks are not so often obscured by cloud. Once when we had to drive to the Coast from the very north because Arthurs Pass was closed for heavy snowfall, we had the best view ever. Already from Greymouth we could see Mt. Cook which is 130kms from there, and nearly the best impression was from Hokitika, still a long way north.
The beaches are rough and the sand is grey up to Hokitika. There are high cliffs and rocks, with the so called Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki as the most spectacular display. The water of the rivers in the north is orange, and they find a lot of greenstone (jade) in the big rivers. The cheeky wekas, flightless rails, sometimes inspect cars for food.
In spring many Coasters fish for whitebait which is a super tiny silvery-white fish which sells for a lot of money, and the people involved can get very unfriendly and envious and even fight for the best fishing spot. You cannot argue a lot either with the Coasters about coal-mining because this is one of the few industries they have and depend on.
There are many stories around the people from the West Coast. It is said this folkloristic touch is a consequence from the large contingent of Irish who came during the gold rush and later settled there. The stories about their heavy drinking habits derive from the time of the six o'clock closing restrictions, but they are only one of the myths - and in fact young Coasters are less drunken than guys in other regions. But still nothing is too strange to happen on the Coast. No other area in New Zealand and its people have such a stamp of being as unique and individual as the people of the West Coast.
One thing that is absolutely not funny is that many people will lose their homes to the rough sea due to erosion.
The other not so nice thing are the sandflies which can leave nasty bite marks which itch for weeks. The West Coast is still synonym for those beasts although they have spread across the Southern Alps into Canterbury (Maruia Springs, Mt. Somers), and are even found (and biting...) in the Bay of Islands, the Coromandel and other areas.
I started this chapter with sunshine and want to finish it with rain: Although I very much prefer blue skies and splendid weather I felt most comfortable in my favourite area near Karamea on a bush walk after a rainfall. The rainforest felt more genuine than ever before - probably because this is just its nature.
The orange rivers of the north are an indirect evidence that it must rain a lot on the West Coast. The surprising colour does not come from a high iron content but because the water contains a lot of organic material. Most of this comes from decomposing tree bark which is washed into the rivers by the rain.
The Oparara River in the Kahurangi National Parlk near Karamea is a splendid example for this colourful display of nature. Also the swing bridges on the Heaphy Track lead over orange water.
As already mentioned further above, the beaches of the West Coast are grey up to Hokitika, further north they become whiter and whiter, until you reach the super white beaches along the Heaphy Track. At the end of the Heaphy Track in the north you suddenly reach the orange-tinted beaches of Golden Bay and the Abel Tasman National Park. A fascinating display and change of colour. And a change of pace and wildness, with stretches of sheer cliffs followed by soft and sometimes surprisingly calm beaches. My favourite beach is Carters Beach near Westport for its incredible mirror-like reflections.
The glaciers of the West Coast - we speak of Franz Josef and Fox which are the only ones that shave their way downhill on the west side of the Southern Alps - are unique because they reach into the rainforest. Once they even reached the sea before they retreated many kilometres. Until a few years back (2007) they were advancing fast, at a rate of half a metre per day. The theory was that this was a consequence of global warming because it rained more on the West Coast, and in higher altitude the precipitation falls as snow which then compacts into névé and finally into ice. It is a fascinating display of nature.
HOWEVER - and now we are in April 2012 - in the meantime the glaciers are retreating (since 2009). As a consequence the terminal faces have become unstable and Glacier Guides at Franz Josef have suspended the "normal" walks which included a hike up the terminal face. You need a lift by helicopter to start your walk - which makes the experience not only noisy but also unaffordable for many people. A real shame. But what can you do against the power of nature?
A Reminder - 20 January 2009/13 May 2010
After the death of two Australien/Indian tourists who were buried by falling ice at Fox Glacier I feel I should remind you to of the extreme danger you put yourself in if you get too close to the two West Coast glaciers. Those glaciers are moving rivers of ice. Although they have been receding since 2009, there is permanent pressure on the terminal face, and especially in summer the ice right there is melting fast. Combined with the huge pressure it is absolutely normal that enormous chunks of ice crash to the ground. One cubic metre of ice weighs one tonne.
If you walk to the terminal face of the glaciers take the warning signs and rope barriers seriously, they are there for a reason. If you want to have a closer look at the glaciers go on a guided walk. They take you up to the glacier on an ever changing safe access way. None of these guides would ever dare to stand right in front of the terminal face beside the river which flows under the glacier and undermines its stability further.
- Pros:Ferns, ratas, wekas - rainforest at its best
- Cons:Perhaps too many sandflies and too much rain
- In a nutshell:Love at First Sight
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