Volcanos and vinyards

South Island trip 1After sophisticated wine tasting and dining in Marborough we head off for the wilder side of South Island. The West Coast is home to only 33,000 people and there is an awful lot of mountain wilderness.

The first stop is not West Coast proper but the Abel Tasman national park at the top of the island is certainly a wilderness. Then a long drive through the mountains and down the coast to Hokitika where we break the journey before heading further south to Glacier Country. Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are full of tourists looking for helicopter rides but we find some decent walks and finally it warms up and the sun comes out. Then south again and over the Haarst pass to Makarora where we stop rather than going on to Wanaka as our friend Kathy recommended the glorious Wild Earth lodge. A blissful spot where we sit in our cottage looking down the Wilkins Valley at Mt Aeolus.



Kaiteriteri cottage

The Abel Tasman national park is one of New Zealand's smaller parks on the north coast of South Island. We are staying between Kaiteriteri (packed with Kiwis as per the guidebook) and the sleepy inlet of Marahau where the park begins and we can look at it from our hammock (above). Our two hosts are lovely. He is a climber and used to be a heliski guide so we have a great chat about ski touring around the world and in New Zealand.

The trail through the park runs parallel with the coast - mostly through the hills and sometimes along the sea. You can walk for days staying in camps or huts but we book a trip to drop us in "Tonga Quarry" and pick up from Medlands Beach after a two hour walk. On the way we view "split apple rock" a big ball of granite which is inexplicably split and sitting on a small tower, and also a few seals basking on the rocks at Adele Island. Other groups have chosen to sea kayak and in each of the bays we see groups of canoeists exploring the coastline.

Abel Tasman NP coastline

Taranaki Falls

Taranaki Falls

You can see why the path does not follow the coastline as it drops so steeply into the sea (top above). When we arrive at our drop off a couple of very tame Variable Oystercatchers and a Weka are patrolling the beach (above middle). We walk over a headland to the north to visit the pretty Onetahuti beach before reversing tracks and heading south. Lots of multiday walkers pass us with their big packs. The path goes up and down through the forest of tree ferns and larger trees. We can hear and sometimes see the birds, pass waterfalls and cross suspension bridges before picnicing on the beach as we wait for our boat back. A gorgeous park and definately worth a visit even if you don't do the multiday version. And staying at our AirBnB is definately recommended.

Tauranga Bay seal colony

Pancake rocks

Instead of going via Greymouth we choose a slightly longer drive from Kaiteriteri to Hokitika on the west coast. After following winding river valleys through the mountains to Murchison we take the turning to Westport and then branch off to Taurango Bay where there is a fur seal colony at the end of another beautifully constructed walkway from the beach. Big males are lolling on the rocks or chasing females while pups are playing in a pool or suckling from their mothers. Much more impressive than Adele Island yesterday.

We head on to Punahaiki and find a nice walk to the beach through the forest - the Taylor Walk. We thought this would take us to Pancake Rocks, a famous tourist attraction but we are too far north. Actually it is a lovely spot and much less crowded than Pancake Rocks when we eventually get there (above). Despite the crowds the rock formations are spectacular and we watch spume blowing through blowholes and the swell crashing through gaps in the rocks. The walkway is beautifully constructed as ever.

Hokitika when we reach it is a rather ramshackle town. Once a thriving gold centre (featuring in the Booker Prize winning "the Luminaries") it now has lots of shops selling greenstone/jade ornaments and (another) kiwi centre. The Beach Hotel is very comfortable and provides a decent meal before we crash for the night.

Lake Kaniere

My plan the next day is a "lakeside walk" around nearby Lake Kaniere (above). We are soon to discover that lakeside walks really mean steep climbs through thick forest around pretty lakes with the occasional view of the water itself. Mrs C is not very happy after 45 mins when we finally get a glimpse of the lake (above). We do however see some amazing luscious vegetation - moss covered trees and trees with palms and orchids all over them as well as lots of gorgeous tree ferns.

Next stop is Franz Josef Glacier in the heart of "Glacier Country". Many people come here for helicopter rides around the glaciers and Mt Cook and the peace is regularly shattered by helis taking off from the field across the road. In fact this is very weather dependent. When we arrive at around 4 the clouds are clearing (below left) and the flights are taking off but next morning the cloud base is around 100ft and all is peaceful.

Te Mata hike

View from Te Mata looking towards Craggy Range and the coast

The Franz Josef Glacier has retreated miles since it was first studied in 1910. Even in the last 11 years it has gone back a very long way - a marker by the current lookout shows the end of the glacier in 2009 and today it is a long way away. As a result there is quite a long walk the river bed (top right) to get there.

In the afternoon we head 30 mins down the road to Fox Glacier. Our guidebook described a walk around Murchison lake with fine views to the mountains. Sadly the mountains are covered in thick cloud but when stop for tea at a very smart cafe the clouds clear and Mt Tasman and Cook shine through.

Mt Tasman (left) and Mt Cook

The road on down the west coast and over the Haast Pass was only completed in 1995 and continues to get blocked regularly. In 2013 two tourists in their campervan were swept away in a landslide. Fortunately no such excitement affects us. On the way we stop for views at Peringa lake and then do a lovely 45 min forest walk to Monro Beach. Sadly the rare crested Fjordland penguins were not there (too early in the day possibly) but we do enjoy our picnic on a pretty beach with just gulls and oystercatchers for company. Ship Creek, a little further along the coast is super touristy by contrast - no need to walk! The supermarket in Haast is an essential stop as there are no more supplies for around 100km. Over the pass we are welcomed by our host, Pete, and shown around the gorgeous cottage at Wild Earth Lodge (below). They have several b&b rooms in the main house but we stay in the lovely cottage which is private and super-comfortable for two.

Wild Earth Lodge

The scenery in the Makarora valley is stunning. A mixture of the Lake District, Scotland and the Alps! The cottage is so lovely that we don't want to leave and eat in both nights. We venture out for a walk starting at the popular Blue Pools where tourists are leaping off the swing bridge into the river. I make a BIG MISTAKE and drag Vicky up a vertical walk before finding the right one - a more benign wander along the river through the woods. Very pretty with bird calls, fantails showing off and even some parakeets posing.

Next on our journey is Fjordland and the South. Watch this space...

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Mt Aeolus