“West coast” always has a wild streak to it. After exploring the offbeat and bohemian Golden Bay in the north of the South Island of New Zealand we had to decide our direction to move ahead. Heading southwards via the west coast felt like a perfect way to further discover the beauty of New Zealand.
Pancake rocks and Punakaiki
Think nice fluffy pancakes. Now imagine them stacked up tightly, with a layer of maple syrup separating each pancake layer. What if these pancakes were made of limestone and the chocolate sauce was some mud residues formed millions of years ago. These are the pancake rocks at Punakaiki.
Near the Paparoa National Park, as you travel south from Nelson along the west coast is a place called Punakaiki. Famous for “pancake rocks and blowholes”. Very accommodatingly, the Intercity bus we were travelling in had a longer breakfast break here. Instead of the usual 15 minutes, we had a good 30-minute halt, enough to go and have a quick look at the Punakaiki pancake rocks.
A narrow wooden passage goes high above the ground towards the sea. Diversions along this passage help you get a view of the pancake rocks from different angles. Walking on this passage feels like you are hovering high up approaching the sea that stretches all the way to the horizon. Slim columns of shapely curved rocks are jutting out of the sea approaching the sky.
The wooden passages go closely winding around these pancake rocks, letting visitors have a close look, even touch-and-feel these rocks. Some passages are wheelchair accessible. At one point, a narrow staircase has been carved out of these rocks, giving visitors a sectional view of the pancake rocks.
The Punakaiki pancake rocks are said to be the last surviving mystery on earth. Scientists believe the pancake rocks were formed by a process called “stylobedding”. While the formation of limestone – marine skeletons and plant residue under immense pressure for millions of years – is understandable, how the layers of soft mud got in between thousands of these thin slices is still a big mystery. Colourful kiosks on this wooden passage explain all of this rock formation processes, a wonderful way for kids to learn geography!
Another interesting feature is the blowholes. These pancake rocks, at some places, form a semi-cylindrical shape in the water. When the tide is high enough and the wind in the correct direction, the water hits these rocks and splashes several meters up in the air. This splashing water has the appearance of blowholes. The tide wasn’t as high when we were there, so we couldn’t get a real impact of the blowholes.
Greymouth station and seeing why New Zealand is special
After the Punakaiki pancake rocks, our next stop would be Greymouth. Our drive now, along the South Island west coast fit the classic “road trip” image perfectly. The sea was always on our right. Clear roads winding up and down, a spotless blue sky and the sea stretching out to the horizon. Once in a while, a giant truck would pass us. The famous black sand beaches now made an appearance.
Of all the beauty in New Zealand, if there’s one stand out – it’s the rock formations we were seeing here. Severely eroded by the elements, some sitting forlornly by themselves, some forming a playful group in the waters – these rocks were a thing of beauty like we had never experienced before. This drive along the upper west coast of the South Island ranks high up in one of the best drives in the world – and we knew clearly why.
Greymouth is a big train station. It’s the starting or terminating point (depending on your direction) for one of the most popular train journeys of Kiwi Rail. The journey from Christchurch to Greymouth – essentially crosses over from the east coast to the west coast, going over the Arthur’s pass. If there is one train journey you choose to do in New Zealand – it should be this.
The train and the bus timings are all perfectly coordinated. Buses of both Intercity and Naked Bus arrive in time for passengers to take the train from Greymouth to Christchurch or for the passengers coming in from Christchurch to join the buses.
There was a fair bit of passengers coming in and leaving. Even then, we realised that our bus was taking an awful long to get going. That’s when we saw an ambulance come in. Two paramedics got off with a stretcher and took in the driver of the Naked bus. He had started facing some chest discomfort. Our driver then parked his bus in the Greymouth parking lot. The passengers of the Naked bus got into our bus. The ambulance was on its way before we were. Now you have to understand that Intercity and Naked bus are competing bus companies. They have almost identical bus service across New Zealand and equally vie for the tourist’s share. But when an emergency came up – none of that mattered. Intercity had empty seats and the tourists – guests of New Zealand – would not be left stranded. None of the “another Naked bus is on its way. Please wait for a while”. Do what you can to help, because we are all decent caring human beings. Get on with business, get on with the day, get on with life. Simple.
First meeting with the Franz Josef glacier
We reached the town of Franz Josef in the evening. Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are the famous glaciers on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island and the towns are named after them. These glaciers are also among the most popular tourist attractions in all of New Zealand.
Franz Josef was a typical tourist town- hotels and hostels were lined up one after the other. It had one supermarket, a hot pool, cafes and restaurants. We were staying at the YHA Franz Josef which was at the far end of the town. Usual check in, walk around the hostel, getting familiar with the kitchen routine happened.
The next day we headed out to see the Franz Josef glacier. It took us not more than five minutes to get out of the town. We were now following the river. The river bed was full of red rocks – probably with a high iron content giving them the red colour.
It was a 4 km walk to the entry of the Franz Josef glacier park. You could either walk on the highway which went along the river or through a forest pathway. We started walking along the highway. Encouraged by our experience in the Golden Bay, we tried to hitchhike here as well, and sure enough, soon got a lift from a young couple from Wanaka. Only when the mentioned that they were here for the weekend did we realise it was a Sunday. All days of the week were otherwise the same for us, during our 6 weeks travelling in New Zealand.
From the parking lot, it was another 3 km to the glacier. The path went through a beautiful forest. We were now getting familiar to temperate forest. You see the greens, but the thick trees of the tropics are absent. As are the pointy tall conifers. The forest is full of life, but the greens are different. They tell you a different story. They aren’t warm and humid like the tropical forest, neither cold that makes your nose hurt every time you breathe. Yet, they are full of life, thriving growing – and making you happy. The same greens and the same forests – yet so many different shades and moods – just like humans!
The dense forest went on for around 1 km. After which we came out in the open. We were walking through the river now. A tiny wooden bridge here, a waterfall there. Crossing the rocks at some places. After which the path climbed a little way up. And high up there we saw the glacier shining bright in the morning sun.
We didn’t know what to think of it – in its isolation, it was a beautiful sight. Nothing that’s pure nature isn’t. But the memory of the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia was a bit too fresh, bit too strong. For the first time ever, we failed to see a place just for what it is.
And how could we? The Franz Josef glacier stood there as a symbol of everything us humans are doing wrong. There were boards put up that showed how much the glacier had receded. Numbers about how many inches the glacier was moving back were thrown in. Just a few years back, it had been up to where we were standing.
We hear and read often about the receding glaciers. David Attenborough tells us on TV in his deep appealing voice how beautiful the earth is and why it needs to be preserved. NGC and BBC travel show us beautiful images.
But none of that had hit as much as seeing the exposed rocks where the Franz Josef should have been sprawling. It felt like the glacier going far away was pleading, “I want to be with you, please don’t do this to me”.
We decided to head back, this time through the walk in the forest. It was a fun walk, the birds were in a good mood chirping merrily. They had put up a lovely little set up here. A cassette of the bird calls was put in a casing and you had to manually wind this cassette. Put on the headphones, and you could hear the calls of the various birds in this region. We were impressed by this thrifty yet effective learning tool.
Hitchhiking, once again, in Franz Josef
It was now starting to get a little chilly. We took the bag out to wear our sweaters and realised that Chetan’s sweater was missing. We distinctly remembered putting it in the bag in the morning. The sweater was most likely left on the ground when we had taken our water bottle out.
We ran back to the parking lot and further, again towards the glacier. The weather was closing in. It was important to find the sweater soon. Almost at the end of this walk, we found it. Someone had seen it fallen on the ground and had placed it on top of a rock, so it would be clearly visible. Obviously, we wasted no time in arguing right there about whose mistake it was, leaving the sweater out on the ground like that.
However, one look at the glacier behind now almost invisible behind the clouds and a slight rain falling on our cheeks, made us realise the futility of the argument. We had found the sweater. We had walked through a beautiful path twice! We were hungry and tired and needed to head towards the hostel soon.
We decided not to attempt walking back and try to hitchhike again. The 4 km walk back felt like a bit too much. The parking lot was almost empty, the chances of getting a lift were slim. A short distance ahead as saw a big van approaching. We stood in position with our thumbs stretched out. They promptly stopped and asked us to get in. It was an Indian family, travelling together. All nine of them were from Mumbai. They lived close to one of our favouirte hangouts in Mumbai – the south Indian eateries at Matunga. We had never imagined the words Ramashray and glacier would ever be taken in the same sentence!
They dropped us at the supermarket in Franz Josef. We bought some eggs, bacon, beets and bread for dinner. Back in the hostel, the staff was busy chopping vegetable for the soup. Here in the YHA, they served free soup in the evenings! It was cold and wet now. We freshened up, and once again took our positions by the favourite seats next to the fireplace.
Soon soup was served. We had bowlfuls of them, followed by the some fresh beets and hummus. The wild west of New Zealand had welcomed us well!