Two days after riding the TranzAlpine from Arthur's Pass to Christchurch, I was back aboard. This time I was headed west. And this time I'd be on until the end: Greymouth on the Tasman Coast. The weather was another difference; the blue skies were replaced by fog in Christchurch, dissipating slowly as we made our way across the Southern Alps. By the time we reached the other coast there was some actual definition to the clouds, a change I appreciated. Nothing worse than photographing a uniform gray sky.
From Greymouth I caught the InterCity coach to Punakaiki, a sort of
a settlement a little way north along the coast. This was my first
InterCity, the Kiwi
answer to Greyhound. Or at
least it would be if Greyhound had nicer buses, provided
entertaining commentaries along the way and offered pickups and
drop-offs at your hotel. Not to mention the shorter distances and
more scenic nature of New Zealand, which I grant is hardly
Greyhound's fault. My point, assuming I have one, is that the
prospect of taking a bus between cities down here shouldn't fill you
with dread. Although I do wish I'd had a chance to stop at a few
interesting spots I noticed along the way. Next time I'm definitely
renting a car.
I arrived at my hotel not really knowing why I was there, beyond the fact that my travel agent thought it was a good idea. The Punakaiki Rocks Hotel is so new it practically sparkles, an eco-friendly place that complements its beachfront setting. As soon as I settled in I took a walk on the beach and among the pancake rocks, layers of soft mudstone sandwiched between thicker layers of limestone. And stared in wonder at the waves. And at the way the wind picks up the tops of the waves and throws them up and back away from the shore.
After enjoying the sea view for a while, I decided to take the
tunnel under the highway (a grand description for
a two lane road) to check out the companion hotel over by the
hills. Walking up the path I came eye to eye with a pair of
woodland creatures. At first I thought they were deer, and tried to
get a little closer for a picture. And realized that those deer
were actually goats. And that there were a lot more than two of
them. And some of them had horns! Fortunately, they were no more
interested in messing with me than I was with them. So I got my
pictures and left them to do whatever it is that goats do of an
It turns out that there are two excellent reasons to
visit Punakaiki: the
remarkable Paparoa National Park and the real, official Pancake
Rocks. (Turns out that what I saw at the hotel was just an
appetizer.) I had a guided tour into the park, full of fascinating
stories of how heavy rains could turn the area, including the road
we were traveling, into an instant lake. This is a place of rushing
streams that drop out of sight into underground watercourses,
sinkholes that form without warning and enough caverns to keep a
dedicated spelunker busy for ages. We did some hiking into the bush,
giving me another chance to appreciate the diversity of New
Zealand's native flora.
But it's not all giant trees and ferns. There's wonder on a smaller
scale as well, like these spongy mosses along the trail. Their
colors were amazing, running from a sort of cream to a burnt umber
and a bunch of other Crayola
names along the way. (They make a nice break from all that green.)
And I haven't said anything about the birdlife. This little robin
followed us around for the longest time. Every time I thought she
was gone for good, she'd make another appearance. And then there
was the fantail, whose eponymous tail gives him a fascinatingly
erratic flight path. Sadly, he wouldn't sit still long enough for
me to get a picture. Every time I tried he'd be off, zigzagging
drunkenly from branch to branch.
My guide had timed things so we'd leave the park around high tide,
the perfect time to visit the Pancake Rocks and experience their
blowholes in all their explosive glory. When a wave of sufficient
force comes in, water pushes up through these passages and into
the air in a burst of spray that looks more like steam. Which then
drains back into the hole in hundreds of tiny waterfalls. But
what's fascinating about the rocks is that no one is quite sure how
they came to be. What would cause these thin alternating layers of
hard and soft rock to form, one stacked upon the other, step by
step, inch by inch, a hundred feet high? I've heard a rumor that
layers. But rocks? Who knew?
My next stop was Nelson, a town near the southern tip of Tasman Bay
that's big on arts & crafts. Or so they tell me; I didn't get
to see much of it. I arrived Friday night and was off first thing
Saturday morning for the tiny town of Kaiteriteri and my cruise of
Abel Tasman National
Park on the aptly named Abel Tasman Explorer. (Due to a small
scheduling mixup, my coach dropped me off an hour early for the
boat. I was killing time by taking pictures from the beach when a
local told me that a better view was to be had from the hill. He
was right.) There's no dock at Kaiteriteri. Instead, we were
ferried to the Explorer by a pontoon launch. That makes for an
exciting transfer, although I'm pleased to say that no hands were
lost. Lunches, alas, are another matter. But that's another story
for another time.
The park has a number of trails that are accessible only by water.
The Explorer makes a bunch of stops to drop off and pick up hikers,
kayakers and campers. Me, I stayed aboard and enjoyed the views
from the water.
Like the mysteriously named Split Apple Rock at left, a favorite
hangout for the local
shags. At right you
can see our approach to Tonga Island and the local seal community.
The seals are easy to see in the picture. But from a pitching boat?
Let's just say that I was inclined to take the commentator's word
for their existence. Maybe if they spray painted the rocks. Then
they'd stand out properly. I mean, what's the point of having seals
around if we can't gawk at them properly?
Back in Nelson the sun was already going down by the time I got
back. That, coupled with the short Saturday opening hours, limited
my explorations of the town. But I did appreciate the view up
Trafalgar Street past the shops and cafes to the bell tower on
Church Hill. And I got a kick out of the School of Fisheries
building, which the small sign at the left identified as part of
NMIT, which I later learned is
the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. I assumed the
Fisheries name was just a bit of nostalgia and that the Institute
taught more technology-oriented subjects these days. Shows what I
and seafood are academic disciplines to these guys. I shouldn't
be surprised; what I'd learned about New Zealanders' dominance in
dairy farming should have told me that they don't leave much to
It was Easter Sunday as I prepared to leave Nelson. With a little
time before my InterCity coach arrived, I wandered over to Church
Hill to check out the Church on the Hill. Anglican Christ Church
Cathedral is impressive enough, although I think the modern bell
tower is a bit of a clash. And then there's the stone wall in
front, a reminder of a time when Church Hill served a less spiritual
purpose. Those stones are all that's left of a fort that once stood
here. Guarding, one assumes, against hostile Maori. Who once had
their own fortifications on this site. But at 8:15 on a Sunday
morning it was just a place to enjoy the colors of autumn while I
waited for my ride.
But first I had time for a little wander around town. I had spotted
the Opawa River from the coach on my way into town and thought it
would be a good starting point. Following its banks I came upon the
River Queen, which
does regular cruises along a river that looks scarcely wider than
the riverboat. Heading back to town I encountered Seymour Square,
with its war memorial clock tower, its grand trees, its ornate
flower beds and a fountain that does its own light show after dark.
I spent the afternoon visiting wineries in the company of a group of
English ladies who knew far more about New Zealand wines than I.
(Not that there's any accomplishment in that.) And learned in short
order that Marlborough produces some awfully nice white wines. (I'm
not much on reds.) I also appreciated the friendly atmosphere,
which reminded me more of my time in Australia's
Margaret River than of my
experiences in Napa. And I had a particularly good time at the
Prenzel Distillery, where I
enjoyed their butterscotch, melon and lemon schnapps (one at a
time), and then finished off with a kiwifruit ice cream at their
cafe. My luggage was a lot heavier by the end of the afternoon.
I had some time to relax and explore the next morning before
catching the TranzCoastal train back to Christchurch. I walked all
over town, wandering down residential streets admiring the floral
displays. Eventually I was back in the town centre, where I spotted
the office building at right. I like art deco; is there anyone who
doesn't? And then I read the name on the window and had a little
laugh. S.W. Startup, Chartered Accountant. S.W.? As in Software?
I've seen a lot of software startups. And most of them are in
desperate need of a good accountant. It wasn't until I was working
on these pages almost a month later that discovered that this clever
little joke actually isn't. There really is a
Startup in Blenheim. Just
not the kind I'm used to.
I arrived back in Christchurch Monday evening and was off the
following morning for Queenstown, the last leg of my adventure.
The coach journey is long but incredibly scenic, as we made the
transition from the Canterbury Plain to the mountains running down
the spine of the South Island. We made a stop in the picturesque
little town of Geraldine just before our turn from the coastal
highway toward the Alps. I had just enough time to admire the
town's museum and the local
and to wander through an antique shop. Across the street from the
antique shop I spotted the unlikely looking cinema at right. A
pity I couldn't have stayed to catch a performance of The Two
Towers. I'd have liked to see it one more time before visiting some
of the film sites around Queenstown. Instead I had to settle for
Fellowship on DVD at my hotel. Sad, isn't it?
The road to Queenstown passes by
Aoraki/Mount Cook National
Park, home to New Zealand's highest peak and one of the places
Edmund Hillary did some climbing before he tackled
one. The tour operators have everything well planned; our stop
at the park gave us time for a flight among the peaks, lunch at the
Hermitage Hotel and a little wander around before continuing the
journey southwest. I jumped at the chance to see the mountains
close up. Besides, I'd never been on a plane with skis before. And
landing on a glacier sounded like fun.
Fun it certainly is. The landing itself was smooth and easy. And
I enjoyed the chance to stomp around for a little while in clean,
white snow. And to laugh at
the folks trying to make snowballs. They didn't do too well; I'm
guessing the high altitude or the moisture content doesn't let the
snow pack properly for weapons purposes. I also wondered about the
puptent sitting alone out on the glacier at right. How typical is
that? You find the perfect secluded location, only to find out
that your new home is on the glide path for the local airfield.
Damn noisy neighbors! Something oughta be done!
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California