The Rugged Coast
We drove west from Nelson to spend a few days driving down the West Coast of the south island, known to be a particularly rugged route but well worth it for some of the sights along the way. Another reason we chose to drive west and not east was due to the earthquake that had devastated much of the east coast around Christchurch in November '16, making the roads impassable in some places. Our first stop was at the Birds Ferry Lodge, a (very) remote luxury property where we could stay for a night to break up the drive. It was a beautiful lodge situated right in between the mountains to one side and the sea to the other side, and our hosts made us dinner and helped us to plan our route south for the next day.
After a night of torrential intermittent rain, we awoke to a hazy sunlight and were hopeful that the forecast of more rain would burn off. The first stop of the day was at Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks formation, a unique coastal phenomenon that makes the rocky cliffs look like layers of stacked pancakes, hence the name. We continued the drive down the insanely narrow main road towards Hokitika. By the time we got there it had started to rain pretty persistently and we debated whether to go to the Hokitika Gorge, but while we ate lunch in town, the rain dissipated and we excitedly hurried off towards the mountains through what were essentially backroads of farmland. The Hokitika Gorge is one of those places that looks like a postcard in real life, as if someone edited the water and dropped it into the river. It's this insanely turquoise glacial water that flows down from the mountains into the farmland below. I think that was the funniest part of the drive because my mom, the driver, kept double checking that we were going the right way because the route goes through miles of unassuming pasture and fields and suddenly, with a quick turn of the road, you're in this gorge and park your car and walk 15 minutes and are overlooking this gorgeous gorge. Even though it did rain a little while we were there, it was worth it and we spent awhile hiking around the rocks taking photos.
After Hokitika, we exhaustedly drove to the hotel for the night in Franz Josef, where we were planning to do a helicopter ride in the morning that would take us up to the infamous Franz Josef Glacier. However, the rain was back and it was not going away. We had dinner at our hotel and it was pouring, woke up to sheets of rain in the morning, got a call that our helicopter tour was canceled, and defeatedly packed up to head to the next hotel. We did stop at a turnout and were able to see the base of the glacier from afar, which was weird considering the terrain around us was essentially jungle. Viewing a mountain glacier from within a humid jungle? Only in New Zealand. The rest of the day was spent driving south and then inland through the Haast Pass, mostly through the continued rain. We stopped here and there at lookouts, trying to get photos of the waterfalls and the gorges along the road, but we mostly trekked onward to Wanaka. Towards the end of the mountain drive, though, the rain did dissipate slightly and we managed to get some spots of sunlight at the Blue Pools, another beautiful gorge of surreal turquoise water similar to Hokitika. At both Hokitika and the Blue Pools, we watched some groups of (insane) tourists jump into the freezing waters and swim around. The water may have looked tropical but it sure as heck did not feel like it. Even in the summer, and especially with the overcast from the rain, it was quite chilly, so if you're heading to New Zealand, some versatile layering is a must. And several cans of bug spray and sunscreen should be at the top of your list. I still have scars on my ankles from the bug bites...