On this day, we traversed scenic Haast Pass en route to the rugged coastline of Westland. The west coast of the south island is remote and sparsely populated, even by New Zealand standards. We were, in effect, heading for nowhere.
Johann “Julius” von Haast was a 19th century Prussian geologist that spent much of his professional career exploring the isles of Aotearoa. After crossing the Southern Alps at Haast Pass, our tour group followed the banks of the Haast River to the coastal village of Haast. When not cataloguing rocks, the geologist studied the skeletons of an extinct species of bird that came to be known as Haast’s eagle. Sir Julius evidently recognized a naming opportunity when he saw one.
Our first stop of the day was at (wait for it) Haast Beach. It was mid-morning and drizzling rain when we arrived, so most people didn’t venture too far from the bus. But a little precipitation will never keep me away from watching waves crash on lonely beaches. I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. I donned my Gore-Tex jacket, cued up an appropriate soundtrack, and hiked across the sand. Our stop was only fifteen minutes long, but I spent every possible second staring at the surf.
An impossibly long one-way bridge took us over the mouth of the Haast River. From there we continued our journey along Highway 6, bearing northeast along the Tasman coast. Perhaps an hour later, we made another stop at Bruce Bay. The rain had subsided, so a few more brave souls scrambled down to the beach this time. Bruce Bay is notable for being decorated by beautiful, surf-polished quartz stones. The rounded rocks ranged in size from marbles or peppermints up to rugby balls and beyond. I felt mixed emotions about what has apparently become a tradition among tourists at this beach. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the prettiest stones had messages scrawled on them in black marker. Some of the messages were touching poems or elegies to long-lost souls, but many more were of the “Jimmy Wuz Here” variety. The overall impression skewed much closer to graffiti than tribute; I silently wished people would just appreciate the pure aesthetic beauty of the milk-white stones. Perhaps over time, the rain and the surf will wash away the markings and even the score.
With a full afternoon of activities in front of us, we ate our lunch on the bus. Our destination was the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier. Franz Josef, and nearby Fox Glacier, are very unique. I can think of nowhere else in the world that glaciers flow from alpine peaks, grinding their way downhill through a temperate rain forest, only to terminate near an ocean. One subset of our tour group was planning to spend the afternoon walking to the terminal face of the glacier. Most of the stronger hikers (Sally and Colin, Cam and Bil, Cathy and Betsy) were set to attack the much more strenuous track to the Alex Knob viewpoint. I fell into a third category – I had decided to treat myself to a helicopter hike right on top of Franz Josef Glacier. We dropped off the second group at the Alex Knob trailhead around 1:15 pm before heading into town to see about the heli-hike.
The west coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places in the world. The Franz Josef glacier area gets six to eight metres (over 240 inches) of precipitation a year, so low clouds are a common occurrence. And there were plenty of low clouds as we pulled into the heli-hiking centre. Not surprisingly, our 2:30 pm reservation had been cancelled on account of the poor visibility and we were automatically rebooked for the following day. Sensing my disappointment, our lead guide graciously let me choose between joining the rest of the group on the terminal face walk versus taking me back to the Alex Knob track. I didn’t fly 13,000 km to go on easy hikes; I predictably opted for the challenge of trying to catch up with my friends. I frantically dug my hiking poles out of my travel bag and got dressed for wet & sloppy conditions as the bus zipped back to the trailhead. My friends had a 40-minute head start – this wasn’t going to be easy.
The Alex Knob trail is a steep 16 km out-and-back tramp through podocarp hardwood rainforest. The full hike takes approximately eight hours, and should be started very early in the morning to get to the viewpoint before the omnipresent clouds roll in. In the back of my mind, I probably knew that there would be little chance of experiencing stunning glacial vistas on this day. But I was fixated on catching up to my new buddies, so I hiked faster than I’d ever hiked before. I was pretty certain that our hiking guide was going to turn the group around at about 3:30 pm, so I sprinted the reasonably flat first kilometre or two of trail.
Sprinting was not an option once I got to what our guide had called ‘the steep bit’.
Calling the Alex Knob track a ‘hiking trail’ is a little bit disingenuous. Parts of the trail, while steep, can reasonably be labeled a hike. But from time to time, it’s far more accurate to call it an obstacle course inside of a humidifier. There are places where you have to abandon your hiking poles and use your hands and toes (and wits) to scramble up and over slippery rock outcroppings. The scientific part of me knows that 140-percent relative humidity is technically not possible, but during my first rainforest speed hike I began to have doubts. My clothing was soaked from the inside out before the real rain even began to fall. More than once I had to unzip my wrist cuffs to let the moisture pour out. The tour company had advised us to invest in wool and synthetic clothing so that we would stay reasonably warm when wet. It turned out that my $80 Icebreaker t-shirt and $100 polyester rain-shedding pants were wise investments.
I stopped for a very quick break about 30 minutes into the hike to drink some water and catch my breath. While unzipping my backpack, I became aware that someone or something was watching me. I looked up over my left shoulder to find a woodpigeon perched perhaps a metre away. This majestic creature was so close that I had to take a step back to get my camera to focus properly.
Temporarily rehydrated, I continued my slog up the hill. After about an hour of marching through mud, I started to hear noises on the switchbacks above me. Perhaps ten minutes later, I caught up to my associates just as they were reaching a place called Rata Lookout. They were surprised to see me, but disappointed that my helicopter adventure had been postponed. In fact, we were all pretty dismayed to discovered that Rata Lookout featured a ‘view’ of nothing but a grey morass of clouds. After busting our humps up a slippery mountainside, we realized we had been heading for nowhere. We consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we were getting a great workout.
Since the rain was making the rocks very slippery, our tour guide recommended that we turn around and hike back down. I hung out at Rata Lookout for a few minutes eating some snacks with Bil before scooting downhill. I caught up with Cathy and Cam and we managed to have some fun in the rain, finding out that climbing down over mud-slicked rocks isn’t any easier than scrambling up and over them. Everyone was completely soaked by the time we got back to the trailhead, but we somehow managed to not be miserable. Colin made a friend for life when he stepped out of the bus brandishing a cold beer with my name on it. You can take a man out of England, but you can’t take the England out of a man.
A few radio calls and pickups later, our entire wet and tired group was reunited on the bus. The twisty ride out to the tiny, isolated village of Okarito was a pretty quiet affair. Our spirits picked up when the sun broke through the clouds as we approached the coast. Most of the group would be spending the next two nights at a charming communal lodge. Danny and I, the bachelors who had ponied up for single supplements, really lucked out and were shown across the road to a private beach house called Gonfishin’. We had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom palace all to ourselves, complete with a full kitchen, laundry, and a massive living room. It even had satellite TV, a stereo system, and two beer fridges – the perfect bachelor pad. Best of all, as soon as I opened the patio doors I could hear and smell the surf. The ocean was only a two-minute walk away.
After cleaning up and changing into dry clothes, our group reconvened at the lodge for dinner. There were rumours that the evening’s entertainment would involve some card games or Yahtzee, but evidently everyone had dutifully stocked up on booze back in town. Things devolved pretty quickly into a very animated game of charades. Something cerebral wasn’t in the cards this evening – but mad gesticulations and lots of screaming and laughing fit the bill perfectly.
When I noticed the light starting to fade in the western sky, I slipped back over to Gonfishin’ and liberated a couple of glorious Speight’s lagers from ‘my’ fridge. I followed the walking path westward and found a comfortable spot to sit upon a large piece of driftwood to watch the colours fade from orange to red to violet. It was unfortunate that I couldn’t entice a certain someone to join me, but watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea was one of the highlights of the Rimu tour.
Okarito might be in the middle of nowhere, but it sure felt like somewhere to me.
Song of the Day: “Heading for Nowhere” by Jets Overhead