Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wicky Wild Wild West

Our 'standard' day involves waking up, disassembling the bed, stowing our gear and driving. I have now grown used to the van and assembling and disassembling the bed only takes five minutes, or 25 minutes if Gemma helps. Typically we drive for several hours, stopping at interesting places to take a walk or take photographs, having lunch along the way. By early afternoon Gemma is normally a bit tired of driving so we'll park up at a holiday park. Usually we cover between 150-200km, some days less, others more. Normally we are the first or among the first people checking in to the parks for the day, although most seem to fill up by sundown.

Although there are some nice walks around the lagoon in Okarito, the rain put us off. We left the village with our eyes open for Kiwis, the birds rather than the humans. Our chances weren't good despite the signs warning of them on the Okarito road because the Kiwi is a nocturnal bird. The road cuts deeply into the rainforest such that the view of the mountains disappears. The towns of the West Coast region have a 'Wild West' frontier town feel about them. They generally consist of one storey wooden houses. The 'Wild West' comparison is not a bad one as the towns are mainly remnants of a cycle of boom and bust following the discovery of nearby gold fields. In the town of Ross we stopped at the visitors centre which attempts to make a big deal of the towns historical and current links to gold mining. Behind the centre is a frankly ugly lake in the belly of a large open mine. There are recreations of historic buildings such as a cottage and a prison, which houses the crappest attempt at the dummy of a man that I've ever seen. In the back of the visitors centre you can pan for gold out of big plastic storage containers. Gemma was disgusted by this and complained loudly that she wanted men with big hats squatting in a creek and sifting in big pans.

Further north we stopped at Lake Mahinapua. There is a camping ground here which tempted us as it is a really pretty spot. Unfortunately the need to do some washing forced us to carry on. Perhaps it was our exertions on the glacier the previous day, but neither of us fancied driving on much further and so we decided to call it a day when we reached Hokitika. We found a van park in the north of town, Shining Star, which was nice and right next to the beach. On the beach was littered a massive amount of driftwood stretching as far as the eye could see. I believe the town has an annual driftwood art exhibition. We walked into town for lunch.

Hokitika is another old gold mining town, but is important today as a centre for the crafting of greenstone. Greenstone is New Zealand Jade, important culturally and historically to the Maori people and still worked into traditional forms as jewellery. After the obligatory glance at the greenstone shops we went back to the van park. We were happy to see that the park was up to date technology wise, having a wireless hotspot. We bought a voucher for it and spent some time uploading photos and blog entries as well as other chores. Sitting in the van next to the beach, tapping away on the laptop I was drawn to thinking that I could get used to that way of life. I could picture myself working remotely, travelling around the UK, Europe or even the world. All that would be needed is ubiquitous affordable Internet access. I digress. Across the highway from Shining Star is a glow worm grotto. Once it got suitably dark we wandered over to take a look. Sure enough amongst the trees little points of light could be seen, rather like Christmas lights. A couple of young families were also there, amusing me by trying to take photographs and having the flash fire. Afterward we rented a DVD from reception and watched it on the player in the van with a bottle of wine.

The road north from Hokitika hugs the coast. At times the salt spray made the mountains in the distance very hazy and indistinct. There are two bridges north of Hokitika. In common with many of the bridges we've been across in New Zealand so far, they are single lane. These ones had the added factor of being single lane for both road vehicles and trains. We blasted straight through Greymouth. I'd thought about getting a coffee or something to eat there but forgotten it was Sunday. There didn't appear to be a lot of activity in Greymouth at 10:00 on a Sunday morning. We did stop at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Here the limestone and mudstone rocks are formed in layers resembling stacks of pancakes. The rocks have eroded into all sorts of interesting shapes and at high tides there are blowholes amongst channels in the rocks. We were well out of the range of high tide but the waves crashing in the caverns and amongst the pillars of rock were spectacle enough.

Near the town of Westport is Cape Foulwind. This was another naming by Captain Cook, possibly named because of a cracking fart he did whilst spying the cape from his ship. Or perhaps not. There is a very busy car park and walkway there. Mostly people, like us, coming to see the Seal Colony. A breeding colony of New Zealand Fur Seals is well established there. We made like proper tourists and snapped away at them. Gemma was amazed at the speed at which they managed to get over the rocks. At every stop we made we encountered the Weka, a native flightless bird. Normally they would come to the door of the van, look quizzically in and then sit underneath it for five minutes. It was also on these stops that we began noticing signs up proclaiming the use of 1080 in the area. 1080 is a poison which is being used to control the Possum population. Possums were introduced from Australia to start a fur trade and have more than made themselves at home in the New Zealand bush. The shocking statistic is that they chomp their way through 20,000 tonnes of native bush every night. The only Possums that we have seen have been lifeless on the roadside.

Again, we didn't feel like putting in too many miles so we continued just up the road to Seal Colony Top 10 park. This is not brilliantly named as it's about 7km away from the seals. Gemma laughed at me because I got excited about reading the newspaper, with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. It was Sunday though, so I steadfastly defended my decision.

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