The sky had been grey and gloomy, with some light rain falling, but as we got to Lake Ianthe a little sunshine was pushing through, and we were encouraged.  We had been driving for a while, and we decided it was time for a hike.  I had wanted to get a chance to walk on the beach, and though we had taken several small roads that went right along the shore, we hadn’t found one yet that gave us direct access to the ocean.  It was time to remedy that.
     We studied the map and found a destination; the Hari Hari Coastal Walk.  We followed this track through the bush (NZ for woods) beside a tidal river.  The ground was very wet in places, and there were retractable fishing piers all along the riverbank.  Presently we came to a wide lagoon; the trail skirted around its edge before coming out on the beach.  There was a sign here with the tide charts posted.  Odd, we thought, as we noticed that high tide was still about three hours away.  We should be back long before then.  And anyway, it was a DOC (NZ Department of Conservation) trail, open to the public.  How important could the tide times be?

     We stood by the Tasman Sea .  We climbed up a long flight of steep stairs onto a huge rock formation called Doughboy Lookout.  From the top we could see a long way in all directions.  The wind was keen, and gulls flew below us.  The sun played fitfully in and out of the clouds, and the roar of the surf was strong.  We gazed up and down the coastline in both directions, and back inland where the river disappeared into the mist.  Jineen noticed a dark cloud heading our way; you could see the rain slanting down from it as it moved straight towards us.  Uh oh, we could be in trouble!


     We went back down to the beach, which consisted more of stones than sand.  Gulls wheeled in the wind overhead, while oyster-catchers scurried along the edge of the incoming surf.  We meandered along, looking for shells, watching birds, collecting stones.  I have this bad habit of bringing home rocks from wherever I travel – which is fine as long as it is not done to excess, but if carried overboard tends to make the luggage very heavy.  I found some nice pieces of greenstone, New Zealand jade, treasured by the Maori people. 
    We came across a nest in the sand, with two rather large spotted eggs, and no sign of the bird who laid them.  The eggs were in the open but very well camouflaged in the rocks, and close enough to the high tide line to make us question the wisdom of the nest site.  Later, looking them up in the NZ bird book, we figured that they must have been Caspian Tern eggs; the detailed description in the book matched perfectly.


     There was not another soul in sight, and it was a lovely peaceful way to spend the afternoon, but eventually it was time to head back.  We hiked back along the same route, but when we got to the lagoon we were in for a nasty shock.  Sections of our path were submerged beneath three feet of seawater!  What had been a trail was now partially a lake.  Do you think this might be why they had posted the tide tables?
     We were just barely able to scramble around the edges of the lagoon, precariously clinging to the shrubs and undergrowth.  We managed to narrowly avoid a soaking as we negotiated the more treacherous of the submerged areas.  It was still an hour until high tide, but if we had been just a few minutes later we wouldn’t have been able to make it through at all; we would have had to wait hours for the tide to recede.  By the time we made it back to the car it was beginning to sprinkle, and as we got on the road again the rain started to pour down hard.  Once again, we had lucked out with the weather.

     We crossed over the Whataroa River , with its many braided channels, and then stopped at a takeaway place in a tiny town for a lunch of fish and chips.  We crossed the street to visit the Maori Art Gallery , and then hit the road again.
     As we drove, it was beautiful along the way.  The annual rainfall in the area is very high, and the misty brooding mountains perfectly captured the mood of the West Coast.  The roads were lined with New Zealand ferns, and the silhouettes of the mountains, layered in repeating patterns, faded into the mist.  We passed secret waterfalls, spectacular in their glory but hidden from the road unless you look from just the right angle.  The mountains here were tall enough that the crowns were above the tree line, and indeed some were above the snowline.  But often on the higher barren mountainsides we would see a single tree growing, one that appeared to be bravely marching towards the summit.

     There were more dead possums in this area; they seem to be more prevalent on the West Coast.  At one point we counted 12 possums in 10 miles!
     We passed a herd of red deer in a pasture and paused for a look.  One mother had a brand new baby fawn, just minutes old.  We could tell he had just been born; he was very wobbly on his feet, and the doe still had the afterbirth hanging.  The mother deer became nervous when we stopped to watch, so we moved on.  We noticed this often with the deer in the paddocks; they didn’t pay any attention at all to the cars going by on the highway, but if you stopped to watch them they became very wary.  They may be domesticated, but they definitely still have their wild instincts.

     We arrived at Fox Glacier.  This is one of the few glaciers in the world that ends just a few hundred meters above sea level.  Starting in glacier-rich snowfields high in the Southern Alps and ending amid lush semi-tropical rainforest, it is a true example of the incredible diversity of New Zealand.
     We hiked up the Chalet Lookout Track, a really great one and a half hour tramp that climbed up through the forest.  We came to a wide stream with a broad rocky bed; the water was swift and cold, and long we stood, trying to summons the nerve to cross.  We met several fellow hikers here, all with the same dilemma.  One girl attempted to cross and slipped, going butt first into the icy water.
     After a bit of exploration, we found that someone had marked a safe crossing, a bit upstream from the main trail, with little stacks of stones.  Here we were able carefully pick our way across, jumping from rock to rock.  An older woman that we had seen along the trail was particularly amusing; she seemed to be hoping her brother would fall in the water.  I was ready with the camera just in case!  

     After a vigorous climb, we came to a lookout platform with a fabulous view of Fox Glacier.  We stood there, high up, and looked across the valley to the terminal face.  The ice of the glacier had greenish blue highlights, but the snow on the tall peaks above was pristine white.  Waterfalls high up on the mountainsides fell into the valley, seemingly silent because we were too far away to hear their roar. 
     Looking closely, we could make out tiny dots on the surface of the glacier far below us; these turned out to be climbers, traversing the ice.  This really made us realize how immense the glacier really is.


     By the time we returned from the hike it was six o’clock, and we figured we better look for lodging.  We found a room at the first place we stopped, the Fox Glacier Lodge.  It looked quite nice and we thought it might be pricey, but it was only $80 NZ (about $55 USD).  It wasn’t fancy, but it was comfortable enough, with a decent shower and a kettle to make tea.  As in most places we stayed on this trip, they asked us, “skinny or full?” meaning did we want low-fat milk or whole milk for our tea in the morning.  The motel rooms always had a tea kettle and a mini-fridge, and when we checked in they would give us a small carton of milk, skinny or full, for our morning tea.

     Lodging taken care of, we drove to the main parking area for Fox Glacier and hiked down the valley towards the terminal face.  There were great views of the glacier all along the river valley as we approached closer and closer.  The trail crosses several rockslide areas, and a sign warned us, “No stopping, next 300 meters.”  This struck me as quite odd; if the danger of rockslides is so great that it’s too risky to stop on the trail, then maybe it’s not really safe to be there at all.  But then that’s New Zealanders for you - their perception of risk is quite different from ours.
     We were able to approach quite close to the bottom of the glacier.  As we got nearer the temperature plummeted; it must have dropped at least 20 degrees in the proximity of all that ice.  It was really interesting to see the glacier so close up.  The top edge of the wall of compressed ice was jagged and rough, and from this distance we could see that it was quite dirty; the soil and rocks that the glacier had gathered during its journey were clearly visible.  We could see where big chunks of the glacier had broken off and fallen to the valley floor, exposing the clean blue ice underneath.  A swift grey river flowed out from beneath the glacier, formed by the melting ice.
     At the base of the glacier we saw a few more of New Zealand ’s graphic warning signs.  One had a picture of a man standing near a glacier, with ice and rocks falling on his head.  Further down was another; a man being swept away in a stream below a glacier.  Presumably these signs were meant to discourage one from approaching too closely!


     Returning to the carpark, we then took the River Walk.  We crossed over the Fox River on a swing bridge, a narrow strip of planking suspended by cables high over the rushing torrent below.  These wobbly suspension bridges are often used to provide river crossings for hikers.  They are aptly named; they sway and swing as you cross them.  There were beautiful views from both sides of the bridge; we could see the bottom of the glacier in the distance, and the chalky grey river that ran down from it.  We made a game of seeing if we could walk smoothly enough to keep the bridge from swinging – the trick is to put one foot directly in front of the other.  We perfected this technique, no hands and no sway.  But then Jineen asked, “Would you cross it like that if there were no railings on the sides?”  No way!

     We had dinner in a café in the town of Fox Glacier ; the food was very good, but as we so often found in NZ, the service was slow.  When we left the restaurant there were keas begging in the parking lot.  Keas are crow-sized alpine parrots, a muted green color with brilliant orange and yellow under their wings, visible when they fly.  They have a tendency to become quite tame, and to hustle handouts from unsuspecting tourists.  They are adept at begging and stealing food, and if thwarted, they are prone to retaliate by such methods as ripping the windshield wiper blades and window stripping off your rental car.  As we walked through the town and back to our motel, they were sitting high up in a tree above the parking lot.  We couldn’t see them, but we could hear their loud and somewhat sinister-sounding cries.
     We had another belated happy hour in our room.  We drank the Montana Riesling, and decided it was quite good, definitely one of the better Rieslings we tried.  We decided to dump the rest of the St. Clair from the day before as undrinkable; we unanimously decided it was the worst wine we had ever had in New Zealand . 

Day 6
     We were greeted by yet another sunny day with clear blue skies, apparently a rarity on the West Coast.  We needed to refuel, so we waited for the gas station to open at 8:00.  We had no choice; this was the last petrol until Haast, over a hundred kilometers away.  So much for an early start!
     Soon we were on the road and heading south again.  Jineen was just pulling some things out of the grocery bags for our breakfast when she looked up and yelled, “Stop the car!”  I slammed on the brakes in a panic, wondering what the emergency was, and she pointed ahead to the cause of our sudden halt.  She had spotted a freshly hit possum in the road, dead but not smashed.  A Kodak moment!  We stopped to photograph it.  Now we knew what they looked like with all the parts and fur attached.  It was interesting, but I can’t say it helped with the ambiance of breakfast . . .  

     As we went further south we started to see more of the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps, the impressive ‘continental divide’ mountain range that runs the length of the South Island .  The contrast of landscapes was amazing.  We stopped on a small bridge, where to the right we could see the turquoise blue waters of the Tasman Sea breaking against the rocky shore, with palm trees and tropical vegetation, while to the left towered tall forest-covered mountains, their peaks capped in white.  The amazing diversity of New Zealand was one of the things we loved most about it; in a few hours time you could go from sub-tropical coastline to snowy peaks and glaciers, with every type of landscape you could imagine in between. 

     We stood at Knight’s Point, an overlook high on a cliff, and gazed down along the shoreline.  The blue water seemed on fire in the bright sunshine.  Gulls cried and wheeled below us, and we watched the lines of breakers rolling in to the beach.  There was a sign that informed us that if we headed west we would come to Australia in 1700 kilometers, but if we went south there was no land between us and Antarctica .

     Early on, the road was empty.  It was just us, an occasional car or camper-van, and the dead possums.  Jineen started counting them when we left Fox Glacier; it was a contest to see which there were more of, vehicles encountered on the road or dead possums.  For a while it was a close race, with the possums winning, but after a while traffic picked up some and the cars took the lead.  So the possums were the losers, in more ways than one!

     We turned inland, and started upwards towards the Haast Pass.   The road climbed and dived as it made its way through the mountains along the course of the Haast River .  There were hairpin curves overlooking sheer drops, and as is typical in NZ, no guardrails.  The scenery was spectacular, with snowcapped mountains at every turn.  Waterfalls cascaded down the steep sides of the mountains, and the roadside was lines with ferns. 


     We stopped at a scenic spot called Prospector Flats, with a view of Mt. Cuttance .  We decided to switch drivers for a while.  I have spent a fair amount of time in England and Ireland , so I am quite used to driving on the left; our usual mode of operations is that I drive and Jineen reads the map and navigates.  But in this instance Jineen took over driving for a while to give me a break.  She did a great job, but she wasn’t really that comfortable driving on the left, and I wasn’t that comfortable navigating, so soon we switched back and kept to our respective roles for the rest of the trip.

     We came to the Gates of Haast, where we crossed the bridge and stopped at an overlook to watch the swift descent of the turquoise water as it rushed down over the boulders.  Then we continued climbing towards the pass.  Many of the peaks were wearing a dusting of fresh snow.  We wound through the mountains, crossing the many-channeled green rivers that ran down from the glaciers and snowfields near the peaks.  We kept an eye out for hidden waterfalls and searched for glaciers; Mt. Aspiring Park has more than 50 of them.
     Once we were through Haast Pass , the climate changed dramatically.  We had crossed the New Zealand continental divide, and were now on the eastern side, though still among the Southern Alps .  Immediately the countryside was much drier, and by comparison, a little barren-looking.  The lands was open, the views long, and the mountains were no longer covered in bush.  We were back to sheep pastures and farms, but with the spectacular Southern Alps alongside them.  The road was lined with yellow lupins and pink wild roses.  The embankments beside the road looked like colorful rock gardens.


     This part of the countryside turned out to be possum alley; by the end of the day the count was 37.  But I wouldn’t want you to think we were obsessed with roadkill or anything!

      We came to Lake Wanaka , where the road skirted its eastern edge before crossing over a narrow spit of land to Lake Hawea , stunning with its turquoise waters and mountain backdrop.  We followed its western shore for a while, before crossing back over to Wanaka.  The clouds were starting to move in, and we passed through a few showers amid patches of sunshine.  But we could see some serious rainclouds moving our way.
     We had come back into cell phone range after having had no service on the west coast, so we were able to get our messages and call home.  Renting a cell phone had seemed like a good idea, and it supposedly would receive international calls from home at no charge; but the catch was that we were rarely in an area where we got service.

     We turned up Mt. Aspiring road, on the western side of Lake Wanaka .  We had driven through this area on our previous trip, but I had forgotten how beautiful it is.  The road was lined with flowers, and incredible vistas waited around every corner.  We stopped repeatedly for photo ops.  The rain ended, and the sun peeped out amid patches of blue.

     We came to the Diamond Lake Conservation Area, where we planned to hike up Rocky Mountain .  We started from the small carpark at the trailhead, and set out through cattle and sheep pastures.  The trail sloped gently upwards until we reached Diamond Lake .  We saw a variety of birds on the way up, as the path wound through thickets and groves of trees; Jineen is really good at identifying them.  The bird songs were lovely; we stopped and closed our eyes to just listen.  The only sounds we could hear were the songs of a dozen different birds, the breeze in the trees, the occasional drone of a bee or call of a sheep, and the faint distant roar of the tall thin waterfall on the mountainside opposite us.


     The track climbed to a lookout point above the lake, and then continued on up the side of the mountain.  We followed it up through the forest for a while, and then out onto the open mountainside, an area of rocks, shrubs, and sheep.  We climbed higher and higher, trudging back and forth up the switchbacks, at times climbing steeply up the cliff face, with the views changing and improving at every turn.  We left the sheep behind as we neared the top, and the ground became steeper and rockier, and the climb more strenuous.

     Finally we came to the very top of Rocky Mountain .  It was fabulous!  A small tower of stacked stones marked the summit, and a broad flat rock outcropping offered seating.  There were awesome views 360 degrees around us.  To the east we looked down over the blue-green waters and undulating shoreline of Lake Wanaka .  To the south we could see down a long river valley, and to the west a ridge of high mountains loomed close above us.  To the north, amid a range of high snow-clad peaks, we could make out Mt. Aspiring in the distance, its head shrouded in clouds.  This is one of the most spectacular mountains in NZ.  It is 3033 meters high, and its Maori name means ‘ Glistening Peak .’  When the sun hits the white snowfields near the summit it does indeed glisten, but you rarely see the very top of the peak because of the clouds that hover there.


     We spent quite a while on the top of Rocky Mountain .  The sun was out and the weather had again turned lovely (our customary good timing), and it was incredibly peaceful.  This was one of the most beautiful spots we had seen, and it had a magical feeling about it.  We sat on the rock outcropping and shared our trail mix with a little brown bird that joined us (later identified from the bird book as a NZ pippet).  While we were there a couple from Connemara , Ireland joined us on the top, they were the only other people we had seen on the mountain.


     The descent was much easier, though going down is hard on different leg muscles.  We noticed that our legs were not nearly as tired and rubbery as when we hiked Mt. Robert at Nelson’s Lakes; was this hike that much easier, or were we getting fitter?  Perhaps a little of both!

     We parked by the side of Lake Wanaka for happy hour that evening.  We turned down ‘ Ruby Island Road ,’ lined with yellow lupins and wild rosebushes.  In the late evening light the bunnies came out to play; we watched them as we finished the Montana Riesling.

     Once again we had no problem finding lodging on short notice; we procured a really nice room for a very reasonable rate at the Mt. Aspiring Lodge in Wanaka.  We went to an Irish Pub for dinner, where I had the best fish and chips I have tasted in 10 years. 
     The pub owner came over to our table and chatted with us, and the conversation took its usual turn.  People in New Zealand tend to be very friendly and gregarious, and they would generally start a conversation by asking where we were from.  We quickly found out that as soon as we told them we were from the U.S. , or especially that we were from Virginia (being near Washington , DC ), this would usually lead to either dead silence or to the voicing of heated political opinions.  As it often brought the conversation to a grinding halt, we decided that from then on we would tell anyone who asked that we were Canadian.  We cooked up an elaborate story about our home near Toronto , so that we could be convincing, eh?  

     After dinner we had one last glass of the Montana Riesling by the shore of Lake Wanaka – it was after ten o’clock and still not yet fully dark.  It had been a great day and a spectacular hike; and neither Jineen nor I were feeling any pain!

     ~ continued ~