The west coast of the south island of New Zealand is famous for three things; it’s beauty, it’s rain and the swarms of sandflies that terrorise its visitors from morning until night (and beyond). We were heading southwards along the west coast to see what it had to offer which was made slightly more problematic when one of you becomes sick.
I had been feeling a bit headachey and horrible all morning and as we stopped at a shop to stock up Pete knew there was something not quite right. Half an hour later, as I was puking my guts out in the passenger seat of the car, it transpired that he was right. They say travel is a test of relationships and Peter, bless him, didn’t falter for a second. Thankfully we both usually see far more disgusting stuff in an average day as a zookeeper which probably helped matters.
Eventually (post sick event) we found ourselves in a place called “Cape Foulwind.” Captain cook himself had named it upon circumnavigation due to the wind that he thought would not be able to bring him back out to the open sea if he went in to explore. Despite the name Peter and I loved it for it’s wild and rugged landscape, scarily domineering waves and the monochrome magic of a good black sand beach. Further down the road promised another Seal colony and a sign pointing out how far away from the cape all the important capital cities of the world were. It was strange to think that London was further away than all of the other exotic lands being pointed out and, yet again, I felt a pang of homesickness. It seems to happen much more in New Zealand than anywhere else we’ve been so far. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s been over half a year since we set off or because everyone here speaks English but it’s something that seems to make itself a lot more apparent here.
Heading further south and inland we came to a place called “Arthur’s Pass” which boasted some good walks, a spectacular waterfall and, to our surprise and delight, wild Kea! I fell in love with Kea when I was very young. When other kids my age were out making friends or at least doing their homework, I was often to be found watching animal documentaries (and I do hope other zookeepers have a similar history and it’s not just me being unjustifiably sad!) Anyway I watched with delight as these Kea rolled around in the alpine snow, made nuisances of themselves amongst tourists and enjoyed an extended childhood in order to learn all the tricks of the kea trade through the opportunity to play. Never did I think I would one day get to see them in the flesh and in situ (conservation speak for in the wild).
These oversized drab green parrots with attitude were hanging around outside the village cafe (which also served as the local shop and petrol station), casually taking every opportunity to steal whatever they could. I even saw one almost break off a bottle cap – that’s how strong their beaks are. Sadly people have fed them over the years and now they have become almost dependant, despite the Department of Conservation having numerous signs discouraging all from offering any food. However these parrots are clever and not a little intimidating with their size and mightily sharp bill.
Watching them fly is a spectacular sight, firstly because they are huge and secondly because underneath their drab green wings lies a vibrant flash of orange which shows itself rather unexpectedly. They really are fascinating birds. Peter and I were photographing them for a long time.
Next on our whistle stop tour of the west coast came my favourite part – Pancake Rocks. Yes that’s right, your crepe loving author managed to find a natural phenomenon named after her favourite food and her blog. I was so happy!
What I was expecting from Pancake Rocks was the often talked about stacks of layered rocks that resemble a stack of American style pancakes which was pretty awesome in itself. What I wasn’t expecting was the blowholes! The raging sea thunders into caverns under your feet, pounding at their sides, erupting masses of sea spray into your face and churning the ocean below you into a frothing tumbling mess. It was utterly exhilarating! We walked around the place for a long while, imagining how terrifying it would be on a truly stormy day and generally marvelling at the whole thing. I actually wanted to walk around the site again but I was also aware that there were REAL pancakes to be had.
To no one’s surprise a cafe had been set up right next to the rocks where you could buy, well I’ll leave you to figure it out. With our stomachs rumbling, Peter and I made a beeline for it because you can’t not have pancakes when at Pancake rocks. It was a lovely (if expensive) meal but a nice treat before we headed yet further south.
Each car journey had resulted in jaw dropping scenery which was very reminiscent of Scotland. The large and looming mountains highlighted in their eternal moodiness by the ever reaching grey skies and forever enrobed in cloaks of mist bore down on us at all times from either side of the road. The sun never seemed to shine here but it still felt rather humid. This, maddeningly, was perfect conditions for our joyous friends the Mosquitoes but also for Sandflies. Sandflies are like the Kiwi version of the Scottish Midge. Small but mightily feared in their ability to render you into a sobbing mess of itchy discomfort. They really have voracious appetites despite only the females being the ones to bite you. We were driving through veritable clouds of them and once you’d opened your car door, even for a minute second, they were in and feasting on your flesh! There are many local myths and legends as to what really repels them but wherever you believed would work or not they still descended in their millions.
Unfortunately the next stop was to be a fail. We had decided to treat ourselves to a glacier hike and helicopter ride at Franz Joseph glacier as we had missed out on the glaciers of Norway and were still hoping to experience one. Sadly the cloud and rain descended in biblical proportions to the extent that the trip had to be cancelled and the next one likely to experience better weather was not until the end of the week and was already fully booked.
We drove on thinking that at least we had saved a lot of money and still seen some beautiful mountain scenery the previous evening when the sun had come out highlighting the snow capped peaks in dynamic sparkles. That morning we had been woken by the mournful cries of a lone Kea at the top of a tree as well so it certainly hadn’t been all bad.
Finally on the route was Hokitika for it’s stunning blue gorge which we marvelled for as long as we could stand the Sandflies. I’d never seen water like what was in the gorge before. Up close it was a milky blue, apparently gleaned from some chemical reaction between the rocks and the water. It was really stunning to look at, especially against the light grey boulders which surrounded it.
Along the way throughout the entire west coast we had been on the look out for more snorkelling spots (sadly the waves and wind were just too wild for that) and a couple of Maori related treats for ourselves. I ended up finding a beautiful ring (despite the fact that the copper in it turns my finger green) made from the special shells found in local beaches and featuring the spiral symbol important in Maori culture. It is a celebration of growth and life in terms of the unfurling of the fern plant and can also symbolise two peoples journey together found within the positive and negative space within a spiral. Peter eventually found a pendant (which I managed to find on sale!) which was made out of two types of wood blended together in a most dynamic fashion and resembling a fish hook. Fish hooks are very common in Maori symbolism signifying new opportunity, safe travel, particularly over water and a world of plenty. I told him that if you squint it also looks like a Hammerhead Shark for which Peter had been connected in Maori culture too.
We had certainly grown to love all the stories and symbolism within the nature around us and the celebration of it within the culture itself. They really sit back and observe what is around them, taking their cues from the natural world and respecting it. I hope Peter and I can come away with that same appreciation but as far as we can tell there is no Maori connection or appreciation for the dreaded insects of the west coast!