The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand

West Coast

  • Drive the beautiful coastal route from Westport to Haast; it's quite rightly considered one of world's most extraordinary drives. Stop off to stretch your legs at Punakaiki and walk to see the Pancake Rocks and its blowholes.
  • Try black-water rafting in the glowworm grotto of Charleston caves near Westport.
  • Visit the country's only White Heron (kotuku) colony near Whataroa.
  • Paddle or boat through the shallow, open water of Okarito's coastal lagoon past wading birds and magnificent kahikatea and rimu rainforest.
  • Tramp in the lush lowland rainforest around 'mirrored' Lake Matheson and see the glistening and mighty mountains reflected on its surface.
  • Don crampons and waterproof gloves to walk on Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. Alternately hold off the shackles and peer at them from above on a flight-seeing trip over the spectacular Mt Aspiring peaks.

New Zealand's Ferns

One of the most noticeable features of the NZ bush is the proliferation of tree-ferns. These evergreen plants are amazingly diverse and grow in a variety of habitats, though most are found in damp, shady pockets beneath tree canopies, thriving in well-drained, rich and loamy soils up the sides of gullies. One of my favourites is the largest of them all, the black tree fern or mamaku, which can grow to a whopping height of twenty metres and their fronds can extend to seven.

About 170 different species grow naturally here, 89 of which are endemic to New Zealand and grow nowhere else. Especially well known is the silver fern or ponga - the symbol of the nation. Growing to a height of up to ten metres they are hard to miss; the silvery underside of its leaves are most striking. Being the country's emblem you'll find it depicted on everything here from jewels to caps to cars to rugby shirts. They even called the national netball team after it.

Franz Josef and Fox glaciers

These massive rivers of ice that tumble down valleys towards the sea are unique, both in the speed at which they move and in the exceptionally low and temperate climate levels to which they descend.

There are two main reasons for this phenomenon: the climate and the shape of the glaciers. The southern part of the West Coast lies in the path of a band of wind known as the 'roaring forties'. The weather that flows onto the coast from the Tasman Sea is forced to rise up and over the Southern Alps, causing most of its moisture to cool and then drop as rain and snow. Every year, this process results in huge amounts of snow falling on the catchment areas of the glaciers, called the neves. These neves lie across exceptionally large, elevated blocks of land and so are able to collect enormous amounts of snow, often in piles of up to 30m in depth! When this snow is compacted, it forms blue glacier ice (due to the compression of water particles which forces out the oxygen) that is then funnelled down the glaciers' particularly steep and narrow valleys, ideally shaped for squeezing the ice down.

The sheer weight of all that snowfall, and the angle and size of the valleys, allow the ice to descend to the extremely low altitude of just 240m above sea level. Elsewhere in the world (except of course in the poles), glaciers barely reach the timberline; those in the European Alps for example do not run below 2000m. And, whereas these glaciers move very slowly, the rate of ice turnover for Fox and Franz Josef is about 10 times as fast, progressing up to 2.5 metres per day.

Unusually for glaciers, this makes Fox and Franz Josef particularly accessible. It's a terrific experience to walk upon the glassy snouts of these great blocks of ice or even just to stand up close and feel tiny and very weedy in their presence.

Many Maori stories are derived from the dramatic landscape that makes up New Zealand. The creation of the Franz Josef Glacier, traditionally known as Ka Roimata o Hine Huhatere, is one such tale:

Hine Hukatere, an adventurous Maori wahine (woman) who loved mountaineering above all other pastimes, frequently persuaded her lover Tawe to accompany her on her many journeys into the mountains. On one such expedition the unfortunate Tawe, who had never been as fond of climbing as his sweetheart, slipped near the top of what is now Franz Josef Glacier, and plunged to his death. Hine's tears, so great in their volume, were frozen by the gods as a memorial to her grief and formed the glacier that we see today.

A West Coast gem

Formed in alpine fault lines under intense heat and pressure, greenstone or pounamu boulders are eventually flushed from the eroding mountains into rivers all around the West Coast.

This hard, opaque, emerald-coloured stone holds great spiritual significance for the Maori people. Long before the Europeans arrived, tribes sent missions out to search for the precious rock that would later be bartered for food. As it was the hardest material known to Maoris, it was especially used for making tools, weapons and items of personal adornment.

On a visit to New Zealand, you'll see no end of brooches, earrings, ornaments and tiki carved from greenstone. The latter are the tiny, stylised Maori figures, usually depicted with their tongue stuck out in war-like defiance, worn on a thong around the neck. Watch out though, supposedly they have great mana, or power, and also serve as fertility symbols.

There are several operations in Hokitika where you can carve your very own piece of greenstone or even bone; notwithstanding artistic talent (I just call mine 'abstract'), these make great keepsakes of a trip to NZ.

Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki

Wander the track lined with native ferns, pongas and nikau palms until you reach Punakaiki's famous Pancake Rocks. Here, looking rather like a heaped pile of pancakes, corrugated limestone stacks and arches cluster by the shore weathering the thunderous attack of the sea. The ridges of rock evolved when alternate layers of softer mudstone eroded faster than the limestone.

On calm days water swills slowly through the many caves and chambers. However, on rough ones, geyser-like jets explode through blowholes forced by the hydraulic pressure of the ocean. this is noisy, exciting, and very, very wet!

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