WEST COAST - PICTON TO WANAKA,     South Island NZ         


The ferry terminal is in Picton, the northern gateway to the South Island. Because of our limited time of 2 weeks to explore the South Island, we decided to bypass the Nelson Region and cut inland across the Marlborough area, well known for its wine production, and circumnavigate the island starting with the West Coast. Stretching along 600 kilometers, the pristine coastal region has a variety of contrasting features: snow-capped mountains, rainforests, beaches, limestone formations and lakes. The accessible part of the coast is a skinny strip cutting a swathe between the jagged Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. The small coastal towns of Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika offer an insight into the nineteenth century gold-rush.

The first inkling of the South Island's postcard prettiness came on the ferry ride through the Marlborough Sounds, with quaint Picton at its heart. Picton is a scenic gem with its deep waters framed by steep, bush covered hills.

We arrived in Picton around 6 pm and we checked into the Villa Backpackers. We were pleasantly surprised that our room was really spacious and clean.  We had our own little balcony with potted plants. The grounds were lavish with flowers and plants also. The town of Picton is very pretty being right at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound. We walked around the town that evening but found restaurant prices to be way out of our budget.

Picton to Westport

March 2 

We drove through Bleinheim, a quiet sort of town, and on to Greymouth through the Marlborough Wine Trail, the largest grape growing region in New Zealand. We followed the Wairau River and stopped for lunch at Kerr Bay on Lake Rotoiti, on the edge of Nelson Lakes National Park. We took a hike around the glacial lake to stretch our legs before continuing on to Mt Robert.

Mt Robert
On the gravel road up to the summit, there was a Stoat trap line. Stoats and Possums are a huge nuisance in New Zealand and threaten the natural habitat, both plant and birdlife. There is a diligent ongoing attempt to control these pests introduced to the island by Europeans. Highways throughout New Zealand give a good indication of the vast numbers in existence by the presence of “pressed possum” all over the roads.

The traps contain an egg (simulated Kiwi, most likely) which has been poisoned. Here you can see that an egg has been pulled from the trap and broken. Another lies await inside the trap to entice another predator.

Unsettled Terrain

Fault lines run beneath the coast, making it prone to the odd earthquake. Mt Robert rising above the shoreline of Lake Rotoiti is the site of a huge fracture in the earth’s crust known as the Alpine Fault. The scenery from the summit was spectacular.

Alpine Fault at Summit Mt. Roberts

Buller Gorge
Onward through Buller Gorge, an area of tiny towns that were once busy goldmining communities. The dramatic road through Buller Gorge  is cut from a vertical cliff face, twisting and winding, some sections so narrow that it would be impossible to meet an oncoming car. Sheep covered the fields and hillsides everywhere.

Barely room enough for one

Throughout New Zealand narrow one lane bridges are the norm. One bridge shared the narrow crossing with the train tracks!


We spent out first night on the South Island at Westport, a basic non-descript mining town. Our accommodation at Westport Holiday Park was great…we had our own little chalet.

March 3   Hokitika

We had a beautiful drive along the rocky coastline to Hokitika. We stopped at Fox River for a short hike inland, which included a tunnel through the rock.

At Bullock Creek we decided to take a detour and travel 4 km through the forest. The road turned out to be little more than a rocky riverbed but the fluted limestone formations formed by the natural acids in the leaf litter were interesting.

We made the stop, along with lots of other tourists, at the famous “Pancake Rocks.” The sea and waves have created these unusual outcrops of stratified limestone that form tunnels and blowholes in the rocks.

Remote Beaches....

The views along the coastal highway were spectacular. Left is the view looking down at the beach.

At Barrytown we searched for “Greenstone” along the rocky shoreline. We found lots of interesting greenish specimens but were unable to confirm if they were the well known New Zealand Jade.

Hokitika Gorge

At Hokitika we headed out for an evening drive to the Hokitika Gorge. The scenery around the lake was really beautiful and the magnificent mountains provided a stunning backdrop for the tranquil sheep and cattle grazing in the lush valley. We stopped at a waterfall cascading near the road.

At the end of the road there was a swingbrige, max capacity 1. Far below runs the turquoise glacial water of the river. The sandflys are particularly vicious in this area.


Returning to Hokitika, we check into the Shining Star Holiday Park. We had the cutest log cabin close to the beach and soon realized that the facility housed a menagerie of all kinds of farm animals including friendly alpacas, emus, goats, chickens, ducks, horses, burrows, cows and sheep!

After sunset, we took a short walk across the road to visit a glow worm dell where thousands of tiny worms lit up the banks like the Milky Way.

Before heading off the next morning, we spent some time snooping around all the jade shops that Hokitika is known for. I surrendered to the temptations and ended up with a souvenir jade necklace.

The Glaciers

March 4

The road to Franz Josef Glacier consisted of a rugged length of coast carved out by the sea with steep sided valleys and rocks deposited by the glaciers to the sea. The landscape is cloaked with rainforests that gradually covered the land following the last major ice age, 15,000 years ago. The area is dotted with nineteenth century gold mining towns.

We took a side trip to Okarito Lagoon, on the windswept western coast. On the way we found roadside signs suggesting that we may see the illusive Kiwi Bird. The only one we saw in our time in New Zealand, however, was the one in the nocturnal Kiwi House in Whangarei. At Okarito we hoped to take photos of the panoramic view of the alps. Unfortunately all we saw were clouds.

Arriving at Franz Josef Township, we followed the crowds and tour buses to the base of the popular glacier. We hiked along a well worn path beside a stony river bed for a considerable distance to the dirty icy mouth of the terminal ice face. We had to admit it paled in comparison to our own Columbia Ice fields back in Canada. But what makes these glaciers unique is that they are so close to sea level in comparison with other glaciers. They are receding at a remarkable rate so they will not be in existence indefinitely.

Before checking into our backpacker accommodation at Fox Glacier Ivory Towers we took a hike around Lake Matheson, a picturesque forest fringed lake that, on a clear day (which we didn’t have), reflects the Southern Alps in its dark mirror like waters.

That evening, we strolled around the streets of Fox Glacier astounded to see how expensive the restaurants were.

March 5   Haast Pass to Wanaka

We awoke to drizzling rain and made only a very quick stop to see the Fox Glacier, which we viewed from a distance, unenthusiastic about making the hike to its unimpressive base. We opted out of a side trip to the west coast, which would have been another quest in the pursuit of the illusive panoramic view of the alps.

At Haast we stopped at the information centre which had some interesting displays. We took their advice to make a side trip along the coast to Jackson Bay, about an hour away.

The western coastal shoreline is home to the Fiord land Penguin at certain times of the year when they come ashore to breed. However, when we were there, these Fiord land penguin were all out at sea.

We had planned to have lunch at the remote coastal settlement, but influenced by the distressing number of sandflys trying to chew the paint off the car, we decided to make and eat our sandwich in the safety of the front seat. And it was still raining.
At Haast the road dashes inland under dense canopies of native rainforest, ferns and palms. Lakes, streams and fast flowing rivers abound. The Haast Pass is known for its spectacular scenery but fog and rain blanketed the landscape. After crossing the longest single lane bridge in the country the road follows the Haast River deep into the mountains of the Southern Alps. Trying not to let the pouring rain be a deterrent, we stopped at a number of pulloffs and hiked to nearby waterfalls, under the shelter of our umbrellas. However, we pretty much got soaked anyway!

Roaring Bill Thunder Creek
Through the mist, we saw some wonderful views like the one at right, overlooking Knights Point. Cattle, sheep, deer and elk were prolific in this area. We were amazed that, considering the enormous number of deer that are raised in New Zealand (domesticated from the wild Red Deer), there were not many venison entrees offered at restaurants and certainly not much of a selection of venison in the supermarkets.


The weather started to break as we emerged from the pass. The road to Wanaka bordered a number of long lakes, and blue sky infiltrated the clouds revealing a beautiful hilly landscape with an unusual rainbow clinging to the water like a magnet.

We arrived in Wanaka and checked into our Backpackers motel. Until this point we had been very happy with the quality of our accommodations. But the Bullock Lodge was particularly run down and the bed was really saggy. However, it and all others in town were full, an testament to the amount of tourism in the South Island.
We wondered around town doing our routine comparison of restaurant prices before deciding on a Subway dinner.

March 6

Before we continued on the next morning, we stopped at Puzzling World. New Zealand’s three dimensional maze kept us entertained throughout its 1.5 km long complex of under and over passages. It only took us 30 minutes to locate the 4 towers of the maze but it took us considerable extra time just to find our way back out! There is also a hologrammatic section and rooms that trick your perception. Lots of fun!!