Day 7 – Punakaiki to Haast

I covered as much distance as I am ever going to want to, today. More than I wanted. I would have stopped sooner had I found a site. Let me start with the impression of the Southern Alps, which were the overpowering presence on this section of my journey.

My impression of the Alps

Last night it raged and blew outside my van, and I enjoyed the sensation of being tucked safely away while rain pattered the windows and roof. I had my blow heater on for some of it, and was quite warm, although I read there was snow in the Haast Pass and the weather was pretty thundery in the south where I was going. I had my peppermint tea, got dressed, and unplugged the camper from the power. Went through my checklist and then began driving into the weather.

The sharp shape ahead hidden in cloud

From Punakaiki it is 45 mins to Greymouth, the nearest large town, and I planned to get a coffee there and appreciate something of the mining history of this place. I went through a winding hilly section of road and finally it all levelled out and followed the coastline. The sea was wild and foaming and added to my impressions of the Wild West Coast. I loved the way the clouds lingered in the mountain tops and obscured the view, so that I had just a sense of brooding presence. I kept thinking of the Mystery of the mountains, hidden and being revealed now and then.

When I drove over a long bridge and the grey waters surged beneath me out to the sea, I could make out the clustered buildings and warehouses of a larger town than I expected. I turned right and in to the Town Centre, made up of no tall buildings but sturdy weathered shops and offices built to withstand the exposure to the sea and wind. Parking near the concrete wall that forms a break between town and river, I walked up to take a brisk look at the waters. Behind me were what looked like industrial sheds, but upon closer inspection proved to contain some offices and a modest looking cafe, which I immediately surged towards. It was more than the sum of its parts. Inside were a few old timers yakking, one or two townsfolk who sounded regulars, and a tucked away room which housed the cabinet food and kitchen. Quirky and sixties, and nostalgic. The food was home made and looked appetising, so I asked for a date scone and coffee and both were excellent.

Replete, I drove out of town the long way, and on the way south, still within town limits, I saw a sign pointing off to the left saying ‘Shantytown’ which drew my interest. Here at last was more that might give a sense of the place back in the day. Sure enough, for the princely reduced rate of $28 I was able to roam around the grounds of a reconstructed gold mining and timber town of late 1800s. Some things didn’t work, and some were under reconstruction, but the general impression was pleasant and full of interesting things to poke and and read about. Best of all, although I had missed the train by a short while, I was told to walk up to the Mill and catch it on the way back. Since the pics showed a steam train puffing downhill with timber on its carriages, I not unreasonably thought they might have a steam train going. But no – after wandering the Mill for a while I heard a whistle and rushed out to film the incoming locomotive. It was greatly over-rated. A single carriage on a diesel engine, and a short ride. However, even that was a pleasure. I had a bacon and egg pie and tea at the town cafe before heading out to my camper van.

Now there was a long section of road that followed the coastline further south, an easy fast road with the wild sea on one side and an encroaching presence on the other, with clouds obscuring what that presence was. The rain which had ceased for the duration of my time in Greymouth returned. When I drove through Hokitika and Ross Beach, it was grey and showery, and I didn’t stop. The further south I went the more the dark line ahead of me grew and became almost menacing.

At last I started to climb up the slopes and wind around some tight corners, with glimpses now and then of snow in little patches on the ground and big moments in sharp peaks in the sky. The mountains when they appeared out of the mist, were much bigger than I recall, and I was thrilled. I drove in to Franz Josef glacier township, and don’t remember anything of the look of it from my earlier days. It feels like an alpine resort town, with the shops and restaurants and adventure sports signage. And the blackness of the mountains rearing up around it all disappeared in a thick white fog. I decided to keep going and stop at Fox Glacier instead – it being the one I had not seen in younger days.

Fox

By this time I had crossed maybe ten single-lane bridges over deep ravines or fast moving waters – and the water of the one by Franz Josef was a beautiful aqua colour and seemed to be flowing from the glacier itself. I stopped to walk back over the bridge and take photos of the area, gasping as cloud parted and even higher peaks showed, all covered in snow.

Another 40 mins saw me drawing in to Fox Glacier township – a bit smaller, and more exposed, with a range of restaurants all open and a gas station I filled up on diesel with. Asking the petrol station attendant about the Lake Paringa salmon fishing and cafe my brother had told me about, she suggested they might be closed now. I tried calling and there was no answer, so I decided to eat in town here. I had a roast vegetable salad and chicken strips, which was huge, and a local Monteith’s ale. The inside of the bar/restaurant was so dark I only dimly made out shapes sitting at the tables, and silhuettes when I sat down. My eyes hadn’t adjusted by the time I left but at least I could see my food.

By now it was late afternoon, and I planned on another 45 mins driving to get to Lake Paringa and stay somewhere. It was a fast trip because the road was not too windy, and I found it beguiling to look in my rear vision mirror and see the sight of some snow mountains suddenly appearing. I would stop and look back and the clouds had gone over again.

When I got to Lake Paringa, the DOC camp sign pointed into a lonely and empty park area with places to back your van, but no way to book them because I was outside of signal range. The lake was lapping at the shore and the camp was set back from the road so far amongst the bush that it was private. But it was empty. I was disconcerted about the thought of staying there, and so decided not to. And that meant heading off toward Haast Pass and hoping that I would find a holiday park before it got dark.

My heart was in my throat thinking I would be travelling in the dark through this pass, when to my great relief and joy, I went over another long single lane bridge to see the holiday park sign pointing to the right. The Haast Beach Holiday Camp. Oh joy!! I am now set up for the night with power, and facilities nearby, and feeling safe and comfortable. Whew. That was the longest day yet.

4 thoughts on “Day 7 – Punakaiki to Haast

  1. Glaciers in New Zealand? I had no idea. The things I learn from you, Jenny!
    Questions: While you’re driving, do you listen to music? Sing along? Or are these roads the kind you need to concentrate on while driving? And, do you miss having company along with you on this trip?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like to be aware of my surroundings and find music distracting but I do sing or quote now and then. I actually like the immersive experience of doing this alone but enjoy blogging and posting because it gives me company, if that makes sense.

      Like

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