Sandy coves, pancake rocks and mighty glaciers

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

On Monday afternoon 24 October, after saying goodbye to our friends in the Marlborough Sounds, we tackled a long afternoon's driving. We headed along the northern coast, through the large town of Nelson to Marahau, the small village that's the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, renowned for its native forests and its rugged coast with sandy coves tucked away between the rocks.

After a few comfy nights in real beds at the bach, it was back into the tent again. After arriving at the campsite at sunset, we feasted on fresh blue cod and retired to our thin little matresses, content!

On Tuesday morning we were up sharpish, and set off on a fairly long circular walk within the Park. We'd ruled out a popular alternative way of seeing the park - by kayak - on the grounds of cost: $140 for a six-hour hire of a tandem kayak! Anyway, we love walking, as you know, and the circular route took us through lush native bush up onto a ridge, from where we had the most awesome views of the clear, blue sea and the Park's famed coastline of islands, coves, crags and inlets. To add to the effect, the weather was simply marvellous.

The ridge-top track was quiet, but when we joined up with and returned along the main coast path, things were a whole lot busier: we passed plenty of other tourists and a bunch of rowdy schoolkids. Nevertheless, the coast track offered a marvellous, shaded walk amongst big trees and stands of elegant tree ferns - now officially my favourite plant (they're just so jurassic-looking and bursting with life!). From viewpoints along the way we admired the sandy little beaches below us - some great places to stop for a swim if it was just a tad warmer!

We returned to the car at about 4.30pm - it had been a solid 6-hour walk - and tackled the drive to Punakaiki on the west coast. It was a long, hard session behind the wheel for poor old Rich, exhausted from an active day in the sun; yet the route took us through some pretty scenery: first, valleys of fruit orchards, then through densely forested gorges, and finally through wind-blown scrubland along the coast. It was 9pm, dark already, by the time we arrived in Punakaiki. We pitched the tent hastily and retired to the pub next door for a beer and a bite to eat - phew, what a long, busy day!

Wednesday was another full day with lots to see and many miles to cover. We were up pretty early and headed 1km or so down the road to Punakaiki's claim to fame - the Pancake Rocks. These rocks, formed by a mysterious sedimentary process not fully understood by science, are so called because their layer formations resemble stacks of pancakes. Millennia of being lashed by the rough seas and the high winds of the Roaring Forties have carved the rocks into interesting shapes and created blow holes (though we did not see these in action, as the tide was not high enough).

While trying to appreciate the sight of the Rocks in peace, we were suddenly surrounded by a swarm of small children, shrieking excitedly and racing around. One perceptive father remarked: "I bet you wish you'd come 10 minutes earlier." Yes, quite.

From Punakaiki we pushed on south along the west coast to Franz Joseph glacier. As we drove, the massive, snow-dusted bulk of the Southern Alps came into view and seemed to march ever closer to the sea. Patches of dense temperate rainforest lined the road. After stopping for a picnic lunch by a pretty lake, we continued on to the glacier and, along with loads of other tourists, took the footpath right up to the face (or terminal) of the glacier.

Franz Joseph glacier is an awe-inspiring sight - a solid river of blue-white, jagged ice streaming down a gorge and into a wide, glacial valley lined with emerald green rainforest. We joined the procession up to the terminal face, where the ice is a dirty charcoal colour, and watched a group of people on a guided glacier walk pick their way slowly down the massive face, like a line of ants. Standing right beneath it, it's hard not to be bowled over by the sheer scale of this bulk of slowly moving ice. Despite warnings to stay clear of the face, we dashed right up to it to touch the ice - "I've just gotta touch a glacier", said Rich - and it felt like reaching back in time. These layers of compacted snow have taken centuries, if not millennia, to work their way down the mountain.

In the late afternoon, we continued on to Fox Glacier, 25km away, where we pitched camp in a pretty site with a great view of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. After a clear, bright day, clouds were rolling in, but nevertheless we were treated to a sunset display of snow-clad mountain peaks lit up by pink light.

On Thursday morning, we awoke at 7am to go and see 'one of NZ most famous views', as it is billed: early morning mountain reflections in nearby Lake Matheson. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day, so the sunrise did not light up the mountains quite as dramatically as on clear days, but at least there was no wind... in the total calm of the lake, the dark looming shapes and snowcapped peaks of the Alps were beautifully reflected.

Our next destination was Fiordland, so we had a long drive ahead of us... in the next blog I'll tell you more about that and the days to follow!
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