Off to the wild West Coast via Christchurch

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We have a brief stopover in Christchurch to pick up our hire car for the next few weeks. We stay at The Old Countryhouse – a bit out of the way but then we only discovered yesterday that we hadn't actually booked anywhere to stay, only thought that we had (anything that was done after a day’s work on the kiwi orchard now has to be double checked) and as Christchurch was looking fully booked we’re lucky to get the last couple beds here.  Separate buildings holding dorms and facilities which feels a bit disjointed as a hostel but means you can always find some space.  We drop off our stuff and go and explore Christchurch.  The main city centre is closed off as there are too many unstable buildings and so we walk around the fences which is eerie in itself – a no man’s land in the middle of the city, left as it fell with half-demolished buildings and no sign of re-construction.  As we look around more of the city we see that all buildings have been checked and then approved, fenced off or demolished, businesses and houses are fenced off next to houses that people are living in.  It just shows that anyone in Christchurch with their house still standing is lucky.  Any older buildings more than a storey high, even though they are further out from the centre, are to be demolished as well – this quake hit the whole city badly.  They have started to open the road to the cathedral at the weekends to let people see the centre – a stark reminder of the instability of the city is the warning sign at the fence – 'if you enter this site you may by injured or you may not survive if another earthquake occurs, please have ID on your person, not just in a bag.’

On to the more positive side of Christchurch – the container shops and bars that have opened up in a bid to get business going again give the city a quirky feel. It would fit in well in the east end of London (not sure what that says about the east end of London!) We have a wander around the new shopping street - their main department store (which survived), and all the high street shops up and running in containers.  Then we take a walk to the botanic gardens – this end seems to be the nice end of town with the old buildings in it and so we hope to spend more time there later.  The botanic gardens provide good green space in the middle of the centre with plenty bird life and water.  Then we walk out to a new container bar that we have read about – we got a voucher on grabone (like groupon) for pizza and bottle of wine – so we spend the evening sitting in the open air bar enjoying the sunshine and the start of the rebuild of Christchurch.  There is a lot of frustrated people here as the rebuild seems to be taking a long time to even start, people can’t visit their houses if they are in the red zone and there is a bit bad feeling towards the company that is surveying the houses (I’m sure it’s nothing to do with the fact that it’s an Australian company) – let’s just hope the process can go as quick that’s safe to do so.

Wednesday morning we pick up the car in the rain – now it’s not meant to rain much on the east coast and we’re planning on driving to the west coast today (the rainy side) so things aren’t looking great.  However, we hit a dry spell halfway through our drive to have a walk out to some limestone rock formations on the side of a hillside that look a bit like the remains of some ancient village (quite Lord of the Rings-esque) and then head on to Arthurs Pass.  Unfortunately by the time we hit there, it is bucketing down and so we don’t get a chance to get out and take a photo of the bizarre road formation that lies ahead of us, but it is made more dramatic with the rain.  As the road unfolds below us, there is a series of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and drainage channels running above the winding road down the hill side – so I guess they’re used to a lot of rain then. 

We finally reach Greymouth mid-afternoon, not before negotiating a roundabout with a railway crossing through the middle of it and a railway bridge that is also used by the cars (we hope there aren’t too many trains each day as not sure who gets priority in the middle of the bridge but I guess there would be some fairly rapid reversing on our side).  Greymouth looks aptly how you would expect, especially with the torrential rain.  We spend the rest of the day sheltering in our hostel Global Village – it turns out to be one of our favourite hostels so far.  One of our fellow guests comments that it’s been raining for about 15 hours solidly so we’re hoping that the skies will be all rained out by tomorrow. 

Next day we go for a drive along the coast as this drive is meant to be comparable to the Big Sur road between San Fran and LA.  Unfortunately for us, it looks pretty similar to how we saw Big Sur a few months ago – limited visibility, cloudy and wet.  However it does dry up later on in the day and the rubbish weather means that the seas are rough which is perfect conditions to see the blowholes in action.  The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are the main tourist attraction on this route.  It’s a series of bizarre rock formations – made from limestone the rocks are layered up in stacks.  The sign helpfully says they don’t know why the rocks are formed like this but they did have some guesses for us.  The blowholes are where the sea has worn away some the rock to make cavities in the rocks and so at high tide with rough seas the waves spurt through these holes into the air.  Quite impressive to see and feel the force of the waves – this coast does take a battering from all the elements!

Next day, we’re filling up on petrol and food for our drive south as this side of the island is pretty remote (most people chose to live on the other coast that’s not hit by rain and wind).  We make a couple of stop offs on the way - one lasted a few minutes due to the fact that as soon as we open the car doors the sandflies swooped on us.  I better mention now that sandflies are tiny and look like fruit flies but their bites are incredibly itchy for days later and they attack in groups.  So we spent the next ten minutes trying to kill every sandfly in the car – we won in the end as I escaped with only one bite.  A better stop was at Okarito where there was a rugged black sand and pebble beach that again showed how the weather hits the coast.  We also took a walk to the lake and spotted the rare white heron fishing.  We also caught a few more sandflies – even better while I was waiting to be served to buy the insect repellent I got attacked by sandflies.  Ironically if I hadn’t of bought the repellent I wouldn’t have several new bites to contend with.  We arrive at the Franz Josef Township mid-afternoon which is going to be our base for exploring the glaciers for the next few days. 
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