The way the plan fell into place, we had to get from the northern part of the island to the southern part in about a day. This means leaving Nelson early and seeing a lot of roadside. Fortunately, between Nelson and Hokitika are a million things to turn off and see.
Like the worlds tallest swing bridge, which is terrifying in the touristy sense of getting to pay 10 bucks to cross it and while the idea of it is thrilling and scary, no one is ever really in any danger.
Or the geological wonder of the Pancake Rock and Blowholes – carefully curated with paved walking tracks and a tourist center and a dozen perfectly picturesque spots to get your picture taken next to.
In all, it is a long day on the road. None of the highways in New Zealand are “direct” in any way and this particular drive falls on a Monday – a day where everything is either closed or closing early.
On our drive into Hokitikia we pass by several billboards for a world-famous roadside cafe. Each billboard is adorned with a giant “closed” sign. It gets closer, 50 km, 15, 7, next left. And there it is – a sprawling building with big windows that sits in a clearing in the trees. Doors are boarded shut, the lawn is overgrown, windows dark. On the patio that was probably once littered with umbrellas and chairs and bistro tables, now totally barren save for a half dozen backpackers using the clear, dry area to cook a dinner in the fading light of day.
The gorgeous part about a west-facing shoreline is that you get to devour every last moment of the day. Although we roll into the Hokitika cabana we’ve rented late in the day, there is easily three hours of light left. Enough for us to settle in, change, wash up, walk into town for a quick dinner at the local tavern, and walk back with enough time to visit the cold, windswept beach right at sundown.
Our accommodation for the night is built specifically for travelers seeking reprieve – the motorlodge. A mix of cabins, parking spots with RV hookups, campsites, and buildings with showers and laundry. The whole town of Hokitika seems to be designed for a day or two – a bed, a shower, a place to do laundry and catch up on email. The town is small enough to not need much more than a few grocery aisles and a handful of barstools. A town that exists on the quaint nature of it’s history, the setting for Eleanor Canton’s bestselling novel “The Luminaries”, and the New Zealand novelty of jade stone that is carved into jewelry.
That night will be the last of beaches and ocean front for a while. In the morning we will be driving down the coast further and then taking a hard turn east, up into the mountains.
We wake up early to the same sound of waves that we fell asleep to. While the cold, cloudy beach makes for a calm morning, it also invites a cold, rainy day. It is, after all, early Autumn down on this side of the world. The further we move south the colder it gets. Here we are 42 degrees south of the equator, where something like Portland, Oregon would be 42 north and would see very similar weather for the season.
Hokitika is known the world around for their production of Jade. A green stone that largely serves as a gift-shop item after it has been carved into something resembling Maori heritage. From here on out, we’ll see the same hundred designs for sale in every town from here to the airport home
Breakfast is at a small cafe – eggs and toast and a strong cup of black. The rain starts to open up. By the time we hit the road out of town it is downright pouring. Every roadside stop or lookout or vista is clouded over and drenched. The grandiose glacier region is hidden behind the fog. Unfortunately today is all about a sprint down the west coast and then a sharp turn east into the mountains- onward to Wanaka.
Today is just cold and wet. On the plus side, when we venture back to this side of the world we’ll have something amazing to still check off our list.
What we do end up seeing a lot of today are the rear bumpers of camper vans. We read that this would be the case as we got farther south on the island towards Queenstown. Large travel vans, almost too big for the narrow highways that weave the mountains here, full of Chinese families on vacations. All of them are slow, painfully slow, bringing the traffic to a crawl of 5-7 kmph – and that’s on the downhill.
The weather clears once we reach Haas. A small town advising fueling up for the long, steep uphill drive From the road, Haas looks like four buildings and a backpacker enclave. Like so many of these roadside towns there is probably a vibrant community hidden off in the trees. We take the last look at the ocean for a while. From here we follow highway 6 east, which follows the Makarora river through Mount Aspiring National Park. The destination for today is Wanaka, which isn’t far, and the views on this drive are nothing short of incredible.
We stop through the Blue Pools Walk to stretch our legs. Everything is still damp and soft from today’s rains. The waters are high and rough, turning the Blue Pools into something a little more murky brown. We’ll see the blue later as we travel closer to the glaciers.
This is the mountain region now. Everything rises high around us, and it is grand.
Read on: Wanaka & Mount Aspiring