New Zealand Adventure Day 7: Fox Glacier to Punakaiki

Originally written on 31 December 2014.

Clair and I woke up in our luxurious camper to a bleak day. Our adjacency to the rugged west coast of New Zealand also provided direct access to its cold, wet winds. I could tell the day’s drive would be difficult.

When I was 23 I rented a truck to cross the United States to my new job in California. That truck was 10 feet tall and easily rocked by small gusts of wind. I remember crossing the Nevada border into Southern California and feeling the wind rock the truck on its suspension. But the windy periods were short and easily managed. This was not the case on the day we drove from Fox Glacier to Punakaiki.

I was fighting the wind all day. The wind drove inland from the foamy seas and constantly thrust the car to the right into oncoming traffic. My shoulders were sore from the strain after a couple hours.

There was one period that the wind actually scared me. Somewhere near Greymouth a two-lane bridge crossed turgid waters. Since the wind pushed me right I had an entire lane to manage the pressure and correct. But the opposing traffic did not. Indeed as we approached the far side of the bridge we could see the other side’s barrier was destroyed. We learned later that day that a car of tourists went over the side into the rushing river. The camper and its deceased occupants were pulled from the bottom of the river days later.

Once we parked in our camper park Clair and I visited the scant sites of Punakaiki: the pancake rocks, blow hole, and Punakaiki cavern. These were mildly interesting at best.  But at this time the skies cleared and we enjoyed some glorious sunshine.

Ocean from Pancake Rocks Ocean from Pancake Rocks View from Pancake Rocks

A hidden path from the rear of our camper lot brought us to the ocean. The furious storm whipped the sea into a quivering foam. In our afternoon stroll the foam collected at the tide’s edge in a six-inch slurry. By morning, when the skies and waters had cleared, the foam remained on the beach. But by then it had deposited much further from the water and piled to about one meter.

Beach by Punakaiki

A warm tavern stood next to our site and it wasn’t long before we were in it having a beer. This before our second night of much-anticipated mussels. I really cannot overstate how incredible fresh New Zealand green lipped mussels are. The bigger ones eclipsed my palm and an entire kilogram of them cost less than $4 USD. Fried in butter and white wine with a dash of parsley we loved them.

New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel

Mussels and Pasta

Right after dinner the rain restarted. But we retired to our mobile castle with a bottle of sparkling wine from Marlborough to toast the end of 2014.


New Zealand Adventure Day 6: Queenstown to Fox Glacier

Originally written shortly after 30 December 2014, when Clair I and drove this leg of our trip.

Queenstown was charming. It was quaint, rustic, and full of friendly travelers enjoying its short summer. Clair and I woke up a little early and enjoyed a massive breakfast before heading out.  Just west of the city we crested a large hill and a vista point rewarded us for a five minute stop.

Just outside of Christchurch - 1 Just outside of Christchurch - 2

The drive to Fox Glacier was no less spectacular than the previous day’s trip. Our five-hour journey took us over the Haast pass to the west coast of New Zealand. The Haast pass was not particularly high or cold but its path narrowly twisted through a temperate rain forest. Moss clung to the rock. Ferns blanketed the forest floor. And thick forests of deciduous trees provided an impenetrable barrier to the stout, craggy mountains.

After a couple hours in the camper we decided to stop for a break and enjoy the fresh apricots and plums we purchased roadside on a previous day. I slid open the van’s side door into the thick, cool, wet air and enjoyed the scents of nature. For about 10 seconds. We were swarmed by sand flies and I took many bites. Even 20 minutes into the continued journey I was slapping the biting bastards off my legs.

An hour later we reached New Zealand’s west coast. And our helpful tourist radio—a GPS device updated daily using some mobile plan—announced the Curly Tree. Apparently young whitebait, a fish in adulthood not too different from herring, are pulled from the sea in November to make a New Zealand delicacy. Clair and I saw these transparent, stringy, minnow-sized fish mixed in an egg batter and fried into a patty before our eyes. On top of white bread toast and with a squeeze of lemon we enjoyed these fleshy, delightful little fish in what felt to my mouth like a fish cake.

Whitebait fried before us at the Curly Tree in New Zealand

The road to Fox Glacier hugs the Tasman Sea.  The beach there is stark, rocky, and colorless.  But it has a certain raw beauty that invited me to park and explore.  Clair was cold and wouldn’t stray far from the camper.

Clair from a west New Zealand Beach

We followed the road along the sea to the Fox Glacier. While this was the first glacier I’ve ever seen (I think) it was not the highlight of my trip. Of course any 20,000 square kilometer piece of ice is impressive. But it was covered with dirt and rocks so we were denied the grandeur of a glistening aquamarine block of ice.  But in a mini-crevasse next to the gushing source of the sub-glacier river, a sliver of aquamarine ice was visible in a color I had only seen in magazines.

Fox Glacier

Our Top 10 camper site was only 2km away at that point. We pulled into this site, enjoyed another freshly made sandwich, and gave me time to write. It’s 6pm now and like every other night the sun will be up past 10pm and it won’t be dark until 11pm.  Our campsite is next to another beautiful rocky beach and a small pub.  We’ll enjoy both before sundown.

Near Fox Glacier Top 10 Camper Park The beach near Fox Glacier Top 10 Camper Park