Leaving Abel Tasman National Park, we head south along the dramatic west coast of the South Island, on route to the West Coast Wilderness Trail.
It’s a 340 kilometer drive, but there are some memorable stops to break up the day. The most popular is Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. You will know you have arrived at the right spot when you see the tour buses, parking lots, restaurant and gift shop along an otherwise quiet highway. Don’t let the crowds dissuade you. It is worth the stop.
The Pancake Rocks are eroded layers of limestone and mudstone in dramatic towers resembling a stack of pancakes and thus their name. There are blowholes offering an exhilarating show of the force of the ocean at high tide.
Though less visited, stop at the Truman Track, three kilometers before you arrive at Pancake Rocks if you are following our route. It is one of New Zealand’s most popular short walks (about 20 minutes) and passes through a rain forest and flax groves before reaching the sea cliffs. It literally is a “take your breath away” experience. I actually gasped as I walked out of the forest to the beach head. It’s best viewed at low tide, so it gets a bit complicated. You will likely miss the peak time at either Pancake Rocks or Truman Track but both are spectacular regardless of the tide condition. Both are not to be missed.
The sun will set along the west coast, of course so if you happen to still be on the road at sunset, stop wherever you are and capture one of the world’s most striking sunsets across this rugged coastline.
I had not heard Hokitika before we planned our trip here and when I told New Zealanders we were going there they often weren’t familiar with it either. I was a little concerned that staying here wasn’t the best choice but it is a great stop for a few days.
Hokitika is the jade capital of New Zealand. The local jade, Pounamu was used by the Maori for tools, weapons and jewelry. It is the most prized jade in New Zealand and it is found exclusively on the South Island. In downtown Hokitika, which consists of about four blocks, there are at least 15 jade stores, some of which are very impressive. You can even scavenge it on the beach.
Hokitika is also the whitebait capital of New Zealand. The what? Whitebait, a popular New Zealand treat, are juvenile fish which hatch at sea and are netted as they head into fresh water rivers and streams where they will live as a mature fish. We have seen it periodically on menus on the North Island but it is on nearly every menu on the South Island. Dusted in flour and deep fried, it is not unlike calamari. Very good. It is most often sold as a whitebait fritter, which is essentially an omelette. Sounds horrid to me. I’ve never tried it. Hokitika’s Fat Pipi Pizzas specializes in whitebait pizza. I didn’t imagine that this would show up on a restaurant menu again anytime soon, so we gamely tried it. Delicious though I wouldn’t want to eat a whole pizza on my own. Definitely an experience to be shared.
Hokitika’s other iconic feature is the annual Driftwood and Sand Festival that runs in January. The Hokitika town sign on the marine parade is sculpted out of driftwood and driftwood sculptures dot the beach. The marine parade is the most popular spot in town at sunset. The day we were there, someone had propped up their GoPro on two rolls of toilet paper in front of the Hokitika sign so that it was impossible for anyone else to take a picture of the sign without getting the toilet paper in their frame! (I’m not making this up.)
I’m not sure what I find more startling. That someone would be so selfish to do this or that all of the people in the sizeable crowd hoping for a picture of a life time, would accept it without saying something. Never the quiet one in the crowd, I wasn’t going to put up with it. When I asked loudly, “Whose camera is that?” I didn’t immediately receive an answer. On my second asking, two young women who had a card table set up off to the side, enjoying cocktails and a snack at sunset, sheepishly admitted it was theirs and then mumbled some comment to the effect that they wanted to film the sunset. Well, duh. So do the rest of us and we don’t want your toilet paper in our pictures, thank you very much. The offending toilet paper was moved.
To plan your trip to Hokitika, check out Hokitika – The Cool Little Town.
The West Coast Wilderness Trail
This trail was recently ranked as the best cycling trail in New Zealand by the Kennett Brothers who are the big name in cycle touring in New Zealand. Trail maps and the like can be found at West Coast Wilderness Trail.
The trail runs as a 139 kilometer, four-day loop usually starting at Greymouth with ocean-side and inland riding through rolling hills and pasture land. We opted to stay in the smaller Hokitika, 25 kilometers south of Greymouth. Speaking with a local bike shop, they recommended one leg of the trail. We arranged bikes and a shuttle to the start and were pleased to have the company of three people for the ride. One of them, a Kiwi fellow named Chris who has traveled extensively in Canada, quips “Winterpeg!” when we tell him we live in Winnipeg. That is so hard to live down!
Having spent most of our cycling time in New Zealand on rail trails, the West Coast Wilderness Trail offers the challenge of windy forest paths requiring some technical cornering. With a couple places to stop along the way for coffee and snacks, it was a brilliant day.
The first stop is the colorful Cowboy Paradise, an replica American Old Wild West experience. A rustic sort of a place, you can find meals, accommodations and even use their shooting range. We passed up on the shooting range, though it is a unique offering. The highlight of our stop there was seeing a Western Weka mother and her baby. The Weka is an endemic flightless bird of New Zealand. They are officially classified as a vulnerable species suggesting that they have a likelihood of becoming endangered unless steps are made to improve their survival prospects.
They are a curious (though camera-shy) bird, attracted to bright shiny things so tourists are advised to hold onto their cells phones as Weka have been known to steal them.
Beyond Cowboy Paradise, a gentle downhill offers the reward of an expansive view across the Arahura River valley.
The benefit of going with an organized tour is the local knowledge that the organizers add to the experience. Our tour operator recommended we stop for a short hike on the Canoe Cove trail into Lake Kaniere which is accessible directly off the cycle route. The surprise on this short stopover was my discovery of a pixie-cute blue mushroom on the forest bottom along the path. Blue is a pretty rare color in the mushroom world. A little internet sleuthing identifies it as the Entoloma Hochstetteri, which is featured on the New Zealand $50 bill. This little mushroom is found in New Zealand, Australia and India. It is only three inches tall with a conical cap perhaps an inch wide. One article I read described it as “Smurf blue,” a perfect description. It is not known if the mushroom is poisonous, though it is suspected that it is as other mushrooms of the Entoloma genus are. I find it curious that scientists have not yet solved this question, though the University of Auckland is working to identify the source of the blue coloring in the mushroom with the hope of producing a natural blue food colorant.
Beyond Lake Kaniere, the trail again leaves the public roads and returns to forest trails to explore perhaps the most unusual aspect of the trail. The trail hooks up with the Kaniere Water Race Walkway which runs alongside “water races,” hand-dug in 1875 to supply water for the gold mining in the Kaniere area. It also provided electricity to support the gold rush and subsequently electricity for domestic consumption.
For further information about the races and some historic photos, refer to Kaniere Water Race.
Not long after the race, stop at Hurunui Jacks right on the trail where owners John and Maureen have created a unique rest stop on the edge of the trail to welcome hot and hungry riders. They also offer accommodations including a “glamping” opportunity. A new term to me, glamping is a glamorous camping experience. You have to check out their video at Hurunui Jacks Glamping to fully appreciate the charm of the romantic tent camping experience they have created. We enjoyed Maureen’s Oatey Ginger Crunch with our coffee and I even managed to get her to share the recipe, which I will share with you at the end of the post. It was so delicious, I gobbled it up before I could think to take a photo.
After a breather with John and Maureen, it’s only a few more kilometers back to Hokitika.
Another remarkable day, courtesy of my bike.
Oaty Ginger Crunch
150 g butter (2/3 cup)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup (corn syrup)
3/4 cup desiccated coconut
1 1/2 cups large flake rolled oats
3/4 cup white flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger
100 g butter (1/2 cup)
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
4 tsp ground ginger
Chopped candied ginger
Preheat oven to 160 degrees C. (325 degrees F.) Line a 30cm x 24cm (9 x 12 inches) round or rectangular pan with baking paper.
For the base, melt butter, brown sugar, golden syrup over low heat for 1 minute. Mix dry ingredients and add to melted mixture. Press into baking pan. Bake for 15 minutes for a chewy base or 20 minutes for a crunchy base.
For the topping, place the ingredients for the topping in a pot (except the chopped candied ginger) and heat until melted. While the base is still hot, spread evenly over the cooked base. Press a few pieces of the chopped candied ginger on top.
Cut into squares while still hot.
Makes about 24 squares. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Maureen and John