Southern exposure: Our wild West Coast in the frame

By Greg Bowker

A five-day tramp on the West Coast gives photographer Greg Bowker ample chances to capture some wild beauty.

Geoff Wilson makes his way over the West Coast's Hope River. Photo / Greg Bowker
Geoff Wilson makes his way over the West Coast's Hope River. Photo / Greg Bowker

There are parts of New Zealand unlike anywhere else in the world. They still remain quiet and untouched; breathtaking and naturally wild.

The shoreline south of Haast is just that - this is the wild West Coast. It's an almost mythical part of our country, with stories of shipwrecks and settlers, wild attempts to bulldoze roads and tales of hidden pounamu boulders that are as big as cars.

Grant MacKinnon started walking the coast years ago, mainly looking for great hidden surf breaks. Grant, who these days operates Fiordland Coast Walks, is a true surfer at heart and when he met me from Wanaka he had his boards - yes, that's more than one - on the roof of his four-wheel drive, tied tightly next to his fishing rods. He managed to keep the surfing spots on the hush, there was no way he would show or even talk to me, the photographer from Auckland, about any of the great spots, for fear of others from Auckland dropping into his wave.

But I wasn't with Grant for the surf anyway, I was there for one of the walks that his guided coastal-walk company runs.

After tackling the traffic-less roads through the lush Haast Pass, we headed south for a night at Neils Beach, a feed of the famous West Coast whitebait and a quick planning chat about our walk. It would be an extension of Fiordland Coast Walks' three-day walk option, with a little bit more at the start and the same at the end, which would add an extra day - thank goodness for new boots.

For more of Greg Bowker's photos, see this photo gallery.

DAY ONE:
Waking up to the smell of a cooked breakfast is by far one of the best ways to start an epic adventure through one of the least-travelled areas in our beautiful country. A helicopter ride is another. We took a 20-minute flight with Geoff Robson of Greenstone Helicopters up Smooth Water Valley towards the Cascade Plateau, where we got a glimpse of those hidden pounamu boulders the size of small cars.

Hitting the start of the four-day epic, our group was made up of two guides, Dave Williams and Alice Woodward, and three keen adventurous test dummies: Geoff Wilson; Sharon Snaylam, a keen tourist and artist from Britain; and myself.

Setting foot to sand, we moved through coastal terrain that changed quickly between open bays that sometimes seemed to last for ages and areas strewn with boulders that increased in size and difficulty. Some of it was tough going but didn't slow us much, as we stopped plenty of times to recharge with snacks, cups of tea and the odd break to let a seal make its way over the rocks or a waddle of penguins heading to cool off in the Tasman Sea.

We made it to Barn Bay and the private bach of Robin and Gus around late afternoon - an easy 8km. We all headed off on our own explorations of the local area, while Alice took charge of the cooking duties. This was a pattern that we didn't want to change after her first night's amazing meal.

DAY TWO:
Being an early riser, I crept out from the bach to check out the morning sun, only to remember that we were on the West Coast - better for sunsets. But breakfast was on and so was the coffee, in time for Dave to talk us through the plan for our biggest day.

These things never look far on a map, but I can assure you a 15km hike along the coast - starting with crossing the Hope River at Barn Bay then down to Gorge River - is a very big walk.

We all had our little moments in front, guiding the group and keeping Dave's words of advice in mind: "Just remember to keep the sea to your right if we get separated."

The coast changed through the day from boulders, which didn't seem to slow us as much as on day one, to pebble-covered beaches. Around lunchtime, we headed inland over Sandrock Bluff, marked by an old wooden shipwreck on the northern end. It's a fairly easy route to follow, just follow the old fishing buoys laid out along the path. The small clearing at the top of the hill was a great place to sit and refresh over lunch while enjoying the soft background song from a kereru, the New Zealand wood pigeon.

We descended back on to the coast knowing that our next night's accommodation was only a few hours away and we would be greeted by the Coast's true locals, Robert Long - also known as "Bean Sprout" - and his wife Katherine, both of whom, we find out, are writers and artists.

After reaching Gorge River, we took to a small rowing boat to cross the deep and inviting water before heading into the small, rustic crib that the Longs call home.

The billy was on and a cake had just been pulled from the camp oven. It was well worth walking more than 20km to meet these guys - we all could have spent another day enjoying their company and listening to the Longs' stories. Geoff and Sharon both left with signed copies of Robert Long's book A Life On Gorge River: New Zealand's Remotest Family; I left with stories of the amazing life they have... and the news that BMX rider Sarah Walker got a silver at the London Olympics. The internet is a great thing, even in the middle of nowhere.

Then it was off to the little Department of Conservation hut nearby to spend the night under the star-dappled southern sky.

DAY THREE:
Ten kilometres from Gorge River and on to the Hacket River. No problem, after another great cooked breakfast and a generous helping of Alice's home-made scroggin.

But the bays seemed steeper as we headed from the Longs' place towards Longridge Point and the most technical crossing of the trip. The tide was in and with the large swells that were battering the cliff face, we decided that a low-tide crossing was not the safest of choices. After a small scramble up the hill we were on to a roughly broken-in track, from where we made it safely to the other side.

From there the bays opened out and were a lot smoother going, the group spread out and moved at an easy pace. Listening to the surf pounding the shoreline and watching its spray slowly climb skywards was hypnotic.

After arriving at the Hacket and setting up our tents around the possum hunters' site, we all went our own ways to find the best spot to watch the sunset on the bush-clad hills of the Malcom Range. Alice made a small campfire, where we shared great tales while enjoying a three-course dinner that included some great - and well-earned - South Island wines.

DAY FOUR:
A great night's rest in my own tent ended when I was woken by the sound of the South Island dawn chorus. We packed away the tents and fuelled up on campfire coffee and - again - slow-cooked eggs before leaving the Hacket and making our way to Big Bay.

The 12km home stretch was by no means an easy one; the boulder-hopping that we'd avoided on day three was back, this time round though we were more than fit for the task. The lunch stop at Awarua Point, where Fiordland Coast Walks' shorter tramp finishes, is amazing - a fine spot at which to end your walk on the coast.

As we rounded the final point, we took in majestic views of the snow-capped Darran Ranges sitting high above the final night's accommodation at Big Bay. This was the first time we had been able to see inland all trip, it gave some scale to what we had achieved and how far we had come.

Leaving the point at low tide, we noticed the road that had been bulldozed during the middle of last century. Huge boulders formed the base of what would have been a basic road and made for quick tracks across the many small bays towards the sandy beach that greeted us at Big Bay.

Nestled among the scattering of private baches in the bay was a well-stocked DoC hut.

After we settled into the warm hut, the cheese and crackers were broken out, while Geoff took to a spot of surf-casting, adding fresh fish to the menu for the evening. Our entree of peppered shark was followed by Mexican wraps and banoffee pie. Not bad at all. A great day was finished with a little walk to the beach to watch a meteor shower in the clear, southern sky.

DAY FIVE:
It was time to say goodbye to the tranquillity of the coast. We had been fortunate enough to access some of the wildest places - and some of the most relaxing - in New Zealand. Our departing flight from Big Bay into Milford Sound took in more spectacular views of the coastline and provided a glimpse of the top of Fiordland National Park. A fitting finish to a wonderful journey.

CHECKLIST

FIORDLAND
GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies daily to Queenstown from Auckland.

FURTHER INFORMATION
fiordlandcoastwalks.co.nz

* Greg Bowker travelled as a guest of Fiordland Coast Walks and was assisted by Air New Zealand and Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel.

- NZ Herald

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