Exotic being off the agenda, a significant cross-island birthday trip finds gold all along the way, writes Elisabeth Easther
Half a century.
It's the speed limit in some suburban areas. It also rhymes with nifty and shifty and coincidentally also thrifty, which I happen to be, most of the time at least.
Fifty is also the age I turned last birthday, in September, and because my dreams of visiting Borneo, Indonesia and Rajasthan were scuppered by Covid, I promptly pivoted, which is all the rage these days, and looked for adventures closer to home.
Bearing in mind the world was no longer my oyster, I thought deeply about where I could go in Aotearoa that would still feel properly exotic. I narrowed it down to Te Wai Pounamu, or to use its other, infinitely less fabulous, name - the South Island.
Early one September morning, the day filled with promise, my son Theo and I masked up and flew over a patchwork quilt of arable fields trimmed with snowy alps to Christchurch, before making a beeline to Akaroa.
Once the prosaic, long, straight road from the airport was behind us, the drive itself was charming. Overnight cold temperatures had left snow, or frost, along the roadsides at the higher parts of the pass. Of course we opted for the scenic route, and we stopped many times along the way to admire the views, to gaze across the harbour, the water a veritable mirror, before winding our way down to French-flavoured Akaroa.
We settled in to our room at The Akaroa Waterfront Motel and I could see why my friend Ange had been proposed to here, as there would be few more picturesque places for a question to be popped. It was entirely the right kind of quirk: an outdoor chess set with pieces as tall as toddlers, an all-weather al fresco piano and pool table, activities that stole our attention for a spell.
But with kayaks available for hire direct from the motel, we set off to do a loop of the harbour, skilfully avoiding the tourist vessels as they came in from their afternoon encounters with nature. Admittedly, we didn't see any wildlife — no seals, penguins or rare Hector's dolphins — but I was just happy to be on the water, going from A to B under my own steam. As for sunset on our waterfront porch, the second to last of 49, it was sublime, and as we gazed out to sea, I wondered wistfully what the next decade might hold.
The following morning, 50-eve, I woke at dawn and ran through the village and around Akaroa's waterfront, just me, a bunch of gulls and a lone dog-walker. I love this time of day and I strode past the lighthouse and up to the cemetery, stopping to read the signs about times and people past. I admired plump kererū and trotted respectfully across a field of sheep and lambs, then home again before the son had risen.
After a simple petit dejeuner, we retraced our steps to Christchurch, stopping en route at Barry's Bay Cheese Factory — quel fromage — before uplifting my beau from the airport to head via the Great Alpine Highway for the West Coast, in all its untamed splendour. From Christchurch to Greymouth, it is 244km of spellbinding driving with looming snowy mountains framing the skyline. Ravines, rivers and lakes told stories of prior geological dramas.
There was little time to dilly-dally if we wanted to make it to Franz Josef before sunset, but there were also a couple of non-negotiable stops. Stone-skimming at Bealey Bridge was mandatory (Theo's call), then we proceeded towards Arthur's Pass to admire a landmark I insisted we stop for — the Devil's Punch Bowl. The name enticed me and, following 30 minutes' brisk walking through bush and beech forest — including a fair few steps — we reached the base of the falls where frothy white waters cascaded 131m down glistening, mossy rocks.
One last stop to tick off my list, a quick glimpse down to Ōtira Viaduct. This magnificent feat of engineering is 440m long with a balanced cantilever construction and foundations that sink 25m into the ground. Even without an engineering degree, I know that's impressive.
I was also borderline obsessed with seeing kea — the world's only alpine parrot — in the wild. It fills me with sadness that these bright, cheeky creatures were once on our Government's hit list. Shot or poisoned, if you presented one of these birds' beaks to the authorities, you'd get 10 shilling for your troubles, and it wasn't until 1986 that the birds were given full protection under the Wildlife Act, but only after a whopping 150,000 had been destroyed. Handily, as we stopped to admire the Ōtira Viaduct, kea came to us. Sensing my delight, they did all the things they're known for, pecking at parts of the rental car (shh, don't tell) and being entirely adorable.
On we pressed — the day was galloping away — and according to the last of my 4000 kea pictures it was 3.30pm and we needed to get to Franz Josef, some 226km away, where I wanted to wring every last ounce of fun from my final day of 49.
When we reached the coast, the flora, the bridges, the beaches and buildings, everything filled me with joy and, just as dusk fell, we checked into Franz Josef's Rainforest Retreat. charming concierge Mel showed us to our suite and told us everything in the room, if it was edible or drinkable, was ours to enjoy. As for the grounds, the gardeners must surely be showered with accolades and when we saw our room, complete with on-deck Jacuzzi, I felt like a lottery winner.
Two vast bedrooms both with lavish bathrooms, connected by a chic living room and a fridge full of beer and wine, fizzy and juice. Such luxury rendered me a bit giddy and after dinner we returned to our palatial pad and soaked and sipped and said au revoir to 49-year-old me.
In the morning, my actual birthday, I pulled back the curtains to discover an actual real-life alp outside. An alp! I went out to tell Theo and found him in the tub, having breakfast.
I was so excited I went for a run, then after making the most of the tasty breakfast provided, the three of us drove to Franz Josef Glacier. I'd been so looking forward to sighting this uber-cool marvel but it was actually very sobering to see how far it'd retreated. Retrospectively I wished we'd taken some of the side-walks, say to Wombat Lake, named by a 19th-century gold prospector, or Peter's Pool which sounded cool, but we also had to get to Ōkārito for my birthday indulgence — kayaking in the lagoon of the renowned kōtuku (white heron) breeding colony.
The best time, as determined by the tide, was midday and we enjoyed the most gorgeous excursion. On vessels hired from Ōkārito Kayaks, serenely we paddled up canals and channels with their walls of reeds and luscious foliage. For several hours we investigated each tributary until it was time to return the boats, whereupon informative Rich, who provided the gear, suggested we stop at the Ōkārito wetland with its elegant boardwalk to look for the elusive mātātā (fernbird). We heard one but didn't see one but that was still a treat, then it was back to Franz Josef for a celebration dinner, a soak and, oh my gosh, Mel the friendly concierge had put a couple of bottles of bubbles in our room with a sweet birthday note. So far, 50 was suiting me nicely.
The following day, being a mature woman of 50 +1 day, I had a clearer idea of where I should run, and out of town I loped, over the bridge and back towards the glacier, this time with plans to visit Peter's Pool. A perfectly picturesque kettle lake, it was named for an early 12-year-old explorer and I thought of my own 14-year-old still asleep in his superior suite.
I briefly contemplated what would happen if I sold up in Auckland, how long could I stay at the Retreat until I'd run out of dosh? Then the mature 50-year-old me took over and parked that fantasy, reminding me that I was looking forward to riding a part of the popular West Coast Wilderness Trail, the grade 2 cycle path that goes from Kumara, to Milltown and over to historic Ross, a total of 120km. It features outstanding views of rugged coastlines, rivers, forests and lakes, and history is also a big part of this ride. With just a single day to sample a wee bite of this four-day treasure, we chose to ride from Hokitika to Treetops Walkway and enjoyed 15 incredible kilometres of beautiful bridges, old rail lines, birds and stunning Lake Mahināpua.
If I had more space, I'd also write about the eccentric Theatre Royal Hotel, where we stayed the night in the one of the Bank of New Zealand suites. Or the gold fossicking we did the next day up Nelson Creek, using pans we'd hired from the Greymouth i-site. And I'd definitely gush about Punakaiki's Pancake Rocks, those ancient otherworldly formations made of sandstone, limestone and marine creatures. It's such a thrill to witness seawater being forced up through blowholes, creating surging saltwater geysers.
Once safely home — I was doing the laundry and returning to earth — I emptied our pockets and found a tightly folded mask in the secret side-pocket of my puffer jacket. I'd forgotten I'd bundled up what we thought was gold found while fossicking and the tiny little specks that we'd swirled free from river stones and sand in our hired pans now littered the lino.
Of course, we dreamed of finding a nugget so big it would make the news but, seeing those glittering crumbs on the laundry floor, I realised that in spite of no nugget, we did find treasure on my half-century celebration. It was the pleasure we gleaned from every single moment spent in that glorious neck of the West Coast woods, so fortunate we could travel at all.
CHECKLIST: SOUTH ISLAND
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