The Southern Alps and the West Coast

With so much to fit into just under four weeks we decided it would be a good idea to hit the road as soon as possible and not spend too much time in Christchurch. Having said that, the first leg of out journey was actually by rail as we took the TransAlpine train across the Southern Alps to the West Coast — a four and a half hours journey with some beautitful and varied scenery. The first half of the journey presented us with stunning alpine vistas, deep river valleys and gorges. After breaking through the western side of the island the landscaped changed to lower mountains covered with mist-covered rainforest, then dairy farmland, then more river valleys.

Once we arrived in Greymouth we headed straight out on a tour to the Punakaiki National Park and its famous Pancake Rocks. I didn’t think these were terribly interesting in themselves, but the National Park features some fantastic coast line, similar to the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and the weather meant that there were HUGE waves — it was an awesome demonstration of the raw power of the sea.

The next morning we took the bus to the Franz Josef Glacier, stopping at the pretty town of Hokitika (it’s positioned very nicely with the coast on one side and a superb mountain backdrop) and the former gold-rush town of Ross (where we saw a demo of how to pan for gold). We arrived at Franz Josef at lunchtime and did a half-day hike on the glacier that afternoon which was a lot of fun. We were in the faster group so got to go further than the established track — our guide cut steps in the ice for us and we had to squeeze through some tight spots! Walking on the Athabasca glacier in Canada seemed very tame experience after this!