Easter Break Pt 3: West Coast Roadtrip

Emma Lodes University of Otago, New Zealand


May 18, 2015

On day four of the Heaphy, the track plopped us off at a beach about 20 minutes outside of Karamea, a tiny town with one hostel and no cellphone service where we'd meet up with Bri. Riz and I sat in the beach shelter, exhausted, eaten alive by sand flies and trying unsuccessfully to hitch hike.

After an hour, a rusty caravan rolled up along the dirt road, spewing dust. Inside the cab was an elf: a tiny, ancient Irish gypsy man, about four feet tall with a nearly incomprehensible accent. The caravan was crammed full of the entirety of his belongings. He'd come from Ireland ten or so years ago, and had spent the last decade wandering about New Zealand. He'd "done" the North Island (it took him nearly the whole decade) and now he was beginning on the South. He put our travels to shame. He kindly dropped us off at the only hostel in town, Rongo, and drove off to continue his wanders.

The plan was to stay at Rongo for one night, meet up with Bri, and drive down the South Island's West Coast back to Dunedin. Our plan was to stop at the beach, Pancake Rocks, and Franz Joseph glacier along the way.

When there's only one hostel in town, you can get lucky, or you can strike out. We got very lucky. Rongo is, I'm fairly confident to say, the coolest hostel I've ever stayed at.

Upon first glance, one can't help but notice that the building itself is painted in garish rainbow stripes. This could be a warning sign or it could make for a great time – the latter turned out to be the case. The entire complex is an art gallery: the walls are lined with paintings and photographs, the ceiling is hung with paper cranes and sculptures, and every piece of furniture is an art installation. A gorgeous upright piano sits in the corner alongside a guitar, for anyone's use. In one hallway, every last inch of wall space is covered with inspirational quotes and doodles.

Turns out that artists in residence from all over the world stay at Rongo and complete installations for a free stay. They've hosted artists from Ireland, Japan, Israel, Australia, the US, Canada and France.

It's the kind of place where you can spend literally weeks taking in the art, picking at the instruments strewn about, chatting with the fascinating people staying there, doodling on the walls, reading the books lining the living room, listening and contributing to the in-house radio show, taking a "fire bath" (bathtub with a fire lit beneath), participating in yoga classes... We ended up doing one yoga class the morning after our arrival and hanging around just long enough to want to come back.

After a long leisurely morning, we tore ourselves away from Rongo around noon with two German hitch hikers in our car, and rolled on down the West Coast.

The South Island's West Coast is reminiscent of Big Sur. It's where the Southern Alps dramatically meet the Tasman Sea: a remote stretch of sharp cliffs dropping off into a dynamic, roaring ocean, with misty horizons and lush jungle blanketing hills rising to the east. Highway 6 is New Zealand's equivalent of California's coastal Highway 1; it's a nearly treacherous stretch of cliffside hairpin turns through misty jungle mountains, with drop-offs into the ocean's gorgeous turquoise maw. Tiny, oceanside towns are sprinkled along the West Coast, known for artists and hippies. You could spend weeks poking around the small towns, visiting galleries, surfing at the windblown beaches, and soaking in the mystical magic that seeps the West Coast. If only we didn't have to rush past it all to make it to school!

In the late afternoon, we made it to "Pancake Rocks" in Punakaki, a small town on the West Coast. The Punikaki area rests on heavily eroded oceanside limestone cliffs, gouged with caves and sculpted into strange rock formations. Of course, as soon as we arrived, it started to rain. To avoid it, we slipped into one of Punakaki's extensive limestone caves: gouged out by the sea, these caves extend so far back into the mountains that they're completely, one hundred percent dark – not a single photon of light can enter.

Once it appeared that the rain wouldn't let up we walked up the coast to Pancake Rocks. Aptly named, the rocks look just like vertical stacks of thin pancakes - tall spires extending out into the sea. (The day we saw them, they were pretty soggy – not so appetizing). They're composed of alternating layers of plant sediments and marine creatures, and were created at the bottom of the sea under immense pressure. Blowholes surround the pancake rocks – vertical tunnels in the cliffs where the sea bursts up and through in high tides, misting the landscape.

Compared to the pristine remoteness of the Heaphy track, the amount of tourists at Pancake Rocks was a let down. That said, there were only about five people total at the site, so I really can't complain. It's incredible that after a four day track through the jungle, even New Zealand's remote West Coast can feel like a dumping back into civilization.

That night, we slept in Hokatika, a cute township an hour or so farther down the West Coast, in a hostel sadly incomparable to Rongo and thus not worthy of a description. We had to turn a blind eye to all the fun activities in the Hokatika region and move on – it was already Saturday and Easter Break was quickly coming to a close.

Our major destination the next day was Franz Joseph glacier, a strange icy enigma in a lush, rain forested region. Franz Joseph glacier is 12 kilometers long, but has been retreating rapidly in the last century. Although the glacier exhibits a natural cycle of advance and retreat, it’s undergone an unusually hasty retreat since 2008, attributed by most to global warming. Franz Joseph was teeming with tourists from all over the world, who take the hour-long track down the glacial valley until it reaches the ice. Due to prevalent rockslides, you're not allowed to walk on to the glacier; the only way to stand on top of it is via helicopter and four hundred dollar bills. We chose to check it out from afar.

Aside from being a gorgeous valley graced by waterfalls and rainbows, Franz Joseph glacier valley has been a lifesaver for geologists studying the Alpine fault's movement. The valley sits directly on top of the Alpine Fault, which in turn forms the plate boundary between the Pacific and Australian plate. The Australian plate, which forms the Western margin of the Southern Alps, is simultaneously subducting and moving north relative to the Pacific plate. Simultaneously, the Pacific Plate is being uplifted and moving south. The Southern Alps themselves are formed by the Australian plate shoving the Pacific Plate up. The relative motion of the plates is 37 millimeters a year – a figure that seems very small, but that can do real damage over geological time.

These days, geologists use information from global sea floor spreading rates, satellite geodetic data and areal photos to determine the plates’ rate of motion. Since the Pacific-Australian plate boundary is heavily eroded and covered in rugged terrain and vegetation, it’s relatively difficult to spot small-scale evidence of the plates' movement in the field.

Here’s when we come back to Franz Joseph glacier. The rock underneath the retreating Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers is being rapidly (well, according to geologic time) exposed as the ice melts, and the exposed surface is smooth Alpine Schist marked with handy ice scours. Back in 1979, J. Adams used the ice scours to determine the plate boundary’s rate of motion – still one of the only examples of someone finding small-scale evidence in the field. Ten years later, my Tectonics' Professor's Ph.D. advisors, R.J. Norris and A.F. Cooper, used the same ice scours to determine the slip rates on small faults in the glacial valleys.

Although the glacial retreat is sadly indicative of global warming, something good has come of it – it’s as if the glaciers have lifted a curtain to reveal a geologists’ playground. With more knowledge of the Alpine fault’s slip rate, scientists can better predict earthquakes on the South Island’s west coast. And that's important – the midsection of the Alpine fault hasn't seen a major earthquake in a couple hundred years, and is due for another (it has an earthquake cycle of 200-400 years, and the last one was in 1717). As of now, the best way to predict the next earthquake is by measuring the rate of tectonic plate movement and by looking back at earthquake history. So the more evidence we have of what those plates are doing, the safer we'll be.

We left Franz Joseph in the late afternoon, and it was time to book it back home to good ol' Dunedin. We sped down the West Coast and cut inland towards Queenstown and Waunaka for a quick dinner, sadly skipping through the gorgeous Mt. Aspiring National Park and a million places I want to see more than anything. What a shame to head back to school! I have to say though, Easter Break was incredibly satisfying, and at that point we had many weekends left to do more exploring. New Zealand is an absolute treasure trove, and it deserves the time that our Irish elven caravanning friend put into it during his ten years exploring. I can only be thankful that I have an entire semester to explore this country in bits and pieces, and make the most of it while I'm here.


New Zealand Travel