Go west to the wild coast

By Liz Light

I’m snaking my body into a skinny fissure in a translucent blue mountain of ice. There are tonnes of the stuff above, below and all around. The light inside the ice cave is eerie blue and beautiful but my pulse rate only returns to normal when I’m out the other side with sky above.

It’s another world up there, high on creeping, creaking Franz Josef Glacier. Squeezing through ice caves and crevasses is thrilling as is inching between just-frozen lakes and ice cliffs and climbing steps cut into near vertical walls of ice. Franz Josef Guides offer half day and full day walks and I choose the full day to get high up the glacier, into the pristine blue and white ice, far above its dusty pebble-filled lower face.

It’s a serious body-warming walk, and wearing boots with Brunnerspiky metal crampons attached doesn’t make for sprinting, but it’s worth the huff and puff. The high heart of the glacier is fabulously sculptural and I feel Lilliputian-like strolling through a giant fantasy of pinnacles, shimmering walls, slender crevasses, rounded caves and duck egg lakes.

The bonuses are fantastic! Views of steep glacier walls, down the braided valley and the naughty kea that swoops in, showing off its orange undercarriage, before trying to steal my lunch.

Towards the end of the day, just before the long slog down the glacier face, the young gung-ho people in the group, egged-on by each other and the guide, strip off to their undies and swim in an ice lake. It’s cold enough for the guide to break the ice with his axe and seems a gasping, breathless and shrivelling experience. It’s accompanied by cheering, from the rest of us, and photos to prove they did it.

An equally primo experience is visiting the rare and exquisitely beautiful kotuku (white heron), in their breeding grounds, when the birds are ostentatiously displaying their fine fan of white nuptial plumage and have fluffy chicks on nests.??The birds have only one breeding site, on the remote Waitangiroto Stream, and it’s difficult to visit for those who aren’t set-up with a boat and DOC permits. Luckily, White Heron Sanctuary Tours, at Whataroa, handle permits and transport seamlessly.

The journey to the kotuku is an unexpected bonus. A throbbing V8 jet boat skims us down the Whataroa River for 20 minutes, the driver hunched over the wheel with a grin of a man who loves what he does and his foot firmly on the throttle. The speeding boat slips around corners, scares ducks, blows my eyes wide open and tugs at me with G-forces.

Then there’s a pleasant meander through rainforest before we get on a slow boat up the Waitangiroto Stream. Finally, another rainforest walk takes us to the hides across the stream from the nesting site.??The bright white kotuku, graceful, a metre high with long thin legs and a black knife-shaped bills, have woven nests of sticks in precarious places. The colony of 42 nesting pairs has been joined by spoonbills and little shags, which also make their nests on a 70-metre long area of forested riverbank. It’s busy – birds flying in and out, fishing to feed their chicks – birds courting, displaying their plumes like peacocks, curling their necks and clacking their beaks together – birds arguing noisily over territory.

Kotuku fly elegantly; wings wide and their long necks stretched forward. But they land with copious wing flapping and ungainly wobbling until they get their long legs coordinated into a standing position.?? The chicks are initially cute fluffy things that do nothing but sleep and eat. When they are little one parent stays guarding the nest while the other finds food but, later, as they grow bigger and hungrier, both parents fly to and from the vast fish-filled shallows of nearby Okarito Lagoon frantically foraging for food for demanding ‘teenagers’. ??I watch the activities in this maternity ward and nursery school until I’m dragged away. It’s a privilege to see them; Maori believe they are sacred and symbolic of all that is rare and beautiful. I agree and applaud DOC for conservation efforts against the odds.

DOC is also doing a great job at Cape Foulwind, near Westport, where trapping predators has allowed an increase in the number of little blue penguins and sooty shearwaters. Almost reduced to extinction on the mainland, these birds now nest in this area. It’s heartening to see paths in trackside grass, made by penguins and weka, and the characteristic scratching around nesting holes of sooty shearwaters.

Fearless and cheeky weka hassle us for food as soon as we arrive in the Tauranga Bay car park. These flightless birds, with their red-brown feathers, are fun to watch but, even better, is coming across their black fluffy chicks further up the track! It’s seals I’ve come to see but these day-old chicks steal the show.??There are around 200 fur seals in this colony but I can only see about 20; great fat things that look like sleeping slugs. I watch seals arrive, clambering over the rocks to flop down in their favourite resting spots. Unfortunately, it’s a couple of weeks before the seals give birth. Apparently, it’s mayhem with a 100 pups, their mothers and bull seals fighting each other as they round-up the ladies of their harems.

To the south Tauranga Bay is a deserted semicircle of sand swept by orderly waves – the West Coast is usually rougher than this. In the late 1800’s, when gold ran out, miners tried their hand at forestry and farming and Tauranga Bay had both a flax and a sawmill. Grass covered hills behind the bay attest to the success of the sawmill but there is still an abundance of flax and tui happily sipping nectar from its flowers.

The Cape was named by Captain Cook, in 1770, when he encountered particularly nasty weather here. It’s a cape that bothered other mariners, too, so, in 1876, a wooden lighthouse, using a kerosene lamp, was built on the cliff top. A round concrete replacement was built in 1926. It still shines on, keeping sailors safe.

The walk finishes near the lighthouse and for those who have worked-up a thirst the Star Tavern is an amble down the road. It has four Westport tap-beers brewed by famous-on-the-Coast Paddy McSweeny. The local favourites are a dark beer, Good Bastards, and Green Fern, which is organic. The garden bar has views out across Buller Bay and though one can’t see Australia there is quirky satisfaction in having a drink here, New Zealand’s closest bar to it.

??FACTS:

Glacier walks – either www.franzjosefglacier.com or www.foxguides.co.nz
The white heron colony – White Heron Sanctuary Tours www.whiteherontours.co.nz

The Cape Foulwind Walkway takes one and a half hours. At the lighthouse end reward yourself with a beer at the Star Tavern and, at the other end, Tauranga Bay, The Bay House is one of the best restaurants on the Coast.

Accommodation: ?Franz Josef and heron colony – Te Waonui Forest Retreat, new, award winning, feeling of being immersed in the West Coast rainforest while being extremely comfortable. www.scenichotelgroup.co.nz
Cape Foulwind – Punakaiki Resort, next to the famous Pancake Rocks and ¾ hour from Cape Foulwind. Traditional hotel rooms and eco-suites, next to the sea, delightful – www.punakaiki-resort.co.nz