Ōkārito Lagoon. © Stewart Watson

Westland road trip: a deep green journey


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Low-slung clouds obscure the landscape and as we drive closer, it turns to rain, veiling the steeply rising hills. Moody is a good word for this part of the country. 

Now and then the road narrows to a one-lane bridge leading over stony river beds to broad vistas and intriguing valleys.

Having flown from Christchurch over the Southern Alps, we’ve collected a rental car, snatched coffee in Hokitika and made it to Whataroa in time to tour to the White Heron Sanctuary

We kit up in wet weather gear on the river bank and board a jet boat to a mysterious little wharf. After a short walk through kahikatea forest, we come to a hide where we can spy across the river, nesting kōtuku.

It’s a surreal sight. Elegant, other-worldly creatures punctuate the dark bush, their bright white bodies stark, their lacy wings and s-shaped necks tucked in until their mates return and they stretch out and dance in romantic greeting.

As the birds shuffle about in their unlikely, shabby nests, we spot chicks. Some are urgent tiny bald things, others are fluffy and take up most of the nest space, all are ravenous. Royal spoonbills and cormorants nest in branches around the heron nests, also busy with the never-ending business of feeding their young. It’s a riot of activity. They’re oblivious to us watching entranced through binoculars, our cameras busy, reluctant to leave. But we need to get back on the road. 

Te Waonui Forest Retreat in Franz Josef is a calm, chic hotel with window views filled with bush and from the dining room, the glacier. 

There is a lot to do here: seeing kiwi in the West Coast Wildlife Centre, soaking in outdoor hot pools, right next to Te Waonui and spending time at Te Koha Gallery, where visitors can carve personal mementos from greenstone. And of course, there are the star attractions: the glaciers.

The best way to visit the glaciers is by helicopter. The ice has receded so much that to it’s quite a slog to walk up and as it’s dangerous, you must be with a guide. Besides, flying up is excellent fun. As the chopper swoops and dips to reveal more and more of the spectacular Fox Glacier and its surrounding theatrical mountains, I grin like a mad woman. 

Once on the ice, fitted with wet weather gear, boots and crampons, our guide leads the way over knobbly, pocked terrain, into icy caves and small, blue-lit crevasses. 

Back in Fox the bush beckons. We ride mountain bikes from the township up to a high-walled valley cut by the glacier for another view of the terminal face. It is a beautiful forest trail, in the thick of dense and green and very wet bush. As several locals point out, you can’t have rainforest without rain and we see a lot of rainforest on this road trip. 

The next morning, Ōkārito. Here, there are a handful of homes, a campground and historic buildings including the Donavan’s Store built 150 years ago, which is now a social centre with a tiny library. Another oldie, on Ōkārito wharf, is a cute, gappy shed with history hanging in stories and photos on its walls. 

We hire kayaks and paddle out onto the quiet lagoon. When the tide’s low, kayakers have to make an effort to follow the deepest channels, but at high tide, we meander without a care. We float close to low-lying islands with red-hued reeds, waving grasses and flax. Black swans dot about; sometimes a gang takes off with a scribbly effect, their wings edged with white flashing against the silver page.

Kōtuku feed in this lagoon and we see several in flight. We cruise past numbered signs referring to a nature trail guide provided by DOC to identify birds, reveal the intricacies of New Zealand’s largest, untouched wetland and to better understand what a treasure the lagoon is in the grand ecological scheme of things. 

We paddle down a narrow waterway to where a tumbling waterfall streaks pale against the darkly forested bank. The slight rain doesn’t matter; all the gear that comes with the kayaks keeps us warm and dry. It is a meditative experience, floating about on that moody estuary, wrapped in serenity. 

North of Franz Josef the next morning, Andris Apse’s photography gallery beckons. His images of the area dramatically capture the extremes of the local land, sea and sky. 

Even further north, at Ross, another gallery – this one featuring ceramic craft and paintings – provides a stimulating break. I buy a pottery mug. 

Just south of Hokitika we turn inland for a walk on boardwalks in the sky at the West Coast Treetop Walkway.  Among the crowns of the forest giants I soak in the expansive, peaceful moodiness of the coast and prepare, reluctantly, for the journey home.

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