Google says you can get from Punakaiki to Fox Glacier in three and a half hours.
I can’t, it took the whole day.
I wasn’t dawdling, but I did have to keep stopping. I would be coming back along this part of the journey, and when I came back I would be filming scenes about where Tasman first came to the shore, and where he first anchored up. So as I was passing I was checking out vantage points, parking places and critically, where I did and didn’t get a mobile signal.
I had a couple of chores to attend to as well, but they wouldn’t take long; I needed to make sure I filled the van with diesel and that I got some fresh milk and a few other food essentials (bread, coffee, licorice allsorts).
The biggest place I was passing through was Greymouth, so I swung in there to do my shopping. I don’t like to bad-mouth a place, so I won’t dwell on Greymouth, but it was like someone had tried to turn Aberdeen into a holiday resort… and failed.
I pulled into a parking spot that said ’60 minutes’… that would be fine, I only had to pick up a couple of things at the supermarket. I walked off to have a quick look at the waterfront first, where I noticed that the free parking there was 120 mins… but all the spaces were empty.
It seemed that no-one needed to spend two hours in Greymouth. I could understand that.
I turned back from the waterfront, towards the supermarket, but got back into the van instead. It was cold and dark with a frigid wind, and I didn’t like the place. If I’d taken full advantage of the 120 mins free parking available, then all I would have got in Greymouth that I didn’t have before would have been hypothermia.
Hokitika was a bit further down the road, and I didn’t need anything special… I would be able to get it there.
Greymouth and Hokitika were like chalk and cheese. Greymouth looked like it was waiting for something to happen… or, it had already happened a long time ago, and everyone had missed it.
Hokitika by comparison seemed like a town with energy and prospects. I liked it straight away. The (few) streets were wide and bright, everywhere was clean and neat, and everything was either new, or old… there were no run-down in-between bits.
I had lunch there right on the sea front. If I had tried this in Greymouth I would have been in a shipyard.
There was still quite a long way to go.
It wasn’t that the distance was great, rather that I wasn’t going very fast. The roads are all fine, and I rolled along at a respectable speed, but there was an awful lot of stopping and looking going on.
I had a late afternoon coffee at Franz Joseph Glacier. I’d had glimpses of the Alps since just after Greymouth (150 km away), but here, at the foot of the mountains everything was in cloud. Mt Cook is 3,724 metres (12,218 ft) and rises straight from the coastal plains. The forecast had said ‘clear’… but that is no guarantee of ‘clear’ near the mountains.
I was hoping to get to Gillespies Beach in daylight, but got to the start of the final stretch of road with only about 20 mins of sun left… and thought the better of it. The last piece of road is a steep, narrow and winding dirt road for 12 km. There’s only room for one vehicle at a time, and the passing places are small.
I didn’t want to be on that road in the dark, so I pulled onto a campsite in Fox Glacier, where I took full advantage of unlimited hot water while I had it. Where I was going next would be cold. The Campsite where I stayed was cold enough… the morning had come bright, and clear… and frozen.
I moved on to Lake Matheson and then towards Gillespies Beach… it was only a few kilometers down the road from the campground to where the roads lapses to dirt and goes bush, and I was there in just a few minutes.
Instructions on how to get to Gillespies Beach go something like this;
At the end of the tarmac seal, and before the dirt road disappears into bush, is the Aoraki Lookout, and it is absolutely stunning. This place should be right at the top of the list for sedentary tourists who don’t like to get further than 50 metres from their cars.
I parked up there and waited for a while. I had arrived quite early in the morning, and intended to let the morning pass before entering. The road ahead carried warnings about being narrow and winding, and I didn’t want to meet another campervan part way through. According to what I could see on Google maps there was only a single lay-by in the next 12 km. So, I was going to wait until early afternoon. This would let anyone leaving pass through before I entered.
My time there wasn’t idle. This was the last place I would get an internet connection, so I busied myself downloading the bits and pieces of maps I would need in the next day or so. I knew for sure that I needed some maps as props; maps indicating where Tasman thought he was, and where he actually was.
… and having to stay at the Lookout wasn’t a hardship.
Pastures fill the plain in that makes up the foreground, leading to steep bushed hills. Above them craggy, barren and rocky ground, split with streams, leads up sharply to the snow capped peaks; Mt Cook, Mt Tasman and the Navigator Range. Dividing the view in the centre is the Fox Glacier; white and fat between its enclosing buttresses, stretching out before it abruptly ends at an ice cliff, exposing the Cook River beneath.
The place was utterly serene; there was only the faint splishing of the River to my right, the rustle of the wind, and the whistling of the tui’s. The white peaks shone brilliant against the backdrop of a flawless blue sky, and the hardy green of the bush magnified the vibrant lushness of the pastures.
I watched as the DOC Ranger went in, followed shortly after by a couple of four wheel drives… but only one small van came out.
Presently the Ranger returned and we chatted a while. He assured me there was nothing big to come out. The Ranger, perhaps in his thirties, had been a local tour guide on the glaciers before joining DOC and was presently regretting not climbing Mt Tasman before the winter weather moved in.
Satisfied it was safe to go on in, I closed up the shop and got rolling. I had no idea what would be at the end of the road, but something I could guarantee was that there would be a raging fire shortly after I arrived.
As it turned out, the road was a pussy cat… I’ve been down far more demanding. I think all the cautions must be for the benefit of overseas tourists unused to our local dirt roads.
After two bridges the road left the pasture behind and rolled on into thick beech forest. I watched ahead for traffic now blinkered by the dense growth on each side. The road would up over a hill, and the down again without even a glimpse of what was beyond until suddenly the forest parted leaving me on a scrub covered plain before the dunes and beach.
There was only a single house here, the last standing abode from the Gold Rush days. At its peak there had been hundreds of miners at Gillespies Beach, sifting the alluvial silt for gold. Enough people passed through here to support four hotels. Now there was just that solitary house, a few rusting relics of machinery, and a handful of hardy tourists.
The campsite at the end of the road was simple… anything else would have been completely out of place. It comprised; a water tank, toilet, small flat car park… and a view to die for.
At first I wandered around rather dazed at where I was. The view from the park-up was incredible, but from the beach was extraordinary. I overcame all sensible objections, took my shoes and socks off, stood in the sea and took a photo of the snow capped peaks.
Sensational, just sensational.
Mid-afternoon was the time for filming. It was then that I could face the sun and have the mountains in the shot behind me. I did these first. If the weather was to change then I could do the other scene’s, which looked up and down the beach, even if it was cloudy… but three scene’s required a view of the beach and mountains. Despite it now being winter I filmed in short sleeves and shorts. It was definitely pushing the point a bit, but worth it to try and preserve continuity with all my other footage. I was quietly hoping that the weather would be so kind again tomorrow. If it was cloudy, windy and cold then I would still have to wear short sleeves, as the scenes continued in and out of each other.
When I was done filming I wandered the beach for a while before picking out my fire place for the evening. I chose a spot that gave me a sunset view (everywhere had that) but also a mountain view. Place chosen, I moved driftwood to it until I had more than I could possibly need (I have learned previously that it’s much easier to find firewood in the light rather than the dark).
That evening I sat by my fire and watched the sun slowly drop into the sea. I had to keep turning, my attention pulled alternately to the moutains, the ocean and back to the mountains again. As the sun sank the peaks turned from brilliant white, through orange and gold to pink and purple. Finally, long after the beach fell into shade, the last of the sun’s ray rose above the peaks, leaving them stark, chill and silent in eerie blue.
My knees and shins glowed from the heat of the fire while the frosty air pinched my ears and cheeks… and slowly, the sky came alight.
I had company by the fire; a young woman from France. She was touring New Zealand on her own in a station wagon. At first I struggled to decide whether that made here adventurous, or foolhardy. The following couple of hours of conversation left me going with the former.
We sat until the chill began to overwhelm the warmth of the fire, and then called it a night.
By the time I emerged next morning into the crisp and frosted day, she had moved on. People sleeping in unheated cars… in the Southern Alps… in winter … tend to do that.