It took me nearly 28 years from the time I left New Zealand to return to Canada until I was able to make it back. So much happened in those 28 years. I have had seven different jobs plus a college diploma, ten different cars (nothing late model, each car was between 6 and 15 years old when purchased) and of course four children who are now flourishing young adults.
With my oldest daughter now living in New Zealand it was an invitation if I could come for her graduation from teacher’s college at the University of Canterbury that got the wheels rolling in my mind. And it the additional offer of “We could do a road trip together”, even offering to do all the driving was something that was pretty hard to refuse.
We rented a car from Jucy Car Rental. As we were trying to keep this trip low budget the rentals at Juicy were a fair bit cheaper than the well known rental companies. Unlike the well known rentals which are late model and low mileage, these cars were a few years old, and the car we picked up had well over 200,000 kilometers on it. But it was maintained, had roadside assistance, and that is all that really matters.
We had 10 days slotted for this trip, leaving time to be back for my daughters teaching college graduation. Naomi left it to me to decide what destinations I wanted to see. What I came up with was a circle trip from Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand. Then follow the coast down to Haast, then back east to Wanaka. From Wanaka a side trip into Mt. Cook National Park, and then back home to Christchurch. For me this would all be new territory other than Arthur’s Pass National Park.
I imagine you are already aware that you drive on the opposite side of the road than Canada and the United States. Even as a passenger this takes a while getting used to, when a car is coming toward you on what you think is “the wrong side of the road”. And if you always wanted to be a rally car driver, New Zealand is the perfect destination. Many times the speed limit is irrelevant. The roads are so windy and hilly in places you just can’t go the posted speed limit.
Despite driving on the opposite sides of the road, Canada and New Zealand does have a lot of similarities. We both have an east and west coast, and we both have flat plains (called prairies in Canada). Both our countries have rugged mountains, and we both have rainforests on the west coast.
The only difference is, what might take up to a week to drive across Canada, Naomi and I went from one coast to the other in less than four hours (taking in the plains, mountains, rainforests and ocean in that span of time), and covered it all on Day 1 of our road trip.
It is sometimes called The Great Alpine Highway, New Zealand State Highway 73 is the highest and said to be the most spectacular highway through the Southern Alps. A route that is 255 kilometers from coast to coast, the road at the beginning is straight as an arrow across the river plains west of Christchurch.
The road then climbs steeply through two passes. Porters Pass is 945 metres (3,100 feet) and Arthur’s Pass which is 924 metres (3,30 feet). In Arthur’s Pass the highway travels through Arthur’s Pass National Park, one of 13 National Parks administered by the Department of Conservation.
In order to make it to our hostel on time, we drove through the park without stopping. But there is a great deal of hiking, climbing and camping opportunities to be had here. During my honeymoon 28 years ago Arthur’s Pass was one of our stops. My wife and I did a couple of hikes in the rain, one of them to a spectacular waterfall called Devils Punchbowl Falls. That night it rained and rained and rained, and there was many very close cracks of lightning. Our campground (and tent) was very close to a high voltage hydro tower, which naturally attracts lightning. My wife innocently asked what would happen if our tent were struck with lightning. Perhaps I might have been a bit too honest as my wife hardly slept a wink that night.
After Arthurs Pass the road descends steeply on the western side of the southern alps and then flattens out as it winds alongside the Taramakeu River until it feeds into the ocean.
We arrived at our destination for Day 1 of our road trip at the Duke Hostel in Greymouth. The hostel is a converted historic hotel. Both the interior and exterior are painted in bright vibrant colors and it still retains a lot of the character and charm from it’s glory days as a railway hotel.
The most beds in a dorm style room was 2 bunks (4 beds) and each room had a sink, which was a nice touch. There was a huge kitchen, dining area and common sitting room. And in a establishment that probably would accommodate possibly 70 or more guests, there might have been 10 guests the night we were there. It felt like we had the place to ourselves.
Our host Torban really went out of the way to make us feel welcome. A large pot of vegetable soup was simmering on the stove for guests to “help ourselves”. And the next morning there was a meat pie brought in from a local business, as well as coffee, toast and jam. We hung and out and chatted for the longest time, both in the evening and the following morning. It was if I had made a new friend!
I learned a lot of history about Greymouth from Torban, and discovered that the local people in this quiet, laid back town are really struggling. Greymouth has an urban population of 9, 750 and the population of the whole Grey district is 13,550. This accounts for 42% of the population of the sparsely populated west coast of the south island of New Zealand.
Greymouth’s major industry had been coal mining. On November 19, 2010 a series of gas explosions occurred at the Pike River mine north of Greymouth killing 29 people. The mine was shut down and the bodies were never recovered. Here in Canada I vaguely remember the tragedy on the news when it happened, but like so many news stories we become numb. Other people in other places. But being in Greymouth that short time I realized the impact this tragedy has had on the town. These were real people who lost their lives, and very much loved and missed.
Unlike Christchurch, which is taking great strides in their rebuilding program after the devastating 2011 earthquake, Greymouth still seems to be struggling with it’s tragedy. Losing it’s major industry has been an economic blow, and with the dead miners bodies never being recovered, even though it is 6 years later there has never been a closure. It was on the news during my stay in Greymouth that families of the deceased men were gathered together on the mine access road, having a human blockade to prevent concrete trucks from sealing the mine.
The New Zealand government has been proactive to help this grieving town move on. To try and bring vital tourism dollars into Greymouth, the government spent millions of dollars on a bicycle trail called the West Coast Wilderness Trail, a 137 km. trail from Greymouth to Ross. And when Pike River coal went bankrupt and was liquidated, following that the government purchased 3950 hectares of land around the mine. In late 2015 it was announced that the land will be added to Paparoa National Park (where the famous “Pancake rocks” are). Included in that announcement there is to be a walkway called the Pike 29 Memorial Track, a 45 kilometer track from Blackball to Punakaikai which will be constructed as a memorial to the 29 miners lost in the Pike River mine tragedy. The online brochure is already up from the Department of Conservation and will become #10 of their world renowned “Great Walks“, with plans to open the track in 2018. When I return this is a must hike for me.
In what seemed “too soon” our bags were packed from our overnight stopover at Duke Hostel in Greymouth, and I was saying my goodbyes to Torban. Our next stop the following night would be a hostel that was pre-booked at Fox Glacier, further south along the rugged west coast drive. It has been such a long time since I travelled. If the rest of this road trip was going to be like Day 1, it would be an amazing trip. “Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey” Fitzhugh Mullan~
Have you ever driven on the opposite side of the road from what you were accustomed? How was it?
Do you have any advice on meeting interesting people while travelling?
Thanks for reading! 🙂