Great Drives: Punakaiki to Invercargill

For our previous “Great Drive” we looked at the North Coast 500 in Scotland. This time we couldn’t get much further away with a focus on driving the west coast route 6 on the South Island of New Zealand.

The roads are good and when we were there, in February, not busy. New Zealand, like so many countries outside the Americas, drives on the left. Speed limits are posted in kilometres per hour, with main rural routes being limited to 100km/h (62mph), unless there is a lower limit posted. In towns the usual limit is 50km/h (31mph).

Punakaiki, New Zealand

Many of the bridges on the west coast route are single track. The road signs denoting who has priority are the same as in Europe. (A red circle sign with a red upwards arrow and black arrow downwards, indicates you must give way to oncoming vehicles. A blue rectangle with a white upward and red downward arrow shows that other vehicles should give way to you.)

Fortunately, since 2012, the controversial New Zealand rule that gave right turning traffic priority has been abolished on the grounds of safety. That unique rule caused visitors a lot of grief as locals would suddenly and (for the visitors) unexpectedly veer in front of them at junctions.

We did find New Zealand a dangerous place for windscreens.

Despite driving a sensible distance from other vehicles, we sustained the first crack on our windscreen in Huntly, just a short distance from picking up our Toyota RAV4 at Auckland Airport. Later on we got a matching crack on the other side of the windscreen. (Sometimes this is because of loose chippings – watch out for the “New Seal” signs, which mean the road has been recently sealed with tar and chippings.)

We picked up this route at Punakaiki between Westport and Greymouth, on the edge of the Paparoa National Park. Punakaiki (above) is famous for its unusual rock formations that look like stacks of pancakes. But it may be too simplistic to believe that the name simply means pancake. It is more likely to come from the Maori for puna, meaning ‘spring’ and kaki, meaning ‘lie in a heap’.

If you have flexibility, the best time to see the Punakaiki blowholes at their most spectacular is to visit at high tide with a south westerly swell. In such conditions the spray can be so so great that you need to be fleet of foot, or wear waterproof clothing! There is a loop path from the car park that gives you a fine opportunity to appreciate the unusual rock formations and blowholes, plus enjoying the wider landscape with its rocky beaches and headlands.

From Punakaiki it is just a 40 minute drive down the coast to Greymouth, the largest town in the area. Mining and jade feature strongly in the town’s history and there is a recreated 1880s gold-rush town with a museum and steam train to attract visitors.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

We headed straight on as we had given ourselves a rather tight schedule. We had set off from Blenheim in the morning and were booked overnight at the town of Franz Josef, about two hours further down the road.

Learn from our experience and, if at all possible, give yourself more time!

Franz Josef is a small town, but with a number of motels and restaurants for travellers. It’s also the ideal base for a morning getaway to view the two glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.

Franz Josef was named in 1865 after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, by German explorer Julius von Haast. Take time to marvel at the glacier and enjoy some of the walks that take you to particular viewpoints.

Fox Glacier (pictured above) is just 30 minutes further along the west coast route. Located in the Tai Putini National Park, it was named after Sir William Fox, Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1872. In 1998 the Maori name Te Moeka o Tuawe was officially added.

As well as taking the Fox Glacier Access road up to the main car park, I would also suggest you take the Glasier (sic) View road, on the other side of the Fox River. Open only to cars (no motorhomes or caravans), it takes you up to a high level viewpoint where you can enjoy a great view out over the valley and the glacier.

From Fox Glacier we continued south on route 6, through wonderful coastal scenery, with a mountain backdrop. Definitely worth a stop is beautiful Bruce Bay. Visitors are so inspired by the beach here, that they have taken to writing messages on the small white pebbles on the beach.

Just before the small town of Haast, the route heads inland to the spectacular Haast Pass.

This is where I had a shocking experience, quite literally.

Getting out to take a photograph of the river, I reached out to a fence to steady myself as I walked along the verge. There was nothing to warn me that it was an electric fence, but it was. I was a bit more cautious about grasping New Zealand fences thereafter!

Lake Hawea, New Zealand

But it didn’t put me off taking photos. The spectacular tumbling rivers, fuelled by glacier melt water and soaring mountain backdrops ensured that there were plenty of photo stops along with way as we climbed up to Lake Wanaka and the beautiful Lake Hawea (above).

Further on, in the small town of Cardrona, comes one of the odder sites on this west coast drive. I mean, where else have you seen a bra fence? No-one seems to know why a roadside fence (below) should have become a clothes line for ladies underwear, but it has.

Cardrona Bra Fence, New Zealand

A bit further on is the Crown Range Summit which, at 1076 metres, is the highest surfaced road in New Zealand, having only had its tarmac laid in the year 2000. From the viewpoint you get your first glimpse of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Queenstown is a popular visitor destination and has a lot to offer visitors and thrill seekers, who flock there to climb Ben Lomond either on foot, or by Skyline Gondola or take part in a myriad of other adrenaline activities.

Lake Wakatipu

Time was against us, but we are so glad we made at least an evening drive part of the way down the Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. The view (above), with the Fiordland mountains as the background to the lake, is just captivating.

No visit to this area would be complete without visiting Fiordland and Milford Sound (pictured below) in particular. The drive to Te Anau takes just over two hours, with another 1 hour and 45 minutes for the final leg into Milford Sound, including the tunnel through the mountain on the final section.

If you have the luxury of time, you might want to finalise your Milford Sound itinerary with an eye on the weather forecast. Milford Sound has an average annual rainfall of 6.4 metres – so you may want to give yourself the best chance of some good weather.

You will also want to do some planning. When the fiord was discovered in 1812 by Captain John Grono, he named it after Milford Haven. But, it has never become the bustling port that its namesake might suggest. Facilities in Milford Sound are quite limited with a caravan and camping park that has some comfortable cabins, in which we stayed. There is also a cafe. But that is about it.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

A cruise down the sound is thoroughly recommended and many of the tours stop at the fascinating Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory.

As we left Milford Sound next morning, we reflected on our luck as the parrot-like keas attempted to dismantle our hire car at the long wait for the tunnel stop light. We had arrived at Milford Sound with the hills running with water and we left in not dissimilar weather. But, somehow, just as we boarded the ship for the Milford Sound cruise a big patch of blue had fortunately anchored itself overhead.

For the final section of our route to the finish in Invercargill, we took the road through Southland along Te Waewae Bay and the Gemstone Beach. We didn’t find any obviously valuable gem stones, but we did enjoy the sandy beach with its intriguing hut built into the sand dunes.

The nearby town of Orepuki offers some of the fascination of gold-rush ghost towns in the USA. Here the gold hunters clearly wanted to look their best and one of the boarded up stores in the centre declares “Established 1897. Adamson & Son Outfitters, Drapers, Clothiers”.

There was something a bit odd about having come all this distance only to find that the street names in Invercargill sound so homely – Forth Street, Clyde Street, Tay Street, Tyne Street and many more.

As we found in many places, opening hours are a bit like Britain in the 1960s. Shops close on Saturday afternoon. Restaurants and cafes close early. So it took a bit of a search, but we eventually settled down in a restaurant in Dee Street to reflect on a fascinating adventure.

We can’t wait to go back. But, if there is a next time, we’ll learn our lesson and allow ourselves much more time for the South Island west coast route.
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