OMAU, NEW ZEALAND — Another long day in the car awaited us, as we left Abel Tasman and drove 250 kilometers to Westport on New Zealand’s west coast, passing the northern edge of the Southern Alps.
We knew this was going to be a long day and we had to get an early start, but what really woke us up was the very loud and breathy cry of a pukeko right outside our tent. Just like a rooster, this bird meant business — time to get up.
Last night was warmer, but we had some rain overnight and into the morning. It was still raining lightly when it was time to tear down our tent, so we practiced our take-the-tent-down-in-the-rain technique, which meant removing the tent from underneath the rain fly to keep the interior dry. We were pretty successful, even if it meant a few hushed curses under our breaths.
The Barn campground was nice enough, but we could definitely tell the difference between family and backpacker campgrounds. In New Zealand, Department of Conservation campgrounds tend to be cleaner and family-oriented, and the clientele is more open to having conversations with old folks like us. At this campground, the kids had parties every night until the wee hours, there were live cicadas in the sink because people left the window open overnight and the sinks were clogged with leftover food. It was definitely more “roughing it” than we were used to.
While we were having breakfast on the porch of the kitchen/living area, we did talk to one of the cool dudes. He was the bus driver for a company called Stray, which operates hop-on, hop-off buses that are popular with backpackers. The driver told us it’s mostly younger people, but he has a couple in their 60s on this trip (we felt sorry for them), and today’s destination was Westport. It seems that everybody is on the same circuit with the same stops we are.
By now, it’s a given that any driving involves switchbacks and winding roads, but this day was off to a pretty good start. After the drive over the hills to get back to Motueka, it was a beautiful and mostly straight drive along the Motueka River and then Highway 6.
Since it was a going to be a long day, we decided to stop and stretch our legs at Rotoiti Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park. This park lies on the very northern end of the Southern Alps, and we had seen a documentary on this park on our flight from Hawaii. Apparently, it has a high alpine lake with the cleanest water in the world, by some measurements, with underwater visibility of over 60 meters (197 feet).
A brief stop at the visitor center and we were off for our 1-hour hike around the peninsula that protrudes into the lake. We’re used to the constant hum of cicadas, but here we heard a constant buzz of wasps. These wasps feed off sugar nectar excreted through long, clear tubes by a black fungus that covers tree trunks. Before wasps arrived, the nectar was an important food source for endemic birds. We found out later that these wasps also are very aggressive and attack and kill young birds!
The ranger we talked to was pessimistic about ever getting rid of them, but they’re trying. She said that towards the end of summer, the wasps change their diet from sugar-based to protein-based, and that’s when the DOC starts poisoning them. The poison was likely to be put out within the next 7 days. We were happy, though, to have seen the fungus tubes and nectar drops, that is, until a wasp flew by and lapped it up.
Since the rain clouds seemed to be lifting a bit, we decided to have our picnic lunch by the lake, with a view of the mountains behind it. The only problem was the large number of sand flies. What could have been a nice, relaxed lunch turned into a swatting match in beautiful scenery.
As in every place with tourists, the wildlife is not so wild anymore. Some very tame ducks walked up to us the moment we sat down, and one even snapped at my shoelaces to get my attention. Beth thought I was mean, but I tried a little experiment: Eating from the open bag of potato chips, I walked backwards along the beach. Sure enough, I had an entourage of four ducks waddling after me, looking for handouts. Eventually, I turned around, and so did the ducks — at least for a while. It must have dawned on them that I wouldn’t be sharing my food, so they gave up and harassed someone else.
Back on the road, we were now following the Buller River. We’d heard there were whitewater rafting trips, but we were never able to find an outfitter. That had changed in Nelson, when we saw brochures for rafting trips out of Murchison, which was the next stop on our route. To reach Murchison, we had to drive through the Upper Buller Gorge, which was an extremely scenic drive with occasional views of the river below. It reminded us of our biking trip along the Inn River in Switzerland, where the gorge was just wide enough for the road and river.
In Murchison, we stopped for coffee and to get gas. At the coffee shop, we ran into the German couple from Momorangi campground for the third time. They, too, were on their way to Westport.
Onward, we had to drive through the Lower Buller Gorge, which was even more dramatic. The road was now again winding, and at certain passages, it narrowed to a one-way road, with lights on either end controlling traffic flow. It felt like a very intimate drive, and the next time we visit the area, we’ll make sure to book a rafting trip.
Once we were through the gorge, the land opened up into a coastal flat, and it was just a short distance to Westport. It lacked a certain charm other towns had. Maybe it was the drizzly weather or the plain architecture, but we didn’t immediately warm to the town, so we didn’t spend much time and drove to our destination, Omau Settlers Lodge on Cape Foulwind (what a name), about 15 kilometers away.
After a load of laundry, there still was time to visit the nearby seal colony. We didn’t expect much, as we had seen colonies in Oregon, from far away, and we had just seen them up close kayaking. But it was a very interesting experience. The viewing platform was right above the colony, so we had great views of the seals.
Most of them were just vegging out, but the youngsters were quite active, hopping among the rocks, jumping into the water. It was a fun 30 minutes watching the goings-on. The surf was pretty rough, and we were able to watch a fur seal (biologically, better called a sea lion) trying to get ashore. It was being battered around pretty well; it made it into a channel, then surfed the waves, then was smashed into another rock until it finally made it into a calm pool and jumped out. I pitied the poor thing, as it was such a production to get ashore. If it was me, I know I’d be staying put for a while. Maybe that’s why all the adults were just lounging on the rocks?