Published Oct 12, 2009

We left Christchurch driving in the opposite direction of Kaikoura, not that we were sad to do so with the rain and cold coming down from the north. Originally, the plan was to take the legendarily spectacular TranzAlpine train to cross the Southern Alps, but they’re doing track maintenance while we’re in the country, so we drove the route instead — and I can hardly imagine that it was much less spectacular. Our destination was an overnight stop at Punakaki, home of the famous Pancake Rocks, and another overnighter at the Franz Josef Glacier.

Arthur’s Pass

Our route West took us across the Southern Alps, which tower over the New Zealand vista. The route through is via Arthur’s Pass, a road that winds up the Eastern face and then down the Western face of the Alps.

Mostly two-lane road with one-lane bridges, we were lucky that we had sunny, clear weather to get over this road, instead of the rain, snow, and hail that we had at Hanmer just a little bit to the north.

At the top of the pass we stopped for coffee and saw a very sassy kea steal some other tourists’ food.

Punakaki & the Pancake Rocks

When we broke out of the mountains and the ocean opened up in front of us, sun shining, we knew we were in for something different than what we’d seen on the East coast. Our first stop was the seaside hamlet of Punakaki — I was actually tempted to alliterate and call it a sleepy seaside hamlet, but there wasn’t enough going on to call it sleepy — where we stopped at the adorable beachside Punakaki Resort for a night.

After a bracing gin martini, to wash away the day’s drive, we walked up the street a few hundred meters1 to the famous Pancake Rocks, sedimentary rocks with very visible layers that are supposed to look like stacked pancakes (they didn’t make me hungry). I actually tried my hand at taking some pictures with a person in them at the Pancake Rocks. What with being on a vacation and all Mrs. DJ L’il Bit thought it would be a good idea, tell me how it turned out.

The next day we walked down the Truman Track to the shore, to see some seaside cave. Unfortunately I dallied trying to get a few shots and we were driven back by the rising tide. Fortunately, we’d checked out the entrance to the Xanadu Cavern the day before, being driven back only by our lack of a flashlight in this case, so we got a little cave in.

Franz Josef Glacier

After a blessedly short zip down the coast, we made it to the wet, cold, and adorably Alpine hamlet of Franz Josef. This time we shook off the drive with a soak and massage in the Glacier Hot Pools. Unlike the Hanmer Hot Springs, the Glacier Hot Pools look exactly like the photos on their Web site, and the massage was decadent.2

The next morning, after turning on every single heating device in our room, we took a quick walk up to the Franz Josef Glacier. After breaking through the rainforest canopy — yes, the glacier is right next to rainforest — we walked across a deceptively-sized, gravelly glacial morane, up to where we could almost touch the glacier.

That distance ahead? It’s more than a kilometer.

Unfortunately, the glacier is not stable or developed enough to go on without a guide, so that was as close as we got, but it was pretty awesome to get that close.

Unfortunately, while the drive from Punakaki to Franz Josef was relatively short and easy, the trip from Franz Josef to Wanaka was tough — advertised as 3 hours, it ended up taking closer to 5. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

1 It’s funny, having some idea how long a kilometer is doesn’t turn out to be that hard, but even with a meter about a yard, any sign giving distance in meters leaves me scratching my head as to how far I have to go.

2 The only cranky person we’ve met so far in New Zealand was at the massage desk at Hanmer Hot Springs. The summer season was just starting, but for her it was clearly already over.