Sunday, January 4, 2009
The West Coast
If it wasn’t for the West Coast I wouldn’t know what all the fuss was about New Zealand. Sure the people are nice, the mountains alright – but boy, there’re a lot of sheep. And it’s nice that NZ feels like America in the 60s. People take time to stop and talk. The highways are small and slow down for each little town. The towns themselves are filled with locally run businesses and the odd NZ chain, but there’s little of that god-awful homogeneity and globalization that’s spread across the US like crabgrass.
Highway 6 runs north from Westport, a two-lane highway with single lane bridges that hugs the coast like a tightly knit sweater. Mountains rise from the craggy coastline steeply, the views reminding us of windward Oahu or Maui. The Tasman Sea’s waters break against sea stacks and islands like the Pacific breaks against Oregon and Northern California. But of course you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, turning on the wind shield wipers when you meant to signal to pull over to a cobble beach for a of bit tide-pooling. The road signs warn of penguin crossings and palm trees grow on the flats. It’s that old NZ tropics and ice again, but with a distinctly maritime flavor, and you know that Twain got it right.
The neatest part of the coast for me are the wind-sculpted forests, ablaze in early summer red bottle bush blossoms of the northern rata (a close relative of Hawaii’s ohia lehua native tree), and the silly-named but fantastic “Pancake Rocks” near Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park.
The pancake rocks are made of ancient marine sediments, likely laid down 30 million years ago in the Oligocene, when New Zealand was nearly drowned. These are no short stacks, but big sea stacks, soft sea cliffs with terns nesting on their sides and a broad array of native plants, like the limp-leafed, agave-looking flax (used by ancient Maori for making clothes among other things) and Joshua-tree-esque cabbage trees. There’s a wonderful walk that winds through a short piece of rainforest and wind swept flax flats to lookouts over blow-holes and sea-arches, sea stacks and walls of pancakes.
It’s popular without being crowded, well-interpreted without being touristy.
“This place is great – you just want to go out and climb on the rocks,” commented Jazz the rock climber.
“But the rock looks really crumbly,” observed Peggy.
Elsewhere along the coast we found cobbles polished by the ocean, and boulders carved by the waves into seats fit for the Museum of Modern Art. We walked sandy beaches with black oyster catchers. Like the highways, there was no trash on these beaches, no flotsam, no jetsam, not even polished glass.
“100% pure NZ,” said the tourist brochures, and beyond the sheep and the cattle and the deer behind ten foot fences, it was true – until we reached the far north of the west coast and the homemade signs, “Stop the Drop – No 1080!” started appearing.
It seems awkward, to say the least, that a place that prides itself on organic growth, clean water and air, a place with essentially NO litter – would drop a poison (1080 or Sodium fluoroacetate) with no known antidote almost indiscriminately from the air in an effort to kill rats, deer, rabbits, and possums.