Day 9: Cruising for Kea

After the kiwi excitement of the previous night, we slept in for as long as the motel would let us before setting off up the West Coast. Once again, the place failed to live up to it’s reputation as being extremely damp; the weather was sunny skies and high temperatures. Our ultimate destination for the day was Greymouth, the region’s largest town. The drive was fairly uneventful until Hokitika, a small town a little south of Greymouth, passing largely through farmland and hills with a few sections on the coast.

However, though we were near to our goal we had a detour in mind. Despite passing through areas where they live, we hadn’t yet encountered any kea and couldn’t possibly visit the South Island without seeing any! To rectify that, we’d decided to leave the main road and take the westbound route up to Arthur’s Pass, where kea were plentiful and a bit of a tourist attraction. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly as Godzilla had been having trouble with hills…

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The road into the Otira Gorge.

The way started off delightfully. The pass road SH73 went through the town of Kumara (or “Potato”) before continuing into farmland in a wide river valley. The mountain views were great in every direction, but we were gradually heading upwards. At the end of the valley, the river narrowed abruptly and the road changed too, taking a steep and winding path up the river gorge. The fact that large trucks have to use the road to get between Canterbury and Greymouth was a mixed blessing, on one hand it was unnerving to have them pass close on their way downward, but on the other hand the lack of areas to get past the ones going uphill meant at least it wasn’t poor Godzilla holding up traffic! Even so, the punishing gradients– as much as 15%– had us quite worried that we were in for another tow. We stopped at an overlook that had a view of the road passing under a mountain stream to give the engine a rest and assess our options. Realizing we were most of the way up and hopefully past the worst, K decided that she could handle it!

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The Otira Viaduct: they redirected water over the road, as well as built a shelter from rockfalls.

In fact, we were almost on top of one of our targets, the Otira Viaduct overlook. As well as a vista over the Viaduct, this was a location where kea were frequently spotted. Unluckily for us, the mountains and car park were bird-free so we pressed on to Arthur’s Pass township.

The town was a small collection of buildings and a rail station that serves the tourist Tranzalpine, which wasn’t around when we were. It was a little odd to have the Swiss chalet styled buildings and ice warning signs when it was 25 degrees.

Unfortunately, the heat seemed to be keeping away the kea. Signs everywhere warned against feeding them yet we hadn’t seen a single one. We wandered around the small town, had lunch at the cafe, then headed to the iSite to ask about this lack of kea. He said that it was unusually hot today and that the birds would be hanging out in the trees rather than in the exposed town. He was a little surprised that we’d seen none at all and told us that they (naturally) are seen around the cafe. We walked back there and sure enough, there was one very hot looking kea, trying to snag people’s ice cream. As the only one, it was receiving a lot of attention and soon retreated underneath a bush, then hopped across the road.

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It’s not attacking, just panting in the heat.

Still a little disappointed that we’d only seen one unhappy bird rather than a swarm of cheeky tricksters, we said farewell to the town and started driving back down the mountain. As we were leaving, the kea lolloped back across the street in front of our car! Luckily we were going slowly and M was being very cautious for birds and people, so we let it cross safely back to the cafe.

We decided to stop at a trail a short distance out of town and do a bit of hiking, a trail that not coincidentally the ranger at the iSite had identified as a likely spot for another rare bird, rock wrens. We set out, but the heat and the fact it was getting late in the afternoon meant we didn’t cover much of the trail. Although we spotted a mountain stream in a gully and plenty of rocks, none of the rocks had wrens.

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The scenic valley.

Luckily, once we were back in the car the going was much smoother on the downward return, there was even less traffic around which made the frequent one-lane bridges far easier to negotiate. For the steeper sections we were both glad that there was nothing wrong with the brakes. All in all, the pass had been quite an intense experience but I suspect it is no matter what car you’re driving!

Out of the mountains, we retraced our steps back through the valley to rejoin SH6 and soon after reached Greymouth. Our hostel for the night was a welcome sight! It was the Global Village Backpackers, and definitely one of the most neat places we stayed. While the kitchen was small, the entire place (rooms, gardens, bathrooms, everywhere!) was decorated with art from around the world.

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We got the African room, clearly!

The friendly lady at the desk suggested a small nearby takeaway shop for dinner, and so we had a nice dinner of fish and chips. Best of all though, the hostel had a hot tub! For only $5, you could have it all to yourself for an hour. It was a perfect way to unwind after the day’s adventures.

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