Road Trip South Island: Great Coast Road

It was sad to say goodbye to Abel Tasman, but we had to keep moving south. We picked up a new passenger when we left The Barn, Josefin from Germany. She was hoping to get down the coast to Hokitika, and we were going to Greymouth just an hour closer on the same road, so she jumped in the car with us. And as things go in NZ, we ended up all continuing to Hokitika and staying together through Glacier Country, then reuniting in Queenstown. I can now add Josi to the list of people who have meant a lot to my experience and I hope to see again in life. In fact I will see her again in about a month, she lives near Melbourne now.

This was another day dedicated to driving, but it was supposedly on one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The stretch between Westport and Greymouth is known as the Great Coast Road and was rated among the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world by Lonely Planet. Obviously this meant we were excited to see what it would look like, but the weather didn’t seem to care: rain and clouds the whole way. It didn’t matter though really, in any weather the landscape would be impressive. When we reached the coast we saw rows of waves starting far out into the ocean and crashing into the rocky coastline in succession. I think the stormy weather actually may have enhanced our impression, it made it a little more ominous and less normally beautiful.

We stopped halfway at Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks. These rock formations have been carved over centuries, with the result of looking like stacked pancakes, or as a friend pointed out like laser cut models (so true). The lines were so perfect they almost looked fake. And then to make this place look even less real, there was jungle on the hillside behind us. It was so crazy to see stormy ocean on one side of the rocks and then jungle on the other side.

So was the Great Coast Road one of the most beautiful drives? Honestly, no. As far as coastal drives go, I think Big Sur is better and Josi said the Great Ocean Road by Melbourne definitely beats it. For NZ drives, the stretch between Haast and Wanaka is the most scenic to me so far. Considering we wanted to go to the glaciers anyway it was worth driving this route, but it didn’t need more time than just the afternoon.

An interesting thing about driving down the West Coast of NZ, or driving around NZ in general, is the one lane bridges. For some reason there are bridges everywhere that only have one lane, even though they serve two way roads. So one direction has to yield to the other or you’ll collide head-on in the middle. One of the bridges we crossed was for two directions of traffic and a train – the tracks ran straight down the middle. I found this baffling and also nerve-racking, at least at first. Why not just build a second lane? This also happens on some mountain roads when there isn’t enough pavement for two lanes, and sometimes you can’t really see around the bend but hope you got it right. In really long or blind stretches there are lights controlling who goes to make sure no one collides. Just another quirky Kiwi thing.

The rain didn’t let up as we drove past dreary-looking Greymouth, so we kept going to Hokitika. We spent the night in the hostel with frozen pizza, wine, and two Lord of the Rings movies. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was a night we all said was a highlight of the road trip. Something about just hanging out with new friends in the middle of nowhere in coastal NZ while a storm rages outside stuck with us all. Josi’s original plan for Hokitika was to walk the beach looking for jade stone but the weather didn’t want that to happen, so she decided to keep going with us. The next morning we all departed for Glacier Country, and a whole new jaw-dropping landscape.

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