Before leaving Westport we drove into the town to do some shopping and see if there was an internet café there. It was a rainy day with grey clouds hugging the hills making them invisible. If it did not clear up we would not be getting many good views on our drive north today. We found an internet shop that also repaired bike; we were not very successful in getting our laptop on to their system but we were able to leave our bikes for a service. After being exposed to the rain, sun and dust of Australia they badly needed someone to show them a little bit of care and attention. We need them ready for when we feel the urge to stop the van and get on them to ride up some of these lovely mountains.
So arranging to call back again on Friday or Saturday when we returned from Karamea, we set off to find a place to pull in to have lunch, and spying a road sign pointing to the beach we turned down the road indicated. We travelled quite a bit but saw no further signs or indeed any beach. Now we had to find our way back to Highway 67, which we did with no problems, as most of the towns are built on the grid system. We thought we would find a nice viewing spot to pull into. That is one thing we have found lacking over here, viewing spots at the side of the road. Perhaps it is because all the roads we have travelled on so far have all had so many views that it would be hard to decide where to site a viewing spot. Who decides which view is better than the next one?
We eventually found a spot and pulled over, it was not exactly the best spot, right by the train lines but we were so hungry by now it did not really matter. Whilst there a coal train passed us by heading for Westport and then across country to the Port of Lyttelton to then be shipped to the Far East. It was a reminder that we are in a coal mining area where back in the early to mid 1900's the small communities we would pass through were bustling townships producing coal. Today only one mine remains working at Stockton, and this is NZ's largest operational coalmine.
The drive north on SH67 is a fine road, pressed against the rocky shoreline by hills smothered in vegetation and crosses a number of rivers. After passing the township of Little Wanganui the road began to twist and turn as it climbed up over Karamea Bluff through rata and matai forest, but very little views of the coast, or anything else today in the mist. Once over the bluff the road ran along the shoreline where the Tasman Sea waves crashed up onto the beach. We reached our chosen campsite and pulled in; this one had been recommended to us by fellow motorhome club members.
Whilst Jeff was connecting all the wires to the van I set off to answer a call of nature and on the way met Heather, Keith and Lucy (the dog). As we had been pulling in to our site Lucy had been the welcoming committee, barking away at us, but now she was sitting in the sun ignoring me. Keith and Heather are from Kaikoura, where we had stayed with Marie and Rosemary, so it was good to be able to talk knowledgably about somewhere we had visited. They have been at Karamea for three months catching whitebait. It seems most of the residents on this site are here for the whitebait and each night when the days catch is brought home they are all busy getting it frozen.
After a coffee and a chat we set off for a walk down to the creek and then out onto the estuaries, where we met more whitbaiters busy with their nets. We were invited to join the group for 'happy hour' in the camp TV lounge and here we met many of the sites residents. We were made very welcome and given lots of tips and ideas of places to visit on our travels.
Wednesday morning we drove into the town, did some shopping and then called at the information centre to enquire about a trip to the Oparara Basin and the Honeycomb Hill Caves and Arch. The lady informed us that they were waiting for a gentleman who was a writer for the Lonely Planet Guide books to arrive, but was not sure if he would turn up. She suggested we call back at 11am and if there was no trip she would book us one for tomorrow. We called back and it was arranged we would be taken up tomorrow, so with this news we set off to drive a further 10 mile north to Kohaihai, in the Kahurangi National Park.
This is the commencement of the Heaphy Track, one of NZ's great walks. It is 51 miles long and takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete it; signs at the start inform you that you must book your hut stays in advance. From Kohaihai it is possible to undertake a number of small walks and we followed the track up over the hill passing by magnificent fern trees as far as Scotts Beach; a stretch of costal scenery. I must be improving with my kidney complaint as although still in some pain I can now at least walk, today we managed 4 ½ miles. On the way we met some young travellers who were just completing the full walk.
Thursday morning we met our guide Chris and set off for our tour. She took us around the town giving us a bit of its history and pointing out local places of interest. Karamea had once been a busy port area in 1874, when sea travel had been the only means of getting to this area. It had been populated by people from the Shetland isles and Bedfordshire, a diverse group I would imagine who had to clear the land and begin to farm it. They had been given plots of land with the promise of more later, but what they had been given was so poor and with little drainage they demanded the second land be given to them before they all starved. The next lot of land proved to be very fertile and so the community flourished. The land at one side of the river was known as 'the land of promise' whilst the other side as 'the promised land'.
The road up to the Oparara Basin and the caves is a nine mile, winding gravel road that can be rough and not recommended for campervans, and on our journey up Chris pointed out all the different trees and birds that we saw, making it very interesting. At the car park we met up with Brett, who would be joining us for the Honeycomb Cave trip. He is a writer for the Lonely Planet and researching this area for the next book to be published. We were also met by a Weka, who Chris informed us would be back when we had lunch looking for tit bits. The caves are only accessible by guided tour and they contain some notable limestone formations, but they are world famous for their collection of Moa bones and those of other extinct birds.
The walk up to the cave passes through nice forest and we had just started this walk when Chris pointed out a pair of Blue Ducks with 4 ducklings. She told us that these ducks are on the list of highly endangered species in NZ and that we were very lucky to see them today. We watched for a while as the parents marshalled their young away from the danger they thought we might pose, before continuing on our way. Once again Chris pointed out the plants and birds as we walked along, she also showed us some shells from the Powelliphanta-the carnivorous snails which live in the bush around here and can grow up to 3 inches across. Wow, we have dodged large saltwater crocs in Australia now we have to dodge carnivorous snails, is nowhere safe?
We reached the caves and turned on our headlamps, attached to our helmets, and set off. All the caves we have been in before have man made walkways and electric lights. If you want a bit of excitement you pay extra, get a boiler suit and go in to places the normal trips don't go. This cave experience felt a bit like I imagine those trips to be but without the boiler suit. There was no man made path, we scrambled up and down rocks, in some places having to heave ourselves up and slide on our bottoms down, if small legged. The only lights were from our headlamps or the large torch that Chris carried. It was one of the best experiences I have had and it was amazing to think that these caves stretched for over 9 miles. We saw many bones from both the giant and small Moa, now an extinct species of bird. Later on we were treated to some glow worms twinkling away at close quarters. On our return journey we stopped for another look at the Blue Ducks.
Lunch was a huge sandwich and entertainment by a pair of Weka birds and their two chicks. One was up in the back of the car looking to see what there was to eat. Chris said if you put your coffee cup down they will come and drink from it. After lunch we said good-by to Brett, and Chris then took us to view the Oparara Arch, a large limestone arch 650 ft long and 120 ft high spanning the Oparara River. The walk down had been through old growth forest and followed the river. Chris said we might see the other pair of blue ducks but we were not so lucky.
Back at the camp site we were invited to join our fellow campers at one of the caravan's for 'happy hour'. At one point in the proceedings Jeff made an entrance with Squeaker the monkey, and frightened the three dogs. The two Westies soon gave up but Lucy was not for having that silly monkey about and tried her best to climb up to get it. It caused a lot of merriment and plenty of photographs were taken. There is one thing for sure wherever we go we always make a lasting impression.
Tomorrow we will leave and return back to Westport. We have enjoyed our stay here and it has felt more like being at a motorhome rally than on a commercial caravan park as we have been made so welcome by everyone.