West Side Story

In just a few hours we went from mountains and lakes to the beach and rain forest. It really does look quite tropical here – many of the plants and trees that grow here are closely related to the tropical plants that they resemble. The New Zealand rain forest offers you the best of both worlds – you get to spend as much time as you like walking around admiring the plants and you don’t have to worry about puma pouncing on you and ripping your throat out or a snake or poisonous spider dropping from the canopy to deal you a fatal bite. That’s because there is nothing in New Zealand that can kill you. The most you have to worry about in the rain forest is a bird crapping on your head or a fly biting you. It’s all very safe. Of course, there is one drawback to the rain forest, which I’ll come to later on.

Our first full day on the west coast we pulled into a town called Fox Glacier. It isn’t just a clever name as the town is the location of the Fox Glacier. It’s a very tiny town which looks to exist mostly for tourists’ sake and for cows. After lunch (ham and cheese sandwiched with salt and vinegar chips – great combination) we headed to the glacier access trail that was not as exciting as one might have hoped. The hike to the terminal face that was supposed to be a one hour return was not really. And because of the danger of being crushed by what looked to be giant falling cornflakes from the warning sign, we couldn’t get any closer. We decided to hike to the chalet lookout point which promised spectacular views of the glacier and that turned out to be much more exciting. We started off slowly wandering through the rain forest. The giant ferns are pretty marvelous, I must say. By the time we reached the stream crossing it started to hail. What the hell? It was all nice and sunny when we left. It wasn’t so bad, so we continued across and up to the lookout. By the time we got there hail was dumping from the sky. We took a few quick pictures and decided it was time to head back – quickly. Hail really is an absurd thing to behold. It was pinging all over the place bouncing off rocks and trees in all directions looking like someone had just emptied a huge box of tiny styrofoam balls on us. We were fairly soaked by the time we got back in the van, but by the time we got back into town about 5 kilometers away, the weather was fine.

We debated whether or not we should try to get to Gillespie’s Beach since the DOC pamphlet said that the road was not suitable for campervans. But I really wanted to do the walk to the Galway Beach seal colony, so we decided to see what would happen. The sign only said “narrow road” and nothing about forbidding campervans. Adam proceeded slowly up the road and realized that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, he boasted, “I would take a full sized motorhome up here.”

We got there with no problems and found that no one else had heeded the warnings either. Gillespie’s Beach was breathtaking. The sun was shining off of the water and the beach stretched as far as you could see in both directions. The rocks were littered with large pieces of wood that stood purposefully like sculptures. And behind us were several snow-capped mountain ranges looking again like backdrops placed there for our viewing pleasure. The sun set showing off the deep dark blue of the sea and leaving a brilliant orange glow on the horizon and a faint rosy pink on the mountains. It was a little chilly that night, but who cares?

I was promised seals by the information sheet that described the hike that we would do in the morning as, “3 hour 30 minute walk from Gillespie’s Beach to the seal colony at Galway Beach.” Yessssss. We had seen a few seals at Milford Sound, but a colony? This was going to be good. We hiked for over an hour through rain forested area. Now here comes the drawback of the rain forest in New Zealand – it’s boring after a while. There isn’t much variety: fern, fern, giant fern, kie kie, fern fern fern. And with nothing to keep you on your toes, it’s not all that interesting. The hike was muddy and wet and I was starting to lose my patience. When we finally got near the end of the trail, Adam looked over the edge and said, “There aren’t any seals.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. No frigging seals? I peered over myself and saw nothing. “Are you going to cry?” asked Adam with a slightly incredulous tone to his voice.

“No,” I said.

Not now I’m not.

Anyone who knows me well knows that if animals are promised, they had better be delivered. After riding the cogwheel train up and taking the gondola down the fabulous Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland and seeing spectacular views of the mountain and the town I said to the tour guide, “Excuse me, but on this brochure I see mountain goats and I didn’t see any on the way up or down. Can you tell me why that is?”

So no seals was a major disappointment especially since we still had to get down the face of a very steep cliff that I noted with chagrin, I was going to have to climb up again later. We got down onto the beach and after a few minutes of walking we saw a couple of seals perched on a rock a little ways out in the water. Big deal. We continued to walk up the beach not paying much attention and then a little seal, eyes bulging with panic went flopping across the rocks into the ocean. Apparently we had disturbed his nap on the rocks and by the time he got to the ocean’s edge I swear I could see a look of contempt on his face. It’s funny how humans react when they realize that they have disturbed an animal and wish to put the animal at ease. “It’s OK little guy, we aren’t going to hurt you. Sorry.”

Of course we forget that, to a seal, we might as well be saying, “It’s OK. I just want to cut you into little pieces and make a stew,” and expect our words to be comforting. A little further up and we saw another baby seal this time flopping up towards the rocks. He lasted a bit longer, but he too decided it was safer to take to the water. We were about to turn around and head back when all of a sudden, after one step too far, the entire seal colony came bursting from the rocks and made a break for the ocean. Wanting to reverse this hasty mass seal exodus, we ran the other way which encouraged most of the seals to stop and head back to the rocks. Some of them stayed alert on the rocks watching us to make sure we weren’t coming back. We watched them at a distance for a while. Two babies played at the edge of the water and we took pictures of some of the adults that couldn’t be bothered to get out of our way. Galway Beach seal colony had delivered after all.

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