Who loves a good surprise?! I used to plan the heck out of every trip, but being a photographer has taught me to take advantage of NZ’s rapidly changing weather, often changing plans at the last minute to experience spectacular and unexpected moments in NZ’s landscapes.
Being able to deal with a go-with-flow travel mentality made the idea of going on a ‘Surprise Kiwi Adventure’ with New Zealand Insight pretty appealing, especially the prospect of exploring somewhere new in NZ. We completed the easy-to-navigate pre-trip survey which gave the team at New Zealand Insight enough information to design an adventure that would be perfect for us to include our natural interests and preferences, and to know where we’d already travelled recently, which is kind of important when you travel as much as I have lately! And then we waited. A week before our adventure we received a pre-departure email with just enough information to let us know what to pack, with our full itinerary to be revealed to us at 7am at Hamilton Airport on the day of our departure.
I had a few excited butterflies arriving at the airport, but a quick text sent and the reply was instant... you’re off on a road trip from Marlborough to Cape Foulwind! For a minute I had to stop and think where that was but then my heart leaped! This meant we’d be based near Westport and the upper West Coast which I’d been dying to explore for years. Perfect!
We flew into Wellington and then onto Blenheim with Sounds Air, picking up our hire car and enjoying a tasty lunch at Wairau River Wines before hitting the road. The drive through miles of vineyards, followed by the winding and scenic route through Buller Gorge made for a fabulous afternoon, and the predicted bad weather didn’t appear until we arrived at Westport. Our accommodation at Omau Settlers Lodge had us staying at the most westerly point in New Zealand according to the owner Lee, but with low cloud putting paid to any sunset hopes, we opted for a soak in their very inviting hot tub instead.
The following morning the low cloud was still around so we were on the road early, heading for the Oparara Arches two hours north of Westport, but not before stopping in at Whanake Gallery for a coffee to fuel the journey. The low cloud provided incredible mood giving us tantalizing glimpses into lush forest and sheer hillsides, and we hoped that it might be clear enough to see the views on the way back.
Once reaching Karamea, the route to the Oparara Arches turns inland following a steep dirt road about 14km up into the hills. It’s not recommended to take campervans or large vehicles on this road as it’s narrow and windy and there are a fair few bumps along the way. We were surprised to find an impressive picnic area with flushing toilets and information boards at our destination, albeit accompanied by the dreaded West Coast sandflies. Oparara is best known for its limestone arches and amazing rust coloured water, a result of tannins created by organic plant matter leaching into the water.
With rain an ever present threat we headed first for the mirror tarn, and were rewarded with pristine reflections and a serene experience before continuing on the loop track to the Moria Gate Arch. It was here that the heavens finally opened and we had to find what shelter we could in the forest. After walking over the arch, we scramble down an entry to the cave below which was much bigger than it looked from the outside, and the bonus was that it was dry!
We spent a good hour here shooting and enjoying this spot all to ourselves before taking the other track to the main Oparara Arch. This arch is about 4 times the size of the Moria Gate Arch and it’s almost better just to enjoy its size as its hard to do it justice in a photo. I did find a wee waterfall to capture on the way though and it was a captivating scene with the green moss and ferns surrounding the rust-coloured water flowing through.
On the drive back to Westport, the low cloud had cleared enough for us to enjoy the elevated views over Karamea Bluff. Lingering here made us a little late for our dinner date at Johnny’s in Westport, but with a warm welcome in spite of our casual attire we felt right at home. Tapas was our choice for dinner and included a plate of whitebait fritters - a must do on the West Coast and we were lucky enough to have them fresh as it’s now nearing the end of the annual season.
Despite heavy rain overnight, the skies cleared enough for us to take a short walk on the Cape Foulwind walkway. We didn’t have time to attempt the whole track, but even the short walk up to the lighthouse provided some incredible views up the coast, and with the clouds hanging about the hills it made for a blue and moody scene.
Heading back through the Buller Gorge we were surprised not to find more rain, somehow it seemed to stay just ahead of us the whole trip. The valleys were looking incredibly lush and green, and I'll admit to stopping a few times to photograph and admire the scenery.
With a little bit of time on our hands, we headed up the Matakitaki valley south of Murchison to explore Six Mile Creek waterfall and weir. The waterway was home to NZ’s oldest power station, and the walk up through the beech forest eerily peaceful except for the odd call of a bellbird breaking the silence.
From here the drive to Blenheim took us back through St Arnaud, where we marvelled at the sight of fresh snow on the mountains, a contrast from 2 days earlier. Despite the inclement weather on our Surprise Kiwi Adventure, we were able to do everything we’d wanted to, and for us going to a NZ location that was completely new (which is a tough ask when I travel so much!) provided so many photographic opportunities that it was our perfect getaway.
If you’re looking for a unique way to explore somewhere new in New Zealand, get in touch with the team at New Zealand Insight. Whether you’re a nature lover, food connoisseur or adrenalin junkie, once you’ve decided on your budget, length of trip and completed the pre-trip survey, they’ll plan an adventure that’s perfect for your particular tastes and interests. There’s never been a better time to do something new in New Zealand!
Disclaimer: We travelled courtesy of New Zealand Insight, however all opinions of our adventure and experience are my own.
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