Thoughts on the Westlands


Crossing over the Haast Pass we officially arrived in the Westlands, the Western coast of the South Island here in New Zealand. To say it’s a different sort of place would be an understatement. I’m pretty sure I’m not tough enough to live here.

The region averages 70 – 100 inches of rain a year. Seattle or Porlandiers might not mind it, but you have to love the wet. The entire region is home to only 32,000 people, so if you want to get away from it all or drop off the radar entirely, this is the place to be.

Sandflies, or midgies as the locals call them, are everywhere. The size of a tiny gnat, these devil-spawn bite incessantly, leaving welts on any exposed skin. Interestingly though, it’s only the females that bite. The males are content to spend their days sucking on nectar and maybe hoping for a little action. The females make life miserable for anyone not wearing full-length clothing. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere, although I’m failing to understand it at the moment. Abel Tasman was the first white man to visit here in 1642. The Maori canoed out to greet him and promptly killed 6 of his men. I think the Maori were taking out their aggressions after a particularly rough night with the sandflies.

Given the sparseness of the population, things like internet or cell service are dicey at best. We take our 4G connectivity for granted, but down here cellular connectivity only exists in a couple of towns. Wi-fi is spotty and typically charged by the megabyte. We rarely have connectivity solid enough to do much useful.

Tiny little towns line the main road along the coast. Calling them one-horse towns would be optimistic. The horse ran away ages ago. Most bridges are one-lane, with traffic control basically done on the honor system.

And yet…the beauty of the place is simply astounding. One moment you’re in dense, lush rainforest. The next you’re on the ocean. Impossibly green mountains jut straight up from the valleys, giving views that would seem to only exist in a watercolor painting. The rainfall has made the local rivers come alive, with raging torrents one day and trickling streams the next.

Glaciers are viewable from the road (although the weather has yet to make that visible). Two of them can be visited by helicopter.

Milford Sound reflects the glacial impacts on the land. It or Doubtful Sound are not to be missed. It’s simply breathtaking.

Sheep are everywhere, with cattle filling in the remaining grazing land. They come right up to the fences alongside the road, at least until Terry barks at them and they run away.

There is a near-universal politeness to the people we meet, with odd locals adding in some flavor. The places we stay are quirky, reflecting the rough-hewn nature of the place. No Marriotts here, which is just fine. Every place we’ve stayed has it’s own charm and it’s own challenges, which seems entirely appropriate.

In our world of universal fast food, instant access to all of the world’s information, and the elimination of most of the challenges which defined life up until the last few decades, this place is a throwback –  To an era of struggle, hardship, and self-sufficiency. To trusting your neighbor (our current place didn’t bother with locking the doors). To being much more a part of nature rather than an occasional observer of it.

This has been a remarkable journey so far. I’m sure many more adventures await.