he Maori were here early and recent
archaeological work has revealed that a series of extensive settlements were in South
Westland in pre-Pakeha days. Jackson Bay (Okahu) was once the centre of a major trading
network in greenstone taken from the Red Hills further south along the Cascade River.
Greenstone was of major importance to the early Maori, both for the
manufacture of ornaments and weapons and also because of its value as a wood-working tool.
The demand for greenstone would have grown in importance when pa began to be built because
even though the palisades could be made with other tools, the detailed carvings inside
could be made only with greenstone.
Far from being the 'mosquito-infested swamp of popular
imagination, Westland is rich in natural resources and has much to offer the visitor.
Among the places to visit around Haast alone are seal and penguin colonies, kahikatea
swamp forest, sand dune forest and the many waterways lined by flax and kowhai. Each of
these has its own unique combination of animals and plants.
Twenty kilometres south of Haast are the Waiatoto Swamps and these are
particularly good for wetland birds. Bitterns are here in good numbers but are hard to
see. However, their distinctive booming can be heard on most summer evenings.
Kiwi in South Westland, as in so many other places, seem to be faring
badly. A number of years ago, volunteers in the Jackson Bay-Haast area heard only two kiwi
calls in 1000 hours of listening and none at all at Okarito - both once kiwi strongholds.
This compares with an area such as north-west Nelson where 10,000 calls were logged in
1000 hours of listening.
The road north between Haast and Fox Glacier follows the beach for the
first 20 kilometres or so. Watch out for little blue penguins, or korara, crossing the
road towards their nesting burrows in the bush, especially in the evenings - they have
abysmal road sense! At Knights Point these are joined by Fiordland crested penguins, and a
colony of these can be heard in the scrub near the shore, adequately protected in the
middle of a clump of giant nettles. The thickly padded coat of the crested penguin makes
it impervious to the vicious spikes of the nettle.
When last down here, we stayed a night in some cabins not far from Lake
Paringa and here I was more aware of the sounds of the night than in any other part of New
Zealand. No sooner had the crickets stopped chirping than the bitterns started booming in
the nearby swamp. This sound, too, faded away, to be replaced by the noise of countless
whistling frogs from all directions, with the green tree frogs adding a deeper resonance
from the ditches and swamp, and moreporks and kiwi calling continuously from the nearby
From Paringa north to the glaciers, the road runs through glorious
country. There are headlands soaring over raging seas far below. There are lonely
driftwood and pebble-covered beaches and tiny gem-like bays where fur seals loaf the day
away. And there are beautiful patches of forest everywhere with the trees swaying gently
in the inshore breezes. Everywhere, too, there are tree ferns.
The side-road up to the Fox Glacier is steep and winding and at most of
the stopping places choruses of bushbirds can be heard. Bellbirds are plentiful and you
may be lucky enough to see a weka. Kea are here, too, and often drop in on parked cars.
Again, watch your windscreen wipers and tyre valves. The glacier itself is spectacular,
perhaps even more so than the Franz Josef Glacier further north - a great 13-kilometre
mass of blue-green ice slowly inching its way towards the sea. Stand at the foot of the
glacier and a solid wall of ice curves away above you.
Another no-exit road runs out to the coast at Gillespies Beach from the
Fox Glacier Headquarters and passes Lake Matheson. Together with Mitre Peak, it is one of
the most photographed spots in New Zealand. From the car park just off the road a
boardwalk leads around the lake and from this rimu, kahikatea, koromoko and lancewood can
be seen with a riotous assemblage of smaller trees and shrubs. Stop anywhere along the
boardwalk and, especially in the early morning, you will hear tui and korimako. Fantails
follow the visitor, not so much for their company as for the bugs the visitors disturb.
Matheson appears suddenly through a leafy curtain and the steps down to a moored raft will
give you the best views of the lake. judging by the enthusiasm with which the Japanese
tourists were using up film, I would estimate that half the slide-evenings in Tokyo and
Nagasaki are devoted to Lake Matheson, all with Mr and Mrs Yakamura smack in the middle of
the picture. On a really clear day the lake and its reflections are so perfect that it is
difficult to tell which way is up in a photograph.
From Lake Matheson there is a walk of a little over an hour to Lake
Gault and, although Matheson is more picturesque, Lake Gault is richer in birdlife. The
great crested grebe can be seen here and in the surrounding bush kaka, riflemen and other
birds are not uncommon.
After Lake Matheson the road continues down to Gillespies Beach, site
of an old gold-mmmg settlement. This beach is wild and covered with an amazing variety of
driftwood. The beach itself is made up of bands of gravel decorated with white, quartz
pebbles and patches of black sand with golden stripes. From the car park take the track
along the beach to the north and this will bring you to the fur seal colony.