Making sense of my photography hobby in retirement

West Coast

No, it’s a dog!

Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

It’s interesting how we humans try to see shapes of things we know in the features that nature present to us.  Does that cloud look like a bird? Or, that mountain looks like Queen Victoria lying in state, you can tell by the nose. Here at Punakaiki the shape that nature presents to me is a dog, but you may see something else.

Punakaiki is on the road between Westport and Greymouth (or is that between Greymouth and Westport, because it is closer to the former?) and is a geological feature of stratified rock formations created more than 30 million years ago.  The feature is known as the Pancake Rocks.  That’s not unusual really.  There’s that shapes in nature thing again.

Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Punankaiki is actually the nearest village to the rock formation at Dolomite Point in the Paparoa National Park.  The pancakes are formed from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants that landed on the seabed some 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify into hard and soft layers. Gradually seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed and mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the bizarre shapes seen today.

Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

In wild weather, which is very common on the West Coast, the blowholes that form part of the Pancake Rocks are said to be spectacular.  Unfortunately in all the visits I have had to the area over the years I have never seen them in action in any serious way.

Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

The rocks rare are a very popular West Coast tourist attraction and on a good day the walking paths provided and maintained by the Department of Conservation are busy with people trying to get the best views.

I still think its a dog!


Boom Town

It is hard to envisage in 2013 that the Westland town of Hokitika was once one of the most important towns in New Zealand.  Today its economy relies on the surrounding dairy farms that feed the Westland Cooperative Dairy Factory, and tourism-based ventures. In 1866 however, Hokitika was the second biggest town in New Zealand after Auckland.  Gold had been discovered on the West Coast in 1864 and the town grew rapidly as people flooded into the area to seek their fortunes.  On one day in 1867 it was reported that 41 vessels were tied up at the Hokitika wharf, with more waiting off shore.  How times have changed.

Clock Tower, Hokitika, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Ever since my first visit to the town way back in the 1960s I have been fascinated by the connection of the town with Andrew Carnegie.  How could this rich American philanthropist have become aware of and have an interest in this far-flung isolated town in a distant corner of the southern Pacific Ocean?  On a corner, one block away from the main street of Hokitika, is a grand building with “Free Public Library” emblazoned across the frieze above the columns at the entrance.  It’s in that sign that the connection is made.

Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the iron and steel business.  While still a boy working in his father’s cotton milling business, he and other boys working in the mill were granted free access the library of a local businessman. Carnegie became an avid reader devoured most of the 400 books in the collection.  After he sold his steel milling business to banker J P Morgan in 1901 for $200 million, he set out on his philanthropic endeavors.  In recognition of the help received from free access to books in his youth, Carnegie established a grant system to assist towns and cities in the English-speaking world to build library buildings on condition that access to and lending of books was free.  Eighteen such libraries were built in New Zealand, including the one in Hokitika which was opened in 1908.

West Coast Memorial Museum, Hokitika, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

The building ceased to be a library in April 1975. It was later restored and reopened in May 1998 as home to the West Coast Historical Museum. So that’s how Andrew Carnegie came to be connected to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

In researching for this post I discovered another interesting fact about Hokitika.  It has a digital 3D cinema, in a town with a  population of  just 3,078 (2006 census), plus another 828 people in the surrounding district.  The Art-Deco Regent Cinema was built in 1936 and has served the town ever since.  When in 1975 it was threatened with demolition due to its state of repair and lack of patronage, a group of concerned citizens lobbied for its retention and formed a trust for its preservation.  Funds were raised to refurbish the building back to its Art-Deco heritage style and it has been turned into a successfully functioning cinema again – a digital 3D cinema to boot.

Regent Theatre, Hokitika, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

So there you have it, a boom town of the 19th century is booming again in the 21st century (albeit in a much different way).

Rugged Westland

Coastal Westland is a pretty rugged and sparsely populated place. Between Haast in the south and Hokitika in the north there are few towns and a thinly spread population.

“The District consists of a long thin strip of land between the crest of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. The low-lying areas near the coast are a mixture of pastoral farmland and temperate rainforest. The eastern part of the District is steep and mountainous. Many small rivers flow down from the mountains.

The southern part of the District notably contains the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.

Westland is one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country, with an area of 11,880.19 square kilometres and a population of 8,403 people (2006 census). Approximately 45% of the population lives in Hokitika (popn.3500). The remaining 55% lives in small villages such as Ross, Franz Josef and Haast, or in rural areas”. Wikipedia

From Wanaka we travelled beside Lake Hawea and over the Haast Pass to reach the West Coast at the mouth of the  Haast River. Our destination for the night was Fox Glacier Village, from where we planned to visit the nearby Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers.


Some 25 km north of Haast is the Arthur’s Point lookout from where views of the Tasman Sea and the coastline can be seen.

In the year I left high school I hitch-hiked around the South Island of New Zealand with a friend. It was almost a right of passage between high school and university.  We had travelled down the West Coast to Lake Mapourika, which at the time was almost the end of the road.  To join up with the road from Haast to Wanaka we had to walk the newly formed but far from finished section of the road from the lake to Arthur’s Point, a distance of about 10 km in wet sticky mud.  In the distance we could hear heavy road building machinery.  As the time ticked far too slowly towards “knock off time” of 5.00 pm we were afraid we would miss any chance of a ride to Haast and have to sleep the night in the bush.  At last gasp we reached the work party just as they were packing up to leave for the night.  Happily we flopped onto the back of a truck for the final leg of the day’s journey.

Heading north from Arthur’s Point the road travels inland for a distance before touching the coast again at Bruce Bay, a rugged pebbly beach strewn with driftwood. If you like rugged storm-lashed beaches, this is the place to be. It was fine on the occasion of our visit, but it is easy to imagine the chaos when a south-westerly storm is raging – cold, wind-blasted, with wild surf and horizontal rain!


At the northern end of the bay the trees stand defensively against the weather, stripped of their lower branches and clinging to the eroding boundary between land and beach.


You have to be hardy to live in these parts.  It’s little wonder that the coasters have that steely weather worn look  that comes from living everyday with the elements.

Click on any image for a larger view.

Information …

Wooden Jetty, Okarito, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

The sign on the shed said Information, but none was to be found. So, instead of taking information, I took this photograph. The shed was on a jetty at the edge of the lagoon at Okarito, a small coastal settlement on the South Westland coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Okarito Lagoon is a coastal lagoon that covers an area of about 12 square kilometers, the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand.  The lagoon is home of many species of wading birds, notably the extremely rare (in New Zealand) Kotuku (Eastern Great Egret). Okarito is the Kotuku’s only New Zealand breeding place. Wikipedia

The jetty is at the southern end of the lagoon. Okarito was originally a gold mining township of over 1,500 people – it is now permanent home to only about 30 residents. Apart from housing the locals, the settlement also has a small number of holiday cottages.

On the day we visited, the settlement was pretty deserted. Only a small number of kayakers were evident, getting ready to paddle up the lagoon in the hope of sighting some Kotuku – possibly in vain as kayaks are not allowed into the nesting reserve established by the Department of Conservation to protect the Kotuku’s habitat. There is a possibility of sighting birds outside the reserve however, but the numbers are small and resident only between September and march.Visits to the reserve are possible only by an officially sanctioned tour.

This view rather appealed to me, The jetty had that old weather-beating look that photographers crave for. Sure, it looks like its been renovated recently (for safety reasons no doubt), but the essence of the original is still very evident. (Click on the image for a larger view).

Receding Iceline

I was just eighteen years old when I first visited the two big glaciers on the western side of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. New Zealand scenic calendars and the covers of school stationery had depicted images of the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers all through my childhood.  At that time the terminal moraine of the Fox Glacier could be seen through a window behind the alter table in the village Anglican church. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Fox Glacier, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Fox Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacer, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Franz Joseph Glacer – Note the size of the people

When I first visited the area in 1964 the glaciers were more than a kilometer further down their respective valleys than they are today.  Because they are susceptible to climate change and terminate close to sea level in a temperate climate, they tend to advance and recede quite rapidly.  The glaciers began receding in the 1930s but reversed their flow in 1985, since which they have been advancing at the rate of about one meter per week. Now the build-up at the face of the glaciers creates  vertical  overhanging faces which are continually collapsing, making them dangerous to approach.

The valleys down which the glaciers flow at just 25 km apart, allowing both to be easily visited in one day.

Striding Out

I have a bit of a fun image today. In the summer of 2012 our eldest son and his wife visited us from Canada, where they live. Together we toured part of the South Island of New Zealand.  The specifically wanted to take in some of the popular sites of Westland, including both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.

Striding Out, Franz Joseph Glacier, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Franz Joseph Glacier

It was on the walk from the car park to the glacier face that I captured this image. David is a keen outdoors person, and particularly loves the mountains. In order to capture the scene I asked him to walk across the bridge.  Just to be different, he decided to approach the task with this exaggerated stride. I bit different from your normal scenic shot of a popular tourist attraction, don’t you think?

Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day …

Its one of those wet and dreary days in Auckland today.  The rain has been dribbling down all day and the sky is leaden gray. A heavy rain warning was issued at midday for the next three hours. Two hours have gone but the rain continues to dribble.  Could be worse, I suppose!

In order to cheer myself up I have worked on another image of Lake Mathieson to remind myself that there is a different kind of weather. God knows, we need the rain but it has been hanging around for nearly a week now.

Mirror Image, Lake Mathieson, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

As you can see, it was a beautiful morning when we visited the lake for its famed reflections of the Southern Alps, especially Aoraki Mount Cook on the left.  As it is on the itinerary of all the coaches that travel the West Coast tourist route, we made sure we got there early.  Even so, there is always someone there before you, but that’s OK. I love mornings like this when the air is still cool and the breeze hasn’t yet broken through.  However, even as we walked around the lake the breeze began to arrive as the morning air warmed.

Mirror Image

Lake Mathieson, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Over the last few months a number of my posts commented on the long dry summer we had experienced in New Zealand and how everyone was looking forward to some rain to relieve the drought.  I guess one shouldn’t wish too hard because we now have an autumn that has brought plenty of the wet stuff. along with some more southerly temperatures.  I know this may sound strange for all who live north of the equator, but down here we live in an upside-down world.

So, what’s this all to do with the above image? Well, Lake Mathieson is situated on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, just west of Aoraki Mount Cook, our highest mountain. That’s the left peak of the two in the photograph.  This part of New Zealand is also known for being the one of the wettest regions in the country, with South Westland having an annual rainfall, ranging from 3400–4900 mm ( approximately 135 – 195 inches) in the lowlands.

Fortunately it doesn’t rain all the time in Westland, and on mornings when the skies are clear and there is no wind Lake Mathieson presents itself as a mirror to reflect the Southern Alps just for photographers like me.

Misty Marvel

The road between Otira and Arthur’s Pass in the South Island’s Southern Alps used to be narrow, winding and dangerous, often prone to avalanches, slips and closures.  It was always spectacular.  In order to eliminate some of the challenges of driving the route between the small (former) railway settlement of Otira and the Arthur’s Pass summit , a 440 meter long viaduct was built over the Otira Gorge.  The road to the viaduct from Otira rises sharply and passes through several avalanche shelters and around a series of sharp corners.  Still climbing, the viaduct passes 35 meters above the Otira River offering great views of the surrounding mountain peaks – on a fine day – shortly thereafter reaching the Arthur’s Pass summit.  Clearly, this wasn’t a fine day!  The viaduct opened in 1998.

Otira Viaduct - Arthur's Pass National Park, Southern Alps, South Island, New Zealand

Otira Viaduct in the Mist - Arthur's Pass National Park, Southern Alps, South Island, New Zealand

Motorists towing caravans have always been discouraged from using this crossing between Canterbury and the West Coast, and even after the opening of the new viaduct this is still so. Despite plentiful warning signs and the lack of stopping areas, drivers need to be on the lookout for the occasional thoughtless tourist in their campervan stopped in the middle of the road on an uphill sharp corner – taking photographs!


I have known about Lake Matheson since I was a child and first visited it when hitch hiking around the South Island at the end of my last year at high school.  It had a reputation that was known the length of New Zealand for producing perfect reflections of the Southern Alps and Aoraki Mount Cook in the early morning before the breezes arrived, provided of course it wasn’t raining or there was low cloud.  Just a short 5 minute drive from the Fox Glacier village and a 15 minute walk to the end of the lake will reward visitors with the famous views of the mountains.  Over the years tens of thousands of visitors have visited the lake to admire the reflections.  Millions of photographs have been taken.

Reflections of Southern Alps on Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson - Near Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Mirror view of Souther Alps on Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson - Mirror View

At the end of the day visitors can travel a further 8 km westwards along Cook Flat Road to Gillespies Beach Road to obtain an evening view of the Southern Alps as the sun goes down.  A special viewing area has been provided by the Department of Conservation near where the Fox River joins the Cook River.  Here the view is shared with grazing cattle.

Mount Cook and Southern Alps

Evening view of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps from Gillespies Beach Road

Sunset at Gillespies Road near Fox Glacier

Into the West - Sunset view from Gillespies Beach Road near Fox Glacier

I have visited this area three times over the years and it never fails to leave an impression, although the weather has not always been obliging for the views.

Extreme Caution

The sign near the mountain viewing area on Gillespies Beach Road reads “EXTREME CAUTION – Narrow Road – Winding Next 12 km – NO EXIT”.  What do you do?  The view of the setting sun reflected on the Southern Alps had been spectacular. It was getting darker by the minute. There was no chance of a visit the next day, so we took the chance.  The sign was right. Not only was the road narrow, but it was unsealed and winding for the 12 km journey to the rugged west coast Gillespies Beach.

It was worth the drive.  Twilight was fading fast as we arrived and the sunset colours were draining from the sky. A short walk through bush from the Department of Conservation campsite brought us onto a wonderful stretch of beach covered with large rounded pebbles and strewn with driftwood.  People watching the remains of the sunset were silhouetted against the sky, while others were illuminated by the flames of from driftwood camp fires . What a magical place to watch the day turn into night.

Careful navigation in the dark on the return journey was made easier with the help of the GPS to warn of sharp corners ahead.

DOC Campsite - Gillespies Beach, Near Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Gillespies Beach - View to Mount Cook and Southern Alps

Gillespies Beach - Driftwood and Camp Fires

Gillespies Beach - Sunset and Sillhouettes


Okarito is a small, peaceful village on the west coast of the South Island,  about 25 minutes drive north of Franz Josef Glacier and 13km off the main highway. During the summer  the Kotuku (or White Heron) congregate in the upper reaches of the Okarito Lagoon for their feeding and breeding season.  Sometimes individual birds can be seen feeding on the mud flats near the mouth of the lagoon at Okarito, but not when we were there in early February.  A small kayaking business is based near the wharf.  Locals gather small shellfish on the mud flats.

Okarito Wharf - West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

Okarito Lagoon

Okarito Lagoon - Gathering shellfish


Convergence - West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

On the Coast Road (SH6) between Greymouth and Barrytown the road runs for a short stretch beside a long, deserted West Coast beach.  To reach the pebble beach from the road you must scramble down a short embankment, carefully picking your way between wild blackberry bushes.  Waves rush up the beach and then recede, leaving behind newly wetted pebbles that glisten in the sunlight.  Overhead on the day of our visit there were jet trails that converged towards the horizon.  Outflowing water from the previous wave left a trail of rivulets that seemed to converge on the same distant point.

Truman Beach

Dusk and sunset are great times for photographers.  Having a beach virtually to one’s self at this time of day is magic.  This image was taken on the evening before bad weather closed in.

Truman Beach north of Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

The West Coast of the South Island is rugged and, for the most part, remote.  Truman Beach is only three kilometers from the very popular Punakaiki Rocks tourist spot. Whereas the lookout at the Punakaiki Rocks is busy at most times of the day, this tiny beach only a short drive north receives only a fraction of the number of visitors the “Pancake Rocks” at Punakaiki. The limestone formations and caves in the cliffs make the visit worthwhile.  At one place a small waterfall drops to the pebble beach from a stream at the top of the cliff.

Limestone Cliffs and Waterfall - Truman Beach

West Coast Sunset

Truman Beach is reached via the Truman Track  which is 3 km north of Punakaiki on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  It is a lovely isolated beach  with limestone formations and caves.  As the sun sets in the evening flocks of birds make their way to overnight nesting places.  What a way to end a day!

Sunset - Truman Beach, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand