Last week my partner and I holidayed on the West Coast. That’s shorthand for the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. A little geography lesson is in order to help understand the West Coast.
New Zealand lies in the South Pacific surrounded on all sides by thousands of kilometres of ocean. Just take a look at Google Maps — you’ll find us off to the right-hand side of Australia. According to Time and Date.com, it’s about:
- 2,200 Km west to Sydney, Australia;
- 2,600 Km north to Suva in Fiji, and then it’s more or less just ocean for the next 12,000 or so Kilometres till you bump into Russia.
- 3,500 Km south to the edge of the Antarctic (according to the measuring tool in Google Earth);
- about 8,500 Km east to Chile (again thanks to Google Earth).
Yup, really we’re just a couple of specks of land, surrounded by vast oceans. We lie between about 35 and 47 degrees South, an area known as the Roaring Forties, named for the strong prevailing westerly winds.
New Zealand’s two main islands lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire earthquake zone, with volcanic mountains in the North Island. The South Island has the Southern Alps running its length. Peaks include Aoraki Mt Cook at about 3,700 metres.
This has a dramatic effect on the weather: winds sweep across the oceans, mainly from the northwest, picking up moisture, then rise over the Alps. As the air rises it cools, dropping copious rain on the West Coast, then it dries out and rages across the Canterbury Plains on the eastern side of the Alps, warming up as it goes.
All of this means that in the South Island the West Coast is extremely wet and green, while the Canterbury Plains in the East are very dry (and tend to brown). There are large areas of National Park on the West Coast, including Westland Tai Poutini National Park, with its World Heritage status. This park includes a lot of rainforest, and is home to the two famous and readily accessible glaciers: Fox (Te Moeka o Tuawe) and Franz Josef (Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere).