Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier. Drive

All quiet on the western front

A STRETCH of road on New Zealand's South Island features amazing scenery and precious few motorists.

It's where the rainforest meets the beach, the clouds meet the road and the driver meets very few people at all.

It's the wild west coast of New Zealand's South Island and one of the great places to take a spin.

We started at Punakaiki because, well, it's a bunch of old rocks to some people (the so-called Pancake Rocks) but a great place to walk and to explore a series of glow-worm caves.

Forget guided tours. The nanny state hasn't made it here yet. You take your flashlight, find your own network of deep tunnels and, if you never come out, no one may ever know.

As we drove down the coast, mist hugged the hills on our left while rocks poked through the angry surf of the Tasman below a sharp drop on our right.

The beach sand was nearly black. At times the rainforest was ultra thick, at times the foliage on the hills looked like huge broccoli.

The serpentine roads made their way past farms and over one-lane bridges crossing braided rivers. It was dry, then the rain was torrential. This is very much a touring road, not a speeding run, so the posted 100km/h is plenty fast enough.

At 15 kilometres we arrived in Barrytown, presumably named after Barry. There followed crazy Wizard of Oz trees on windswept plains, deer, the occasional llama and the requisite sheep.

The road into Greymouth had full-on Lord of the Rings scenery, punctuated by rugby fields.

Greymouth is the service hub to the west coast but not exactly a mighty metropolis. If you were going to paint the town red, you could probably do it with one of those 250-millilitre tester packs.

Interesting road experiences continued. We negotiated a roundabout with a freight line running right through its centre.

On another occasion, a fully enclosed (and rather claustrophobic) single-lane bridge had train tracks running down the middle.

We took the road to Hokitika and Haast under a black, threatening sky, down long straights, through flat to undulating grazing land with sparse vegetation.

At 84 kilometres we arrived in Hokitika, a cute little town that should be famous for its unique museum. At Sock World you can see ''the world's largest collection of antique sock-knitting machines'' and a wool-carding apparatus.

These towns appear to do a nice line in beautifully preserved 1950s weatherboard houses. One of the neatest turned out to be a display home for its builder.

Yep, they are still turning them out and they look great; the McMansion is another thing pleasantly absent in these climes.

On the other side of Hokitika a poster declared, ''Kids in sport stay out of court.'' It should have added, ''Until they reach professional level.''

Ross, a ''historic gold town'', had fossicking and the usual tourist offerings but no tourists. Our initial fear of being caught behind Danes in campervans travelling on the wrong side of the road at walking pace turned out to be unfounded - there was very little traffic of any type.

Pukekura - population two - has a food and craft centre and the wonderfully named Puke Pub (OK, there's an accent over the ''E'' but it's a close-run thing). It's famous for its roadkill menu of possum, mutton bird and wild boar.

The threat of ice and snow increased as we climbed. The promised views of Mount Cook arrived when the fog was so thick it was difficult enough seeing the sign promising them.

At 217 kilometres, we arrived at the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier, which stretches from high in the alps to just above sea level.

Incongruously, it was named after an Austrian emperor by a German geologist. And, fittingly, it was bucketing down when we arrived. The annual rainfall here is five metres.

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