In the blazing sunshine we let out the cry, “Let’s go find the ice glacier!”. It is as much a warning for our hire car, Notey, as anything else so he can man up for the long drive, mountainous terrain and plummeting temperatures ahead. It was another NZ drive with the “wow” factor. The dramatic west coast is so rugged and unspoiled and , so far, the roads have been quieter than we had expected. No doubt it will all change in a few days when the schools break for their summer holidays which last until February.
We drove via the old mining towns of Ross and Harihari and as we headed inland from the coast the weather deteriorated. Very low cloud and driving rain obscured our view of the mountains and even the road. We did manage to get sight of Lake Whapo and Lake Mapouika from the road through the clouds but the viewing points and photos didn’t do them justice.
Franz Josef and the Glacier
Franz Josef itself is a busy town with lots of restaurants, cafes and booking agent for the helicopter flights, tandem skydives, kayaking, etc. We had to think long and hard about a helicopter flight. Everybody who is anybody here says that the only way to see the glacier is from the air. We are sure this is true but neither of us was jumping at the chance to go. We felt excited just to be in the mountains again and decided to view from the ground and save our NZ$ for an adventure that we felt more passionate about. Jon just seemed quite happy to make friends with the locals.
We found our next Airbnb with Karl, Holly and their children. A beautiful home just outside Franz Josef. It was quite overwhelming the next day when we visited the glacier in bright sunshine. Originally it stretched all the way to the sea (18km from it’s current base) and retreats and advance in small amounts cycles. We walked as far as we could to the base or terminal of the ice. A flooded river thwarted our efforts to get as close as we would have liked.
Not to be deterred we walked up Sentinel Rock for a good view of the glacier then onto Douglas Bridge. The bridge had no view of the glacier but it was an Indiana Jones moment for us. The bridge was mostly made of timber and rope and to my horror swung every which way. The maximum capacity was 5 persons so we hurried over to take our photos before anyone else arrived but I think it was a bit remote so we had it mostly to ourselves.
Around 30 km south is the other well known glazier, Fox Glacier. It is not such an adrenaline filled town and disappointingly no mints on sale!
Okarito Lagoon and the Trig
I think we both agree that in some ways the highlight of our stay in Franz Josef was our visit to Okarito. We had read that there was a lagoon and a walk. As with a lot of places along the west coast, it owes it’s existence to the gold prospecting both it in it’s short-lived heyday and subsequent decline. We chose to do the Trig walk which took us initially over a wetland boardwalk to a path which led up, up and then up some more through a forest to a viewing platform. It was a steep incline for around 45 minutes to an hour but all worth it. The views were incredible.
- To the south were the deserted, inaccessible (from the land) beaches
- To the east was a great view of Mount Cook and the Franz Josef Glacier
- To the north was a view of the lagoon and the coast we had driven along a few days ago.
We spent quite a lot of time admiring the views in the sunshine before heading back down to the beach. It was a familiar sight. Grey pebbly beach with the odd piece of jade coloured pounamu stones, an abundance of driftwood and crashing waves. As is the norm, Jon started work on his beach art and, with a little help from yours truly, the results could only be described as unique.
Wanaka via the Lakes
Time to get Notey geared up for another road trip. This time it was to Wanaka. We drove for around 2 hours to Haast on the west coast then headed inland towards Wanaka. There were so many viewing places to see outstanding landscape, waterfalls and wildlife that it was a bit overwhelming.
The maps had indicated a drive of around 3-4 hours but, to see the sights properly along the way, around 5-6 were needed. Up until Haast our roads had been fairly quiet but we did notice the sudden increase in traffic, particularly camper vans in every shape and form. The last 50 km or so down the edge of Lake Wanaka and then Lake Tawea on State Highway 6 were incredible. The road just clinging to the side of the mountains as we worked our way along. Notey did a grand job. It was his longest drive with us so far. In true Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style Notey now talks to us. We get a rattle from the exhaust pipe every so often and rather than have any alarming thoughts about it falling off prefer to think it is him purring as we chug along. Let’s hope he doesn’t assume he can fly off some of the mountain roads!
Wanaka itself is a “must see” location on any tour of South Island, NZ. Its neighbour, Queenstown, tends to take all the glory. Our Airbnb was hosted by Gill, her boomerang children, Sophia and Caleb, and dogs Lucy and Ruby (just visiting). A drink on the deck facing the scenery – how lucky are they to live in such a location?
Although we had planned on doing a whole day tramping in the National Park, once we saw the lake again the next morning we decided to stay local and took a long lakeside walk to Damper Bay.
Along the walkway there was a conservation project underway and walkers were asked to help water the trees. Someone got carried away.
This was followed by a “refreshing” swim in the clear blue water of the lake. Perfect for tired legs. Also perfect for tired legs was plonking ourselves under a shady tree to watch a local cricket match. That was when our warped sense of humour took over and we gave nicknames to the fielders. They ranged from Mincer to Pot Belly Captain. Shame on us – how childish!
That evening Jon wanted to set to on visa applications for another jwalking adventure (more to follow on that one) so Gill invited me to join her to watch a Christmas film that she had been looking forward to. It was called The Christmas Candle and it was a gentle story about the goodwill and magic of Christmas. There were some well known actors in the film but the weirdest guest appearance was from Susan Boyle. It was a period drama film so she was trussed up in a starchy high necked dress and bonnet but both Gill and I have never seen anyone look so uncomfortable in front of the camera. Not her finest hour – stick to belting out “I dreamed a dream” Susie.
Once visa applications were done and the credits rolled on The Christmas Candle, it was still light (9.15pm) so we headed for sunset walk along the edge of the lake. The good weather and beginning of the holiday period had brought out a mix of backpackers, camper-vaners, walkers, cyclists and party goers. All enjoying the waterfront location.
I nearly forgot to mention a delivery that arrived at Gill’s house. She had ordered “some” logs so she could store and season them for use on her log burner during the winter. A massive dump truck with swing tailgate arrived and squeezed it’s way down the drive. After some pretty nifty driving and even niftier direction from Gill, the whole lorry load was dumped on her drive. There must have been 600-700 blocks of wood in a pile over 5ft tall totally blocking her drive and entrance to the house. She explained that she usually bought in smaller quantities but wanted to “stock up” to keep her Airbnb guests cosy. Good luck with the wheelbarrow, Gill!
All too soon it is time to move on but not before managing yet another walk the next morning around the other side of the lake to Eely Point and a quick lap around the market. Wanaka has been a real jewel in the crown of our South Island road trip but maybe I am judging too early. The move south continues and we are off to Queenstown via the Crown Range Road and hopefully a reunion with some bikers from Melbourne!
See also: Lakes and Glaciers of the Southern Alps
15.12 – 19.12.2015