From Boundary Creek we drove up the West Coast highway – we stopped a couple of times for walks to Thunder Creek Falls and a couple of other places. Every time we stop, we’re just so impressed by the DOC information everywhere – it’s all so well managed. We drove through Haast and on along the road to Fox Glacier, where we drove up to the glacier car park and got out for a walk.
The walk up to the glacier is an easy half hour along the valley floor, with warning signs everywhere about rock falls and ice falls – there’s a barrier up 200m from the ice, warning people not to go any further without a guide. They do apparently quite often have ice falls and rock falls, and flash floods from the glacial river, and the most recent accident was in 2009 when two tourists were killed when they jumped over the barrier and went right up to the ice face, and had an ice fall land on top of them. The glaciers (Fox and Franz Josef) are pretty incredible – they’re some of the most accessible in the world, and it’s really rare to have a glacier terminate at such a low level (only 100m or so above sea level) and in rainforest – and they’re changing shape enormously all the time, we saw photos from 1967 when the glacier was further up the valley than it is now, and then 1983 when it was halfway down the valley, so it does both advance and retreat. Franz Josef at the moment is completely inaccessible on foot – there’s a huge hole in the glacier on what was the walking route up – so to go on the ice there at the moment you have to go by helicopter.
We had been planning to go for a guided walk on Franz Josef, but didn’t fancy paying $300 for the helihike option! So we signed up with Fox Glacier guides for a half day walk the next day. We drove on to Franz and parked at the car park, and walked up to a viewpoint to see the glacier as well, before heading back to Fox to a campsite for the night.
We were up early in the morning and at the guiding centre in time for a coffee before our group was called in – we were taken into their changing area and all given hiking boots, crampons, rain jackets and waterproof trousers. Chris and I luckily were able to use our own hiking boots, so it’s been worth bringing them for that alone!
Our guides were Tex (Texan, funnily enough) and Dave (English) and they did a great job of explaining the science behind the glacier – we had a bus ride up to the car park with lots of commentary, and then the group walked up the valley together. There were 16 of us with the 2 guides, so a nice small group, and Chris and I were walking along chatting to the guides most of the way. When we got to the barriers, we went off on a side track that said ‘guided groups only’ (although they told us they can’t enforce it, and often have to help rescue people who’ve wandered up there anyway!) and walked up the side of the glacier to the ice.
We put on our crampons, which are basically metal spikes that you strap to the bottom of your boots, to cut into the ice, and each got given a walking pole, and went onto the ice! It was fantastic – you had to stamp hard with each step to make your crampons cut in, so we were all stomping and giggling away, and walking up the track that the guides had cut in the ice. They all take turns guiding groups, and working up there cutting tracks, as it all has to be re-cut every day to keep the track there. We went off the track a few times, for them to show us interesting things – ice caves and crevasses and water-melt pools where the running water had carved the ice away into interesting shapes. At each point we went in one or two at a time, had a look round, then came back out to let the next person in – some of them were quite tight little spaces, and the guides said basically, you can go in until you don’t fit anymore, then turn around! The ice is incredibly smooth, and wet to the touch, as it’s constantly melting and shifting. An amazing environment to wander around – we both really enjoyed it. I particularly did, as I missed out on the chance to go onto Franz Josef when Jess and I were there 10 years ago, after I fell over and smacked myself in the face with an ice pick, 2 minutes onto the ice! So I was very glad to make it through the whole trip this time!
We spent about 2 hours on the ice and then walked back down the valley, and it started to rain as we walked back down – it was been overcast and a bit drizzly while we were on the ice, so by the time we got back to the car park we were glad we’d borrowed all the waterproofs! We went back down to town, and once we’d said goodbye to everyone we drove off to Franz Josef and parked by the river there to make lunch.
We then went in to the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz – absolutely brilliant idea! There aren’t thermal springs there, as there are in other places in NZ, but they heat glacial water and have set up a really lovely little place, three different pools at 36°, 38° and 40° in a lovely rainforest setting with canopies over them – I wish we’d taken photos, but we left our cameras in the car and by the time we realised we wanted to take photos, we were in our swimming cozzies!
We realised when we got there that there weren’t many cars in the car park, but were still thrilled to discover once we’d got changed and gone through to the pools that there were a grand total of 3 other people there, who left 10 minutes after we arrived – so we had the place completely to ourselves, apart from a lifeguard who was bored out of his mind and glad to have someone to chat to! He was also a glacier guide on Franz Josef, so we had a good chat about the glaciers and he had some good stories to tell.
We had a brilliant hour there, relaxing in the pools, and stayed till we were wrinkly! Then we got changed and got back in the van and drove for another hour or so until it was starting to get dark, and stopped at a DOC site at Lake Mahinapua. It got sunny as we were driving, and by the time it got dark it was an incredibly clear night – the stars were just amazing, we went out at about 10pm to go to the loo and ended up stood outside for ten minutes, just looking at the sky. Beautiful.
Today we’ve had a day of scenic driving, mostly, and another wonderful sunny day – we drove though Hokitika to Greymouth, stocked up in Greymouth on groceries, cash and petrol, and carried on along the coastal road to Westport. That stretch of road is Lonely Planet’s pick for one of the top 10 road trips in the world, and it really was stunning – the road runs along next to the sea most of the way, with huge crashing waves and beaches covered in driftwood, and jagged rocks, and tall cliffs, and lush rainforest – absolutely beautiful drive. We stopped at Punakaiki to look at the Pancake Rocks, which are a bizarre twist of geology that have resulted in these amazing layered rocks – we had a walk around the walkway and took lots of photos, and enjoyed the sound of the waves crashing through the blowholes, and then went back to the car park and had excellent pies at the cafe, so all in all an excellent stop!
Then we carried on almost as far as Westport, and stopped again at Tauranga Bay, where there’s a walkway out to a fur seal colony – we spent a lovely half hour there laughing at the seals, which are hilariously ungainly as they flop around on the rocks! From there we drove another hour or so to the campsite we’re at now, in Murchison, which is almost halfway to Kaikoura, which is next along our route.
I’ve started reading the brochures and Lonely Planet sections for the North end of the South Island, as that’s going to be our next few days! We’ve just had a bit of a schlep around the campsite as we couldn’t get the electric sockets to work, so we thought the site we were on must have a problem – turns out I knocked a switch under the seats when I threw our hiking boots in there earlier, so we now have power again, yay! I’m just about to start making chicken fajitas for supper, and Chris is going to sort through our photos and post them up with this blog post, as we have internet reception tonight, so we’d better take advantage!
In two days’ time, we’ll have been married a month – amazing!