Or “Where art thou, glacier of mine?”
Although the motel in Greymouth was one of the best we had in a long time, with powerful gushes of hot water in the shower that felt as if they could massage your body forever, we had to cramp back into the car and continue our way. With so much more to see, so many places to visit and dollars to spend how could we not?
It was the magic of a necessary toilet break that brought us to the first magical stop on the west coast. The small town of Hokitika is mostly known for its jade craft and we did stop in one of the factories to catch a glimpse of how the jewellery and artefacts were created, but when we looked at the price tags to get us a small souvenir, we sadly discovered again that by NZ standards we are poor.
Luckily the weather had brightened up a little so we opted for a detour in the nearby countryside. During the drive to the mountains we were alone, the only car speeding along the narrow roads. Every now and again we would see a little farmhouse, but as for traffic, there were only tractors making their way through the fields. In Hokitika we heard that one of the best places to visit was the Gorge near the foot of the mountains and when we got there, we were not disappointed.
Deep turquoise glacier water awaited us as we crossed the river on a swingbridge.
The surrounding forest only enhanced the beauty of this hidden place. Lush trees that surrounded the almost surreal waters as they carved their way through the white stone of the valley made for a breathtaking sight. It was a quiet place, away from the crowds and away from the noise of the highway.
We continued our drive towards Lake Kaniere, hidden between forests at the bottom of the Southern Alps. As the paved road gave way to gravel and all signs of civilization faded into the background, I did start to fear what would happen if Tintin decided to break down now. With miles between us and the next town it would be a strenuous walk to get help.
Luckily Tintin proved himself to be a valued friend (albeit made of aluminium instead of steel apparently). It was then, as we were almost hidden in the lush forest around us that we caught glimpse of this small sanctuary of nature, almost at the side of the road.
Called by the locals Dorothy Falls it was a great place to stop for a small picnic and stretch those tired legs. A small walk to the other side brought us to the lake and as the sun made its way out of the clouds, to the promise of a wonderful afternoon.
We left tranquil Hokitika behind us and returned to our southbound journey that would bring us to maybe the most exciting place of the west coast, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. If the road there was any indication of the beauty of these places then we were in for a treat.
But as we neared the township of Franz Josef it became clear to us why this region was one of the greenest of all NZ and boasted what the locals call ‘rainforest country’ (still can’t get my head around the fact that NZ apparently has rainforest??). The mountain peaks were covered in clouds and as we continued our way we soon found ourselves right inside of them. Heavy rain poured down, obscuring any views of the surrounding mountains. As we found out later from the locals, heavy rainfall is quite common for this area, especially in the afternoon.
The village of Fox Glacier has not much to boast, with two pubs, one grocery shop and about a gazillion B&B’s, motels and holiday parks. Luckily, this was still pre-season, so the walkways were not crowded!
The next day we set out to catch a glimpse of Fox glacier. With the knowledge that the afternoon equals rain, it was an earlier than usual start for us. As you all know I like trains. I like bridges. I like volcanoes. Well folks, you can add glaciers to that list as well! Although the weather was, well, crap, it was still a breathtaking sight to view one of the most spectacular things nature has to offer.
Where once the glacier made its path hundreds of years ago, remained only the river, filled with melting water. Water also made its way in gushing waterfalls from the snow capped peaks that were hidden in low hanging clouds that gave the whole valley a mystical feeling.
At once I understood that we were only visitors in this place, insignificant ants, and that nature could do whatever she wanted. Warning signs of falling rocks, flash floods and the ever changing weather only enhanced that knowledge.
As we reached the viewing point of where the glacier ended we could make out the bluish colour that was trapped inside the ice. Surrounded by grey, it was this ice blue that jumped at us with its exquisite cleanness.
It was a beautiful sight and I think that the roughness of the weather only enhanced its beauty, transforming the whole scenery into something that demands more respect (although we did end up soaking wet..) .
The next morning we set out to visit the second glacier in the area, Franz Josef. I had heard from other travellers that it was the less promising glacier of the two, making him the odd German adopted brother of Fox. But when we got to the parking lot and saw the dozens of cars and campervans it seemingly stated the opposite, making Franz the more popular of the two Glacier Brothers. The weather had also much promise, patches of blue even visible in the sky. As we set out to the viewpoint of the glacier, which was about 2km up the valley to its mouth, we saw dozens of people returning, making our decision not to wake up earlier, a clever one.
It took very little time to get a glimpse of Franz, the frozen waterfall of its flow visible from a distance.
Steep, grey cliffs made way for this majestic piece of nature as it continued its way from higher grounds into the valley below. At times it seemed as even these demanding mountains were in awe of the magic that this glacier captured. The snow capped peaks only enhanced the feeling that this was one of nature’s most beautiful sculptures.
The walk wasn’t a hard one, mostly flat along the valley where hundreds of years before Franz had spread his force. Now only rubbles of stone and a slow flowing river remained. Along the path we saw some waterfalls falling down the rocks, a remainder that this was spring and the thawing snow from above had to follow the laws of gravity and make its way into the valley.
As seconds turned into minutes the clouds rolled in. Like a Swiss watch, the weather here changed for the worse as noon became afternoon, the humidity trapped in the valley like a caged animal. We had reached the mouth of the glacier, and here, just like at Fox glacier, the blue amidst the white and grey was beautiful, like a hidden ice-queen within the grey lands that surround her kingdom.
Following the path a little more down to the bottom of the valley, I reached the river, where the ice-water made its way towards the sea. I must say that the views from here where definitely some to remember, the twisting way of the valley giving the whole scenery an almost 3D effect.
But the time had come to make our way back as the clouds joined forces and threatened to purge the valley from any dust or tourist. But me being me, I couldn’t withstand another photo opp of Franz and the valley, so I climbed a hill and got one last look at one of nature’s most beautiful creations.
If I had to compare the two glaciers, Brother Fox and Brother Franz, I must say that the two are two very different experiences. Whilst Fox had a darker, almost harsher side to it, and the warning signs of rock avalanches and the roaring river next to the path to prove it, Franz proved to be a more silent creature, standing in all his glory at the mouth of the valley, oozing a more silent beauty. But I must say that the area of Fox and Franz Josef glacier is so far the most amazing I have seen in New Zealand. It is also a more touristic one, but the rough weather and sometimes torrential downpours of spring make for a great barrier to the overflow of tourists. But isn’t this the sheer essence of tranquillity?
On our last morning we woke up to a huge surprise – the sun was shining and we had blue skies! We couldn’t even remember when the last time was that we had seen such blue skies, so before I realized my inner Japanese frenzy had me rush outside and take a photo as proof!
Luckily for me, my common sense, which was sometimes overridden by this Japanese fella, had me put on my clothes before running out in my PJ’s. But in all fairness, in the four days we had been at Fox, we had never seen the peaks of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman! So that nobody would miss this sight an alarm sounded just after we had already woken up, a wailing that sounded like an announcement for the end of the world. It didn’t impress me at all and I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed at all if Ronni hadn’t let out a gasp of surprise as she saw the mountains. Bottom line for 21.12 (or end of the world as per Mayan calendar) – sirens and alarms won’t get me going, but a photo opp sure will :-)
On our last day a hike around Lake Matheson was on the program. On the way there the map showed that we would pass a viewpoint with magnificent view of Fox glacier and the mountains. So far the viewpoints hadn’t really all lived up to their fame, but this one did surprise. Although the clouds had now gathered around the mountaintops we still got amazing sights of the upper half of Fox glacier.
I must say, that these views were almost better than the ones we got from our visit to the glacier itself, as this way we could really get a feeling of how long the glacier was. Like a giant white snake it curled itself down the mountain slopes towards the valley.
Shortly after, we reached Lake Matheson. It is mostly known for reflecting the mountains on a clear day when the waters are still. Luck was not on our side today as the mountains were now totally obscured by the clouds and a small wind rippled the surface of the lake.
We did however manage to get some magnificent views nonetheless whilst walking around the lake, making it a fitting ending for our time in this wonderful area.
From here we shall continue our way south towards Wanaka, almost reaching our most southern tip of our NZ trip. But that story shall be told at a later stage, when the time is right.
See you soon!