...in the face.
21.11.2010 - 25.12.2010 24 °C
The highway south from Westport is a tough stretch to concentrate only on the winding road. I pull over to let our eyes feast on the rugged coast of crashing waves, cliffs, and arches. The coastline is beautiful through the thick morning fog.
The first city we arrive in is Greymouth and it is buzzing with news reporters as a result of the recent mine explosion. With cameras rolling the reporters huddle under their umbrellas conducting interviews. Greymouth is home to the head office of the mining company that is dealing with the tragedy. Everyone seems to be on edge waiting for answers about what exactly happened. Continuing south to Hokitika, Julie has the need for shopping, so we pull over for a wander. She finds a pair of possum/merino socks to keep her feet cozy during the chilly nights in the tent. We continue south, and as we near the campground Julie spots a hitchhiker staggering along the road in need of a ride. Chris, another German, has been hitching and wwoofing around NZ for a year. He fills our car with the smell of many days in the back-country, but it feels good to help him out.
Our camp is located beside the Okarito Lagoon, which is the largest unmodified wetland (3000 hectares) in New Zealand. The lagoon is made up of shallow water and tidal flats and the surrounding coastal rainforest is made up primarily of native kahikatea and riu trees. The area is also home to many bird species including the White Heron and the rare Brown Kiwi. The wind howls non-stop as we seek a semi-sheltered spot for our tent and huddle in for the night.
We rise in the morning with slight regret for not trekking the forest trails last night to hear and maybe spot a rare Kiwi, but our tent was just too cozy. The skies are clear and the sun is just rising, so we hike the Okarito Trig Track for views of the Okarito Lagoon and the Southern Alps. From this trail we continue on to the Three Mile Lagoon track, rushing so that we beat the incoming tide on the way back. We trek through the forest coming to a beautiful lagoon with mirror reflections of the southern alps. We take the track down the beach heading back to camp. We are pinched between the pounding waves and the steep cliffs as the tide slowly comes in, nipping at our heals.
After a short drive further south we arrive at Franz Josef, home of the glacier with the same name. Early Maori called the glacier The Tears of the Avalanche Girl, as legends tells of a girl whose tears froze to form the glacier after her lover fell to his death. The two glaciers in this area (Fox being the other) cut through valleys and flow down through temperate rainforest with their terminal faces being located only 300 m above sea level, making them easily accessible. These glaciers continue to flow while many glaciers worldwide are retreating, as a result of the West Coast's high annual rain and snowfall. Approximately 30 metres of snow falls on the glacier's catchment area every year. The snowfall on the particularly steep Franz Josef glacier pushes ice down the valley, moving a crazy speed of 1.5 m per day (up to 10x faster than most valley glaciers). We set out on a short walk to the Franz Josef along a flat rocky trail on the glacier's river bed, what was once covered by the glacier. This trail takes us to within 100 m of the massive tongue of ice. We observe the glacial melt water running down the terminal face into the massive milky grey river below. The river of melt water is filled with finely ground rock and flows from the glacier's base washing its way down through the valley. Rain moves in fast and we get soaked in the 30 minute walk back from the terminal face and past gloomy grey waterfalls. Luckily the sun is blazing 30 minutes away at Gillespies Beach, where we set-up camp and take in the sunset along a driftwood scattered coast with the westerlies howling.
We rise early to catch some breathtaking “mirror” shots of the southern alps from picturesque Lake Matheson. We watch as the morning mists rise from the serene lake and collect on the countless species of ferns which blanket the forest floor. The sun caresses the snow-capped peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, reflecting in the calm water. We trek around the peaceful lake, which was formed from the Fox Glacier's last significant advance 14 000 year ago.
Unfortunately, we are rushed around the lake to make our 9:00 am appointment with Fox Glacier Guiding. We splurged on a heli-hike adventure up to Victoria Flats on the Fox Glacier for some real glacier trekking. This glacier is 300 m deep and 13 km long. The brief heli ride up the glacier provides us with a spectacular vantage point of roaring Victoria Falls (a glacial waterfall) and jagged blue ice formations scattered across the glacier. On the sides of the mountains we can see where the glacial retreats have occurred over the past hundred years from the various ages of forest growth. Our guide leads our group safely around the ice fields, checking the consistency of the ice which we are to walk on, carving steps with a pick where needed, and ensuring we are far from deep crevices. Using his axe the guide tests the ground and listens for hollows and weak points. The sun reflects off the bright snow and ice, causing small streams to form, some of which funnel and splash down deep eroded chasms. We stop to fill our water bottles with pure glacial water – lets just say it is not room temperature. (Despite the surficial melting of the glaciers, they are still growing.) The pressure of the moving glacier forms large arches of ice which we slowly climb through. The walls and ceiling of these arches are constructed of fantastic blue ice and frigid water drips steadily finding its way down our backs. After a few hours exploring the ice, we climb back into the heli and Julie gets the front seat and a superb view of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area below. The lakes, rivers, forests, and beaches viewed are untamed yet pure.
On the way back to camp, we stop once again at Lake Matheson as we didn't have time earlier to take photos of some of the amazing ferns. However, Julie's camera battery dies, and better yet our car battery dies! Good thing we have CAA because after asking a dozen people for boosts we determined that everyone here is a tourist in a rental car with no booster cables.
We make dinner and camp another chilly night at Gillespies Beach and then pack up in the morning, heading into the town of Fox Glacier for a hike and a different angle of the glacier. The River Walk leads us through more lush rainforest, over pristine creeks, past ferns we have never seen before, and ends at a huge suspension bridge over the boulder-strewn glacial river.
Heading further south down the west coast past Bruce Bay, we stop at a driftwood tangle of a beach. There is every shape and size imaginable, and the driftwood is utilized by many locals to create beautiful fences around their properties. Further along the road a Salmon Farm catches our attention as a new dinner item.
Julie has been itching for a penguin sighting and Monro Beach sounds like a great opportunity to spot the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Before heading to the beach, the slab of salmon goes perfectly with the homemade pumpkin stew cooked for dinner at our tailgate. After a 45 min walk to the beach we immediately spot a penguin waddling up to the nesting site returning from dining at sea for the day. We sit down on the beach to watch the penguin activity from a distance to prevent disturbing these rare species. More penguins show up from the sea some being knocked over like bowling pins by crashing waves. Nimbly, they hop onto the rocks and cliffs and 2 penguins commence with their complex barking sounds – the call of courtship. The others seem to watch from a distance as these 2 penguins show affection towards each other. Julie's finger begins to ache from the number of snap shots taken, so we decide to explore the amazing beach and head back to the car.
We continue driving south towards Haast and the sun is setting as we make our way over the incredible Haast River and its enormous gravel bed. The bridge over this river must be nearly a kilometre long, as there are pull-offs on the bridge where other cars can pass. As we drive along the Haast Pass and into the mountains, we pull over to find ourselves standing on top of our car's roof watching the sky fill with reds and oranges behind towering mountains. Another amazing day of NZ wonderment comes to a close as we reach Pleasant Flat. The sand-flies force us to pitch the tent asap and toss ourselves in for relief.
The morning light filters through the tent with ease and by 6:30 am we are out cooking up breakfast with the sand-flies again. I add lots of pepper to our food to camouflage the flies which had a tendency of bombing into boiling pots of food. We roll up the tent, squishing heaps of flies within. They are so numerous they coat our clothing and you can't help but breath some in.
Once we are packed up we head down the Haast Pass highway following the Haast River through the mountains. This area is littered with waterfalls flowing into the mighty river. The river is swarmed with whitewater rapids and is very intimidating. We take the short hike into the Blue Pools to gaze at the stunning deep azure blue colours caused by the light refraction in the clear glacier fed water. Large trout in the frigid pools swim about taunting us, knowing that fishing is forbidden in the reserved area. Again, back to the car, our destination is Wanaka and our next wwoofing host Ruth.
Before reaching Ruth's home we take the road less travelled heading east along Lake Hawea to Kidd Bush Reserve. After a quick lunch and lay down, we climb the Sawyer Burn Track for a view of Lake Hawea. The entire climb is an incline with few places to give your quads a break. Past the tree line we enter into sub-a;pine scrub with a variety of grasses and alpine flowers and we continue to the peak. The view is an impressive sight to say the least, with the crystal blue lake below surrounded with rugged mountains, few have snow remaining on their peaks. The view was very rewarding for such a short hike (3 hours round-trip).
We reach our host's unique home, designed by her daughter, located on a hill over-looking a valley and surrounded with mountain views. Ruth's friend Mary was also staying for a couple weeks for a vacation from Auckland. They show us around and we settle into our basement room with walk-out french doors onto a patio. After a much needed shower and dinner we hit the hay to rest up for wwoofing duties at 8 am.
We had an amazing time touring the west coast in between wwoofing. The average annual rainfall on the West Coast is 2575 mm which is quite substantial compared to the rest of NZ. This usually occurs in downpours and keeps the forests lush. Fortunately for us, we only experienced 30 min of rain while trekking to the Franz Josef Glacier. Unfortunately, however, the area is in a severe drought in dire need of the rain.