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10 Adventures in New Zealand's Glacier Country

Fergus Blakiston

Beginnings

The Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier are two of only a handful of glaciers outside the world’s Polar regions which flow almost to sea level. Located in South Westland, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, these spectacular rivers of ice have their origins high in the Southern Alps. Snow falling in the Alps is slowly compressed until it solidifies into ice which begins to flow downhill.

It may take hundreds (or even thousands) of years for the ice to make its journey from the summits to the valley floor. As it descends, the ice gouges deep u-shaped valleys. Many of these can be seen on both sides of the Southern Alps if you look carefully. The bottom end of a glacier is called its Terminal Face. The shattered rock it carries down from the mountains on its unhurried journey is called moraine.

For in-depth analysis of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, visit the superb Department of Conservation park headquarters in Franz Josef township. Also check out the neat little “glacier country” website, set out like an explorer’s notebook (cool idea!).

Franz Josef Glacier from Road

Franz Josef Glacier from the road

Getting There

Glacier country is located in South Westland, about two hour’s drive south of Greymouth. To reach Greymouth, drive west from Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass. Although you can drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef Township in about five hours, allow a full day as the scenery is so amazing you’ll be constantly stopping. Oh, and on your way south, pick up a coffee at the bakery on Weld Street in Hokitika: it’s one of the best in the West.

In Glacier Country there are plenty of options to rest up and eat, drink and swap yarns with other adrenalin junkies about your exploits. It was a bit different in the days when the West Coast was first being explored. Adventurers of 150 years ago were glad to find a piece of ground to lie on that was less wet than they were and a small piece of well boiled leather to chew on!

Where to Stay

During my visit to Glacier Country, we splashed out on a little luxury and stayed at the lovely Westwood Lodge in Franz Josef Township. Our room (actually it was more like a suite!) had a shower big enough for two, a big French tub (also big enough for two: a pattern is emerging here isn’t it?) and a bed so comfy it made getting up a challenging as any outdoor adventure. We ventured out each day fortified by their great breakfasts and returned at night to our log cabin-like room to relax before our nightly foraging expeditions to the eateries of Franz Josef.

If you are traveling the coast on a tighter budget, there are other options though, including Punga Grove motels, where you can pick your accommodation from studios, suites and one or two bedroom units. Native bush surrounds the entire property and you are right in the heart of the Franz Josef Township. If you prefer something totally self-contained and self catering, check out Glenfern Villas – modern with lots of room, plus you can go for the one bedroom or two bedroom option, if you are traveling with others and want to spend more time in the region.

Where to Eat

Nothing gives you an appetite like adventure and Glacier Country has some great places to satisfy your hunger for the wild. The Speights Landing Bar is a good place to start with a relaxing beer or two. Located on a corner you can sit outside on the terrace and watch the West Coast world go by. Great, big feeds too! Try the bangers ‘n’ mash.

Packed with backpackers, the Blue Ice Bar is the place to get a little wild and brag about your exploits with like-minded adventurers. They do a mean pizza and beer deal. For a more ethnic experience, the rogan josh at the Pirya Indian Restaurant is one of the best I’ve tasted. In the best tradition of Indian restaurants you can get a takeaway from there too.

If you are self catering, the supermarket on the main street in Franz Josef township has everything you need to put together a sumptuous picnic to enjoy out in the wilderness – or dinner in your accommodation.

If you happen to be in Fox Glacier looking for grub, the Café Neve is a good bet, with meals massive enough to satisfy the biggest post-adventure cravings. The coffee at the Hobnail Café rivals that of the Weld Street Bakery (see above). The backpacker hangout of The Cook Saddle Café is another good beer-and-tucker option.

The Adventures

Ice Hike

Sure, you can poke about at the terminal face of the glaciers by yourself... but to really get to know the massive forces and stunning beauty of the ice, take a hike on the Franz Josef Glacier with Franz Josef Glacier Guides or the Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Guiding. Towering pinnacles of ice, deep crevasses and crystal streams of melt-water which disappear abruptly into blue chasms... this is a world completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. To walk on ice, which may have been formed long before Europeans discovered New Zealand makes you realize just how short a human lifespan is in comparison to the eons of time it takes to shape a landscape.

Close up of Franz Josef Glacier

Close up of Franz Josef Glacier

Gillespie’s Beach

A thirty minute drive from Fox Glacier, this wild beach of drifting sea haze and flat, ocean-worn stones has dramatic views of the Southern Alps and some quaint miner’s history. The somber little cemetery, set in a bushy clearing, has a handful of graves which make you wonder about the lives of the people who left far-off shores to die here on the West Coast. You can walk for ages along the beach past the weathered remains of trees, which floods uprooted from their distant forests, then washed them out to sea where the waves flayed off their foliage and bark and finally threw them back up onto the stones. Gillespie’s Beach is a dramatic, romantic place. Take a picnic, light a driftwood fire then sprawl beside it and watch the waves.

Skydive

All that surging ice make you feel like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,000 feet? Now’s your chance! SkydiveNZ does tandem skydives over the glaciers giving you a chance to see a 360 degree panorama of the ocean, mountains, glaciers and sky while you plummet at terminal velocity towards the ground (until your chute opens!). Mind-blowingly good fun, if there is one adventure activity you should do on the West Coast, this is it. I couldn’t stop grinning for three days afterwards.

Visit Lake Matheson

Like a mirror wrapped in a frame of rainforest, the still waters of the lake provide perfect reflections of the jagged summits of Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Tasman. From the new café/restaurant at the car-park it’s 15 minutes to the first viewing platform which sits amid a canopy of forest above a fringe of rushes where you can see ducks and swamp hens. A further 45 minutes takes you to the viewing platform at the far end of the lake where you can see the stunning reflections of the mountains. Early morning is the best time to visit the lake to make the most of the mirror effect and take the kind of photos your mother would be proud of. Later in the day, breezes spring up and the reflections disappear.

Valley Hike

The valleys of both the Franz Josef and the Fox Glaciers have superb walks from the main road up to the glacier’s terminal faces. Along the way you’re walking through a living diorama of how the glaciers have shaped the landscape: from the ice-gouged rock walls to the piles of moraine, the rivers whose milky color comes from “rock flour” or powdered mountain, and tiny lakes left by the retreating glaciers. Check out the Department of Conservation website or the Park Headquarters for more information. Both walks take about two hours, so take a snack, water and sun-block, wear good footwear and don’t forget your raincoat for the fickle West Coast weather. It’s not called the “Wet Coast” for nothing!

Helicopter The Glacier

To experience the high basins known as “cirques” where the glaciers form, a number of local helicopter operators take visitors on thrilling flights up the valleys to landing sites high in the mountains. The already spectacular scenery becomes heart-stopping and eye-popping as you fly close to the sheer rock walls, swoop over icefalls and land amid a sea of seracs and a chaos of crevasses. Check out the Glacier Country website for the selection of operators. Carbon footprint? Forget about it!

Enjoy Okarito

The intricate network of inlets, channels and rivers which makes up the Okarito Lagoon is home to one of New Zealand’s most beautiful birds: the white heron or, to use its much more beautiful Maori name, Kotuku. Thick rainforest crowds right to the water’s edge around the lagoon and the birds roost in ones and twos on jutting branches and wind-fallen logs. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit, when the sunlight shimmers on the calm water of the lagoon and a great silence fills the air. A number of tour operators offer guided trips on the lagoon. Take a kayak trip with Okarito Nature Tours or go on a night-time adventure to discover the elusive national bird with Okarito Kiwi Tours. Another good option is to simply sit and enjoy the solitude of this beautiful place. (NB. Make sure you have a good insect repellent handy to fight off the mozzies.)

Lake Mapourika

Mirror-calm in its frame of forest, this lovely lake is just a few minute’s drive north of Franz Josef Township. Mapourika is perfect for swimming, picnicking and sunbathing. Forest walks take you around the perimeter of the lake and even on a wet and stormy day the lake is still pretty in a more dramatic way. Or if you need a place to unwind after a few days of hard adventuring, you can sprawl on the jetty and read a book.

Lake Mapourika

Lake Mapourika

Quad Bike

Known for their rugged outlook and DIY (do it yourself) approach to pretty much every task, Kiwi farmers have been using tough, stable four wheeler quad bikes on their farms for years. Now it’s your turn to get a taste of the action. Across Country Quad Bikes puts you in the driver’s seat of a 300cc quad bike for a trip across rugged farmland, through boggy mud holes and across braided mountain rivers. This is great fun and very safe, even for kids. The bikes are strong and stable and the guides are adept at getting you quickly comfortable with their operation. The bikes are easy to master and you get to see the countryside from a whole new perspective.

Relax into Hot Pools

If you want a little steam and heat with your ice, the Glacier Hot Pools, run by local Maori iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu is the place to wind up your visit. According to Maori legend, the Franz Josef Glacier was formed by the frozen tears of a woman called Hinehukatere, whose sweetheart Wawe fell to his death while climbing the mountainside near the top of the glacier. The Maori name for Franz Josef is the far more poetic Ka Roimata o Hinekukatere (the frozen tears of Hinehukatere).

Surrounded by lush native rainforest, the Glacier Hot Pools has three main pools and three secluded private pools. You can lie back in the enveloping embrace of your hot pool, and watch the steam rise into the cool air and slowly drift away into the trees. At nighttime count the stars in the canopy of sky overhead and watch the moon rise over the mountains. You might even like to share your hot pool with a fellow adventurer!

Happy adventuring.

Resources

www.doc.govt.nz: Department of Conservation, New Zealand

www.newzealand.com: Official tourist information for New Zealand

www.glaciercountry.co.nz: Glacier Country website

www.west-coast.co.nz: Tourism site for West Coast of New Zealand

Introduction to New Zealand

New Zealand Hotel Reviews

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Former high country shepherd, world traveller and passionate New Zealander. I have been published throughout New Zealand and in the US. I have a love for travel writing and photography and hope to share a little of New Zealand with the world.

© Fergus Blakiston, 2010

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