Down the West Coast to Glacier Country
Summer 12/13 roadie, day 2
The day began in very holiday-like fashion with a dip in the hotel’s pool (Mike) and spa (me) next to where another guest was being bossed around by a trainer in the gym. “Madness”, I thought as I concentrated on staying as still as possible.
We didn’t lounge about for too long though as there were a few k’s to cover today. Armed with takeaway coffees we hit the road, happy we’d soon be reacquainted with the South Island’s West Coast.
To get there we drove through the Tasman region south of Nelson. Every now and then I would emit a gasp or squeal and over the course of the trip Mike would come to recognise this as meaning Hayley has seen an abandoned and decaying building. I always feel a strong urge to investigate and snap these and we could have stopped a dozen times – but we actually only stopped once.
We drove through country which has experienced big earthquakes, stopping to top up tummies in the small town of Murchison. Here and nearby there were two 7+ quakes in 1929 which permanently changed parts of the landscape forever.
Cue the Buller Gorge which follows the Buller River for a good chunk of its 170km length, where it eventually spits out into the Tasman Sea.
One lane bridges are a common sight around parts of NZ and we experienced many on our trip. This was another one lane feature: a 19th century solution for making a road go around a vertical cliff. Just blast a slice out of it – easy peazy.
We eventually emerged onto the coast road. I’m glad it wasn’t a bluebird day as that wouldn’t have fitted my perception of this part of the world.
Before the overnight stop the main planned break was at Punakaiki (poo-na-ky-kee), famous for its Pancake Rocks. I visited here 15 or so years ago and since then the facilities have been transformed to include cafes and souvenir shops. I don’t feel it’s been overdone, provided they leave it as it is now, and the walkway loop through bush and flax to the rocks is beautiful.
The limestone rocks have two main features: pancake-like layering and blowholes. The rocks themselves are very dramatic and wonderful to look at. Unfortunately we were there at low tide so there was no, er, blowing.
Not far away we stopped again to avoid raging at the chronically dawdling motorist in front (if you’re going to take your time that’s fine, but for god’s sake let others past). But I would have pulled in here anyway. Beside State Highway 6, alongside the coast and looking inland to roughly where the event took place, is the memorial for 19 miners who died in 1967 when gas exploded in the Strongman Mine.
We arrived in Glacier Country and the town of Franz Josef. Time was not in abundance so we hadn’t planned to visit the famous local glacier. But we did decide to drive as far as we could in the hope of at least seeing it.
A British explorer in the 1850s had named the glacier Victoria after the British Monarchy at the time, but he didn’t register the name (nor any others he came up with – doh!). So the following decade, Austrian explorer Julius Von Haast was able to claim it, and so it was named after the Emperor of Austria.
The glacier is a few k’s pleasant walk from town, or you can drive/bus further up the valley and from there walk for 40-ish minutes.
The glacier is currently 19km from the sea and they reckon it would have extended to the coast about 15,000 years ago. (Damn, just missed it.) Now it’s retreating – there are some great comparative photos in this article (make sure to use the ‘slider’).
Less than half an hour’s drive away is the town of Fox Glacier where we were booked for the night. We checked in and given it was already early evening, zoomed off down the road to Lake Matheson, renowned for gorgeous mountain reflections. And not of just any old peak, but NZ’s highest, Aoraki / Mount Cook, and its neighbour, Mount Tasman. I was quite excited as I’ve seen Mt Cook only a couple of times before, AND the low cloud that was lurking had decided to clear, AND it seemed to be a fairly still evening.
We found the carpark (with large fancy souvenir shop and restaurant) and path. Another beautiful walk through bush took us to the first lake/mountain viewing point… and rats. The air was not as still as we’d thought. Reflections just weren’t to be and so there wasn’t much point continuing further around the lake. The expedition wasn’t a total loss though.
By then the need for dinner was becoming urgent. Back in town, as we worked through our meals, we eyed the lastest forecast. There was some wet stuff on the way – we just hoped it wouldn’t bugger up plans to see the Fox Glacier in the morning.
I have located my photos/negatives from a 1995 trip to the South Island and this is the photo I took of Franz Josef Glacier from the carpark. It’s hard to relate the general situation as it is now to how it was almost 18 years ago.