Haast Pass and the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

We’re making a mad (long) dash between Queenstown and the West Coast’s Fox Glacier, so there’s not too much time to observe the sights along the way – short hikes only.  We will take a last look at Queenstown as we leave it.

Note the landing strip in the last picture, which you saw in the video from the previous post (June 24, “Queenstown, Arrowtown and the Routeburn“).  After leaving the mountains, the road passes the pretty Lake Hawea and the northern part of Lake Wanaka.  As usual, New Zealand’s water/mountain/cloud combos are special – a visual treat.  Lake Hawea pictures are below.

Lake WanakaTo the left is a view of the northern reaches of Lake Wanaka (I showed some of its southern parts in an earlier post – April 7, “Wanaka and the Rob Roy Valley“).


The Haast Pass goes though the upper regions of Mt. Aspiring National Park (visited in the Rob Roy trip mentioned above).  It’s a pretty area; the road follows an old greenstone trading route and the cascading Haast River.  We take time to do some short walks, such as the Blue Pools Walk below.  Note how unbelievably clear the water is!  We see large fish (not shown) that seem to be practically swimming in air.

Another short walk was to Fantail Falls.  Yes the waterfall is pretty, as is the associated stream-in-a-hurry, but look at the river rocks!  Even the rocks in NZ are gorgeous!

We also visit the impressive Thunder Creek Falls.  Again, there are attractive veined rocks.  The surrounding forest wasn’t too bad either.

We finally arrive at the stormy West Coast and make a beeline for Fox Glacier.  As I noted in an earlier post, the West Coast is stormy and wet, getting 12-30 feet of rain a year.  It is not sunny today, and one can certainly tell which way the wind blows!


Brochure picture of Fox GlacierWithin a few horizontal miles the terrain drops from 10,000 feet to a rain forest just above sea level, and both the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers creak down the steep incline at world-record pace, aided by the snow pack on top getting about 120 feet of new snow each year.  It should look something like that picture to the left, but the sky is all swirling cloud, visibility is limited, and we’re behind a mountain.  What we do see from afar is impressive enough, though!

We learn that it is supposed to rain tomorrow; if we want to see the glacier, now is the time (and it’s getting late).  So off we go.  The glacier has receded nearly 2 miles since 1750, and that’s the walk ahead of us.

As we slog along, we are greeted by a number of small waterfalls and creeks coming down from the mountains.

Again, the rocks along the trail are veined and beautiful!  Even the little pieces of gravel are too pretty to resist taking a piece home.

We arrive at trail’s end and find that Kea (alpine parrots) are already there, trying to help us get closer by untying barricade lines and eating warning signs.  Two of them are working the warning signs together, one trying to eat it from the top, one from below.  They really seem to be gremlins, disguised as pretty birds.

As it turns out, we can’t get very close to the glacier – two teenagers were recently killed when pieces broke off and buried them (they’re still there, impossible to retrieve).  The glacier also makes a right-angle turn, and we can only see up to that point.  Still it’s impressive enough, and pretty as the sun sets.

Nothing to do but hike out in the increasing gloom – and gather pretty rocks, of course.

One last look back, from a higher vantage point on the way out.

The weatherman got it right, and the next day it’s raining.  I had wanted to do a Glacier walk, picture from brochure guided 4-hour glacier walk, such as shown in this picture from a brochure, but we are short on time, the ladies are far from enthusiastic, and the rain clinches the “nope”.  Instead we’ll do the popular Lake Matheson Walk, with it’s iconic view of Mt Cook and Mt. Taman reflected in its water.  Or in our case, the reflected rain clouds?

In spite of the drizzle, it’s a lovely walk, with mountains in every direction.

Then it’s into the woods to drip our way through the ferns and mosses.

As shown in the first picture below, the “iconic view” of Mt Cook and Mt. Taman is not reflected in the lake today, alas.  Near the end of the walk the rain clears briefly, and we do get a reflection; just not of the big mountains.  Still, it’s worth the price of admission.


The walk in to Franz JosefFranz Josef is nearby, so we’re there quickly, and the rain has come with us.  We start the hike to the glacier, and discover there’s a benefit to this wet stuff; there are a lot of waterfalls along the trail, and nice ones at that!  They’re not huge waterfalls, but hey, I’ll take small and picturesque!

A wall of waterfallsFurther along the trail we encounter a region with a multitude of waterfalls cascading down the cliff face.  Although most of the waterfalls come prettily in and out of view on their way down, the falls on the far right remains in sight quite a distance and is impressive indeed, as shown in the pictures below.

As we hike further in, the dark cliffs and gray skies become a bit forbidding if not downright sinister.

Another waterfall or two, and then we’re there.

We are looking at one BIG front of ice!  It’s very impressive.

Surprisingly, some of the clouds suddenly clear, and we have patches of blue sky!  How about that!

On the way out, we see another waterfall that was hidden behind one of the cliff walls.  Also some cute wildflowers.  As the sky clears – which it’s doing quickly – the force of the wind up there on the top is revealed in the sweeping curved sculpture of snow peeking above the mountains.  It may not be friendly up there!  We pass again the twin waterfalls shown earlier, still very pretty.

Looking back at the glacier and scoured valleyFinally, a look back – in sunlight! – at the glacier with its scoured-out valley and waterfalls on both sides.  Hopefully you’re impressed!

Oh, and one last picture below of snow on a mountain top, with an appealing shape.  Snow on the mountain

The next day, it is time to head “home” to Nelson.  Below is a last shot of this pretty area of Franz Josef – and just for good measure, a picture of the ladies enjoying sculpture on the beach in Hokitika (notice the crashing waves in the background!).

Next stop – back to the Nelson area, and Abel Tasman National Park.

The West Coast

The Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea define and isolate the West Coast of New Zealand, a 240 mile long, narrow (18 mile wide) strip of land inhabited by just over 30,000 people.  It is the wettest part of NZ, getting 12-30 feet of rain a year (yep, that’s feet), often at tropical intensity for days.  The inhabitants are called “Coasters”; many are descended from gold and coal miners, and with those industries gone, along with timber, there isn’t much left.  Coasters are known for their independent thinking (often at odds with environmentalists) and their intemperate drinking.  There is some tourism – a jade carving (jewelry) industry in the middle and glacier climbing at the end – but it’s mostly people like us driving through with jaws dropping, looking at 240 miles of drop-dead-gorgeous (and empty) beaches.  You’ll see.


After making it over Andrew’s Pass, we stopped at one of the three largest cities on the West Coast, Hokitika (population about 3,000).  It’s one of the two main cities for buying “greenstone” jewelry and art, and therefore firmly on the tourist agenda.  Tourist magnetGreenstone, what the Maori call pounamu, is a hard nephrite jade, usually containing a variety of green shades within it.  It is beautiful, and often carved in traditional Maori designs.  The Maori practically worshiped the stone – it took the place of durable metals – and the Maori word for the South Island is Te Wahi Pounamou – “the place of greenstone”.  It is still highly valued.  Mineral claims are jealously guarded (and coveted), and because the Maori retain rights to much of the source, there is some friction.  The export of greenstone is prohibited,  and illegal extraction has stiff penalties – fines up to $200,000 and 2 years in jail.

GreenstoneLooking at the jewelry is a treat!  Each piece is small-scale sculpture, with whirls and curls and twists and cut-outs and negative space.  The picture to the left shows an example of greenstone with its many veins and shades of marbling.  We think it’s beautiful.

In addition to its craft scene, Hokitika has a very nice beach.  The first two pictures below are from our hotel balcony, where we are serenaded by the crashing breakers; the lower right picture from a walk on the beach.

BYO what?Yes, it is a tourist town, but we are impressed by some of the innovation being shown, such as this novel concept at a bar.  We order a pizza to go from down the street, carry it to the WC, order a good bottle of NZ wine from their retail shop, and settle into one of their tables.  How cool is that!

We decide to take a side-trip to the Hokitika Gorge and its acclaimed turquoise Hokitika River.  It’s a scenic drive through farmland and nearby mountains.  A short walk through pretty bush leads to what is indeed a very very turquoise river!  It looks more like someone spilled a whole lot of paint upstream than

real water flowing by.  The color is formed by glacier water entering the river with a load of  ground powder from schist and greywacke rock (major rock of NZ).  Judging by the color, that’s a hard-working glacier!


Well, in this segment I’m going to “beach you to death” with these pictures.  I am always mesmerized by the ocean – the infinite horizon, the parade of waves slowly moving in, unstoppable, the cresting breakers ominously rearing, the crash as they bash themselves on shore, the sucking retreat.  It’s nature’s slow ballet, danced with power.  To that, add beauty and color, black rock and white spray, wheeling birds and stately headlands, a salty smell and breeze; every sense of your body experiences the ocean.

The West Coast highway runs close to the shore, and around every curve there is another striking and atmospheric beach that beckons.  I stop so frequently to take pictures that Ginger starts to laugh at me.  I am making a big effort to limit the number of photos I’m going to jam into this post, but I’m not being very successful.  Let’s start with just a few pictures of the ocean itself, near and far.

Now I’ll show you a few beach shots.  They’re beautiful, many of them miles and miles long, and there really is practically nobody on them.


This is a bus-tour tourist destination within the Paparoa National Park – a stop-n-go place.  There is a large parking lot,  a souvenir shop, a cafe, a few cabins and cottages to rent on the surrounding hills, and not much else here!  Except, of course, the dark layered and weathered limestone rocks and a pounding surf.  It’s a pretty place.  We were impressed.   Pictures below.

WekaOh, and there in the parking lot we spot a couple of Weka!  They’re chicken-size flightless birds, and we haven’t seen them before.  They must be on vacation, catching the tourist sights like we are.


Well, believe it or not, there is more amazing coast to see as we head further north.  Ho hum.  More beaches.  Dime a dozen.  I’m stopping a lot less, partly because we have in fact seen so many, and partly because we have a ways to travel yet before arriving in Nelson, and Ginger is no longer laughing at me for stopping so much.  Rather the opposite, really.  Luckily, she did not pack the riding crop, but I get the message.  Pictures below.

Ruby Bay, here we come!  Wait ’till you see that pretty part of the world!