Dawn at Franz Joseph Glacier. As daylight seeps into the sky I lie awake listening to the wind rattle the flax bushes growing outside my room. Through the window I can see a placid moon hanging low on the western horizon; a few of the brightest stars linger as the day is born on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
The previous day I had left my husband, James, at Mount Cook on the eastern side of the Southern Alps. He is part of a group doing a guided walk over the Copeland Pass an alpine route over the mountains and down through the rainforests of South Westland Our plan is to meet at Franz Joseph Glacier in three days. Until then, I am free to explore the southern part of the West Coast at my own pace
With James embarked on his adventure in the mountains I had driven north to Christchurch then west over Arthurs Pass. While I drove, I phoned a few places in Franz Joseph looking for a bed. Glenfern Villas had a room available for one night. I could find somewhere else for my second night. And when James returns from his epic hike, we have arranged to stay at Westwood Lodge where some friends had stayed previously.
The sun is well up by the time I leave Glenfern Villas. My room had a sunny deck looking out to the deep rainforest beyond so I’d sat drinking coffee and writing as the August morning warmed. Franz Joseph township is like a fairy-tale village in a forest clearing. I wander up the main street, which is also State Highway 6. The cluster of shops sell everything I need to sustain me on my wanderings: cheese, bread, lollies and coffee. As I leave town I wind the window down and turn the car stereo up. The early West Coast explorers’ tales of hardship and tragedy seem over a touch overwrought on this sunny morning. I sip my coffee as the forest swallows me whole.
I turn off the highway and follow a back road out to Gillespies Beach. Descending through graceful, sinuous rainforest, the road peters out amid a wilderness of bracken and flax. A few cottages patrolled by tattered, doleful sheep, stand in the lee of giant macrocarpas trees.
A westerly swell is pushing bumpy waves onto the steep, stony beach, which arcs around to the south-west towards Otorokua Point. A soft haze of spray drifts ashore and infuses the air with a taste of salt The ocean has patiently softened and rounded the stones until the bear no resemblance to the skyline of brittle, jagged rocks from which they came.
At Fox Glacier, I cross a rattling iron bridge and turn off the main road onto a slippery gravel road leading up the northern side of a deep, u-shaped valley. Rainforest clings precariously to the vertiginous rock faces; a river of pale blue water braided across fine grey stones flows out from the mountains.
At the end of the road I follow a trail around an outcrop of shattered rock and descend to the riverbed. The route up the valley towards the terminal face of the Fox Glacier is marked by cairns of piled stones and yellow ropes. Lurid signs warn me of the foolhardiness of straying outside the marked areas. But I can’t see any immediate danger in walking up an open riverbed so when no-one is looking I leave the path and set off on my own up the valley.
Up close, the glacier is pock-marked with grit and snapped off bits of mountain. I feel its cold breath of air currents flowing down from the invisible ice-fields high above. A river of pure crystal water flows out from beneath the glacier. Massive chunks of ice, as hard and clear as glass lie in the riverbed. I break off a small piece and melt it in my mouth thinking “this ice is hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.”
I spend the afternoon exploring the mirror lakes of Glacier Country. Lake Matheson, not far from Fox Glacier township, provides perfect reflections of Mount Cook (NZ’s highest mountain) and its pointy neighbour Mount Tasman. Lake Mapourika, a few minutes north of Franz Joseph has lots of bush walks to choose from but I opt instead for just lying in the sun beside the lake reading a book. Perfect!
Later, I drive out to the Okarito Lagoon. This bush-fringed lagoon is the habitat of the white heron, or to use its much nicer Maori name, Kotuku. The sun is drifting towards the western horizon as I sit on a narrow wooden jetty watching these graceful birds returning to their roosting places. The sky turns to a pale shade of pink; the snowfields of the Southern Alps gleam in the last light of day. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Back in Franz Joseph, I check into the Punga Grove Motel for the night. After my day’s exploring it’s nice to relax in my room’s spa bath with a glass of red wine. I fall asleep to the sound of gentle rain tapping on the trees outside my room.
I spend next morning at the Department of Conservation Headquarters where there are numerous displays of the natural and human history of the area. After lunch at one of Franz’s eateries
I drive up the road to Franz Joseph Glacier. Beyond a tunnel of overhanging forest, the road runs beneath towering bluffs of ice-smoothed rock. The terminal face of the glacier is an hour’s walk from the car park. Once again there are many warnings about the dire things which will befall anyone foolhardy enough to stray too close to the ice. I resist the temptation to explore off the beaten track this time.
The terminal face of the glacier is only 300 metres above sea level, one of only three glaciers outside the arctic regions to be found so close to the ocean. And of course one of the others is Fox Glacier! There are guided walks available on both Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.
James arrives back into civilization at three pm. After four days in the wilderness he his tired but jubilant having crossed the Southern Alps in almost perfect weather. Luckily, our suite at the Westwood Lodge with its big tiled shower, open fire and French tub is a perfect place for two adventurers to unwind and plan the next leg of our journey into the west.