We left Queenstown and drove on the Haast Highway over Haast Pass, stopping along the way to grab a shot of the Depot Creek Waterfall. Since it was a long drive to our next destination, we stayed one night in the one horse town of Haast in the middle of nowhere, and here is the horse to prove it. Haast had just one tiny antique looking gas pump, a couple motels and two restaurants with very limited menus. One restaurant was the hotel restaurant. After checking the menu we decided to drive to the other one down the street. This restaurant had antlers hanging from every available space in the rafters throughout the restaurant. Must have been over a hundred. Eating while looking at partial deer carcasses and a limited menu convinced us to go back and eat at the hotel restaurant. The sign on the restaurant door said “Beyond Your Wildest Expectations”. We laughed. Yep, pretty much described the town! We did drive down to the beach for a look at the Tasman Sea before heading inland. The Tasman Sea is a small sea of the South Pacific between Australia and New Zealand. Since it was supposed to be chilly that night and I am very cold natured, we tried turning on the heat in the room with no response. We asked at the front desk about the heat and they said it was controlled for the whole building by one control and they hadn’t turned it on for the winter yet. When we asked about the electric blankets they advertised having, they said they never had electric blankets. They did give us a small radiator heater to take back to the room. Kind of like a night in the Twilight Zone.
The next morning we continued on to “Glacier Country” and entered Westland Tai Poutini National Park for a three night stay at a town called Franz Josef Glacier. We came here to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. We drove first along the seashore and then headed inland up the mountain pass through a rain forest setting with ferns and heavy tree cover. The forests and woods on New Zealand are very thick. The tiny town of Franz Josef reminded me of a ski village since it is tucked in the rainforest foothills of the southern Alps. The town had one gas station, one grocery store and several restaurants. No fast food here, not even a Subway. The gas here was about fifteen cents more per liter than we have paid anywhere else.
There are around 140 glaciers that flow from the Southern Alps, however only Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers penetrate as far as the lush lower rainforests only 1,000 feet above sea level.
If you asked any ranger in a national park in the United States or New Zealand they would tell you that due to global warming, the glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate. They say they are getting too much rain instead of snow in the winter and they will show you pictures of previous winters to prove it. Yet there areas of the U.S. for example that are receiving record breaking cold temperatures and snowfall. Global warming or not? The whole debate gives us a headache. We can only tell you what we see with our own eyes and let you decide.
As you look at the pictures of our hikes to see the glaciers, keep in mind we are hiking on land once covered by glaciers. We saw signs showing us where glaciers once were not many years ago. We passed several areas that used to be viewpoints but as the glaciers retreat, the hike is lengthened and the viewpoints moved in order to continue to see the glaciers.
We drove to a viewpoint where we could see Mt Cook, Mt Tasman and the Fox Glacier. We then drove to the beginning of the Fox Glacier Valley Track to see Fox Glacier up close (meaning 200 meters away). Fox Glacier is fed by four alpine glaciers and it falls 8,530 feet over eight miles. The hike was longer and steeper than we expected, with rock hopping over four streams and a very steep climb at the end on a rocky path. Neither Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers are pristine white. In fact they look quite dirty from the dirt and rocks that fall on them.
The next day we did the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Track, a slightly longer hike but less steep and without any rock hopping over streams. What made this hike special were the beautiful waterfalls we passed along the way to the glacier viewing area.
Our time here went by very quickly. On our last day the owner of the motel brought us a basket of scones, still warm from the oven with butter, strawberry and raspberry jam. They were delicious and we wolfed them down.
Leaving Franz Josef, we drove to Greymouth, stopping at Hokitika Gorge for a quick hike to the swinging bridge and a couple pictures. We stayed overnight at a lovely motel owned by a couple originally from the Netherlands. We arrived in Greymouth on Good Friday and discovered almost everything closed for the holiday. The two grocery stores in town, the shops and restaurants all closed. It reminded me of what Christmas was like fifty years ago. We found a McDonalds open and had dinner there. While sitting there eating, a jeep pulled up giving us a full view of a dead deer draped over the spare tire on the back. Didn’t bother Bill but a real appetite suppressant for me!
The next day we drove to Westport. There are approximately 26 towns in the world called Westport, with many of them being in North America. This is the only Westport in the southern hemisphere.
On the way to Westport we stopped by the Punakaiki coastal rocks which resemble huge stacks of pancakes and therefore are called Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These limestone rocks were formed thirty million years ago and have been sculpted by mildly acidic rain, wind and sea water. The pancake effect was caused by immense pressure on alternating soft and hard marine life and plant sediment. By the time we arrived at Pancakes Rocks there was a steady rain and gale force winds so strong it was impossible to keep an umbrella from turning inside out. I could have possibly flown like Mary Poppins if I had tried to open one. We put on raincoats and ponchos and refused to let the storm stop us. We followed a nice paved trail that wound along the rocks with informational signs. One sign said the rocks are gradually being eroded away by sea and wind. By the time we returned to the car we were thoroughly soaked from the thighs down. Unfortunately we still had an hour drive to Westport in wet clothes on a chilly day. Amazingly even under these weather conditions Bill was able to get some great pictures of the rocks.
This overnight stay in Westport ended our visit to the South Island. We will take the car ferry back to Wellington Easter Day. We will spend an additional two weeks on the North Island before flying home.
- Almost all the motels we have stayed at are owner operated. Along with fresh milk they offer laundry facilities. Sometimes the laundry facilities are pricey, sometimes cheap and occasionally the washers are free and you can hang the laundry on their line or pay to use the dryer.
- Internet has been much better than we expected and has been free at the motels. Often it is unlimited and some limit the amount of usage. It has enabled us to keep up with the blog and publish posts more often than we expected.
- We have noticed a lot of backpacker hitchhikers on the South Island. Someone told us many of the restaurants employ backpackers on a short term basis while they are passing through the area. They will work long enough to earn money for food and supplies before moving on. All the servers in our restaurants have been young people.
- Most restaurants add a 15% to 20% surcharge to your bill on public holidays, including Good Friday, Easter, and the Monday after Easter.
- While in Franz Josef we met several people from Florida on our glacier hikes including one who lives in Miami as well as several University of Florida graduates. We also met people from Idaho, England and Australia. There are a lot of Australians here on holiday.