Skip to Content

Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 8, 2007

After crossing the country the previous day, this was to be our first taste of the west coast proper. A drive down from Hokitika, past the two glaciers, and on to Haast, where we were to stay overnight before heading off east again.

Eschewing breakfast in our log cabin, we made our usual early morning start. Not so much to avoid the traffic (there isn't any) but to make as much use of the day as we could. And as soon as we left Hokitika, the first of many glorious natural spectacles greeted us.

Dramatic views from the Hokitika River bridge

Ruatapu Road takes you out of town to the south and over the lengthy Hokitika River Bridge, with its super views of the mountains, river delta, coastal plains and ocean. Further inland, the river plays host to those seeking whitewater thrills or wishing to test their fishing skills on the trout, salmon and other freshwater fish that travel these waters.

Once across the river, the road wound its way along the coast, through verdant bush and over one-way bridges. Some of the latter can be shared by the train, so the prudent driver does not hang about.

Lush, rainforest-like roadside vegetation on the road south of Hokitika, West Coast

We passed through the small town of Ross without stopping. Like many places on the west coast, it falls under the designation of "old mining settlement" and was the source of New Zealand's largest nugget of gold. You can see a replica of that find in the town museum. We pressed on though, intent on catching a late breakfast at Pukekura.

The further south we drove, the more animal and plant life we seemed to see. The vegetation crowded in on us, and the amount of roadkill reached eyebrow-raising levels. Possums, it seems, are not good at road safety. Not that locals shed too many tears.

In fact, they put them in pies.

Which brings me to Pukekura, population 2, and home to the (in)famous Bushmans Centre, where we stopped for a bite to eat before continuing to Franz Josef.

The centre is a cafe, museum and shop in one, with a focus on the frontier spirit, hunting and craftmanship that dictated the region's history. We only had time to briefly glance round the shop, which was full of unusual and unique souvenirs. And repeated admonishments to keep your hands off the merchandise.

Sign promoting Petes Possum Pies, Pukekura, West Coast

In fact, the place was full of signs which made it very clear that the customer is, in all likelihood, never right. This straight-talking attitude, expressed humorously in notices and displays everywhere, could be described as clever marketing, brutal honesty or rudeness, depending on your perspective and interpretation.

We grabbed tea and a soft drink, and kept clear of the possum pies for which the centre is also famous. (Yes, they contain real possums). As we were to discover, it's hard to find any sympathy in New Zealand for that particular animal, thanks to its negative impact on the native flora and fauna.

A possum's lot is really not a happy one. Even the Department of Conservation declares it "high on cuteness, and equally high in nuisance value", and happily furnishes its website visitors with detailed advice on how to trap and kill them.

Still, we had no time to ponder the fate of the poor possum as we moved on along Highway 6 to Franz Josef and the glacier of the same name.

The town itself is small and non-descript, with the roadside stores geared up to servicing those seeking various glacial experiences...everything from gentle flights around the mountains to ice climbing and quad biking.

As we drove through the town, we caught the odd elusive glimpse of the glacier in the distance, but its full glory would only appear later. A trip to the visitor centre revealed that the icy giant was actually about 5 kms out of town. So armed with directions we set off south.

The glacier access road was easy enough to find, and we left the car in the large car park at its end. We were surprised to find crowds of sandalled tourists heading off down toward the ice face. We had half expected a "Scott of the Antarctica" experience, but it turns out that the Franz Josef Glacier is remarkably visitor friendly.

Magnificent view of Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Rather than oblige a trek deep into the icy wastes of the Southern Alps, the glacier reaches down to within a few kilometers of the coast and near sea level. So while anyone wishing to get up close and familiar with the packed ice does need to wear appropriate clothing and take appropriate care, the rest of us can reach a suitable viewing point without resorting to oxygen masks or cable cars.

We took a couple of gentle short walks to scenic points at Sentinel Rock and part way down the Forest Walk. Part way down because the rest of the walk was cordoned off by the parks service due to changeable river courses (!). A reminder that even in the height of summer, this is still wild territory.

Unsurprisingly, the sight of a huge glacier carving its way through the tree and scrub-covered valley sides was one which won't fade from memory fast. Sentinel Rock was a perfect vantage point for taking in the full expanse of the river floor, valley and glacier face in all its glory. We couldn't imagine a better view, even if clouds did obscure the mountainous backdrop.

But what you don't grasp when you visit the Franz Josef glacier area by foot or car is the true scale of the landscape. So after a brief lunch stop back in town, we decided to take to the air to better familiarize ourselves with the local geography.

Aircraft and so-called runway, Franz Josef

We picked up our tickets and headed out back past the glacier access road to a small airfield operated by Aoraki Mount Cook Ski Planes. And our first instinct was to turn the car round and drive back again. When you're used to international airports like Tokyo's Narita or London's Heathrow, an overgrown field with a windsock and small Cessna can come as a bit of shock. Gallows humor was the order of the day. Stupid, I know, but city folk are city folk.

Our pilot Kerry greeted us heartily and we were soon put at our ease by his kind nature and warm welcome. We'd originally planned a scenic flight around Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, together with Mount Cook. But we forgot to tell the Weather Gods, and low cloud limited the flight to the glacier areas only.

Despite this, the next 30 minutes proved some of the most enriching of our lives, as our little ski plane took us up and over the flood plain and mountains to enjoy extraordinary views of some of nature's most spectacular jewels. These are the thoughts I recorded at the time, and it seems unnecessary to edit them...

Cobalt blue pools on Franz Josef Glacier

To really appreciate the majesty and extent of the glacial landscape, you need to take to the air. A trip in a Cessna gives you a greater understanding of just how the hills, mountains, rivers and glaciers combine to form a complete landscape that challenges the imagination and reveals just how little impact man has had on the west coast's geography.

The full extent of the glacier's length and beauty is only captured from above. What seems like a smooth river of white ice from below reveals itself to be a ragged and craggy monstrosity, where packed ice refracts the light to produce a quite unexpected blue sheen interspersed with pools of brilliant cobalt.

As you dip into and through gaps in the mountains, you are left in awe of the sheer enormity and primeval beauty of the landscape. While civilisation may lap at the foothills, the higher slopes remain singularly unimpressed and unimpacted by the activities of man. It is truly an emotional and inspiring journey. A deserved lesson in humility that leaves one close to tears (or vomiting, depending on the likelihood of air sickness.)

Yes, I really was that impressed.

Snow-capped mountain peaks, near Franz Josef Glacier.

The trip took us over and around the icy Waiho river, over both glaciers and in and out of the surrounding mountains, culminating in a ski ride down a snow-covered mountainside which saw our plane bump and jostle its way down before pitching over the edge in a breathtaking and stomach-challenging descent.

We barely talked during the trip, and after landing it took us a while to get our breath back for the journey onward and south to Haast.

It was now getting toward late afternoon. So having seen it from the air, we decided to skip a trip to Fox glacier, preferring instead to take a right turn in Fox to Lake Matheson, a small water feature left behind as the nearby glacier retreated back from the coast.

Not quite mirror-perfect Lake Matheson on a cloudy day

Under normal circumstances, such a lake would barely be worth mentioning. But this one has a trick up its sleeve. Leached material from the surrounding forest and a sheltered environment combine to make the lake's dark surface a perfect mirror.

Throw in a mountain landscape featuring New Zealand's tallest peak and you have perhaps the country's most famous photo opportunity: Mount Cook and its environs reflected in the still waters of Lake Matheson.

At least that's the theory.

Lake Moeraki, lent an extra dramatic flair by looming clouds

By the time we'd parked the car and walked the few minutes to the water's edge, the clouds had come in and the wind had risen. So the photo opportunity was, basically, gone. We snapped some photos half-heartedly before returning to the car and the last leg of our day's journey down to Haast.

That part of the drive is hard to recall. One problem with New Zealand is the excess of landscape highlights. After a close encounter with a glacier or two, it's difficult to drum up enthusiasm for a few nice views of mountains and forests. As such, the journey down to Haast paled in comparison to the icy landscapes of Franz Josef and Fox. Not even the still beauty of Lake Moeraki could lift our self-imposed gloom.

Enormous pie at the World Heritage Hotel restaurant

I daresay the route is a beautiful one, but minds full of icy images were simply closed down to further input. Exhausted, we pulled into the World Heritage Hotel at Haast Junction. The hotel's name might draw expectations it cannot fulfill, but the rooms are comfortable, if simple. It proved a perfectly adequate place to break the journey between coasts.

With no desire to explore further that day, we fell into the hotel's own restaurant and bar. Not a decision we regretted, as the food was excellent and the bar offered a nice selection of wines and beers. The only thing able to dampen our spirits was the drizzle that set in late evening. We hoped for better weather for day 4: destination Wanaka!

Click for more travel impressions