Today’s post takes us back to Wednesday 17th February and our first sightings of some impressive, massive mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Glaciers and Mountains
Since I arrived in New Zealand in October 2001, I’ve seen reports of tourists getting close to glaciers, and often thought the NZ attitude to Health and Safety fairly ‘cavalier’ in its approach in comparison to the over-the-top attitude in the UK. I actually found it refreshing! Sadly this has changed dramatically, and it’s now no longer possible to get anywhere near without paying. Health and Safety regulations have won the day.
We thought we’d seen Mount Cook en route, the highest of the Southern Alps range at 3,724 metres (12,218 ft). To put this into perspective, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK at 1,345 metres. Almost three times as high!
If you look at the first of Barry’s images in his slideshow, you’ll see what I mean. Though it’s easy to be deceived. We realised a couple of days later it was actually Mount Tasman (3,497 metres) we’d gazed at in wonderment. Regardless of that, they’re both incredibly magnificent maunga/mountains.
We stayed in a fabulous NZMCA park at Franz Josef, which included ‘free’ views of the snowy mountains. How amazing to be able to stay so close for just $6 a night. There were ‘Hot Pools‘ advertised nearby – but they’re not thermal, just hot water, and seemed extraordinarily expensive, so we gave them a miss. That and our tight time schedule. Thankfully we enjoyed a ‘free’ hot spa later in the day …
It felt to us that Franz Joseph was the ‘Queenstown’ version of the glacier towns. It felt very ‘touristy’ and commercialised to us. Though to be fair we arrived late and left early, so only drove through.
The next day we drove to the Franz Josef Glacier Walk, as we’d read you can get really close to the glacier still (you’ll see photographic evidence at the end of the post). Why pay hundreds of $s for an organised tour if that’s the case? We were sadly disappointed. After a short walk from the car park, we reached a no-nonsense barrier and weren’t able to venture further sadly. There was a story about twenty tourists, a year previously (so the barrier had obviously been there for a long time), who decided to break the rules. One woman even tried to swim the raging river! What a waste of rescue services resources and a risk to their lives.
We were blessed with a clear sky, and able to gaze in admiration at this feat of nature, despite our disappointment. My Dad’s Opera binoculars are coming in really handy. Landslides had basically blocked the previous river walk, so it was incredibly dangerous to get anywhere near unless you’re with an experienced guide.
We carried on to Lake Matheson, where I discovered Barry had always wanted to visit. It’s a picture-postcard lake, having featured on one of the old cartoon-type images of postcards to attract overseas tourists many years ago. We discovered why.
Our first walk around the water was an afternoon visit, on Thursday 18th February. I found the most amazing bright blue mushroom near the track – and later found out it’s on the NZ $50 note. It’s called the Enteloma Hochststettri (thanks Monique!) and can be either this very dark blue or paler. Maori called this fungi werewere-kokako because it resembled the bright, sky-blue wattle of kokako, an endangered NZ bird. We’ve seen a few of the paler blue versions, but this was our first bright blue one. All of the flora and fauna were superb; consequently, my walk was rather slow and mindful absorbing all the sights, smells, and sounds.
However, the famous reflections weren’t happening for us, due to ripples on the lake. So I suggested strongly we pay to stay nearby and return early the following morning. Dawn and dusk it said were the optimum times to have a still surface. So long as the weather was fine. The forecast was positive.
We booked into the Top Ten a short drive away, with the luxury of a half hour hot spa. That was divine! We also got our washing up to date. What luxury! Worth every cent.
Worth Getting Up At Dawn
We had an early start at sparrows fart! But it was well worth it. There was only one other person at the Lake who arrived before us. Mattius from Finland. We all experienced the famous reflections, though the sky was never quite cloudless. All in all, we mooched around in a type of ecstatic trance, for over three hours. we told Mattius about the ‘view of views’, and met him at the Lake of Reflections.
The sky clouded over at one point, then cleared up again. We walked up the stairs to the ‘View of Views’, then round to the ‘Lake of Reflections’, then returned to the ‘View of Views’ when the clouds dispersed again much to Barry’s chagrin! But boy he got some superb shots. Truly breathtaking.
Fox Glacier – Really?
In February 2019, a major ‘slip’ (basically a landslide of debris) left the road to the car park inaccessible. It proved exorbitantly expensive to repair, so funds were put into improving the track around Lake Matheson instead. Consequently, it’s now a massive walk to the viewing platform, for very little reward. Previously you could walk along the river and get closer to the Glacier. Not so now, due to other landslides and the river changing course.
We met with a lovely young couple from Bournemouth who suggested taking a picture with iPhone through the binocular lens. Brilliant! Check out my circular photo below:
On the way back from the big walk, we took a short loop walk on the ‘Moraine Walk‘ – absolutely amazing. It felt as though we’d been transported to a type of Peter Pan Fairyland forest. Moraines, I discovered, are the debris of rocks and stones left when a glacier retreats. This was a highlight from our free afternoon excursion trying to see Fox Glacier. There were a number of signs showing where the glacier used to reach thousands of years ago.
It seems we were around ten years too late! In retrospect, we’d recommend paying for a guided tour and THEN you DO get to see and experience the glaciers in safety. Had I known this, I’d have booked it. The brochures we had, for some unfathomable reason, are still promoting the glaciers as being accessible. totally inaccurate and misleading:
Driving southwards another 90km on Friday 19th February, we found an interesting free camp spot near Lake Moeraki. It’s basically the road of a gravel pit, and not signposted as a camp spot. We discovered it through the NZMCA guide thankfully.
There were another two camper vans and a caravan there overnight, all spread out along a rather bumpy ‘road’. The sandflies sadly were prolific! So we didn’t spend much time outside to save us being nibbled to distraction. I did have a paddle, in the clear and cool water. And gazed lovingly at the sparkly rocks.
From hereon in there’s very limited internet signal. We were aware of this, and knew our time would be limited as it’s not great for us to be out of contact for work and overseas family.
Our next stop was Haast and the pass, then Jackson Bay. The end of the road for the West Coast. So many more incredible sights to share …
Barry’s Slide show
As usual, here’s Barry’s view of this journey. Click the first image to start the slide show: