NZ’s West Coast won­der­land

Rugged Ice Age rem­nants spill from New Zealand’s mag­i­cal west, writes Rod­ney Ch­ester

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

‘‘ BUT I’ve al­ready seen glow­worms,’’ my six-year-old daugh­ter says in her ar­gu­ment against get­ting out of the car in the mid­dle of the night on a strange road. ‘‘ They’re on Tinker­bell.’’

The thing that even the biggest Dis­ney fan soon re­alises about the West Coast of New Zealand is that the ex­pe­ri­ences you have here, un­like back at home in front of the TV, are all real and of­ten un­ex­pected.

We had driven across the South Is­land from Christchurch tak­ing the stun­ning drive through Arthur’s Pass, and turned left when we hit the coast.

Our goal was to head down to glacier coun­try but that was a few more hours down the road and so we made our first night’s stop at Hok­i­tika, stay­ing at the Awatuna Homestead where host Hemi Te Rakau sits with his sto­ry­telling stick and re­counts the his­tory of his an­ces­tors who have a tribal re­la­tion­ship to the re­gion around the farm where he lives.

There’s a raw beauty to this side of New Zealand with its wind-blown coast­line and gi­ant tree ferns that line the road adding to the prim­i­tive and un­touched feel of much of this coast.

For the trav­eller mak­ing the ef­fort to cross to this side, there are two main at­trac­tions – and both of them are gi­ant, liv­ing lumps of ice.

We spent a morn­ing slowly trav­el­ling down to Fox Glacier, driv­ing through the rain ( they don’t call this the Wet Coast for noth­ing) and con­tem­plat­ing the idea of a half-day of hik­ing in freez­ing cold and wet con­di­tions. But, as can so eas­ily hap­pen here, the weather changed within mo­ments and the only wet­ness we had on our hike was the un­pleas­ant pud­dles of sweat you get when you wear wa­ter­proof pants on a sunny af­ter­noon.

There are a few ways to tackle Fox and Franz Josef, from a ca­sual look from the carpark to full-on ice climb­ing or heli­copter trips for those who want the thrill of walk­ing on the ice but can’t be both­ered with the ef­fort to reach the re­ward.

When you’re trav­el­ling with a near seven-year-old, and want to walk on the ice rather than just in the val­ley floor, your choices are limited.

As­sum­ing ei­ther bud­get or a philo­soph­i­cal ob­jec­tion to cheat­ing on the trek rules out the heli­copter, your choice comes down to the Fox Glacier.

To climb on Franz Josef, you face a steep climb up the front of the ice and the half-day hike re­quires a min­i­mum age of eight. To climb up Fox Glacier, you go up more than 700 steps on a bush track to the side of the glacier, and the half-day hike re­quires a min­i­mum age of seven.

Not that the Fox Glacier hike is easy, as we found out about 200 steps into our walk.

This is not easy,’’ said a ma­ture tourist from Ade­laide, puff­ing and pant­ing as she strug­gled up the stairs.

The guy at the book­ing of­fice said this would be an EASY walk.’’

Our guide Marisa po­litely pointed out to the trou­bled trav­eller that her safety talk about the gru­elling hike be­fore we set off which was frankly grim enough to have made Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary hang up his hik­ing boots in despair was pos­si­bly the op­por­tu­nity to clar­ify mat­ters.

If you can drag your­self up the hill, the re­wards are plen­ti­ful. When you reach the ice, you stop and strap cram­pons to your hired boots, grab what looks like an up­side-down tent pole and be­gin hik­ing around the ice in what is the most sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence in my life­time of bush­walks.

NA­TURE’S CON­TRASTS: Fox Glacier stretches through the tree-lined peaks on New Zealand’s South Is­land.

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