NZ’s West Coast wonderland
Rugged Ice Age remnants spill from New Zealand’s magical west, writes Rodney Chester
‘‘ 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.