Towards Glaciers!

After finishing my trek around the Abel Tasman Coast Track and scoffing one of the brilliant, enormous fish & chips portions they serve here for all of 3-4 pounds, the time came to make my way along the scenic west coast of the South Island to its southern end; here awaited Fiordland, the alpine, rugged part of the country famous for its mirror-flat blue lakes and, as the name implies, for its fjords, most of which have been misnamed “sounds” or “inlets”.

Hitchhiking these ~500 miles of varied, breathtaking countryside was one of the best decisions I ever made. The road is frequented by a great many travellers which means they are often keen to stop at various landmarks, scenic viewpoints and even just random hard shoulders to gape and take photos and try to take in all they see around them. This beats the experience of sitting on a point-to-point coach or – God forbid – flying and missing out on the fantastic western highway altogether.

Just one of many hairpin corners too pretty to just drive by…sorry about the irritating lack of straightness!

In total, I took 4 days to get from Nelson to Te Anau, traversing most of the island and ending up at 45-odd degrees South. On the first of these days, getting out of Nelson proved the trickiest part of all as no-stopping zones and commuting traffic turned against me. In the end, a Nursery assistant in her mid-60s drove me to the town’s outskirts where the going became easier, and from here a single mum and her young daughter stopped to take me to the crossing where the road to the west coast branches off from the main road back to Christchurch. The fact that members of these two particular demographics even stopped for a solo male hitchhiker says a lot about the generally positive light in which hitchhiking is overwhelmingly seen down here!

The greatest part of my first day, though, was spent with two German biologists, Benni and Sarah, who were working in Brisbane studying a strange species of stingerless bee. Sounds like a perfect little honey factory, really! It was surprisingly pleasant talking to a couple of scientists about our respective fields and interests and the world in general – a more than welcome change from the repetitive, often slightly inane exchange of travellers’ tales in hostels. We took a scenic route which allowed us to stop at Punakaiki Rocks, conveniently anglicised to Pancake Rocks. The name is descriptive, too – limestone layers have been lifted up out of the sea and eroded so that they look like monstrous American-style stacks of pancakes some 150ft high. It took me a while to make this connection as I was expecting large, flat rocks more like the single, thin pancakes you’d roll up.

Somewhere far below sits sea level…during high tide there are some spectacular surges of water through the narrow gaps between the pillars, but we missed this during our visit.

In the end I got dropped off at Greymouth as they were heading back inland and it was getting late. There is nothing much in this little roadside town aside from a spectacular bridge whose single lane also doubled for the railway line; it says a lot about how infeasible and underused the railway is in this country that there wasn’t even a barrier so drivers are expected to check for themselves that no train is near. Despite the general drabness of Greymouth, though, I found the loveliest little hostel here called Noah’s Ark. Back in the 1980s, all of Greymouth was flooded and only this building, situated fortuitously, got away unharmed, prompting the name. I spent a thoroughly pleasant night in its gardens, making the most of my tent and the savings it allows for.

Out of Greymouth, my next destination was Franz Josef, a tiny one-street affair catering solely to tourists vising the Glacier that gave the place its name. First explored by an Austrian, it is named after the great emperor with what just might be the greatest beard in history. After a short ride with a commuter going to the next town to sell agricultural fertilisers, I was driven here by a young couple in a campervan who turned out to be on their honeymoon – I thought it was rather kind of them to take me on given this fact! As so often, it was their having hitchhiked themselves that motivated them to stop for me. Richard was a Londoner and Kim from near Edinburgh, and they’d married over a year ago but had only done a small honeymoon then, instead saving up for this big New Zealand trip. We chatted about home and about the Scottish independence referendum, a topic I felt slightly less unqualified to discuss after talking to Steve about it in India. The only mildly stressful aspect of this ride was that we were all pretty sure it was illegal as I was sat on the sofa in the back of the van with no seatbelt. This turned out to be surprisingly stressful on a winding road, especially as I had to lie down flat whenever we spotted a police car.

Franz Josef itself offers very little indeed of any particular interest, with the obvious exception of the nearby glacier. This is a rapidly receding affair in an enormous valley which it carved during the last glacial period; in fact I found it a little depressing, wallowing in its relatively puny state among all the evidence of its former grand self. Increasing portions of the glacier are also covered in debris which may be good news for future mass loss, but I would suspect this would make it less attractive to tourists, too.

The glacier’s most remarkable feature by far is that it flows right down into the middle of the temperate rainforest surrounding it. Nowhere else on Earth do glaciers flow to such low altitudes at latitudes of just under 45 degrees. Franz Josef’s high snowfall rates up high, coupled with fast flow speed, mean that the ice can travel far downslope despite warm temperatures.

The path leading up to the glacier valley. Doesn’t feel like one’s about to encounter a river of ice!
The boulder-strewn valley left behind by the retreating glacier.
One of the many rainfall-fed waterfalls crashing down to the valley – sadly their upper parts are pretty inaccessible!
Finally the glacier creeps into view around a corner, ever further removed from the huge main valley…
At the terminus, access to the glacier is restricted. Probably for the best given the cavern opening visible in the bottom right here!
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