Glories of Glacier Country
As has been topical in the news, one of the less trafficked pockets of New Zealand over the summer holidays has been Glacier Country in South Westland. I road-tripped through the region in mid-January and the sleepy state of Franz Josef’s main street, in the sticky heights of summer, left me gob-smacked. It was virtually deserted. Typically, the summer crush of international tourists and group tours consumes the heart of Franz Josef into an insatiable frenzy of activity. The novelty of having this ravishing corner of New Zealand to ourselves is likely to last most of the year, so why not make plans to savour its seraphic majesty, before the tourist trickle reverts to being a gusher again? See it now, before the global hordes return.
The twin glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox are revered as being two of the most accessible glaciers in the world, plunging down from the Southern Alps, wrapped in rainforest, almost to sea level. Descending from 3000 metres, Franz Josef Glacier terminates just 240 metres above sea level, and just 19km from the coast. The terminal face of Fox, which is the longest of the West Coast glaciers, is only 12km from the Tasman Sea. It’s what makes Franz Josef and Fox so exceptional – you’d struggle to find many glaciers so close to the ocean. There are a multitude of ways to commune with these wondrous ribbons of ice. From the valley floor, the walking tracks to the terminal face viewpoints will take you about 30-45 minutes to complete.
Franz Josef’s viewpoint takes a little longer than it does at Fox. But to get intimate, up-close or even to set foot on these glaciers, whether you’re heli-hiking, heli-ice climbing, or hankering for a scenic flight, tour prices have been slashed dramatically compared to pre-Covid rates. Scenic flights are now routinely available for under $100. If you’re up for on-the-ground adventure, I’d definitely recommend an ice climb on Franz Josef Glacier. Its steeper gradient gives rise to more crevasses and ice caves and you have a much better chance of seeing the universal allure of blue ice. One of nature’s great illusions, blue ice occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed and enlarges the ice crystals, creating the blue hue. Bag a heavily discounted glacier tour, while you can.
Speaking of specials, Te Waonui Forest Retreat is one of my all-time favourite luxury accommodation experiences. Thickly enrobed by rainforest, this five star boutique retreat in Franz Josef has never been so affordable, frequently touting cut-price rates to woo new travellers. Ingeniously built around a thick tract of rainforest, Te Waonui artfully blends all of the luxurious creature comforts, wrapped in nature’s elemental wonder. Spoil yourself with a signature stay at this tranquil establishment. Breakfast and dinner upgrade packages are also available.
Te Waonui is situated next to the Glacier Hot Pools, a divine destination, where you can soak in hot pools surrounded by equally therapeutic native bush. Hello, sensory heaven. Franz Josef is also home to the West Coast Wildlife Centre, home to the official breeding programme for the world’s rarest kiwi, the Rowi. It’s well worth a visit to check out their stirring work. Previously considered a variety of Brown Kiwi, the Rowi was recognised as a distinct species in 2003.
Highly threatened, there are fewer than 600 Rowi in the wild, as is the case for the Haast tokoeka. Brought back from the edge of extinction, with only 160 Kiwi in their natural habitat a decade ago, the only wild population of rowi is found at nearby Okarito. Since first opening in 2010, the West Coast Wildlife Centre has safely hatched over 329 rowi kiwi chicks and 122 Haast tokoeka which have all been released back into the wild through the Department of Conservation.
A couple of years ago, several dozen Kiwi were released into a new DOC sanctuary in the Omoeroa ranges near Lake Matheson, just out of Fox Glacier. I adore the magnificent mirror of Matheson, reputed to be New Zealand’s most photographed lake. A dinghy once allowed visitors to glide out to the centre of the lake to capture a more central view, but that’s long gone. Get up early for a dawn jaunt or end your day with a lakeside stroll at dusk, and you might even hear the kiwi calls reverberate across its reflective waters. Nestled in ancient rimu and kahikatea forest and revered for its mirror views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, its exceptional reflecting properties are due to the dark brown tannins leaching into the water leached from the forest floor.
Keep your fingers crossed for calm, clear weather that are the essential ingredients for the mirror magic. It’s a 40 minute return walk from the car park to the Jetty Viewpoint. For a longer leg-stretcher, plump for the 90 minute Lake Circuit route which leads you to the View of Views at the top end of the lake, plus Reflection Island. The painterly spectacle of a pristine mountain reflection, shrouded in native foliage, is what mesmerising travel moments are all about.
While you’re in Fox Glacier, another stirring track is the Minnehaha Walk. This effortless short walk follows a stream through the rainforest, just past the Bella Vista Motel. It’s an excellent introduction to the forest for children with the added bonus of glow worms at night. It’s also suitable for wheelchairs and buggies. Add it to the list.
Just 20 minutes drive north from Franz Josef, enjoy another distinctive dollop of nature’s glory in Whataroa, by making a booking with White Heron Sanctuary Tours. With several departures a day, this 2.5 hours excursion takes through private farmland into the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, which is the only nesting colony for the white heron, or kotuku, in New Zealand.
For 33 years the Arnold family have been enrapturing visitors, after having the vision to care for and share this world class attraction. They have the exclusive DOC concession to the site and are sticklers for keeping access to the sanctuary, the boardwalks and purpose-built viewing hide in mint condition. Dion Arnold is a naturally charming host with a jocular and self-effacing West Coast demeanour, keeping you engrossed with a stream of anecdotes, underscoring his abiding passion for accessible conservation.
Just why the White Herons have only one nesting site in New Zealand and why it’s in this far-flung pocket of South Westland, remains one of nature’s great secrets. After admiring the forest finery of one of the largest kahikatea reserves in the country, the first viewing point enchanted us with the spectacle with some of the other sanctuary residents – the Royal Spoonbill and the Little Shag. It was all aflutter.
Five minutes later, we arrived at the double decker viewing hide for the star attraction. Across the water, the verdant rainforest is laden with big fluffy snow-white balls of candy floss. From October to late February is nesting season, so it’s not too late to see preening parents and fluffy chicks playing happy families.
They’re so theatrical, so regal and natural born posers. They’re also incredibly delicate, even dainty, like snow white ballerinas in full performance mode. It was absolutely transfixing to watch from the viewing hide, where you’re about 20 metres away from the birds.
Over the autumn and winter months they disperse widely throughout New Zealand and are generally seen as a solitary bird, so definitely plan a summer stop here. It’s a singular and remarkable natural encounter and you’ll be in the best of hands with the Arnolds. My parents took a tour with Dion for their first time in their lives and absolutely loved it. www.whiteherontours.co.nz
Te Waonui is where you’ll be wanting to lay down your head in Franz Josef, while in Fox Glacier, I had a wonderful stay at the Rainforest Motel. This fabulous family-owned and operated motel is set across expansive gardens and lawns, backed by the most salivating mountainscape. Soak up the grandeur. Motel units are superbly equipped with full kitchen facilities and ensuite bathrooms. For great rates, you’ll find both properties listed on Booking.com who are right across our great backyard. Stake out great value stays with complete flexibility and convenience, no matter your budget and preferences. www.booking.com