The Wild West

(July 2020)

When we started planning this trip, the thought was to take advantage of the cheap deals many of the camper van companies were running, trying to ignite some business as they were suffering without international tourists.  Unfortunately, or as it turns out, fortunately, I could not get a booking as they were quickly sold out … so, instead of a budget campervan, we ended up staying in a wonderful (but way less than budget) 2 bed apartment (more about that later).

This was definitely a real win for us.  If you are a regular reader, you will know that I often travel on my own, but other times with my partner, friends or other groups.  Even then, I am happy to go off and do my own thing – we don’t always have to do the same thing all the time right?  This is where the campervan may have been an issue as when I want to head off early for a morning walk, and my partner wanted to sleep in, I would have had to drag him out of bed to buckle up for the journey.   A less than ideal situation, for us anyway.

And so we left home and headed off in the sunshine toward the great divide (otherwise know as the Southern Alps).  It was a beautiful morning, and the mountains were looking stunning.  A quick stop for another one of those ‘world famous in New Zealand’ pies at the Sheffield Café – if you have not picked up on it, Kiwis love a good pie lol.

As we neared the mountains, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we reached Arthurs Pass village it was snowing!  I had spent some time deliberating whether we needed snow chains or not, and finally erred on the side of caution.  It was definitely the right decision as we would not have been able to go any further if we did not have them.

BUT … putting them on was another matter lol. When I had picked up the chains in the morning before leaving, the person had the shop had quickly showed me how to do it and thank goodness I had decided to video it!!  Even still, it was massively challengingly putting them on in the snow and after much struggling, we got them on and headed off slowly into the mountains.

We didn’t actually have to drive very far before we could take the chains off again (which turned out to be equally challenging but we got there in the end) and we could head down towards the west coast … through rain and then out in to blue skies again. 

The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef (our destination) is around 5.5 hours and so we arrived around 2pm and checked in to our amazing room at the Rainforest Retreat.  As it was a birthday trip (for me), we had splashed out a deluxe room – 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, living area and, the ‘pièce de résistance’ was our private hot tub on deck with a beautiful view of the mountains.  It was amazing to be able to lay in bed in the morning, watching the first sun hit the mountain tops.

Situated in the ‘Glacier Region” a UNESCO World Heritage area, Franz Josef, the town, is not surprisingly named after the nearby glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, which in turn is named after Franz Josef I of Austria by Julius von Haast.  Von Haast was a German geologist who explored and mapped much of the South Island in the mid 1800’s.  More recently, the official name of the town was changed to Franz Josef /Waiau.

The town is home to under 500 people, possibly less now given that its existence is based around tourism, but they struggle on, trying to fill the 3000+ tourist beds in the town.  I was glad that we were able to do our bit and support the hotels and restaurants in the area.

The next morning, we drove the short 30 minutes to nearby (and even smaller) Fox Glacier – another town named after it’s nearby glacier, this time named after Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1972. 

Just passed the town is Lake Matheson, one of the ‘must see’ sites in the area.  On a beautiful day like this one was, there are great reflections of the mountains in the lake.  The lake is surrounded by a beautiful reserve, with well maintained pathways and on this still, icy morning we were not disappointed – the reflections were AMAZING.

I may not have got to see Mt Cook a few weeks early when I was in the Mackenzie Country, but we got a perfect view on this day – of both Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.

After a coffee at the lovely café near the lake, overlooking views of the glacier and mountains, we headed back to Fox Glacier (the town) for some lunch – again, trying to spread our spending around the small businesses.

The afternoon took me to Ōkārito, 25 km from Franz Josef, in search of a sunset.  Now if you think Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are small towns, Ōkārito has a population of only 30 people today, though it was once a booming town with a population of 4000 people during the gold rush in the mid-1860s.  It’s hard to imagine what you see now as a bustling town, but I imagine it was something like the towns depicted in “the Luminaries”.

After a short walk up to a lookout point and along the beach, I made my way to the lagoon. During the spring/summer it is home to many species of wading birds, including the kotuku or White Heron (this is one of the few breeding areas in New Zealand). The Ōkārito wharf is a stunning backdrop to many photos I had seen and it did not disappoint. It also has a small display about the town in it’s heyday which was worth a look. There are also wild kiwi in the area, so I definitely think I need to come back for a longer visit to see some of the stunning birdlife.

Back in Franz Josef and we passed the busy restaurants and headed into Snakebite Brewery which for some reason was almost empty.  It was a shame as the food was great, the music was great, and the snakebites (a mix of Beer and Cider) were as good (or bad lol) as I remember from when I use to drink them in London in my youth lol. 

For our final morning in Franz Josef, I wanted to see the glacier (which you can barely see from the township), so I was up early and drove the short distance to the car park.  Unfortunately, I could not get very close as the river was too big to allow people to cross it, I so only saw from a distance. If I was 100 years earlier I would have been able to walk right up to the face of it and it was sad to see how much it had receded in the last 100 years or so.  Hard to believe that 18,000 years ago (really just a short time in geologically terms), the glacier extended to the sea, 19kms from today’s terminal face.

The Maori name for Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere or The tears of Hine Hukatere, after a tragic love story.  From franzjosefglacier.com:

Hine Hukatere was extremely strong and fearless and loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was less experienced in the mountains, but enjoyed accompanying his beloved.

An avalanche hit the lovers as they were climbing, and Wawe was swept from the peaks to his death. Hine Hukatere was heart-broken and her grief caused her to cry rivers of tears, which flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods. Her frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of her grief and give the glacier its name – Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere).

We had a late check out (12 noon is apparently West Coast 10am 😂 – ‘West Coast time’ is clearly similar to ‘Island time’), so there was time for one more quick soak in the hot tub (when you pay for the luxury of having your own personal hot tub, you use it at every opportunity right?) before packing up and hitting the road again.  We had planned to fill up on petrol before leaving Franz Josef but the fuel prices were almost 50 cents a litre more expensive than back home so we only put in enough to get to our next stop, Hokitika, where we hoped it would be cheaper – thankfully it was.

As we left Franz Josef, we picked up a hitch hiker – a girl from America who had been working in Auckland when lock down started. She was made redundant just after lockdown so decided to stay and travel rather than go home (though as I write this, she may have made it home). She had been waiting for about 1.5 hours (as there had not been much traffic) so glad we picked her up and she made it to Greymouth in time for her train back to Christchurch👍🏻.

The final night of our wild west mini break was spent in Hokitika – another town founded during the 1860’s gold rush when it was an important river port.  Today it brands itself as a ‘Cool Little Town’ – nothing like being your own cheerleader lol.  We had a lovely ocean view room, overlooking the wild coastline and of course a perfect viewing point for the sunset. 

The town has several heritage buildings around the town, but the most it’s most famous site, is the driftwood Hokitika sign along the waterfront.  I visited it at numerous times of the day to attempt to get the ‘perfect’ shot and I imagine it would be crazy if it was busy with the normal number of tourists.  As it was it was busy enough for me and somewhat annoying with families allowing their kids to climb on the fragile structure, breaking it in the process – though I am sure it is not the first time it has been broken!!! 

After dark I drove a few minutes out of town to Glow worm dell – to be honest it was somewhat of an anticlimax 🥴 – I guess it was technically a ‘dell’ and there were glow worms, but it was a tiny area, just off the main road with what appeared to be a handful of worms!!  If you have not seen them before, then perhaps it might be worth it, but if you have been lucky enough to see them in all their glory (as is possible elsewhere) then it is probably not worth the visit.

Our final morning was spent walking along the wild beach, it is beautiful in its wildness with wonderful views of the mountains on one side, and the Tasman sea on the other.  A great way to clear the cobwebs before the 3 hour drive back through the mountains – thankfully snow free this time lol.

What a great break and glad we could get out and support the local businesses who are struggling with a lack of tourists.

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