Glaciers, Hang-Gliding, Fjords – the fun never stops in New Zealand!

We are thoroughly enjoying our New Zealand trip, and sadly it is rapidly drawing to a close, we have had another fantastic week here. After enjoying the town of Hokitika we drove south to Glacier Country, where there are several glaciers but two, Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers, in particular are relatively accessible to the novice ice climber – i.e. me!

Our journey south took us firstly to the Franz Josef Glacier where we did a walk to its terminal (the glacier-geek word for the final ice face at the bottom of the glacier. The walk started in a forest and took us along the river basin formed by glacier melt water to within 200m of the terminal. I did a heli-hike on this glacier five years ago (see here) but this gave me another perspective. The photos don’t do it justice, the scale of the glacier is amazing.

The glaciers are roped off from the public as there is a real danger of icefalls (some blocks can weigh over a ton) and river surges, sadly there have been several fatal accidents in recent years with tourists who have climbed over the rope for a closer look. The only way to get close, but not too close, is to take a guided tour which we had planned to do on the Fox Glacier. It’s on 23km between the glaciers and each has a picturesque alpine village of the same name nearby, we spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Fox Glacier village – a favourite hangout of the inquisitive Kea (a parrot native to NZ).

The glaciers look pretty similar, although Fox is slightly longer and has a shorter and more interesting walk to its terminal. Our tour company provided us with boots, jackets, and gloves before we set off with our guide Ruth and group of 12 people for the glacier. We stayed well clear of the terminal, which as we got closer we could hear cracking (like a rifle) as bits of ice broke off, we walked up a steep path through the forest alongside the glacier to a point where we could safely walk onto it. Before we did we donned crampons (metal spikes that fit onto walking boots) so that we could walk on the ice without going arse over tit!

We were really lucky to have a sunny day and it was surprisingly hot, hence I’m wearing shorts, and with the backdrop of the Southern Alps very spectacular. The ice looks ‘dirty’ as the glacier wears away the mountains either side of it and causes rock falls, which it scoops up and takes with it down the mountain – descend, on average, an incredible 1.5m a day. At first the ice was relatively flat and compact but as we walked higher there were crevasses, which provided good photo opportunities.

We spent about 4 hours on the ice, checking out various ice features along the way, and walking up to an icefall about two thirds of the way up the glacier. Here the ice formed impressive jagged seracs that would require ice climbing gear to traverse.

It was a fantastic experience, you don’t get the chance to walk on a glacier everyday (unless you a glacier guide!), and one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting the south island. There are a load of photos from our walk on Fox Glacier here.

Next morning we took a stroll around nearby Lake Matheson, which is renowned for reflecting the peaks of the Southern Alps (including Mt. Cook, the highest NZ peak at 3755m) that tower over it. Sadly the clouds we shrouding the peaks but it was a decent view nevertheless.

They were even better with a hearty slice of Mud Cake and a decent Cappuccino at the Matheson Cafe by the lake – thanks for the tip Mum!

Suitably stuffed we drove south down the rugged West Coast through the town of Haast where we turned off the main road and drove about 50km through wilderness to the fishing hamlet at Jacksons Bay. The views here across the bay with a mountain backdrop are simply stunning. We did a short walk out to ‘Ocean Beach’ before dining at the Craypot cafe (a rustic caravan on the quay), where we ate fresh fish (it was swimming not long before!) and tried out the local delicacy of Whitebait Patties – nice but didn’t taste too fishy! The views out the window would make many poncy restaurants very envious!

Sadly it seemed Sand flies also enjoyed the view as there were masses of them here. These aggressive and persistent little flies have a painful bite that becomes very itchy and there’s not much that you can do to stop them. So we left them behind and drove back to the main highway and then an hour or so south towards Wanaka, overnighting at a remote DOC campsite at Pleasant Flat. Next morning we cruised through the Mt. Aspiring National Park to Wanaka stopping couple of times on the way to admire the views, waterfalls, and some amazingly blue pools.

As we came into Wanaka we stopped at Puzzling World where there are lots of puzzling things to admire, such as holograms, waterfalls that flow up, and a room that plays with your eyes. Although Lisa is pretty small…

We then went for a look round Wanaka and had a coffee in a nice cafe, but the weather was a bit nasty so we decided to drive on to the quaint village of Arrowtown, just north of NZ’s adventure capital Queenstown. Arrowtown was built in the 1860’s when gold was discovered here and retains many historical buildings set on pretty tree lined avenues, it’s a bit touristy but nevertheless enjoyable.

It was only a short drive to Queenstown but the scenery is stunning. The town lies at one end of Lake Wakatipu and is dwarfed by mountains quite appropriately named ‘The Remarkables. The town has a nice vibe about it, and whilst many people come here to do adrenalin based activities (parachuting, bungy jumping, jet boating, etc – the list is endless) it is well worth a visit in itself. There are lots of nice shops, which Lisa and her Mum meticulously explored, and some good cafes and pubs.

Of course no visit would be complete without getting the adrenalin pumping a bit, and having done a parachute jump here on my last visit (see here) I fancied something a little more graceful – hang-gliding! I convinced Lisa it was a good idea and were soon picked up by SkyTrek and driven up very windy roads to the nearby ski pistes on the Coronet Peak (1656m). It was pretty cold up there with a chilly wind and even a few flakes of snow, however our pilots said conditions were great for flying.

There were six of us flying that day and there were three pilots so we went in two batches, me in the first and Lisa in the second. After donning a flight suit, helmet, and gloves, we did a takeoff practice with our pilot Augusto from Chile. We were then strapped to the glider and move to the top of a steep slope, which we then ran down as fast as we could to take off. This all happened really quick and it took only 3 or 4 steps before we were airborne.

The flight was amazing, I felt feeling like an eagle soaring high in the sky, it was so peaceful and calm. To be honest I wasn’t taking in the view too much, just enjoying the feeling of gliding, although I could see alpine forests and tiny houses in the valley below. Alfonso let me have a go at flying the glider, which was surprisingly easy – pushing down on the metal the way you want to go. However I was happy to let him do the flying, and just take it all in.

The glider flies at about 25 mph, but to get lower for landing we had to cut some stomach churning turns, I just saw the forest below spinning! It felt much faster as the ground got closer, although the landing in a grassy field was smooth and we soon came to a stop. We flew for 15-20 minutes, an amazing experience from start to finish. I wanted to have another go and was a bit jealous when we drove back up to the peak and Lisa got her turn!

The wind was stronger by the time we had got back up but the sky was clearer, Lisa also flew with Augusto and was first to go in her group – the last of the three pilots decided not fly as the winds were too strong! She seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, there was a big smile on her face when we met at the landing field!

To cap of the day we went for a beer at a nice bar down by the lake and a massive, and delicious, burger at the revered ‘Fergburger’ – don’t miss this if you are in Queenstown!

We camped overnight at a DOC campsite on the lake about 12km out of Queenstown on the road to Glenorchy. We drove out to Glenorchy, about 50km down the lake from Queenstown, the next morning. This is the area that was used as Isengard in the Lord of the Rings films , you need a bit of imagination but it does feel like you in middle earth sometimes – imagine a big tower with an eye on it here!

We did a nice walk, at the start of the Routeburn track, through the dense forest to Lake Sylvan, it almost felt like the trees were watching you!

After the walk and a coffee in a nice cafe in Glenorchy we drove back to Queenstown and stayed in an overpriced campsite near the town centre, where we enjoyed a bit of sushi for dinner. Next morning we awoke to a lovely sunny day so took the chance to take the cable car up Bob’s Peak, which offers spectacular views over the town, Lake Wakatipu, and the surrounding mountains.

There’s a bungy jump at the top and we enjoyed watching people springing into oblivion, even better is that there is a Luge up here, I love the Luge!

I would of stayed on it all day but we had to get on the road again
as we wanted to checkout the Fjordland so took the long drive to Milford Sound, about four hours from Queenstown. We stopped for a break at the town of Te Anau on the way, and stopped overnight in a very remote DOC campsite about halfway along the 125km road that leads from Te Anau to Milford Sound – a very scenic road that makes the return journey worth it.

Next morning we were up early to drive the last leg to Milford Sound to meet our pre-booked boat tour, we took an early one to miss the tour bus crowds who come in at midday (good advice from the lonely planet!). About 20km from Milford Sound you have to drive through the scary Homer Tunnel, built in 1954 it looked and felt like could cave in at any moment! The first sight of the sound was stunning, rocky cliffs rising out of the blue waters with forests clinging to the slopes.

We boarded our boat and were happy to see it wasn’t too busy, and on cruising out of the crazily large terminal (says something about the tourist numbers that flock here) we immediately came across a pod of playful bottlenose dolphins – not an everyday sight here according to our guide.

It was a leisurely two hour return cruise along the fjord to it’s opening at the Tasman Sea and back. It rains here approx. 200 days a year and with 7m of rain falling it is not surprising that there are some gushing waterfalls that add to the spectacular scenery.

We also saw some seal lazing on the rocks, it really is a lovely place and well worth the long journey to get there. After the cruise it was another long drive as we needed to make up for some lost time and get over to the Catlins national park on the South East coast.

It’s quite different on this side of the island with rolling farmland, forests, and rugged bays – it reminds me of Devon or Cornwall. It took us most of the afternoon to reach our beach camp at Curio Bay. A lovely place with a sandy windswept beach and home to a pod of dolphins and some Yellow-Eyed penguins, a few of which we saw come in at dusk.

Having done a lot of driving the day before we took it easy and spent some time just relaxing overlooking the bay and watching the dolphins. The next land directly out from here is Antartica and the waves are pretty strong and some weather beaten looking trees. We had a look at ‘Niagara Falls’ about 100 times smaller than its American big brother (someone had a laugh with that one). In Papatowai we visited the Lost Gypsy Gallery, a madcap array of inventions by someone who has too much time on their hands! Some very funny and ingenious inventions though, I especially liked the pedal powered TV!

Another stop was Cathedral Caves, huge arched caves that have been cut by the oppressive sea through the rock. You can only reach the caves two hours either side of low tide, and there are two caves leading to one chamber that is gradually being extended, very impressive.

We ‘freedom camped’ overnight near the tiered Purakaunni Falls, which we had a look at this morning.

Then we drove around the coast to Nugget Point, a fabulous place where a lighthouse has been built on a rocky outcrop that is home to a colony of fur seals. With 100m drops to the ocean around the lighthouse the views are awesome.

It was then a 90km drive to Dunedin, the South Islands second largest city, where we spent this afternoon looking around. Founded by Scots there is a similarity with Edinburgh, a Robert Burns statue stands in prime position in the city centre. With lots of nice cafes it was a nice place to spend a few hours, there are lots of colonial buildings, including the Edwardian style train station.

Late this afternoon we drove another 70km north to Moeraki, a charming fishing village with some boulders on the beach that look like discarded marbles. We’ll check out the boulders tomorrow, but tonight we treated to a lovely sunset from the cliffs.

Very sadly our time in New Zealand is almost up, on Friday we will drop of the campervan in Christchurch and fly up to Auckland from where we will fly to Fiji on Saturday. We are looking forward to that, but it will be hard to leave this amazing country.

There’s a whole load of photos to look at here.

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