New Zealand 2011- The West Coast - Where Rainforest and Glaciers meet the sea.

Tuesday, Apr 05, 2011 at 00:00


5th April 2011
Bottom end of Lake Mapourika
Westland (Tai Poutini) National Park

Just scenery’d out today. There is just so much to absorb. We began the day with a good breakfast overlooking the lake. A quick wander amongst the driftwood laden shores and then we were off along the highway that clings precariously to the cliffs ringing the lake and into Haasts Pass. The pass itself is a passageway between the mountain ranges. It doesn’t climb to a significant height as one might imagine, rather it follows the Haast river north until it meets the winding valley that holds the Landsborough River and follows this west to the sea. The scenery is spectacular to say the least and you soon have to put a stop to pulling over to take photos as you’d never get anywhere!

Along the way we stopped to take in the Blue Pools, the deep crystal clear pools fed by glacial waters from the southern alps. The 15 minute walk in through the forest transports you into another realm, that of the moss and fern clad rain forest. Every tree is a microcosm in itself being covered and draped in mosses, ferns and fungi. The bird life is also varied and interesting with many fantails and other smaller ground cover dwelling varieties peeping a welcome or indignation as you pass. The DEC have been very active in stoat trapping to protect the bird species and this has made a big difference to the bird population. Those misguided souls who introduced the stoat for rabbit control in the 1870’s have a lot to answer for.

Two narrow suspension footbridges cross the Makarora river to deliver you to the narrow gorge that holds the blue pools. While the pools are nothing spectacular (my opinion only there) the forest in itself is well worth the walk. Returning to the car park and heading north we also stopped for a look at Fantail and Thunder falls, all close to the highway and easily accessed. The effort it must have taken to cut this road through to the west coast was staggering. The twisting torturous route took many decades to complete. The road has been carved into the side of the steep gorge and often only a thin piece of amco railing is all that protects you from a precipitous drop into a ravine. It’s another interesting fact that the kiwis haven’t gone overboard with the amco railing or similar like we have in Victoria at least. That good old nanny state mentality I suppose. Here bitumen is poured around large trees by the roadside. In Vic, we’d have cut them down, cleared 10 metres of verge and put up amco railing to protect all the whinging motorists. Perhaps the coroners over here are a tad more realistic?!

The Haast Pass ends with a whimper rather than a bang. The Landsborough is a 400 metre wide stretch of water worn stones bordered by steep sided ranges when stops! Through the last two hills and you enter the hinterland where the Tasman meets the west coast. Also found is the tiny hamlet of Haast. Haast is actually German for “Fleece passing tourists” or so the prices in the local cafe led me to believe. A wounded buffalo has nothing on this lot! Never the less Vik did need her coffee (Refer Day 1: - “Happy wife, Happy Life”).

Heading north up the coast, the flat land suddenly disappears. There are no wide alluvial plains here. The rain forest and stark ranges run right down to the sea. It’s a spectacular, rugged coast. The 1950s were a time of much infrastructure development in New Zealand. A major project was the building of a road from the South Island's east coast, across Haast Pass and up the west coast to join the road that terminated at Ross. This project was tackled by two teams coming from both the north and the south. Where the road teams met it was decided that the picturesque location should be named after a senior official of the Ministry of Works.

The construction crew informed the delegation from Wellington that the area had already been named Knight's Point. The officials inquired who "Knight" was and were informed that he was the surveyor’s dog. That’ll teach them! Today, the roadside stop and lookout at Knights point offers spectacular views out across the Tasman towards the Western Island and back down along the rain forest clad slopes of the coast. A very nice place to stretch the legs for a while and enjoy the sunshine.

Once past Knights point, the highway ducks inland around Moeraki Lake before emerging onto the rugged coast at Bruce’s Bay which has a rich European and Moari history. It was here that the first Polynesians arrived after the long journey from Hawaii millennia ago. The bay is surrounded by magnificent Rimu forests and is situated at the mouth of the Mahitahi River. Of course the backdrop are the spectacular southern alps. The highway actually runs along the beach and is often covered by huge tree trunks and driftwood blown ashore by the stormy seas. The other interesting thing is that the many tourists who stop, leave tiny cairns with messages carved into or drawn on the rocks that form them. Thousands of them stand by the roadside and on the breakwater and to wander amongst them is to take a step into the lives and thoughts of many people who pass this way. The highway then becomes a ribbon of bitumen cutting through deep forests and crossing mighty rivers on tiny one lane bridges before reaching the first of New Zealand's most well known tourist attractions, Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers.

The Fox Glacier (Te Moeka o Tuawe) is 13 kilometres long and is situated in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. It was named in 1872 after then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir William Fox. Fed by four alpine glaciers, the Fox Glacier falls 2,600 m on its 13 km journey from the Southern Alps down to the coast, with it having the distinction of being one of the few glaciers in the world to end among lush rainforest only 300 metres above sea level. The outflow of the glacier forms the Fox River. During the last ice age, its ice reached beyond the present coastline, and the glacier left behind many moraines during its retreat. The almost smooth walls of the surrounding hills are an amazing testament to the awesome landscaping ability of a billion tonne river of ice.

Both fox and the nearby Franz Josef Glaciers are two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The terminal face of the Fox glacier is an easy walk from Fox Glacier village. The glacier has retreated much over the past years but in defiance of the climate change doomsayers, the glacier has been advancing for the past 15 years. It’s average progression is about 1 metres a week and much of the face is constantly falling away in cascades of many hundreds, if not thousands of tonnes of ice. Two silly Aussies defied signs to the contrary and clambered passed barriers and strolled over to the glacier face in 2009. Their holiday ended abruptly under hundreds of tonnes of falling ice!

Vik and I took a chilly stroll across the moraines to a good vantage point of the glacier front and marveled at the features carved from the surrounding hills by the advancing and retreating ice. The township of Fox Glacier township is only 6 km further north of the glacier. While mainly a tourist town, it also services the surrounding farming community. While Vik perused the offerings in the local souvenir shops, I secretly secured us a couple of seats on a helicopter flight across both Glaciers.

So it was that after a coffee, we wandered to the local helipad where I was pleasantly surprised to find our chariot was an Aérospatiale (now Eurocopter) “Squirrel” chopper. Having flown in both the Squirrell and Dauphine choppers previously, I was happy to be sitting in such a solid and safe steed (I do prefer a 2nd engine though lol). Our flight path took us straight up the Franz Joseph Glacier following that cracked expanse of ice. At the top we landed in a snow covered bowl. The recent snow falls meant we sunk to our knees or deeper if you were bigger like moi! It was a pristine environment, the fresh snow making it appear as if we were the first visitors to the area. Plenty of photo opportunities in the bright sunshine. Headed out south east, we zigzagged amongst the towering peaks passed mountain huts seemingly precariously balanced on ridge and mountain tops. Every now and then we could spot small groups of trekkers, tiny black dots against the vast white background ponderously wading through deep snow towards a ridge top or a sheltering hut.

Our route out of the mountains was via Fox glacier. Again we dove around the odd ridge to take in features such as a hut before hugging the walls of the glacial valley and then into the open hinterland and an imposing view of the Tasman. Returning to Franz Joseph, we got a great view of the last terminal moraines left by the retreating glacier during the last years of the most recent ice age over 12,000 years ago.

Once on the ground, Vik had to return to the main street to again check out the souvenir shops. We fuelled and then headed out on the highway past Lake Mapourika to the camping area pulling in at about 4.30 p.m. Ah the serenity. It was warm in the sunshine so lathering on the aeroguard, we took our chairs and vino lake side to absorb the ambiance. It was a vastly different experience to my desert dreamings but refreshing never the less. Twas an evening of fine dining in our Maui restaurant, steak and 3 veg with a lovely Kiwi white. Our neighbour is a single mum form Torquay with three blond headed boys. What a brave soul she is. As we’ll be back in Christchurch in a few days, we handed off much of our unused supplies. Three growing lads will soon make light work of that I’m sure. Midges are a bugger.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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