We left Wanaka and began our journey up the west coast of South Island towards Glacier Country. One of the first accessible beaches we came to had warning signs of debris from the sea on the highway during high tides. We were amazed to see so much wood washed up by the sea onto the beach. People had taken to building little houses and various structures from the branches, strewn all over, as far as the eye could see.
There are two giant glaciers on the west coast and our first glacier was to be Fox Glacier. Due to time constraints, we decided to hike to only one of these two glaciers, situated 23 kms apart, so we got as close as we could to Fox Glacier, took some photos and then moved along to the Franz Josef glacier, near to where we would be spending the night.
These glaciers lie within a breathtaking World Heritage Area and are some of the biggest attractions on the West Coast. They are unique as they descend from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.
Due to strong snowfall, the Franz Josef is one of the few glaciers in New Zealand which was still growing as of 2007, while others have been shrinking heavily, a process attributed to global warming. Having retreated several kilometres between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day.
We made our way across the pebbly floor of what used to be underneath the glacier itself, and gradually got closer and closer to the giant river of ice. The nearer we got, the more spectacular it became. We had been very lucky with the weather as we knew that the forecast had indicated heavy rain, and we were on our way back from our hike before any raindrops fell.
Later in the evening, we decided to relax and rejuvenate in the Glacier Hot Pools in the township of Franz Josef. There are three pools ranging in temperature from 36 – 40C, set in a lush tropical rainforest – under canopies to protect you from the sun, or in our case, rain! Actually the rain added to the atmosphere as the steam from the pools swirled through the spotlights lighting the ferns and native bush all around us.