The night after finishing the Routeburn-Greenstone Track, I pampered myself with a couple of cold beers in the local pub, while chatting away to a fellow tramper whom I'd met in the caravan park, and who was full of stories of grizzly bears in North America and the desolation of Alaska. The next day was pretty desolate too, as I headed off to Wanaka over the highest road in New Zealand, some 1121m above sea level at the highest point. Unfortunately it's also one of the most corrugated and disastrously steep roads I've ever driven on, so the stunning views and pretty little settlement of Cardrona were less memorable than the struggle to avoid falling off the cliffs. Still, it was a worthy detour, and got me in the mood for a little driving.
I shot through Wanaka, another picturesque town on another beautiful glacial lake, and kept driving over the Haast Pass to the wild west coast, stopping off at various stunning sights such as Knight's Point (with its beautiful views up and down the rugged coast) and the glacial lakes of the interior. There were plenty of waterfalls and forest walks along the way, but after my Fiordland tramps, the last thing I wanted was more trekking through rainforest, so I just drove and drove until I found a little DOC campsite at Lake Paringa, yet another picturesque glacial lake that came complete with plenty of sandflies and masses of forest. It was pretty and wild, but to be honest, the appeal of forested wilderness is wearing a little thin after the overdose I've just had.
And that's where the glaciers came in.
The next day I put my foot down and headed north to Fox Glacier, a tiny tourist settlement at the end of – you guessed it – the Fox Glacier. The weather was miserable, so I booked into the local caravan park, set up my tent in the howling rain, and drove off to have a look at the glacier. I managed the walk up to the glacier terminal – a very big affair that differs from the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers by having no terminal lake, so you can walk right up to the ice wall – but the weather was truly dismal, so I headed back to the relative comfort of the campsite.
As I was walking towards the communal kitchen, I thought I recognised the Jim Morrison haircut sitting by the window. Then I recognised the jacket, and then the person... and who should be sitting in the kitchen but Ben and Mira, with whom I'd gone climbing in Mt Cook, and who'd cycled all the way from Mt Cook while I'd been tramping in Fiordland. The irony was that here we were again, looking at Mt Cook and not being able to see it as the weather was so dismal, but this time we were looking from the other side, as Fox Glacier is another glacier that flows from the Mt Cook range. We nattered the night away, making friends with other campers in the way people do when it's raining and there's precious else to do.
The next day the weather cleared, as it tends to do on the coast – changeable isn't the word for the weather I've been enjoying – so we made the most of it and headed off to Lake Matheson, a beautiful lake that reflects a view of the Southern Alps that has to be seen to be believed. It wasn't perfect weather, but the view was still breathtaking, and when we got back to the campsite I stuck most of Ben and Mira's panniers in my car and arranged to meet them in the next town, Franz Josef, so they could enjoy a lighter ride on their next leg. Meanwhile I did a quick walk up to a viewpoint over Fox Glacier, on the site of an old chalet where you could see right up the glacier to its starting point in the mountains; it was another stunning view in a country that's full of them. And then it was back in the car to drive to Franz Josef.
Franz Josef Glacier and Okarito
Ben and Mira made excellent time without their baggage weighing down their bikes, and once they'd arrived we walked all round the Franz Josef Glacier together, before heading up to the Tatare Tunnels, a collection of surreal man-made tunnels into the mountains that are half full with water, and are about as spooky as Tunnel Creek (though considerably less so with Ben and Mira tagging along). Before long we moved on to a little settlement called Okarito right on the west coast, where we set up camp and made a quick dash to the top of the Okarito Trig Point.
Okarito is amazing. It's a tiny little village right on the edge of the wild Tasman Sea, and it's real frontier stuff. There's a beautiful lagoon right next to the village, which is home to some extremely rare bird life, and the view from the Trig Point is probably as good as it gets. You can see all along the coast, and right into the Southern Alps range as it spreads out in front of you. Mt Cook and Mt Tasman are huge peaks on the horizon, with the other peaks of the area, like the Minarets, clearly visible in the distance.
We caught it as the sun was going down, and I've never seen anything like it. Okarito is the home town of Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, and it's easy to see how such a setting can bring out the artist in you. That night we drank a couple of beers that Ben had bought in thanks for me carting their stuff around – which was hardly difficult, I must say – and in the morning we were truly sad to leave, them on bicycle and me by car. I assumed I'd never see Ben and Mira again1, but I really wished I would.
Yet again I was in a driving mood, which is not that surprising after the amount of foot travel I've been doing. I drove straight up to Greymouth, and after a quick lunch stop I continued north to Punakaiki, home of the eccentric Pancake Rocks, a coastal formation that defies belief. The rocks are made up of layers that make them look like piles of pancakes, and if it wasn't for the immense popularity and accessibility of the area – and hence the huge numbers of tourists – it would be truly magnificent. Instead it's a wee bit commercial, but still well worth the visit.