Glaciers and buses

From Wanaka, it was time to head north and up the West Coast as my circuit of Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island truly began. I don’t drive, so this meant buses, and Intercity was the main option.

Now, I wanted to keep some flexibility in my plans, but two things hampered this; Christmas and funding. The latter I had planned for and knew that over the holiday period things would get busier. I’d have to book something soon to cover myself, however the Intercity routes on the West Coast are funded by the government while tourism is low. When making plans, I could only complete this section before a certain time. That meant booking dates, taking away a good amount of that flexibility.

It means I’m going to miss things, and one of the driver’s told me that the funding would be confirmed shortly, and while I could make changes because of this, it would affect all the bookings after.

It just means I have more reasons to come back in the future to catch the things I missed, right?

Bus journeys with a little extra

My past Intercity journeys have been pretty standard. They pick you up from the designated point and take you to your destination. There might be a little commentary every now and then, or if a passenger has questions, the driver is usually more than happy to answer and share their knowledge. That extra touch makes a big difference.

The West Coast routes are a little different. The commentary is more common, as these drivers make these journeys multiple times a week. Due to Covid, and the lack of international tourists, the numbers are smaller but these drivers don’t let it stop them.

From pointing out the sights and scenes to explaining the history of the area, these people know it all. That makes a five-hour journey pass in no time at all! It also meant my usual tactic of wearing headphones didn’t work.

Not only that, but we had a few stops along the way. Some were mandatory rest stops but others were just for photos. That little extra makes these trips even better. It might not match a car where you can stop at will, but these drivers know the best spots – they’ve visited them often enough – and I got a tonne of knowledge on my way to Fox Glacier.

Fox Glacier

I only stayed in Fox Glacier Township for one night, and that’s probably for the best – as there’s not much here. While I could have utilised more time if I had it, given what I had coming up, it wasn’t as essential.

The Fox Glacier is the obvious highlight here, but to reach the walking route from the town is over a bridge with no footpath. That made it a little risky as, while there’s very little traffic, knowing my luck, well. You know.

Instead, I made the six-kilometre walk to Lake Matheson.

This is known for being so still that the reflection is almost perfect and when the weather is clear, you get a great view of the mountains both on the water and beyond. As you can see from my photos, I did not get the perfect weather, but it’s still a stunning spot.

Typically, as I got back to the Township, the weather cleared up. I was still recovering from Roy’s Peak and even the thought of cycling back didn’t appeal.

Lucky for me, the driver for the second leg of the journey from Wanaka to Fox was picking me up the next morning, and we had a little time to spare. He took me to a viewing point beyond Lake Matheson as the weather was so clear and I got a very good, scenic view of the Fox Glacier and Mt Cook and much more. That made the stay worth it!

Fox Glacier in the distance
Fox Glacier in the distance

Franz Josef

I had two nights in Franz Josef, which is just a short drive from Fox Glacier. There’s a glacier here, too, and while it’s still a good walk away, I encountered a problem on the trail; it ended prematurely. Due to the heavy rains the West Coast experiences, landslides and slips are more common than you might think, and the trail leading to the glacier no longer exists. You can still see it, but it’s not as close as you once could.

That said, it’s still impressive – even if it’s smaller than it used to be.

Franz Josef Glacier in the summer, but the trail leading to it has collapsed
Franz Josef Glacier in the summer, but the trail leading to it has collapsed

There’s a lot of information around the area about how the glacier has receded over the years, and that is a shame. Part of that is down to the time of year (it’s summer, after all) and, of course, global warming and climate change will have had an effect, too.

On my second day, the glorious weather encouraged me to join a Helitour to the glacier to see it up close. This was only a 30-minute trip and we had five minutes on the Franz Josef Glacier itself, which was a surreal experience, and then looped around to see the Fox Glacier before heading back.

This was the first time I’ve been able to touch snow and ice in around three years!

There are plenty of walking routes and trails to explore, too, and most offer a look at the glacier or mountains wrapping around the area. Don’t miss them.

Be sure to check the Tartare Tunnel, too. This is an 80-year old man-made tunnel that hides a few glow worms deep inside.

Walking through the man-made Tartare Tunnel
Walking through the man-made Tartare Tunnel

You can walk upright for most of it but bring spare shoes as you’ll be wading through water – some of which is icy cold!

Finally, head for the Terrace Walk after dark for a much larger number of glow worms. It’s quite the view. Trust me.

The Pancake Rocks

One of the best stops we made on my trip up the West Coast was at Punakaiki, where we got the chance to see the Pancake Rocks. These rocks have been worn away over the years due to ocean currents and resemble thin pancakes stacked on top of each other. It’s quite the sight.

There are also blowholes, where the water will jet out every so often. I couldn’t get a great view – the weather and tides weren’t the best during our brief visit, but you can get a little idea of what to expect below.

And that, my friends, brings me to Nelson and another week-long stay. There’s a lot to look forward to here.

Until then.

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