Why you should visit New Zealand's West Coast
New Zealand’s West Coast mountains are shroud in mysterious wonderment. There’s nowhere else in the world where glaciers come so close to the ocean at this latitude. Rising high above the Tasman Sea, their stunning vistas are easy to access. Low-laying rainforest ferns and lush vegetation give way to become desolate glacial tops reaching dizzying heights.
Remote is a word that springs to mind when describing the West Coast. The area covers nine percent of the country’s total land mass, but is home to just one percent of its population – which by the way comes in at a grand total of 4.8 million. Well, we said we're after something different than the hustle and bustle of London, so here we are. If you're after natural beauty and some solitude to enjoy it in, the West Coast is a must.
The remoteness of the West Coast also means the area can easily be overlooked. Not by us here in our camper van though. We had already planned to visit with zeal, but wound trudging out a bit earlier after a disappointing re-routing took us away from the fabled Abel Tasman National Park. Turns out the road to get there had been washed away in the destruction of Cyclone Gita.
The West Coast sets record rainfall levels, so we weren’t exactly escaping the stormy weather department. Some days along this stretch were spent driving through torrential downpour in fact. The good news there were massive waterfalls, the bad news though, well a camper van with two small kids – need I say more?
Alas, alpine weather is notoriously tricky to predict and it wasn’t all bad. One day we might go from something like this:
to waking up to something more like this:
Now, barring my enthusiastic thumbs up no matter the weather (although the rainy one does contain a modicum of irony in it), I can assure you that rain or shine, the West Coast is a must, if for no other reason than: GLACIERS.
Climate change rears its ugly head just about every where these days and glaciers around the world are no exception. Our chances to gaze at these behemoth geological masses are becoming rarer and rarer as the planet heats up. Luckily, on the West Coast, Westland Tai Poutini National Park is home to both Franz Josef and Fox glacier. Legend has it that Franz Josef, or Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (Tears of the avalanche Girl) in Maori, is actually the frozen tears of a girl who lost her lover after his brutal fall from the local peaks. Cry me a river, how about cry me a glacier! That’s some true love right there.
The two glaciers are easily accessible via various walking tracks, but the only way to get onto the ice is with a guided tour. So it's time to suck up you’re I-don’t do-touristy-things pride and book one. These glaciers are truly magical places not to be missed.
While pricey, we decided to go for a helicopter tour of Franz. There are lots of operators in town, so you can tailor it to your liking. In fact, you can even take a sky-dive tour if you’re up to it. We went with The Helicopter Line, but for no discernible reason. The entire tour lasted 20 minutes, with 8 of them spent wondering on top of the glacier. The ethereal quietness above the tree-line (forget about the noisy helicopter propeller for a second) lends an air of rare solitude to the world. While 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, it was an experience that’ll forever stay etched in my mind.
After landing, and rejoicing in our avoidance of what looked like potentially serious flight sickness by Viggo, we took a walk along the Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere track to see the glacier’s terminal face. This is a pleasant 5.5 kilometre walk that would probably take a normal human about an hour. We were slowed down however by short legs and oversized curiosity; spending a lot of time turning over rocks, dipping our feet into streams and answering questions, like how far is it, over and over.
There are lots of other spectacular sites along the West Coast; the bizarre pancake rocks and blowholes of Punakaiki, the azure waters of the Hokitika Gorge, and many adventures to be had along the Buller river. You’d be excused however, if you skipped it all and headed straight to the grandeur of the glacial mountains.