With our glaciers, mountain peaks, forests and farmland in Franz Josef, there is plenty to see right here. When the pull to explore kicks in, we are fortunate that just 17 kilometres away lies Ōkārito, tucked just a little way off SH6, right here on the South Island’s West Coast.
Ōkārito is home to just a few dozen people, but over 70 species of birds. Once a gold mining town, like so many West Coast settlements, it’s surrounded by ocean, wetlands, cliffs and native forest, with the mighty Southern Alps as a backdrop.
We regularly traipse out there and never tired of it. It is a unique place, unspoiled and close to nature. Taking the short, steep uphill trig walk, the views from the top of the lagoon and the Southern Alps are astounding and if I had to tramp for a few hours to see them, I would do so happily.
To get up close and personal to one of the last un-modified places of wetland biodiversity, the Ōkārito boat tours is an experience I would encourage everyone to enjoy. Following the still, shallow waters of the lagoon, the boat allows close-up views of the surrounding rainforest and the many native birds who make their home is the way to go. The enthusiastic owner operators Paula and Swade are passionate about sharing their knowledge on board their boat Explorer Douglas. This flat-bottomed open-air boat custom is built for the lagoon, cruising along at slow speeds and often drifting alongside birds that live here, feeding in both a fresh and saltwater environment.
On a mid-tide, with the lagoon tidal flats exposed, there are a variety of wading birds - from the little banded dotterels, to the intrepid bar tailed godwits that fly here from Alaska, to those oh so beautiful Kotuku - great white herons, and the quirky royal spoonbills. The lagoon is home to many species of native bird which include migratory waders, black backed gulls, shags and terns on the mud flats as well as black swans and scaup in freshwater areas. Tui, bellbird, kingfishers, pigeon, fern birds and bitterns inhabit the wetland areas.
The rare rowi kiwi can also be found in the area, and thanks in part to Operation Nest Egg undertaken by the Department of Conservation, they’re being brought back from the brink of extinction. The recently rediscovered Ōkārito gecko is an exciting new addition.
To protect the lagoon and surrounding forest, a $45m Predator Free South Westland project aims to eliminate possums, rats and stoats from a 100,000-hectare area bounded by the Whataroa and Waiau Rivers, the Southern Alps and Tasman Sea over five years. The project builds on Zero Invasive Predators’ (ZIP) successful removal of predators from the 12,000 hectares Perth River Valley which borders the new project area.
Our favourite of all (apart from Swade’s delicious homemade cookies for morning tea) was watching the rare black billed gulls, the most threatened species of gull in the world. We watched them feeding on cicadas, using aerial acrobatics on the wing to catch them. Paula explained they were starting to breed here. In these days of uncertainty, it is great to be in the largest unmodified wetlands in New Zealand seeing species coming back from the brink.
When chatting with them, it often occurs to me that my guests seem to know the rest of New Zealand better than me! We have always been quick to fly away from New Zealand. Well now seem the ideal time to 'do something new New Zealand!'
First stop was where Jo hails from; Wellington. It is always great to catch up his his sister Sooze. Having my bike was great! Straight off to the cities best viewpoint, Mt Victoria at 196 m. This ride affords a good puff and a reminder of all there is to love about this place. With many hilly walking trails, beaches, birdlife and the ferry on it's back door to the South Island, Wellington is an excellent place to be.
It's hard to put a finger on the one thing I liked the most about staying at Breakers. Jan and Stephen's place is situated on the West Coast's Punakaiki Coastline on the Great Coast Road with absolute beachfront on the West Coast's beautiful Punakaiki coastline, overlooking the Tasman Sea.
I enjoy showing my guests the best places to go for walks to find superb views surrounded by temperate rainforest. To truly appreciate the mountain tops though, it's worth shouting yourself a flight over the Southern Alps. With views of rugged native forested land, lakes, mountains, farmland, wild coastline and the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, it's guaranteed a massive smile will be planted on your face. Landing on the ice, the views are of pinnacles, crevasses and the deepest blue colour ever of the ice in the glaciers with Aoraki rising above it all. From experience I can promise you it is a memory will always be there, along with the feeling of exhilaration!
Douglas and Peters Pool Walk
One of my favourite rides is to the Douglas Walk in the Glacier Valley. The bike is abandoned, jogging shoes donned and off round the 4 km loop taking in these fab views. I can never take enough photos of the moods of Peters pool, a lake which reflects the glacier. It was created by the retreating glacier dropping a chunk of melted ice that formed into a kettle lake about 1800 AD.
Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
Visiting the glaciers in New Zealand is unique as they are within easy driving and walking distance from the main highway.
When we first arrived in Franz Josef in 2000, we would don our boots and walk up to the terminal face. There we would put on our crampons and head up onto the ice, following the guides tracks and cutting our own. In the 1900s tracks and bridges were built to provide access onto the glaciers. Early photos show hikers with some nails in the soles of their shoes and women in long dresses exploring with mountain guides! In 1955 a photo shows my mother being guided onto the ice with far more suitable equipment and clothing.
Up until 2010 it was still possible use crampons to hike up on the ice from the terminal face without needing a helicopter flight. Foot access onto the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers is now limited to helicopter flights. Despite an advance in the mid 2000’s, both glaciers have been shrinking and the terminals of the glaciers receding. The rocky terrain below each of the glacier terminals is too dangerous to traverse on foot.
Both glaciers have periodically advanced, but are several kilometres shorter than the maximum extent reached during the mini-ice age of the 1700’s. During the previous global ice age which finished approximately 15,000 years ago, these glaciers reached nearly to the current coast line, 15 kilometres west of the present glaciers extent.
Walking access to view the glaciers has remained problematical, caused by storm events and river erosion of the valley floor. Franz Josef access track has been re-routed as the river flowing from under the glacier has changed course, requiring construction of new tracks on the valley walls. In 2017 at Fox glacier, a massive debris flow from Mills Creek, a side creek in the valley, forced the main river to cut into the west bank where the access road was and is now closed.
While glaciers around the world are retreating, the Franz Josef glacier is still the most accessible to visit in the world. It is an easy walk along ancient river beds through valleys with steep mountain sides. One of the most impressive features is the bed rock with vertical stripes, contrasting with the horizontal gouges caused by rocks imbedded from when the glacier scraped past. It remains a favourite walk for us though we have to leave our crampons behind.
Roberts Point Track has great views of the glacier from the viewing platform, rainforest and fascinating historical features.
Over the years tramping this track, we have always set off in good weather conditions but invariably the afternoon cloud arrives with hill showers, though the village not far away stays bathed in sun! The track then becomes slippery with slow progress. Whenever we walk it, we have a chance to think about our surroundings, and marvel on the old and new.
Roberts Point track was constructed in 1906, funded by a grant from the “Department of Tourism and Hot Spas”, which was set up to promote tourism. Providing access to the Franz Josef glacier, which was higher and terminated much further down the valley than it is today. A technological feat in track building, 'Hendes Gallery' was a cantilevered or suspended walkway which traversed a steep section of bedrock. This gallery is still in use with the wooden steps replaced in the 90’s. The supports are made of forged iron, driven into holes that were drilled into the bedrock and secured with molten metal and still in excellent condition today.
The impressive new Roberts Point Swing bridge (111m) replaced a wooden staircase which was destroyed by a rockfall. Swing bridges like these are common on New Zealand tramping tracks. They are suspended from two metal cables, and can span a considerable distance over a river or gorge.
A new observation deck and picnic table high above the glacial ice is a welcome respite at the end of the track and affords magnificent views of the Franz Josef glacier, towering rock faces and waterfalls.
Franz Josef is renown for the glacier but many tourists are unaware that there are other fabulous walks in the region. Here are two of our favourites.
Three Mile Lagoon
The Three Mile Lagoon was once home to a thriving gold mining settlement and it is hard to imagine the thousands of people who briefly made their home and living there, over a hundred years ago. The township was situated on a low spit of sand between the Three Mile Lagoon and the Tasman Sea although little remains of the buildings these days. The spit is now covered in low forest but with some exploring in the area, stone hearths and the odd iron implements can be found.
The track is a three to four hour round trip in two sections which start and finish at the sleepy seaside town of Okarito. One section follows the historic horse and dray "pack track" through lowland rimu forest, climbing above the seaside cliffs before descending to the new Department of Conservation bridge that spans the lagoon. The other section follows the beach below the cliffs and links to the bridge at the lagoon. If visitors are lucky they may encounter a New Zealand fur seal hauled out for a rest from the rough seas.
The beach section of the track is tide dependent and must be travelled within two hours either side of low tide. Local knowledge helps here too, as the beach can be exposed to wind. The walk is much more enjoyable with the wind at your back when walking along the beach.
If time is short, a side trip to the Okarito Trig can reward visitors with panoramic views of the Southern Alps. The track crosses a small wetland on a curvaceous boardwalk above rippling swathes of oioi, the endemic New Zealand jointed wire rush. Occasionally the elusive kotuku white heron can be seen fishing there. The track climbs up to a viewing platform overlooking the lagoons and south Okarito forest, home of the rare kiwi species known as Rowi. We think that it is well worth the hike to the top for such a grand view!
Climbing Alex Knob will reward trampers with some the best views of Franz Josef Glacier. This is not a stroll in the park though, it will take eight hours with a steady uphill climb of over 1000m. This is a tramping track with rough terrain so you will need to be prepared climb over windfalls and watch out for obstacles (I have been known to forget to look upward and banged my head on branches jutting out.) The track zig zags endlessly on, but the thick forest and bird life are good reasons to stop and take rests. Rata Lookout is the first welcome respite with good views of the glacier far below, then further on Christmas Lookout and views up ahead of the summit. The next part is our favourite with the sub alpine plants making a picturesque garden including shrub daisies such as Leatherwood, Dracophyllum Hebes and Coprosma, continuing on climbing and zig zagging to the 1303 summit. 360 degree views await here, with the Southern Alps, the Tasman Sea, the tiny village below, while the whole Franz Josef Glacier lies before you.