Westland Tai Poutini National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and encompasses sixty glaciers, including two of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Famous for its remarkable geology and flora and fauna, the area is also rich in history – Maori legend has it that the tears of the beautiful snow maiden Hine Hukatere for her lost love Wawe were frozen by the gods to form Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere or Franz Josef Glacier.
A great spot to visit all year round, the area is exceptionally beautiful in winter, with heavy frosts and low temperatures making for crisp and clear blue days. Don’t be put off by the chill factor – the area is a treasure trove of activities and scenery which will enthrall.
To get there from Christchurch, travel over the Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth and head to Franz Josef, which is a further two hours south. Fox Glacier is located twenty minutes from the Franz Josef township. Once you arrive there are plenty of West Coast accommodation options to act as a base as you explore the area.
Getting close to the ice
There is an abundance of walks and cycleways in the area for those keen to get active and explore. One of the easiest ways to get up close and personal with the glaciers is to embark on the recently completed Te Ara a Waiau, a track which starts at the Westland Tai Poutini National Park Visitor Centre, meandering through a Rata forest and winding its way up the valley through a rainforest. The track is 8.7km and visitors can walk or cycle so it is easy to book a Franz Josef motel nearby and complete the track in a day. Check out the Department of Conservation website for information on Te Ara a Waiau and other walks in the area.
A helicopter ride into the heights of glacier country is both scenic and educational – take a chopper to visit cirques, the high basins where glaciers form.
Travelling by helicopter you will experience mind-blowing scenery and have the luxury of visiting areas only accessible by having wings.
There are a number of helicopter companies which operate in the area, including Alpine Adventures and Glacier Helicopters.
Hard-core walkers can embark on the ultimate wintery stroll – take a helicopter ride and get amongst some of the most pristine glacial scenery around. Operating two flights a day during the winter months, Franz Josef Glacier Guides is run by experienced guides with an eye for the most impressive ice formations. Prepare to be wowed by awe-inspiring views of mountains and strikingly blue ice. Other companies which offer heli-hiking include New Zealand Scenic Helicopter Rides and Fox Guides. Fox Guides offer the unique option of the Chancellor Dome Overnight Trek. Instead of making the trip in a single day you can spend the night in a historic hut overlooking the Tasman Sea. Relax at the end of your day’s hike and enjoy a glass of wine while your guide prepares dinner. On your return you can boast to your friends that you spent the night on a glacier, roughly speaking.
For the thrill-seeker, the challenge of ice climbing is right up your alley.
Your experienced guide will instruct you in ice-axe techniques and basic cramponing before you attempt a variety of different pitches and often vertical ice-walls and pinnacles.
Before heading out you are equipped with all the accessories for your icy adventure, including crampons, ice axe and mountaineering boots. Not for the faint hearted!
An authentic way to experience the rugged beauty of the West Coast is by embarking on a traditional Kiwi tramp. Just south of Fox Glacier is the Copland Track, a tramp of around 7 or 8 hours so it’s best to head out early. At the end of the day’s walk is the Welcome Flat Hut where you can spend the night as well as soak in the natural hot pools nearby, a treat to enjoy free of charge. What better way to reward yourself for your day’s efforts? As well as a soak in the pools, waiting at the end of the tramp is a remarkable view of the Sierra Range, which in winter is laden with snow.
Glacier Hot Pools
If you are looking for some more relaxing Franz Josef activities and don’t fancy going to the effort of a tramp to bathe in steamy glacial water, another option is to soak in the Glacier Hot Pools situated conveniently in the Franz Josef township. Nestled amongst a rainforest the complex is the only commercial hot pools complex in the West Coast region. The pools are fed by pure glacier water and comprise three main pools and three private pools, which are maintained at toasty temperatures of between 36 and 40ºC.
Okarito was once a bustling gold-mining hub and the third-largest port on the West Coast but sadly the end of the gold rush in the 1880s saw its rapid decline. Today the area is a charming spot to visit and imagine what life was once like in a vibrant mining centre.
Those with ornithological love should head to the Okarito lagoon where over 76 native birds flock including the white heron. Explore the lagoon by hiring a kayak from the Okarito Nature Tours or take a guided tour by boat with Okarito Boat Tours.
There are a number of historic buildings in Okarito. The Old Schoolhouse, built in 1901, underwent a full restoration in 1990 and now operates as a YHA. Donavan’s Store on the main street is the oldest commercial building still surviving on the West Coast and has been lovingly restored by the Okarito Community Association. Originally built in 1865 as the Club Hotel, it served the local community and was rumoured to operate as a brothel at one time. It was purchased and transformed into a general store in the 1880s with its doors remaining open until 1987. The building is now used by the Okarito community as a small library and to hold a variety of events. Visiting musicians and poets often perform at the Store, so be sure to check out the front door for information on upcoming events.