GLACIER COUNTRY: A PLACE TO REFLECT
In Glacier Country, it takes a while to make a West Coast ice cube - about 10,000 years or so. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are among the most accessible glaciers in the world and Glacier Country offers a wealth of adventure activities. Take a guided glacier hike, ride a quad bike, fly in a helicopter or sightseeing plane or even do a tandem sky dive. Wildlife attractions include the kiwi breeding programme in Franz Josef, the White Heron Sanctuary in Whataroa and kiwi in the wild at Okarito. After your busy day, soak in lovely hot pools. Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier provides stunning reflections and views of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Glacier Country is Whataroa, Okarito, Lake Mapourika, Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson and Gillespies Beach.
Glacier Country History
Explorers seeking fertile farming land and geologists drawn by the wilderness landscapes explored and named the glaciers but South Westland’s solitude remained almost unbroken until gold, discovered in 1864, brought huge changes to this remote area. Okarito, Five Mile and Gillespies goldtowns boomed with around 16,000 hopeful diggers – for about 18 months when most miners were to drift away.
Those who stayed eventually looked beyond the gold to seek a living from the land. These early settlers turned to farming, saw-milling and offering accommodation and guidance to tourists. Enterprising young men saw a future in operating excursions up on the ice and by the 1900s ladies and gentlemen adorned in long dresses and bow ties were soon regularly exploring the glaciers. The history of the Glacier Country area is evident on many of the walks around Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
Whataroa is the gateway to South Westland and the best place to see the rare native White Heron (Kotuku). You can visit the nearby Waitangiroto Sanctuary on a guided tour and there is also an excellent 10-minute walk here with informative panels that tell you about native wetlands.
Okarito and Lake Mapourika
Okarito is arguably one of New Zealand’s most special places. The tiny township is situated on a sand spit dividing New Zealand’s largest wetland and the Tasman Sea. It is an ecological gem with over 70 species of birds recorded here and a popular whitebaiting spot in season.Wetland Walk which starts at the Old School House and crosses the estuary on a curving boardwalk.
The forest at Okarito is also home to New Zealand’s rarest kiwi, the Rowi. The Department of Conservation's Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary is located here and for a very special experience you can take an evening tour to see the kiwi going about its business in the wild.
From the township you can also walk along the cliff tops along the Three Mile Pack Track to the historic site of extensive sand gold mining. A side trip climbs to the Okarito trig where you get 360 degree views of the lagoon, sea and Southern Alps. You can make a return trip on the beach but check the tide charts as it is only safe two hours each side of low tide.
There are historical records and photos on Okarito’s gold mining history in the harbour masters Wharf Shed and the historic Donovan's Store has been lovingly refurbished by the locals.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier, or Franz as its known by the locals, is one of the most popular tourist stops on the West Coast. Home to the Franz Josef Glacier, the township offers some great adventure activities as well as things to do for those who want a more relaxing pace. Visit the combined Franz Josef DoC office and i-SITE to see displays on glaciation and the region’s geology and for a few dollars you can view a documentary film on the South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Area. There are many essential services, several dining options, souvenir shops and art galleries and a range of accommodation in Franz Josef.
There are plenty of walks to see the Franz Josef Glacier. Walk or bike the Te Ara a Waiau Cycleway to the car park 5km south of the town and do the Franz Josef Valley Walk to the terminal face barrier – it’s a flat walk, allow about an hour. Please pay attention to the Department of Conservation's warning signs and do not go beyond the barriers. Rock and ice fall off the terminal face constantly and can be dangerous.
From the glacier carpark you can also walk to Peters Pool (25 minutes, wheelchair accessible) or Sentinel Rock (20 minutes) for different views of the glacier. If you fancy a longer walk, head up the Roberts Point track wthich climbs along the valley wall. Along the way, you will see the historic Hendes Gallery.
If you want to actually touch the ice, the best way is to do it is on a guided Heli-hike tour or a scenic helicopter or plane flight. It’s an awesome experience to step onto the glacier and be surrounded by mountains, snow and ice.
Other Franz Josef Activities
Franz Josef is not only about the glacier. There are many other activities to fill your time here.quad bike tour or for the extreme adventurers you can do the highest tandem sky dive in the country - at 19,500 feet you get 75 seconds of freefall - not for the faint hearted.
Another ‘must do’ is a visit to the West Coast Wildlife Centre. It is the official home for the incubation and captive rearing programme for New Zealand’s rarest kiwi – the Rowi and Haast Tokoeka. The chicks are reared here and then released back to the wild.
After a days walking or time on the ice the place to go is the Glacier Hot Pools where you can enjoy a soak in either the private or public pools. It’s a magical setting as the pools are surrounded by and built into the native bush and the experience is extra-special in the rain.
Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson
Fox Glacier has a relaxed, quaint village feel. Home to the Fox Glacier, it offers a range of adventure activities as well as access to some of the West Coast's most scenic spots. There are plenty of dining options, essential services, gift stores and galleries and a range of accommodation in Fox Glacier. Visit the Fox Glacier Information Centre to get ideas of where to go and things to do in Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier-based Activities
Cycle or walk the 8.4km Te Weheka cycleway to the glacier carpark. The cycleway takes 2 hours 20 mins to walk and an hour to cycle (return). Head a little further along the Fox Glacier Valley Walk to view the terminal face of the Fox Glacier.
You can do guided walks on Fox Glacier without having to take a helicopter flight. If you want to get above the glacier there are also several helicopter companies that take you on scenic flights over the glacier with the added bonus of close up views of Aoraki/Mt Cook. You can choose whether to land on the ice – awesome photos guaranteed.
Other Fox Glacier activities
Fox Glacier is not just about the glacier either. There are many other activities available.scenic skydive in the world (Everest is number 1). With Aoraki/Mt Cook in the background how can you go wrong?
The ‘must do’ walk is Lake Matheson just 6km west of the township. This is the most photgraphed lake in New Zealand with good reason. The reflections of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman mirrored in the lake waters are amazing but get up early, the best photo opportunity is at dawn! A lakeside boardwalk through native forest encircles the lake - 60mins.
Carry on down this road to a well-formed gravel road to Gillespies Beach, where a short walk will take you to the few remains of a gold dredge that worked this land. There is also an historic cemetery and Track Tunnel. The beach and the driftwood are worth the stop.
South of Fox Glacier you will find a salmon farm and cafe. It makes for an interesting stop where you can feed the salmon and then taste the product!
Travel Distances & Times
For place names, hover over the yellow dots. Click on them to check for travel distances/times from Franz Josef Glacier (in red);
More Information on Glacier Country area
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