The West Coast is a 6oo kilometer long strip of New Zealand lying between the Southern Alps and the wild coast of the Tasman Sea. Within the region are 5 of New Zealand’s fourteen national parks – Kahurangi, Paparoa, Arthur’s Pass, Westland, Mt. Aspiring and not forgetting the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The incredible diversity it offers can be found nowhere else in New Zealand. The countrys’ highest mountains, beaches, rainforests, glaciers, incredible and unique rock formations, rivers, gorges, podocarp forests and an abundance of wildlife.
The pioneering spirit of the people who populated the region over a century ago can still be felt. First it was gold and greenstone, then timber and coal that brought many to the area and you can see the remains of these industries as you travel the coast.
There is plenty to see and do, from enjoying the scenery to hiking through bush to four wheel driving to caving to white water rafting to shopping to touring a West coast brewery to landing a helicopter on a glacier – something for everyone.
Greymouth sits on the Grey River almost at the western end of State Highway 73. It’s the largest town on the coast and as such is the commercial centre. A fine small town centre with some interesting buildings makes it a pleasant place to stroll or if you are feeling a little more adventurous then there is almost every activity you can think of available here. The Wild West Adventure Company can take you glow worm caving, 4 wheel driving, white water rafting, horse back riding, riverboat cruising, bush walking, camping and relaxing in hot pools.
In the centre of town you will also find the Monteith’s brewery and a tour is highly worthwhile. Greymouth is also where the Tranz Alpine train arrives and departs. Just to the south is Shantytown, a replica of a working goldmine village with reconstructed buildings, mine working and a wonderful collection of steam trains.
The mighty Fox is the largest and longest of the magnificent West Coast glaciers. It is remarkable in that it ends in temperate rainforest, 250 metres above sea level and a mere twelve kilometres from the sea. There are more 3,000m (10,000ft) peaks at the head of the Fox Glacier than in any other valley in New Zealand.
The Fox Glacier, like all glaciers, advances and retreats. Evidence of the latest surge forward can be seen in the bulging lower ice fall. Alpine Guides’ access onto the lower parts of the glacier is via a secret track that climbs through regenerating native forest (forest previously wiped out by earlier glacial advances). From the track, you have stunning views into the upper parts of the glacier.
Fox Glacier township is the more “laid back” of the twin Glacier Country townships of Fox and Franz Josef and people often comment on having chosen Fox for its relaxed atmosphere.
An excellent selection of cafes and a wide range of accommodation complement its charming country town feel. The township can enjoy breathtaking views of New Zealand’s highest peaks Mounts Cook and Tasman.
Lake Matheson, the famous reflection lake, is a five minute drive west of Fox Township. Historic Gillespie’s Beach, a wilderness of crashing surf and distant snow capped mountains, known for its seal colony and colourful gold mining history, is 25 minutes west by car.
The biggest attraction in Franz Josef is the Glacier. While over 140 glaciers flow from the Southern Alps only 2 (Fox Glacier and Franz) reach as far as the low level rainforests. Access to the glacier face is surprisingly easy and a 45 minute walk will take you to within a few metres of the terminal face. To truly experience the glacier though a guided hike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides is a must.
The township of Franz Josef is quite small however there are a good number of cafes and restaurants to choose from. The Alpine Adventure Centre screens a 20 minute movie, ‘Flowing West’, about the glaciers and is well worth the small entrance fee. A little north of Franz Josef is Whataroa and here you will find one of the only known nesting sites for the White Heron or Kotuku in New Zealand. The area is a nature reserve and so access is via guided tours only. In addition Royal Spoonbills and other birds can be seen on the jet boat guided tours.
The spectacular Franz Josef Glacier descends to just 250 metres above sea level amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest. Of all the accessible temperate glaciers in New Zealand, the Franz Josef Glacier is easily the steepest and fastest moving. While many glaciers world-wide have been retreating, the Franz Josef Glacier still flows almost to sea level, through a temperate rainforest of ancient podocarp trees and other evergreen species. This combination of ice and temperate rainforest is a unique feature of New Zealand’s glacier country, and is an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world.
South Westland is situated at 43.5 degrees south, an equivalent latitude to the south of France. Cannes, for example, is the same distance from the coast as Franz Josef, with mountains of similar altitudes. Obviously there are no glaciers that extend down to sea level in France, so why does it happen here?
Running through Franz Josef is the Alpine Fault. Along this faultline the Southern Alps have been pushed up, and continue to rise in close proximity to the ocean. The weather that flows on to the West Coast is forced to rise over the Southern Alps, thereby cooling and dropping most of its moisture as rain and snow. This process causes up to 30 metres of snow to fall on the neve (or catchment area of the glacier), every year.
Snow that is compacted on the neve forms blue glacier ice that is funneled down the Waiho Valley. The ice flows under its own momentum, forming a ‘river of ice’. Although the terminal face of the glacier is continually melting, this is replaced by glacier ice flowing down from the neve. This is aided by basal sliding, caused by a layer of water beneath the glacier which is formed by the weight of the ice pushing against the valley floor.
The glacier slides forward at rates up to 10 times faster than most valley glaciers, presenting the visitor with a spectacular and unique icefall of crevasses, pinnacles, ice caves and canyons.