A shingly foreshore backed by a low spit creates the Okarito Lagoon on New Zealand’s southern West Coast. Technically it’s a lagoon only a couple of times a year when the waves of the Tasman Sea shift create a sand bridge between the spit and the Okarito Township.
Bill Jackson, the tour guide for the Oparara Trust, took us on a sub-terrain tour of the Honeycomb Hill Cave system. His knowledge of the area, native plants and all things limestone simply blew me away.
The cave system includes 15 kilometres of tunnels over an area of land that measures 1,000 x 800 metres. The intricate limestone formations were millions of years in the making and because of the limited access the cave and its natural assets are in pristine condition. No graffiti or broken features!
The bones of over 52 species have been found in the caves, 28 or which are now extinct. These include six species of moa and five complete skeletons of the extinct Haast Eagle. The glow worms were also spectacular and being able to see them, en masse, up close and personal was amazing.
Next time I will definitely go on the Honeycomb Hill Kayak Tour to see the most remote limestone arch in the Valley, and apart from put the Cave Tour on your Karamea "Must Do List" my other piece of advice is make the time to stop for the afternoon tea at the end of the trip, the home baking at the picnic spot is magic.
I love Fox Glacier Guiding because they have the most amazing guides who are real mountain people from all over the world. On the Flying Fox – Heli-Hike, Lizzy was our guide, she’s on an exchange from Argentina and usually plays on the Perito Moreno Glacier. To check out cool glacier stuff in South America, the only other place on earth where rivers of ice plough through temperate rain forest, go to www.hieloyaventura.com.
Our other guide, Malcolm, is not only a senior guide, in his spare time he's an ambulance officer and a member or the local Search and Rescue team. Needless to say I felt very safe and well looked after during the trip.
Fox Glacier is the largest and longest of the West Coast glaciers, and has more 3,000 metre peaks surrounding it than other valley in New Zealand. Our ice odyssey started at guide base in Fox Glacier village where we got on a vintage 1969 Bedford and drove to the helipads. The boot room allowed us to ‘get booted’ and have a safety brief before the fantastic helicopter flight with Glacier Helicopters.
Every time I go on the ice I feel completely privileged to be alive. There is a certain amount of snob value too, the glacier melts 10-15cm every day in summer, so it's constantly changing. It’s a totally dynamic environment and the glacier we saw last Friday was ‘our glacier', no one else will ever see it looking exactly the same ever again.
For me the highlight, or should I say ‘blue light’, was the ice cave at the end of the hike. I felt like I went through my own glacial rebirth as I shimmied along the ice following the climbing rope out. I’m not even going to try and explain the rest of the trip on the ice, as I will only start spewing clichés and the pictures say it all.
When I was around eight years old there was an unfortunate incident involving a boot stuck in a stirrup and head banging on the ground after a horse bolted while I was still on it. Today, thanks to South Westland Horse Treks I conquered my fear of all things equine.
Jen and Jeremy let me tag along on a one-hour trek. Luckily I was given Floyd, who had the dimensions and personality of an overstuffed armchair. He was quite happy to have me sit on his back (like a sack of spuds) and my biggest problem was trying to stop him snacking. Together with Jen’s instruction and careful group management I actually managed to enjoy myself!
I discovered that that Glacier Country really does take on a unique perspective when riding in a western saddle, and there is the added bonus of something to hold onto even when you trot. Yes, I managed to jiggle along and stay upright. We rode down Docherty’s Creek, completed two river crossings and wandered through the hobbit forest. Vicky, who was the most experienced rider in our group even went for a canter on the way home.
By the time we got back to the ranch, Floyd and I had become best of friends.... Would I go again? Believe it or not Yes! Maybe not for the six-hour trek, but, I definitely think I’m ready for the half day.
Conservation is not just about protecting the ‘real scenery', such as the mountains and glaciers, it is also about the lowland forests and wetlands. The Waiho flats, near Franz Josef Glacier village, were once covered in thick kahikatea forest. Today, after the clear felling to create farmland in the early 20th Century, only 2% of the native forest and wetland is left.
In 2010, the Nature Heritage Fund, purchased the 378 hectares adjacent to the mouth of the Waiho River at the edge of the Tasman Sea. This section of virgin kahikatea forest and wetlands, ticked all the Fund’s requirements, and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation as the Waiho Forest Scenic Reserve. You can cycle or walk through the virgin lowland kahikatea forest to the Tasman Sea, and gain a whole different perspective of the enormity of the Southern Alps.
Drive down Waiho Flat road, past South Westland Horse Treks and the Air Safaris airport. If you have a 4WD, and Docherty’s creek is low you can drive to the start of the Waiho Forest track. Be warned that Docherty’s creek can rise quickly, so be careful not to get trapped on the other side. If your vehicle is not that robust, park at Docherty’s Creek, and walk or cycle past the farm buildings to the first intersection. If you go straight ahead you can follow the 4WD track to the beach, if you turn left, you will see the sign at the start of the Waiho Forest Walk.
Follow the old forestry road from the start of the Waiho Walk, through the regenerating bush to Neil’s Creek. Turn right at Neil’s Creek and head downriver along the stop bank. The track is well defined and easy to follow. When you reach the stand of flax, if you cannot already hear the breaking waves, know that you will be at the beach soon.
Once at Waiho beach you can walk north to the mouth of the Waiho River or south to explore the Omoeroa Bluffs. Lookout for fur seals and penguin tracks and enjoy the wild seascape. Walking from the start of the forestry track to Waiho beach takes approximately forty-minutes, however, give yourself lots of time to enjoy the beach.
In 2005 the Department of Conservation (DOC) General Policy for National Parks was amended to allow for mountain bikes on designated tracks. The wheels of bureaucracy turned quickly on the West Coast and the Franz Josef Glacier valley now has New Zealand’s first purpose built dual use cycle and walkway in a National Park. It will be officially named Te Ara a Waiau, which translates to‘The Path of Waiau,’ and is within the boundaries of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
The Franz Josef Glacier (Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere) access road was widened and tar sealed in 2009. Before this, in the summer when campervans and tour buses seemed to take over the road walking or cycling to the Glacier car park was a dusty and sometimes scary experience.
Tom Hopkins from the DOC West Coast Conservancy Office worked with the Franz Josef Waiau Visitor Assets team to scope out and design the cycle/walkway. The construction contract was awarded to Westroads Hokitika, and local contractors Ian Hartshorne of Franz Hire, and Shane Burmester were also involved.
The Te Ara a Waiau begins at the northern end of Franz Josef Glacier village on State Highway Six. After crossing the Waiho River Bailey Bridge the first two kilometres follows alongside the newly widened Glacier Valley Access road. The specially designed track then heads into the podocarp rain forest and continues for a further two kilometres.
The project specifications dictated that Te Ara a Waiau was to follow the path of least resistance, and wherever possible established trees were to remain untouched. The stunning result is a cycle and walkway with graceful curves, that leads you over glacial moraines and through the rainforest to the Franz Josef Glacier car park.
If you are cycle touring this short trip will be the piece de resistance after conquering Mt Hercules in the north or the Cook Hills to the south of Franz Josef Glacier Village. For those who arrived in Glacier Country by another mode of transport you can hire a mountain bike from the team at Across Country Quad Bikes and enjoy your own ‘Tour de Glacier Country’.