Cold As (Gradually Melting) Ice

The South Island tour continues…

Glaciers

Aside from driving south along the Westland coast, our goal for the day was to see some of the glaciers of the Southern Alps. Though much of the snow in the mountains melts in summer, don’t try to tell these bad boys to go away, because glaciers don’t melt. Except now they do, I guess. Slowly. Because of climate change. Actually not really that slowly. Ugh.

To really get up on the glaciers, you have to take a guided helicopter tour that deposits you up on the glacier. Since we’d had the chance to walk up on a glacier in the Canadian Rockies years back, we decided to pass on this and just take a hike up to the glaciers’ terminal faces.

After stopping in the town of Franz Josef, where (though some pretty ridiculous luck with the weather being windy in the morning and us getting to the visitor center at exactly the right time) we got to say a quick hello to my glacier guide friend Janet, we continued on to do the hike up to Franz Josef glacier, named in the 1800s for the Austrian emperor of the same name (obviously).

The glacier is retreating pretty quickly, as evidenced by markers and photos on the trail showing where it used to be. But you know, glaciers go in, glaciers go out…you can’t explain that.

Then it was on to Fox Glacier, where you can also walk up to the terminal face. Both walks were similar, less than an hour each way, fairly easy except for a few steeper hills.

While still near the glaciers, we took a trip over to Lake Matheson, a glacial lake not far away that happens to be well located to create a reflection of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. Unfortunately for us, that only happens when the lake is perfectly calm, and when we were there it was too ripply to see a reflection. Fortunately, it was still quite nice.

Heading Back East

After having our fun in Westland, we started heading back east towards Queensland, taking Haast Pass. There were numerous stopoffs along the way to see various waterfalls and rivers.

Along the way, we passed briefly through Mt. Aspiring National Park. I’ve heard amazing things about this particular national park, and, while we only saw a tiny part of it, I can see why it has such a good reputation (and I’ll have to go back to see the rest of it).

The Lakes

From Mt. Aspiring parks, the main highway heads south past two big awesome lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and you get the opportunity to drive alongside each of them.

We got to stop in the town of Wanaka itself, which had a nice lakefront and some good fish ‘n’ chips. It’s also the location of the next GSNZ geology conference, so I’m looking forward to getting back there for a lot longer next year, hopefully.

From there we finished things off for the day by heading west to get to Queenstown, passing Cardrona ski field along the way (have to come back during winter!).

As I noted (and will surely note again), it was a heck of a lot of driving, which was tiring, but the routes were so pretty and windy and fun that it was definitely worth the effort.

 

Looking at Rocks for Fun Instead of Work

Rather than going home for the holiday break this year, my parents decided to come to me instead (I’m happy to provide a similar excuse for any of you to take a vacation). After significant planning, we arranged their visit into two parts, a week first on the South Island and then just less than a week back up North.

Auckland

What did I do first thing when they arrived on Christmas Eve? Take them to a volcano, of course!

Besides that, I took them around the city a bit–we had a day and a half to kill before flying to Christchurch. So we walked around CBD, went to the beach, and had a fun Christmas Eve dinner with some friends, etc. We even stopped at another volcano on the way to the airport!

And then, wearing our lack of Christianity on our sleeves, we flew down to Christchurch on Christmas night (appropriate city, eh?).

Arthur’s Pass

Our first goal was to get to the South Island’s west coast. That’s where it all goes down. Or something. Anyway, it meant driving through the Southern Alps to get to the coast on the other side.

Castle Hill (also Kura Tawhiti) was formed over millions of year from deposits of limestone back when New Zealand was under the sea. Years of deposition and then later erosion after the land had been uplifted led to the remaining limestone boulders stilling on top of the hills. Or, to you geologists, karst!

Apparently it’s a popular place for climbing, as evidenced by dudes climbing on stuff when we were there.

Once we were more solidly into the mountains we hit Arthur’s Pass, the area right in the middle of the Alps. The fact that they made a road through this place is pretty impressive (though there were even more impressive roads to come…). We also took a short hike to see Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall, and another nature hike that turned out to just be a walk along the highway…oh well, can’t win ’em all.

Westland

After not too long, we’d already punched all the way through to the west coast. Our aim was to head south towards the bottom of New Zealand (can I call Invercargill NZ’s butt? Sounds mean, I guess, but I do it with love!), but we first took a worthwhile detour a bit north past Greymouth (Westland’s biggest town) to see Punakaiki, also called the Pancake Rocks (and for good reason). While generally I’m not much of a limestone fan, I’ll give it a pass if it makes awesome rock formations like these.

After that we headed off to Hokitika, a first place to stop along the way.

The next morning we headed to Hokitika Gorge, which is…a big canyon thingy carved out by erosion? And there’s water in it? Maybe a bridge over or something? Cut me some slack, I’m no South Island geological expert (nor limestone or karst for that matter)!

From there it was on to the South Island’s famed glaciers…but that’s where we’ll pick up next time! Leave them wanting more! That’s what someone always said…