Glaciers and Mountains: Camper Van Part 2
The long drive from Arthur’s Pass to the town of Franz Josef, home of the Franz Josef glacier would be rewarded by our first night at a holiday camp called the Rainforest Retreat. When we first booked this site we were a little bit confused by the name “rainforest” but later on learned that the beautiful glaciers of the west coast are the only glaciers in the world that back up straight into a temperate rain forest getting hundreds of inches of rain each year. This unique alpine-rainforest area is also home to the only alpine parrot in the world called, the Kea. We were lucky enough to see one up close in the village of Arthur’s Pass before heading out for the morning. I’d only heard of a tropical parrot before so it was weird and cool to see this strange bird up close. It indeed looked like a typical parrot but without the colors one would usually associate with a parrot.
We stopped at this beautiful secluded lake just off the road on our way from Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef for a quick roadside lunch. We’re quickly discovering all of the South Island’s hidden gems just off the side of the road.
I’d never seen a glacier before so I was pretty excited to be able to hike up and be close to one. Unfortunately, due to global warming and the glacier receding several millimeters each year we weren’t able to get close enough to touch it. Some people willing to shell out several hundred dollars fly via helicopter up to the top of the glacier and do a guided tour. In addition to being quite expensive, hiking a glacier can also be quite dangerous. Due to warming weather, avalanches happen all the time and ice caves can easily collapse. It was still pretty cool to be able to hike within 750 meters or so from the glacier, close enough to see its famous blue ice. The blue ice of a glacier is formed by the compacting of snow over a number of years.
The next morning, we did a short walk through the rainforest before hitting the road to hike up to the Fox Glacier just 30k down the highway.
Originally we planned on staying for two nights in Franz Josef but with stormy weather on the horizon we made the decision to hit the road a day earlier as we learned the route from Franz Josef to Wanaka (our next big stop) could take upwards of four hours and even more in a camper. So after visiting the Fox Glacier we pushed forward for the Haast Pass highway between the small town of Haast and Wanaka. In Haast we stopped by the information center to pick up a map of the Haast highway as we’d heard that there were lots of scenic stops along the way. While we’ve learned that New Zealand does an absolutely excellent job of marking these scenic lookouts via brown signs along the road, sometimes they come up too quickly for us to stop and this little map was quite helpful in helping us anticipate these upcoming scenic viewpoints.
We stayed the night at a DOC campsite near the highway called Cameron Flats. Unfortunately, the horrible sandflies at this site kept us in our van for most of the night. Although we were rewarded by the most amazing night sky I’d ever seen in my life. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago where you were lucky enough to spot the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt, I loved spending my summers in Lake of Ozarks where you could actually see most of the stars in the night sky. It was actually there that I saw my first shooting star and actually had a counselor from New Zealand show me the Milky Way. This view at Cameron Flats blew my camp stargazing experience out of the water. Little pinholes of light punctuated every spot in the sky leaving less of the sky black than dotted white. I’d heard that Mount Cook had some of the best stargazing in the world and if it was any better than my view that night I’d be sure to be impressed. Sometimes if you’re lucky in New Zealand you can spot the Southern version of the aurora borealis called the Southern Lights and only after the fact did Jeremy and I realize we might have seen them! Around 2:30am in the morning we left the van to go to the bathroom and the sky was lit up in all sorts of shades of pink, green, and blue- I sleepily replied that it must be time for sunrise and then after looking at my watch realized that the sun wouldn’t be coming up for several more hours. Later the next day we realized what we had actually seen and how amazing it was!
The next morning we started off with an early 9:00am hike to a spot called the Blue Pools. The path started right from our campground, and crossed a swing bridge (my favorite) and it was a great start to the morning.
We were also quite pleased that instead of a four-hour drive to Wanaka we now only had about an hour and a half and arrived right around noon. We weren’t sure if we could deal with another night of sandfly damage and decided to pony up for another night in a holiday park recommended by some other travelers we’d met at Cameron Flats the night before. Kiwi Holiday park in Wanaka seemed like a luxury with free wifi, hot tubs, and a great little pavilion with free BBQs for grilling. They also rented mountain bikes which we decided would be the perfect way to explore the beautiful area. Lake Wanaka, the town’s namesake is a beautiful blue lake surrounded practically on all sides by mountains.
I’ve never really been mountain biking and I haven’t gotten on a bicycle more than a handful of times in the past 10 years, so I was a little bit nervous about hitting the trails. Luckily there wasn’t a lot of uphill and it was actually a challenge and pretty fun to try and make our way over the rocky trail terrain and deal with the small up and down slopes along the path. There were a few really tight spots and each of us had one good wipeout but managed to get away without any major injuries other than a few scrapes.
The only thing that ended up bruised was my butt and both our egos after getting lost twice going the wrong way and having to double back adding almost an extra 45 minutes to our ride. Three and a half hours later I was literally walking my bike back into our holiday park. Even Jeremy who is a pretty strong road biker back in Chicago slowly made his way back to the holiday park. Surprisingly the next day I wasn’t as sore as I anticipated which was probably good because I was planning on taking a pretty big leap…