Wonders of the West Coast: New Zealand's South Island

Wonders of the West Coast: New Zealand’s South Island

After the amazing experience hiking the Heaphy Track from Golden Bay to Kohaihai, we spent a couple of evenings at Rongo’s Backpackers, in the town of Karamea, to rest up and enjoy some food that hadn’t been carried on our backs for the past five days.

The Magical Oparara Basin

While the main goal for our day in Karamea was to take a well-deserved break after five days of hiking along the Heaphy, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Oparara Basin. Luckily, a fellow traveler staying at Rongo’s offered the spare seats in his car to anyone who was willing to accompany him while exploring the basin. For a backpacker on a budget with limited transport options, this was a dream come true!

Without going into much detail, it’s my opinion that the basin is definitely worth a visit. While the Honeycomb Hill Caves and Arch are only accessible by guided tour, which we didn’t do, there is plenty to keep you captivated as you wander the easy walking tracks. Inspired by The Lord of The Rings, attractions such as Moria Gate Arch, Mirror Tarn and the Oparara Arch are impressive natural wonders set in gorgeous surroundings. The Box Canyon and Crazy Paving Caves are also not to be missed – just be sure to bring your torch!

The Moria Gate Arch in the Oparara Basin.

Stepping back into the land before time – Moria Gate Arch, Oparara Basin.

A Quick Stop for Pancake Rocks

From Karamea, our journey would take us past the glaciers of New Zealand’s South Island as we headed towards Queenstown and the starting point of our next Great Walk, the Routeburn Track. As you head down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, there’s a geological wonder not to be missed – the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes of Punakaiki.

Given the ease of access to Pancake Rocks, it’s no wonder that even the cheaper bus operators provide a stop off at this site. Again, without a car of our own, we sometimes have to take any opportunity we can to see the stellar attractions of a country that are outside of walking distance from major travel hubs – albeit at a lightening pace. That, or I suppose you could pay for a specific tourist coach – but who wants to do that?! Thankfully our Naked Bus connection from Westport to Franz Josef included a whirlwind stop of the Pancake Rocks, giving us just enough time to make the easy, 1km loop and snap a few pictures.

The rock formations really are a wonder. It’s amazing how water, salt and air can have such a prolific effect on rock – given a few million years or so.

Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki.

That’s a big stack of pancakes!

Decisions, Decisions: Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier?

When planning a visit to the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, there’s one question that crosses the minds of many. Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier? And to that I say, why not do both? Since we were passing both of these towns, it made just as much sense to spend a night in each rather than two nights in one, and it’s simple enough to do even without a car of your own.

I found that both towns had just enough to do, aside from touring their respective namesake glaciers, to comfortably fill a day or two – and not feel as though we were rushing or missing out. In Franz Josef we opted out of a guided glacier tour, instead spending our 20 hours in the town relaxing at the glacier hot pools and taking a self-guided, and free, walk of the Franz Josef Glacier valley. While in Fox Glacier, we had a bit more time up our sleeves to go on a guided glacier hike, as well as do the beautiful moraine rainforest walk and walk the 6km out of town to Lake Matheson and stroll around the wetlands (before getting caught in the rain and hitch-hiking back to town so as to not miss our bus!)

Captured in along the rainforest valley walk to Franz Josef Glacier.

The surroundings of both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers were filled with beautiful rainforest walks.

The Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk

Since our visit to Franz Josef Glacier was more of a connection between two bus trips, we chose to take things at our own pace and opted for more activities of an easier, more relaxing nature. Visiting the glacier hot pools on the evening we arrived was an obvious choice, and we enjoyed a pleasant night of soaking away in the heated waters, surrounded by lush rainforest.

To see the star attraction of the town, we followed the Te Ara a Waiau Walkway, which connects the township to the Franz Josef glacier car park. The walkway is an easy 4 or so kilometres, winding through rainforest and passing other trail heads, and is a great option for the carless travellers who want to see the base of the Franz Josef glacier, and take in the surroundings. As we strolled through the rainforest, hearing the sounds of local birdlife and breathing in the fresh forest air, we really needed to stop and remind ourselves of the truly unique and beautiful location we were passing through. There are few places in the world where glacial landscapes back on to temperate rainforests.

As a short, 1.2km return, side trip, we took the path to Peters Pool. Time your visit right to this little kettle lake and you can snap the perfect reflection photograph. We were very lucky to capture this, given how quickly the skies turned grey as we returned to our accommodation.

Peters Pool near Franz Josef Glacier.

The weather could not have been more perfect for our stop to Peters Pool.

Our Fox Glacier Hike

If you’re planning your own trip down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, you’ll know how many tour operators there are to choose from when looking for a glacier hike. In the end, we went with Fox Glacier Guiding and selected their Nimble Fox tour (which is no longer available). To us, this was the perfect introduction to glacier hiking, balanced with an informative and enjoyable hike along the valley to the glacier.

Excusing the amazingly fashionable jackets, the tour was a perfect day out. Our guide was both knowledgeable and fun, and we really felt we were in good hands. You got the feeling that the tour, while carefully planned out, was also catered to the abilities of our group – and that our guide carved out new paths in the ice just for us. Whether that was just a bit of good showmanship or not, we certainly didn’t mind, as we had a great time scaling down ice walls, exploring caverns, and traversing the glacier in our trusted crampons.

One concept that really blew me away was the sheer size of Fox Glacier and the valley it continuously advances into and retreats out of. Thanks to our informative guide, we learnt about glacial movement and were told amazing facts about the sizes of our surroundings. At one point during the hike, our attention was drawn to a boulder down in the valley. It looked a reasonable size, maybe of a four-wheel drive or similar, but we were wrong – it was the height of a three-storey building!

Learning so many interesting facts, along with the safety aspect and on glacier time, definitely make paying for one guided glacier hike a must do when visiting the west coast.

Go West! Get Travelling to the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island

With or without a car, you should definitely make the west coast part of your trip to New Zealand. What started as a need to get from the end of the Heaphy Track to Queenstown, and the beginning of our next Great Walk, turned into so much more. From magical locations where time stands still, to lush rainforests and the amazing scale of magnificent glaciers – the South Island’s west coast truly has something for everyone.