Coastal Westland is a pretty rugged and sparsely populated place. Between Haast in the south and Hokitika in the north there are few towns and a thinly spread population.
“The District consists of a long thin strip of land between the crest of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. The low-lying areas near the coast are a mixture of pastoral farmland and temperate rainforest. The eastern part of the District is steep and mountainous. Many small rivers flow down from the mountains.
The southern part of the District notably contains the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
Westland is one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country, with an area of 11,880.19 square kilometres and a population of 8,403 people (2006 census). Approximately 45% of the population lives in Hokitika (popn.3500). The remaining 55% lives in small villages such as Ross, Franz Josef and Haast, or in rural areas”. Wikipedia
From Wanaka we travelled beside Lake Hawea and over the Haast Pass to reach the West Coast at the mouth of the Haast River. Our destination for the night was Fox Glacier Village, from where we planned to visit the nearby Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers.
Some 25 km north of Haast is the Arthur’s Point lookout from where views of the Tasman Sea and the coastline can be seen.
In the year I left high school I hitch-hiked around the South Island of New Zealand with a friend. It was almost a right of passage between high school and university. We had travelled down the West Coast to Lake Mapourika, which at the time was almost the end of the road. To join up with the road from Haast to Wanaka we had to walk the newly formed but far from finished section of the road from the lake to Arthur’s Point, a distance of about 10 km in wet sticky mud. In the distance we could hear heavy road building machinery. As the time ticked far too slowly towards “knock off time” of 5.00 pm we were afraid we would miss any chance of a ride to Haast and have to sleep the night in the bush. At last gasp we reached the work party just as they were packing up to leave for the night. Happily we flopped onto the back of a truck for the final leg of the day’s journey.
Heading north from Arthur’s Point the road travels inland for a distance before touching the coast again at Bruce Bay, a rugged pebbly beach strewn with driftwood. If you like rugged storm-lashed beaches, this is the place to be. It was fine on the occasion of our visit, but it is easy to imagine the chaos when a south-westerly storm is raging – cold, wind-blasted, with wild surf and horizontal rain!
At the northern end of the bay the trees stand defensively against the weather, stripped of their lower branches and clinging to the eroding boundary between land and beach.
You have to be hardy to live in these parts. It’s little wonder that the coasters have that steely weather worn look that comes from living everyday with the elements.
Click on any image for a larger view.
I was just eighteen years old when I first visited the two big glaciers on the western side of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. New Zealand scenic calendars and the covers of school stationery had depicted images of the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers all through my childhood. At that time the terminal moraine of the Fox Glacier could be seen through a window behind the alter table in the village Anglican church. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
When I first visited the area in 1964 the glaciers were more than a kilometer further down their respective valleys than they are today. Because they are susceptible to climate change and terminate close to sea level in a temperate climate, they tend to advance and recede quite rapidly. The glaciers began receding in the 1930s but reversed their flow in 1985, since which they have been advancing at the rate of about one meter per week. Now the build-up at the face of the glaciers creates vertical overhanging faces which are continually collapsing, making them dangerous to approach.
The valleys down which the glaciers flow at just 25 km apart, allowing both to be easily visited in one day.
I have a bit of a fun image today. In the summer of 2012 our eldest son and his wife visited us from Canada, where they live. Together we toured part of the South Island of New Zealand. The specifically wanted to take in some of the popular sites of Westland, including both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.
It was on the walk from the car park to the glacier face that I captured this image. David is a keen outdoors person, and particularly loves the mountains. In order to capture the scene I asked him to walk across the bridge. Just to be different, he decided to approach the task with this exaggerated stride. I bit different from your normal scenic shot of a popular tourist attraction, don’t you think?
I have known about Lake Matheson since I was a child and first visited it when hitch hiking around the South Island at the end of my last year at high school. It had a reputation that was known the length of New Zealand for producing perfect reflections of the Southern Alps and Aoraki Mount Cook in the early morning before the breezes arrived, provided of course it wasn’t raining or there was low cloud. Just a short 5 minute drive from the Fox Glacier village and a 15 minute walk to the end of the lake will reward visitors with the famous views of the mountains. Over the years tens of thousands of visitors have visited the lake to admire the reflections. Millions of photographs have been taken.
At the end of the day visitors can travel a further 8 km westwards along Cook Flat Road to Gillespies Beach Road to obtain an evening view of the Southern Alps as the sun goes down. A special viewing area has been provided by the Department of Conservation near where the Fox River joins the Cook River. Here the view is shared with grazing cattle.
I have visited this area three times over the years and it never fails to leave an impression, although the weather has not always been obliging for the views.
The sign near the mountain viewing area on Gillespies Beach Road reads “EXTREME CAUTION – Narrow Road – Winding Next 12 km – NO EXIT”. What do you do? The view of the setting sun reflected on the Southern Alps had been spectacular. It was getting darker by the minute. There was no chance of a visit the next day, so we took the chance. The sign was right. Not only was the road narrow, but it was unsealed and winding for the 12 km journey to the rugged west coast Gillespies Beach.
It was worth the drive. Twilight was fading fast as we arrived and the sunset colours were draining from the sky. A short walk through bush from the Department of Conservation campsite brought us onto a wonderful stretch of beach covered with large rounded pebbles and strewn with driftwood. People watching the remains of the sunset were silhouetted against the sky, while others were illuminated by the flames of from driftwood camp fires . What a magical place to watch the day turn into night.
Careful navigation in the dark on the return journey was made easier with the help of the GPS to warn of sharp corners ahead.