The once tranquil settlement of Franz Josef was nestled among the native forest of the West Coast and protected by the impressive peaks of the Southern Alps. Franz Josef, together with its twin, Fox Glacier, was rated number 12 of the 101 Must-Do for Kiwis.
Today, this little town was abuzz with tourists and visitors flocking to see the stunning vista of the mountains. We had intended to take the helicopter ride but the cloudy conditions and light drizzle did not permit. We checked with Alpine Adventure before 9 am and were advised to check again at 10.30 am.
With some time to spare, we visited the West Coast Wildlife Centre, the official home to the breeding and incubation programme of the Rowi kiwi. Rowi kiwi was found only in the Okarito Forest, near Franz Josef, and is NZ's rarest kiwi. Through the silence, we heard the story of the kiwi. The Maori legend had it that long ago, when the trees' existence was threatened by bugs, the brave kiwi volunteered to depart from the forest canopy into the forest floor in order to save the trees. For that, it gave up living in the sun, its beautiful wings and colourful feathers. When our eyes laid on these furry nocturnal creatures, we fell in love with them instantaneously.
After our close encounter of the Rowi kiwis, we checked on the next available helicopter ride. It had been deferred again to the early afternoon subject to the weather condition. The light drizzle had been intermittent and persisted throughout the day. We decided to take a walking trail to see the glaciers.
In our close to 2 hours hike, we left our footprints on the rocks shattered by the movement of the glaciers which had since retreated. Melted water flowed down from the mountains making melodious music. If not for the rocks in the bed, the river will have no song.
When we finally reached the lookout point, we came face to face with billions of cubic metres of solid blue ice. It was an unforgettable experience. Together with the Fox Glacier, 20km to the south, the Franz Josef Glacier cut through dramatic glacial valleys to flow into temperate rainforest.
It was little wonder why the Franz Josef Glacier was widely regarded as the gem of the South West NZ World Heritage (a place likened to world treasures such as the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef). The glacier descended from the top of the Southern Alps into rainforest 300m above sea level - nowhere in the world's temperate climate can one find glaciers so accessible.
At around 3 pm, we bade goodbye to this beautiful glacial country and continue our road trip with Queenstown beckoning ahead.
Along the journey, we could see the Tasman sea. We could almost imagine the intrepid early explorers who sailed the seven seas in search of new land. The Tasman sea merged with the sky to form a tapestry of different hues of white with light tints of blue, draping down like a curtain. Mother Nature had weaved a wondrous art for us to marvel.
As we travelled, many serene scenery opened in front of us. There were mighty mountains on our right surrounding by fluffy white clouds dancing a slow waltz for us. There were water streams flowing down from atop the mountains on our left and joining the river below. The playful raindrops were drumming a cheerful tune on our windscreen. It was a harmonious medley of the elements of nature.
The picturesque view from Lake Hawea lookout was a sight to behold. The golden hue glowing from the depths of the valleys and the bright burst of lights from the clouds above, alongside the calm waters below was intoxicating. We were also treated with the majestic sight of the Crowne Range Summit.
Above: Lake Hawea
Below: Crowne Range Summit
It was about 8 pm when we reached Queenstown (Bella Vista Motel). After a long day immersing in nature's wonder, it was great to see civilization again.