New Zealand enjoys the unique distinction of being the only place on the planet where glaciers slope down to within 20km of the coastline.
Head to South Westland and immerse yourself in the ice-laden awe of Glacier Country. In the family of glaciers, the little sister is Fox, located in a steep-sided glacial valley, at the southern end of the West Coast Highway. 30 minutes up the road, Franz Josef Glacier is the bigger crowd-pleaser, because its serpentine-shaped slithering magnificence is more photogenic.
Both glaciers have been in the grips of the stretch and squeeze machine, advancing and then retreating in size, quite dramatically, in recent years.
Up until 2008, the glaciers were extending their length by as much as 70cms a day, but now remain in rapid retreat mode. Recent tragedies that claimed the lives of young tourists bluntly illustrated how the ice shelves of the glaciers are extremely unstable. The safety barriers and warning signs, exhorting you to stick to the track, are definitely there for a reason.
Whether the cyclic nature of glacier sizing is being aggravated by man-made global warming or not, climate change scientists anticipate our great southern glaciers will continue retreating for most of this century. So, surrender yourself to the glacial spectacle now – not later!
For the extra-intrepid, a wealth of guided glacier walks and climbing experiences are available, tailored to suit all ages and abilities. If you have cash to splash, the mother of all glacier encounters is a heli-hike, complete with snow landing at the top of these slithering tongues of ice.
When you’ve had your fill of glacial gazing, hop across to New Zealand’s most spectacular natural mirror. The dark, inky waters of the bush-clad Lake Matheson (pictured above) deliver absurdly supreme reflections of the soaring Southern Alps, with Mt.Cook and Mt. Tasman stealing the show. Try and time your visit for sunrise or sunset, when the light is softer, and nature’s paintbrush of colour is accentuated.
In Franz Josef township, the West Coast Wildlife Centre is where you can admire the world’s rarest kiwi, the Rowi. Indigenous to the region, the wildlife centre houses the official breeding programme for this highly endangered national treasure. The centre is particularly popular with the little ones, and in addition to ogling one of our rarest national birds, explore the whiz-band interactive glacier displays and wildlife films.
Franz Josef is threaded with a welter of enchanting walking tracks. My favourite forest walk is the Callery Gorge track, which traverses pristine rainforest to the Callery Gorge Bridge, and takes just over an hour to complete.
Top off your day with a soothing soak in the Glacier Hot Pools, snuggly secluded in native bush.
Dreaming in the Canopy
Just imagine waking up to the mellifluous choir of native birdsong, in a sanctuary of comfort, cocooned by the soft furnishings of lush rainforest and an alpine backdrop, right outside your window?
The triumphant dawn chorus is just one of a multitude of treats that awaits you at Te Waonui Forest Retreat, a purpose-built establishment ingeniously constructed to co-exist in harmony with its august natural surrounds.
Te Waonui has elevated the rainforest to centre-stage, with the four wings of the property bracketing the most enchanting of courtyards – a dense, verdant expanse of rainforest teeming with playful birdlife.
The respective wings of the hotel, linked by covered walkways and boasting remarkably spacious rooms, are all named in honour of the region’s finest indigenous trees: Kahikatea, Totara, Rimu and Matai.
The luxuriously appointed rooms feature all manner of indulgences, from the organic cotton sheets and pillow menu, to the underfloor heating, when you step out of the rain shower.
At 4pm, a knock at the door heralds the arrival of the complimentary wine and canapés service. But it’s the five course degustation dinner, which is the prize draw. Celebrating the best of fresh New Zealand produce, the Clevedon Bay Oysters, West Coast Whitebait and Canterbury Pork dishes are particularly divine. The creative chefs are currently planning to accentuate the forest flavour to their food basket, with the accent on ancient plants and herbs. Te Waonui’s splendid timber furnishings, unfailing environmental credentials and impeccable hospitality make this the West Coast hideaway of your dreams.