We checked out of Base Wanaka at 10am and made our way North towards Franz Josef – a 4 hour drive – with pit stops along the way, the first being at the Blue Pools. About an hour away from Wanaka, you can park your car on the side of the road and then walk 10 minutes through bush before crossing over a suspension bridge.
Honestly, New Zealand and their bloomin suspension bridges; they love a good suspension bridge, and as someone who lacks good balance at the best of times it certainly helped me develop my core, although it often feels like you could easily flip over the waist-high railings along the side. Once on the other side of this SUSPENSION BRIDGE you then clamber over rocks to reach the blue pools. Created by Glacier water, and shimmering in the sun, it appeared more green than blue but was a cute little stop, albeit quite touristy.
Our next stop was at Ship Creek, about another hour in, where there is a bush walk or a coastal walk on offer; we took the latter but half of it went through the bush anyway, and it had started to rain by this point so it was more a case of being able to stretch our legs for half an hour than take in much of the view or the surroundings. Once back in the car we drove for another 30 minutes before reaching the salmon farm, where we ordered some food (I went for the smoked salmon and cream cheese on dark rye bread whereas Claire had eggs benedict with smoked salmon, which looked amazing) and took a proper break from driving.
It was really raining by this point (this New Zealand “summer” was starting to feel very much like a British one) so we carried on to Franz Josef, where you pass through Fox Glacier village on your way in. We first drove to the car park near the mountain where you can do a Glacier walk up to the face, but the rain was pouring down and the sky surrounding the mountain was full of fog and mist that we were unlikely to see anything and would probably spend most of the walk with our heads down to protect our faces from the rain. Plus, we had done a Glacier walk the day before (Rob Roy Valley Track) so we decided to drive to Lake Matheson instead.
Referred to as the ‘mirror lake’ and about another 10 minutes drive to the car park, there are a few different walks you can do around the lake and we took the 1.5 hour loop. This takes you to various lookout points where your view is a combination of grandiose Mount Cook and Mount Tasman which are then stunningly reflected into the still water of Lake Matheson in front of you, surrounded by trees and fawn. Due to the mist around the mountains and the intermittent rain it wasn’t the most ideal day for the mirror lake, but we still got a pretty good view and could easily make out its reflection. It’s well worth a visit.
We finally made it to Franz Josef around 7pm and checked into Chateau Backpackers, where free wifi was included (something that would have been standard in Asia but was fast becoming a rarity in New Zealand) along with free soup from 6pm (which had all but gone by the time we got there), free breakfast from 7:30-9am, free popcorn and a free spa (although I use this term loosely – a tub in a shed, the water was lukewarm, murky and smelt like damp clothes). It was one of the better places we stayed during our time in NZ though and the beds came complete with personal light, plug socket and curtain, plus the bedrooms were en suite and there was a number of chill out areas.
After stocking up at the 4 Square and having a bite to eat we went out for a walk around 10:30pm as the lady on reception had told us there was a walk you could do where you were able to see glowworms at night. First of all we went the wrong way and ended up by the water, in the pitch black, gazing up at stars, but on our walk back we stumbled by the correct path – some walk beginning with T that leads through the forest. We were literally in complete and utter darkness (thankfully we both brought head torches otherwise we would not have been able to see to walk over the pathway) and it was a bit eerie (well, I was ok but Claire found it particularly creepy – I happily took on the protector role!) But about 10 minutes in we switched off our head torches and were hit with scattered dots of light amongst the trees in front of us as the glowworms lit up in the darkness; it was actually really impressive and quite enchanting.
The following morning we got up at 8:30am to make it in time for the free breakfast, which included waffles (a waffle mixture and a waffle machine were provided for you to make them yourself), bread with butter and jam, plus tea and coffee. We then drove 4km to the Franz Josef car park where there were again a number of walks you could do.
We started with the 2 hour Glacier Valley walk, which as the name suggests leads you through the valley, over small rocks, close to the face of the Glacier. Once again we were hit with a wet and foggy day where it is far too easy to look down rather than up, and we sadly couldn’t see as much of the mountains behind as we should have been able to, however it was a really nice and comfortable walk and seeing the Glacier up close – with all the whites and blues against the granite of the mountain – was really cool.
Once back at the carpark we then did the hour Douglas Valley walk, which was basically through the bush with no real end point, and as it was raining we didn’t get anything much from this walk, other than the exercise itself. Back at the carpark again we got in the car and started our drive back to our hostel, but stopped again quite quickly as we approached two girls walking along the road in the rain with their thumbs up – after being saved through hitchhiking a couple of days before we felt it was our time to give back. We then rewarded ourselves for our good deed by picking up some ciders from 4 Square. Back at our dorm room we put on some music (Desree’s ‘Life’ was becoming more and more relevant to our travels – “bungy jumping, I don’t care!” – and a frequent player) and twerked away, before opening our ciders and checking out the spa. As previously mentioned, it wasn’t the best experience and left our towels and bikinis smelling like they had somehow gone off, but we added it to the list of “experiences” before tucking into the free soup at 6pm, spending the rest of the evening drinking and booking our next destinations.
We had booked a Franz Josef Heli Ice Climb for the following day; $525 NZD for a 5 hour trip where you take a helicopter to land on the Glacier and then climb the ice. So we set our alarm for 6:45am, giving us sufficient time to clear out the room, check out and head to Franz Josef Glaciers building at 7:45am. To our devastation, upon arriving at the building, we were informed all times had been cancelled due to the weather and, as we had accommodation booked in Greymouth for that evening we wouldn’t be able to postpone to another date, we would have to miss out completely. Hiking/climbing a Glacier was one of the main things I had wanted to do during my time in NZ so I was completely gutted and, for the first time, pissed off at the weather, which was ridiculously unusual for their summer.
Disheartened we went back to our hostel for the free waffles (we needed something for comfort!) before setting off towards Greymouth – our stop off point on the way to Nelson. We took a slight detour en route to Haikiki Gorge; a beautifully turquoise stretch of water amongst the mountains that has it colours due to the Glacier activity, which was a peaceful, beautiful spot but perhaps not worth the 30 minutes extra drive each way in a wet and foggy day.
We then drove further north than Greymouth to head to the pancake rocks, which were really interesting and the crashing waves around them set a somewhat dramatic, wistful tone, plus the weather had picked up so the sunshine made for a more beautiful landscape (yet, at the same time, more tourists unfortunately!)
As nice as both stops were, nothing was going to make up for the hole of the Franz Josef ice climb, so we headed to our hostel in Greymouth and ate some more free hostel soup before getting an early night in prep for our long journey into Nelson the following day.