Along the South Island of New Zealand the West Coast is a roadtrip of some of the most stunning scenes. Home to some of the steepest cliffs and winding roads, huge ocean waves and mountain ranges which gives the South Island the very well known reputation for being one of the most picturesque countries in the world. However the other reputation is extreme weather and boy did we get the full experience.
Driving down the West Coast, first through Abel Tasman, which felt more like a European coastal area, with stunning beaches, forest going all the way up to coast, famous for its paddleboarding and hikes through the National Park.
Westport is a surfing paradise, with beautiful high ocean front cliffs famous for its albatrosses and the seals which give birth along these safe boulders. Theres also the famous pancake rocks on the way to Franz Josef and 1 hour away from Greymouth. We drove along the only road which goes north and south along the west coast until we arrived at Franz Josef on the 5th December 2019. The weather had already taken a turn for the worst, the only rain on the entire trip and it came thick, fast and long.
Franz Josef got its name from the Austrian Emperor of the same name in the 1850;s, and is one of 3 main glaciers which run off of the main southern alps of the mountain range. The story goes that in Maori stories that the glaciers are tears of a Maori ancestor who lost her love in an avalanche when climbing the mountains. There is only one main road through the town which carries on through to the Fox Glacier, Wanaka and then finally Queenstown.
Accomodation here can range from £15 dollars upto the top dollars;
For the first time in 3 days I had wifi so decided to relax, wait for the rain to pass, and enjoy a quiet dorm room. I later headed down to meet friends at the Rainforest Retreat bar, the rain had not stopped outside, with my raincoat, layers, trainers, hat and leggings I made it just in time before the thunder lit up the sky.
2 hours later me and 3 friends who were in the same hostel as me decided to head off, not realising just how bad the storm had become outside, we could see the waterfall at the end of the covered roof, beyond that the rain was coming down so fast I couldn’t even say it was raining, it was more like a bucket of water being poured.
At first we found it funny, we had hoods up, planned our escape, me running off in the completely wrong direction so having to come back and head the opposite way, already soaked. Thunder, Lightening and repeat the whole way back up the small hill. When we had ran to the main road through a puddle of water of the path, we than arrived at the bottom of the road which was now completely covered in flowing water a foot deep (no joke). We had to drag ourselves through it to get home, not being able to really see properly with how big the rain drops were, lightening going off every few seconds, infact the number within the space of the storm there had been 10,000 lightening strikes, that’s crazy!
Today the storm kept going, all morning I was stuck inside the Hostel watching the road which was now a river just keep flowing.
One of the Special experiences I did have was going to the Kiwi Sanctuary…, it was a little pricey at 36 NZD but meant access all day so I ended up going back twice to try and spot these cute little nocturnal animals. Due to the Kiwi birds being endangered, eggs are found and incubated until hatched to make sure they survive until release at full grown. Not only does this centre have all the information about the Kiwi, they also had 2 baby Kiwis within the dark room when I was there. Spot the Kiwi! I went back 3 times and the last visit is when I finally got to see these unusual birds. I had to sit in the dark for over 20 minutes to see if they would come and say hi, they finally did and they were the cutest!
They also have an exhibition on the Glacier itself, which was fantastic due to not being able to see it at this point – https://www.wildkiwi.co.nz/
The only sanctuary i wanted that night with more rain, was the Hot Pools Spa which is the perfect retreat away from the cold and rainy days. It has the hot pools but also jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms to melt the day away! You can even ask for treatments if you want super luxury! Website – https://www.glacierhotpools.co.nz/
Another rain storm all morning, i was definitely catching up on sleep. Which meant looking out the windows, hoping every hour it would pass.
In the afternoon after some lunch with some of the guys, we decided to head to the Glacier it was the first glimpse of a blue sky just trying its hardest to break through the thick clouds. The mist was clearing and we knew the visability would be much better than yesturday. To get to the glacier you can hire a transit bus which leaves every hour on the hour from certain hostels in the town. For return trips its only 13NZD, and then they pick you up a few hours later after your adventure. There are several different Hikes around the Franz Josef Glacier area. I went on the shortest one, there and back with two view points, we tried to get as close as possible to the Glacier, unfortunately due to the floods and bad storm there was a lot of extra water, infact there was an extra river!
So happy I got to see it in such dramatic way, and what a crazy geographic landscape to be stuck next too! The sad part of the Franz Josef Glacier is that in terms of it disappearing due to global warming its recessing 15 years ahead of predictions. Gutted!
To show an example of just how accommodating the residence of this small town are, when I arrived back I found my Hostels owners all out on the balcony with a bbq in full swing, with home made cookies, fire with marshmellows and even some salad ready for everyone to enjoy an evening in the sun which had finally come out. They did this to boost mural! To finish the evening off, they then announced it was free entry at the Ice bar 2 minutes away with pool, darts and 2 for 1 drinks, and we would be heading there in style! In the most random of towns to ever have one of these, they suddenly announce we would be riding in a stretched Hummer to the bar??? NO WAY! YES WAY! Pictures to prove it, through all the stress this evening was one of so much fun and forgetting why we were all still here.
Today was a beautiful morning, you will never see so many people so happy to see clear blue skies and sunshine except the people in Franz Josef on the 9th Dec 2019. After 3 days of confusion, frustration and stress with no real answers.
We headed to the town hall meeting, the third in 2 days to see what was going on and being done to get us out. We were told the worse. It was going to be at least 4/5 days until we can even try and leave FJ due to how bad the roads, flood waters and collapsed bridge still was. Today marked the day I was meant to be arriving in Queenstown, which meant it was now affecting the real reason I came to NZ, to see the south island. Everyone was getting more upset and frustrated now, fed up of no help and the attitude that it wasn’t the worse place to be with alot to do (problem is this was all costing alot of money to take part in).
Helihikes were officially allowed to land on the glacier again after 6 days of high winds and terrible visibility. Unfortunately the Bungee jump i was meant to be doing was still cancelled, which may have been blessing in disguise.
In a moment of desperation i headed into the information centres to check costs and availability for planes/ helicopters companies helping people out of Franz Josef. This was the first day they were giving options to fly 40 minutes to Mount Cook airport, and then onto Queenstown through a bus transit. I was with 2 others who were desperate to just get out and enjoy the 7 days they had left in NZ , I felt the same with only 10 days left, and no confirmation of moving for 5 days!
The next 2 hours were like a blur, the moment we were at the front of the counter, the woman asked how many of us there were and where we wanted to go, there was 6 of us in all now and the woman said if we wanted to leave soon as possible we could pay 700 NZD each (£350) for a private plane and private bus to QT, the catch we had to go NOW! With a sudden joy, and relief I forgot about budgets and anything else and decided to take it! Sometimes the most spontaneous actions pay off and this one certainly did.
Within 5 minutes i had ran with the others to our hostel to quickly pick our bags up ready to fly in the next hour. I screamed to my friends who walked into reception as i paid my bills, and they were so confused about what was happening due to the fact I was already running back to the information fight centre as i said goodbye! I was weighed with all my bags, taken to a car, arrived 15 minutes later at the smallest runway and plane hut which is actually used for the skydiving.. We paid, we signed our lives away, we watched the plane land and noticed the plane itself was a bungee jumping plane with seats now replacing the open space.
The moment we boarded (all 7 of us plus the pilot), it was like a party, all of us just became so excited, and all the stress just melted away. We were whooping and clapping, enjoying the incredible views we now were enjoying from outside the windows. Winding glacial rivers which were heading towards the ocean, the ocean so blue and inviting unlike the last few days. As we glided through the low clouds we came out and i couldn’t believe the views. Pure, dramatic and unbelievable mountains covered in the whitest most untouched snow i have ever seen. While looking down i forgot to look across but when i did i let out a small squeal… Aoraki/Mount Cook stands at 3,754 metres (Aoraki is Māori for Cloud Piercer) the highest peak in New Zealand. It looked photoshopped with the blue sky behind it making it look even more spectacular.
The flight was meant to be 30 minutes, however we landed 45 minutes later, part of me realised the pilot had done an extended scenic route, just to make this experience the best it possibly could be. The views of the other glaciers below merging with the insanely beautiful natural landscape, to then seeing the green grass surrounding the landing strip on the other side of Mount Cook was sheer delight. We had made it, we were out of danger, and ready to carry on my adventures in New Zealand. So lucky to have the opportunity and option to do this.
This experience of the craziest and most extreme 4 days stuck in Franz Josef was helped by the people i was stuck with, a positive attitude and my hostel accommodating to us in every way possible. The glacier was like a dream, something i had only seen in Iceland before. The the flight out was worth every penny just to see the views and have an experience like this, always a silver lining, and hey what a story to add to my extreme adventures stories.