During our entire journey through New Zealand the landscape around us has changed almost by the hour. Mountains with permanent snow on top, rain forests with hundreds of different, green shades and endless beaches with the finest sand imaginable. All this within just one hour of driving with the campervan.
There is a big difference between the north island and the south island. On the north island the green landscape was ever-present, while here on the south island we see much more mountain scenery and roaring rivers of meltwater cutting its way through the landscape on its way towards the ocean. Before we arrived people with knowledge of the matter told us that New Zealand’s two main islands are very different. I have to support that opinion!
We have left Nelson in the northern part of the island and started our way down along the west coast. And just as we started this part of the trip, we got a sense of what a true winter in New Zealand feels like. It is not cold like COLD in central Europe. But then it is WET! Three days in a row we did not see any sunshine and hardly an inch of blue sky. We drove through grey and rather gloomy stretches of highway, but made sure that we always had some exciting sights to see or at least a warm and cozy café to drop into.
One of the attractions we had all been looking forward to see was the Pancake Rocks. Back in the “early days” - when New Zealand was formed, I guess it is appropriate to say that the whole range of “special effects” was used! And here on the west coast of the south island there are some rather strange cliffs that seem like they are made in layers. They really do look like stacked pancakes! Hence the name Pancake Rocks. We just stood there for a while and stared in awe. And this even though the wind was howling and the rain was drumming on our raincoats and ice-cold cheeks. But as they say: Bad weather does not exist! It’s just a matter of attire! Well, our raincoats have certainly come in handy these past few days!
We continued further south and stopped in Franz Josef Glacier Village. This is the northern gateway to the two main attractions on the west coast: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.
On a previous occasion I have experienced a glacier at close hand. This was in Ilulissat in Greenland. Already as we approached from a distance, we could hear the cracking and roaring from the calving ice. It was happening constantly. The beautiful colours of this giant, slowly moving mass of ice is stunning and for some reason you just get quiet all of a sudden. This was the effect the glacier in Ilulissat had on me, and the same thing happened here by Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. However, with the images of the glacier in Greenland in my mind I had a hard time getting really excited over the Franz Josef Glacier. We could not get any closer than 500 meters from the edge. As we started our walk through the giant gorge, that the glacier has actually previously filled, it did in fact seem rather impressive, but as we got closer this effect faded away, and we were actually a bit disappointed.
Luckily, this did not happen the following day by the Fox Glacier. This time we could get really close to the edge, and we could even get good views from a hilltop in one side of the gorge. Hence we could get a good and close view over the glacier and enjoy all the fantastic colours and also the formidable crevasses.
We could see some of the guided groups of tourists that were walking around on top of the glacier in red thermo jackets, with ice picks and spike-shoes. We did consider such a tour ourselves but skipped it. It is rather costly and they do not allow children. Understandably all attendees must be at least 7 years or more, and capable of understanding and following important instructions in such a dangerous area. We will have to do this another time in the future.
Upon visiting both glaciers we had to walk a bit through rather steep gorges to get from the parking area to the actual edge of the glacier. Over the past 200 years they have both receded many kilometers. And every day tons of ice is melting, making the water run towards the ocean with tremendous power. You feel quite small when you are hiking between the steep walls of solid mountain rock, towering over you and the gorge. Everywhere there are small and big chunks of rock, baring witness to just how powerful nature is around here. They are the remains of shattered cliffs that the glacier has carried within and under the ice. Oftentimes, sometimes daily, there are new rock- and ice falls, so the area is patrolled daily by park rangers. They often have to move the marked paths and barriers, so that no tourists will accidentally kill themselves.
I started to reflect a little when I saw the signs along the path, marking where the Franz Josef Glacier had been in the years 1870, 1935 and as late as in 2008. Actually both glaciers are receding rapidly! There are most likely a number of reasons for this. And experts do not really seem to agree. Could it be manmade global warming? Or could it be part of a natural 100.000-year-cycle where ice-ages will keep the “ice-balance” of our planet in place? I am not smart enough to figure this out, but it is hard for me to believe that we, humans, have not had anything to do with the pace in which all this ice is currently melting. The pace has increased drastically over the past century. Over the same period of time we have increased our pollution and use of fossil fuels. It may be a coincidence, but I often ask myself if it wouldn’t be better to find other ways of producing energy? A way that would not pollute in the same way, and a way that would not be so heavily dependent on the resources of the planet. It is said, that when the last barrel of oil is pumped out of the earth, it is over and out with this particular type of energy. For good! Whether manmade, global warming is a fact or not, my question will always be: What is wrong with a greener, and cleaner planet? It may cost more and hurt someones pretty profit in the short run, but isn’t it more important to think in a long term basis? Maybe we, the humans, are simply not smart enough to understand the consequences... What do I know anyway?
Here in this area we have also seen the rarest Kiwi species in the world. I am not talking about the fruit, but the bird. The Rowi is only found in a very specific area, called Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary, where they live protected from the predators of the surrounding nature. With just around 380 birds in total, this Kiwi certainly can be categorized as an “Endangered species”. In New Zealand there are no original predators that could harm the Rowi. But in the 1800’s New Zealand imported stoats, in order for them to get rid of some of the increasing number of rabbits that were breeding here. But apparently rabbits were too fast for the stouts because they turned their attention to the Rowis and their eggs, which almost led to extinction. Just a few years ago there were only about 200 registered Rowis alive. Substantial measures were taken in order to save the little Kiwi from total extinction and today, with governmental support, the number is increasing. The plan is to start dealing with the stouts, which do not belong here, and at the same time re-instate the Rowis in their original habitats. Ever since we came to New Zealand we have been trying to get a glimpse of ANY Kiwi species in the wild, but they are extremely shy and mostly nocturnal. So we went to the place where Rowis are hatched, and where two adult birds are living in an almost dark room, to get a closer look at the fascinating species. It was a funny experience after having read so much about them. Unfortunately we were not allowed to touch them, but Anton got a cuddly toy version of a Kiwi when we got out. He puts it to sleep during the day, in order for it to be awake at night to watch over him.
We also went for a drive around Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier Village. This is apparently where you can get the very best view (from this side of the island) of New Zealand’s highest mountain: Mount Cook. In order to actually get up on the mountain itself you have to drive up from the other side of the island. This we will most likely not be doing until we head back north towards Christchurch along the east coast in a few weeks. We HAVE to get there, of course! But the view from Lake Matheson was absolutely stunning. We went on the loop walk around noon. The longer you wait, the greater risk of clouds covering the mountain tops. They actually recommend doing this walk in the morning, but we are rarely ready to leave the campsite before 10 AM, and we had beautiful scenery anyway - with almost no clouds to start with. As we got near the end of the loop walk more and more clouds did in fact appear. Had we started just an hour later, we would not have been able to enjoy such a spectacular view.
In the coming days we are going further south. We are going through the so-called Haast Pass, where a young couple were killed just 10 days ago, when a landslide hit their campervan on the road during a very heavy rainfall. The road has been completely closed, but just a couple of days ago it re-opened during the daytime. The heavy rain is now gone, but implications may still occur in the area. We just hope the road stays open.