My original plan for day seven was to drive to our AirBnB in Okarito via Castle Hill near Arthur’s Pass National Park. Castle Hill was used for several scenes in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. However, looking at the map, it was so much driving and we’d been doing quite a lot of driving, so I came up with a back-up plan based on other things I knew I had wanted to see.
From Punakaiki we drove south on highway 6 toward Glacier Country, one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand. As we drove further and further south the snow-capped mountains started to take shape. We reached Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier about two and a half hours later. Our first stop was Lake Matheson, which has an easy hour-long hike with some truly stunning views of Mount Cook and the glaciers.
We had stopped at a grocery store on the way so when we arrived I made some sandwiches in the trunk of our car before we headed onto the track. Most of the walk is through shaded and woody areas that feel a lot like Lothlorien. Then occasionally there is a break in the trees and you can look out across Lake Matheson and see a nearly perfect reflection of the mountains on the surface of the water. If you want Instagram-worthy shots, Lake Matheson makes it very easy!
From the Lake Matheson trail head we drove a bit further into the farm country at the foot of the mountains for a better view of Mount Cook and Fox Glacier, which we were going to be scaling via heli-hike the following day. From there we drove back into Franz Joseph and made a spontaneous reservation for later in the evening at Glacier Hot Pools. We splurged a bit and got the private pool for after dinner. Food options are few and far between, as with most parts of New Zealand. However, the options that do exist are usually all pretty good. We opted for the Snakebite Tavern, an Asian fusion restaurant just a block away from the glacier pools location. I had their house specialty, which was a fall-apart-tender beef dish (Beef Rendang) in a rich brown sauce served with rice.
After dinner we went back to the glacier pools and checked in. We were escorted along the fern lined boardwalk to the back of the property where they had several small, secluded pools. Each private pool had a little hut with a shower and a changing room, which was very welcomed in the cold night air. It was just what we needed. An hour soak in hot water and then a quick drive back to our AirBnB in Okarito.
Okarito is a small hamlet of just a few houses on the coast. We arrived well after dark so it felt even more remote as we pulled up. The cottage itself was cute and cozy, but what I remember most about our stay there was the night sky. After lugging our things in I made Mike come back outside with me and just spend a few minutes looking at the stars. I didn’t have a tripod so taking photos of it wasn’t an option, nor would it have done it any justice. It was humbling to be under such a clear, dark sky with the Milky Way Galaxy right in front of me, clearer than I had ever seen it before. There is a reason New Zealand’s tourism department dedicates a whole web-page to Stargazing. The area around Mount Cook is considered a particularly great dark sky for stargazing. I wish we hadn’t been so tired every evening or we’d have spent more time looking up at the stars. We are all stardust…right? 🙂
This day of our trip was one of the most exhilarating and memorable. After a good night’s sleep we drove back into Fox Glacier and had brekkie at Café Neve. We ate a hearty full English style meal before heading across the street to check in for our helicopter hike on the glacier. There are two main glaciers: Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier. We opted to do Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Guiding. I was definitely nervous and was convinced I had had too much hot chocolate with breakfast and would need to pee up on the glacier, which isn’t an option, so I nervous-peed about three times before we actually got our safety briefing… Haha.
They took our group into a separate room and gave us our safety briefing before asking us to pick up some equipment and get on the bus that would take us to the helipad. At the helipad we went inside a small hut where we stored our belongings, put on thick socks and heavy duty hiking boots, all provided by the tour company. Then they weighed us to determine the seating arrangement for the three helicopters that would be taking us up the glacier. This was pretty amusing for me since I was one of the only Americans surrounded by many petite Japanese women who probably weighed half as much as me.
Once we got our seating arrangements we filed out to the helipad and waited to board the helicopters. The flight itself was breathtaking. You lift off, which feels totally different from any other kind of flight and then seemingly float closer and closer to the mountain. The size of the glacier becomes more and more apparent and I just sat there in awe. On the glacier our guides greeted us. Once all three groups had arrived we were divided up and our guided hike began. It was just under two and a half hours long but it flew by. We walked across the glacier and through large and narrow passageways. A few were definitely not for the claustrophobic! Our guide, Ross, was a great balance of entertaining and educational. The spiky crampons we had to wear on our boots were awkward at first…I felt like I was walking like a newborn giraffe, but after a while I got used to them.
I tend to be a bit of a klutz so I was happy that I made it through the majority of the hike without slipping or falling. Unfortunately, my streak came to an end when our group was stopped at the last photo op in front of an ice cave. I somehow managed to completely twist my ankle while standing on a flat piece of glacier. Standard. It hurt like hell and was sore for several days but I sucked it up.
At the end of our hike we said goodbye to our guides, removed our crampons and got back in the helicopter. Back on the ground we returned our boots and socks and took the bus back to the main office just down the road. It was an incredible experience from beginning to end and I would absolutely do it again. It was money well spent! And you might as well see the glaciers while they’re still around… One of the saddest parts of our tour was when Ross showed up how far up the mountainside the glacier used to sit only a few years ago.
After our hike we decided to go back to the Glacier Hot Pools but this time opted for the bigger public pools. There are three pools at different temperatures so we circulated through all three twice before showering off and heading to dinner. For our second dinner in Glacier Country we ate at the King Tiger where we fulfilled cravings for Asian food. True story, I’m always craving Asian food. Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, whatever… I’ll eat it all day every day! Back at the AirBnB I added to an existing “art wall” of pieces created by other people who had stayed there. The hosts left a box of paper and art supplies so, fresh off our heli-hike, I made a quick watercolor painting of our experience.
Our two days in Glacier Country were fantastic and if we ever get to go back to New Zealand we would absolutely spend a few more days here. Check out this short video with GoPro footage from our Glacier hike:
PS: I realize that it has now been over a year since we took this trip and memories are fading quickly so I’m going to try and knock out the rest of these blogs ASAP…because next up is this summer’s trip to the UK with family! 🙂