Day 4 – Dec 22 – Te Anau to Fox Glacier

Like the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Highway 6 on New Zealand’s South Island is jam-packed with stunning places to stop, both marked and unmarked.  It seems that every turn in the road leads to a rushing river cutting through marvelously steep mountain passes or sweeping vistas of rugged ocean cliffs topped with wind-blown forests.  Our route started us back the way we came through Queenstown, but took us towards Wanaka and the West Coast over the Southern Alps via Haast Pass.bridge_5542

I wouldn’t consider myself a squeamish driver.  I drive a scooter at home in Jupiter, FL.  Surrounded by retirees and maniacs (usually the same individuals) commuting to work, the golf course or whatever sale the local Bealls Outlet is offering, I often find myself in a fight for survival on the mean streets of South Florida.  But driving on the rugged and remote highways of New Zealand’s South Island has taught me to appreciate the simpler aspects of the road — namely shoulders and two-lane bridges.  The one-lane bridge is probably the worst highway idea ever invented.  This set-up involves two cars (most likely piloted by tourists already unnerved by driving on the left side of the road) approaching a bridge at highway speed.  Each driver passes a sign indicating who has the right-of-way, as indicated with two arrows, one large and one small.  As tourists, neither driver, of course, understands what the sign means, so each presses the accelerator to express the universal right-of-way signal: arriving at the bridge first.  The loser of this battle must slam on his respective brakes to allow the other pass, waking his wife with a startled, “Where are the lupins?!” outcry.  The correct response to this, rather than admitting the shame of losing the one-way bridge battle, is to loudly proclaim, “I found a beautiful scenic lookout by this bridge!” and stop for lunch.

The first day of our northern trek ended when we reached the town of Fox Glacier.  Fox Glacier is a purpose-built town for, unsurprisingly, the giant glacier just a couple kilometers outside the small cluster of hotels and tourist priced restaurants.  For those of you unfamiliar with glaciers, a glacier is a large, dirty river of ice that is unsafe to walk on unless you’ve sufficiently reduced your weight by handing over all your money to an overpriced guide.  (The guide is protected from the dangers of the ice because he or she carries an ice axe, a seemingly simple tool that allows the bearer to charge outrageous fees for visiting an otherwise large chunk of ice.) Unless you’re absolutely set on ice hiking, save your money and view the glacier from the free viewing area.  It’s approximately an hour return hike from the parking lot. but you get to walk past the freezing cold Fox River and see the

Hike to Fox Glacier

Hike to Fox Glacier

gorgeous granite cliffs carved by the glacier over the last several thousand years.  You may also come across pieces of green stone, as we did.  We hope what we collected is jade because otherwise, we’ve been lugging around small piles of green-hued granite for the past month or so. Anyway, the rocks — whatever they are — are beautiful, the hike is easy and the views of the glacier valley quite spectacular.

Another enjoyable, free feature of Fox Glacier is the short forest walk just south of town. During the day, the Minnehaha trail is a basic 20-minute loop through a lowland temperate rainforest, but at night it comes alive with hundreds of glow worms blazing like mini LED battery indicator lights.  Take a flashlight with you, but shut it off once you’re a few minutes walk down the trail to see the worms (they aren’t very bright, but there are thousands of them).  We didn’t pay to see the glow worms in Te Anau, so we can’t say these worms were any better or worse, but for the price of free they are hard to beat.  And Fox Glacier’s lack of any discernible nightlife means they are the only show in town.

Day 5 – Dec 23 – Fox Glacier to Charleston

We kept traveling north toward our ultimate goal but made some very interesting stops along the way.  Our first was at Franz-Josef, another purpose-built town for a glacier. This glacier is slightly larger, more famous and slightly more photogenic than Fox Glacier.  However, if you like forest hikes and interesting scenery, I think Fox is the better choice.  And if you have time, see both.  They are both spectacular and both free to visit.  The town of Franz-Josef also has a wildlife show with living Kiwis.  Kiwis are rare in the wild, but this site has several that they have operating on different schedules so one is always awake during business hours.  Not free, but may be your only chance to see the elusive bird while you’re in New Zealand.

Franz-Josef glacier

Franz-Josef glacier

We kept driving north with the intended goal of reaching several interesting looking backpacker lodges just north of Greymouth in a town called Punakaiki.  After numerous stops at spectacular scenic lookouts along the way — it’s hard to differentiate as nearly every view of the ocean on the West Coast is spectacular and scenic — we reached Punakaiki.  This town is famous for the limestone rock formations on the coast known colloquially as ‘Pancake Rocks’.  The views from here are spectacular as the waves crash against the rocks.  It is apparently most spectacular at high tide, but unfortunately all the lodges in our budget were fully booked for the night we were there.  Christmas through New Year’s Eve is peak time in New Zealand and we were left without a lodge in Punakaiki.  Book ahead if you want to stay near Pancake Rocks.

With precious few daylight hours left, we kept heading north and decided on looking for a place in Charleston.  Lacking a guidebook, we were using the font size of town names on our Thrifty Rental Car provided map to gauge the relative size of towns.  This was not an accurate method.  Charleston is a very small town located 30km south of the much larger Westport and is known primarily for a glow worm cave rafting operation, but I was desperate for a room to stay in.  Coming from the US, I am used to seeing roadside hotels and motels open 24/7 along the interstate highways.  In Australia and New Zealand, this is not the case.  Outside of major cities, many hotel front desks close by 8PM, some even earlier, despite the large number of tourists traveling by car and camper.  By 7PM I was becoming quite nervous about locating a place to stay, so when we passed the Charleston Motor Camp, I was unfortunately ready to accept any room.  This was one of my many lapses of good judgement on this trip.  The owner/operator is a working man with an adorable young daughter. His living room doubles as the hotel reception, and the cleanliness of the house and the friendliness of the owner combined with my concern about being stuck without a room had me with my guard down.  I should have inspected the room.  The number of dead bugs on, under, and around the mattress of our bunk bed in Room 1 was astonishing.  At least

Don't stay here unless you love dead bugs

Don’t stay here unless you love dead bugs

they weren’t alive.  Also, unfortunately, the motor camp rooms didn’t have any bedding aside from a mattress and pillow.  This meant that we would have to use our sleep sheets as our only bedding.  This wasn’t much of a problem in Te Anau, where we faced a similar situation, since the room stayed warm enough for me at night, but in the Charleston Motor Camp it meant we were unknowingly destined for one of the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced.

The motor camp’s kitchen was dirty, but surprisingly well equipped with cookware and cutlery, however the TV only had a single channel showing ‘The Real World: Houston’, so our entertainment options were limited.  We made spaghetti with sausage for dinner and toasted our travels with a bottle of New Zealand merlot.  The other guest of the motor camp, a quiet german woman who was apparently biking/camping around didn’t speak any english, or at least didn’t try to make any conversation with us, so she ate her dinner of instant noodles in silence while we cooked our meal.  After dinner, we took our bottle of wine with us down towards the waterfront in Charleston.  It’s a short walk from the highway and is worth checking out if you’re there.  It’s a romantic spot to watch the sun set, but bring a jacket as temperatures drop quickly at night, even in the summer.

As the sun was setting, we (Her) started to get cold so we walked back uphill to the motor camp, brushed our teeth in the prison-like bathroom, said goodnight to the hundreds of bug carcasses in our room, and climbed into our sleep sheets (basically twin sheets sewed together to form a simple sleeping bag) to fall asleep.  Around 3AM I woke up feeling like an ice cube.  The walls of the standalone structure we were in provided next to no insulation against the temperatures that dropped into the 40s at night.  By 3AM, the temperature inside our cabin was as cold as the temperature outside our cabin.  With only our sleep sheets for warmth, I snuggled up against Her trying to use our body warmth, but her toes were like ice cubes.  Sleep escaped me the rest of the morning as I curled myself against Her to try to keep both of us warm.  It didn’t work and at 6AM when Her woke up, we roused ourselves to make coffee, turn on the car heater, and resume our northern trek.