Cyclone Gita had been doing damage in the South Pacific since early February. About the time we were leaving Tucson on February 12, Cyclone Gita (by then a Category 4 severe tropical cyclone) brought destructive wind and rain to the island nations of Tonga and Fiji. On February 20, the remains of what was by then an “ex-tropical cyclone” brought heavy rain and wind across the central part of New Zealand. The southern edge of that disturbance is probably what brought all that rain to Queenstown on our last day there. We had been hearing about torrential rains and floods further north and west and even some road closures, but by the time we departed for the West Coast, all that concern was gone. We did see some evidence of the flooding as we traveled along the West Coast, but all previously closed roads were open.
There is a glacier (called Fox Glacier, interestingly enough) in the Southern Alps above the township of Fox Glacier but it is quite remote. Only the four people from our O.A.T. tour group who chose to take an optional helicopter flight got to see it. On this Tour Day 9, they flew around Mount Cook (the highest point in New Zealand at 3724 m, 12,218’), Fox Glacier, and Franz Josef Glacier with a snow landing at the head of one of the glaciers. Then they flew on to the township of Franz Josef just a few miles up the highway from Fox Glacier Township. Meanwhile, the rest of us boarded our trusty coach and rode to Franz Josef to pick them up before we all took a hike up the Waiho River to see the face of Franz Josef Glacier.
This glacier is particularly interesting because it has a very active history of advancing and retreating repeatedly (and quite rapidly for a glacier) through the years. Some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, it was a tideland glacier but its face now rests about 19 km (12 miles) from the Tasman Sea. As our glacial expert tour guide led us along the river, he pointed out to us the various moraines where the glacier had retreated leaving gravel and rock ridges behind. Although it had been advancing from about 2004 to 2008, since then it has entered a very rapid retreat phase (along with most other glaciers around the world). This fluctuation is driven by the difference between the volume of meltwater at the foot of the glacier and the volume of snowfall feeding the snowfield above. The total length of the glacier is currently 12 km (7.5 miles).
After our very informative, hour-long walk to a viewpoint where we could see the whole face of Franz Josef Glacier, we returned to our coach, had an excellent seafood chowder lunch at The Landing in Franz Josef Township, and proceeded north toward Hokitika with two stops along the route.
Our first stop was in the town of Hari Hari. This is a settlement of about 350 people. Its main claim to fame happened in January 1931 when Australian aviator Guy Menzies landed his biplane upside down in a nearby swamp, having completed the first solo flight across the Tasman Sea from Sydney, Australia. He had been blown off-course and mistook the swamp for a flat pasture, but he was unharmed in the crash and hailed as a hero. On the 75th anniversary of the flight in January 2006, another aviator reenacted the flight, but he chose to land right side up in Hari Hari. A small pavilion with a replica of the biplane and a manikin aviator smoking a cigarette, along with many interpretive signs, tells the story of the original flight.
The West Coast of New Zealand had a fairly short-lived gold rush in the 1860s, and the town of Ross served as a supply center for those miners, with its population rising as high as 2,500. Its latest population count stood at 297. This was our next stop; we visited the Historic Empire Hotel, which was built in 1866 and is now filled with quirky memorabilia as it continues to provide rooms and a pub. Also in Ross is the Ross Historic Goldfields park featuring a rebuilt miner’s cottage from 1885 and the rebuilt “Old Ross Gaol” from 1915. A more recent tourist attraction is “Golf on the Lake” where one can win $500 by making a hole-in-one from the cliff top into the hole on a tiny floating island in the lake below. No one was around that day to sell balls to any of our party who might have wanted to try it.
We continued north on NZ-6 to our destination for the day, Hokitika – more about that charming little “artsy” town in our next entry.