After an incredible two-night visit to Mount Cook National Park, it was time to head northwards from Wanaka once again, my destination South Island’s West Coast glaciers. Early 2018 had brought me to New Zealand’s South Island, taking a two-week solo campervanning trip after spending the festive season with family.
My journey north from Wanaka continued along State Highway 6, along the shores of Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, offering such spectacular mountain views that one wouldn’t want to rush the journey.
This road is a journey of contrasts, winding westwards towards the coastal town of Haast through the Mount Aspiring National Park.
On South Island’s West Coast, the temperate rainforests of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park meet the rugged shores of the Tasman sea.
The Westland Tai Poutini National Park borders with the Mount Cook National Park along the Main Divide, extending from the highest peaks of the Southern Alps down to the coastline.
Established in 1960, the park covers 1,320 km2 in extent. The internationally famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located within the national park.
This part of South Island’s West Coast is known for its exceptionally wet weather, and when I arrived in town the rain poured.
On the coast, the Westland area receives around 3,000mm/year, increasing to about 4,700mm/year at the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, before increasing further inland in the high mountains to around 11,000 mm/yr. For the latter, most of this precipitation falls as snow.
The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are among the world’s most accessible glaciers. They are also unusual in that they are located within a maritime temperate climatic zone.
Their accessibility has meant that they are considered one of the premier tourist attractions on New Zealand’s West Coast. They can be visited either by taking self-guided walks leading to excellent viewpoints or by booking a guided walk or helicopter ride to get a closer view.
Franz Josef Glacier is 12 km in length, descending from the snowfield at the head of the glacier at 2,500m asl to less than 300m above sea level at the glacial snout.
Changing climate has resulted in the glacier retreating over time, with indigenous forest colonising the lower slopes below the glacier as the ice has retreated.
The nearby Fox Glacier is slightly longer at 13 km, also descending to 300m above sea level from the snowfields high in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. It is fed by four different alpine glaciers.
Over time the Fox Glacier has advanced and retreated. From 1985–2009 Fox Glacier advanced, but since 2009 significant glacial retreat has taken place.
The town of Franz Josef is also a significant centre for Kiwi conservation, with vital work taking place at the West Coast Wildlife Centre.
New Zealand is home to five different kiwi species, namely the Great Spotted, Toktoeka, Little Spotted, North Island Brown, and the Okarito Brown (Rowi) Kiwi.
The Okarito Brown Kiwi is the rarest of New Zealand’s Kiwi species, with just under 600 individuals left surviving in the wild.
This species was only described as being new as recently as 2003. Okarito Brown Kiwis are only found in a highly restricted area of the Okarito Forest near Franz Josef.
Despite the South Okarito Forest being designated as a Kiwi sanctuary in 2000, the Okarito Brown Kiwis face an ongoing threat from introduced stoats consuming the eggs.
In partnership with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and the nonprofit Kiwis for Kiwi, Operation Nest Egg has enabled the recovery of their population from only around 120 adults in the 1990s.
Operation Nest Egg facilitates the collection of kiwi eggs from the wild for hatching and captive rearing of kiwi chicks until they reach an age that they are less vulnerable and able to survive without falling victim to predation from introduced stoats.
Once the kiwi have reached a sufficient level of maturity, they are released back into the wild in predator controlled habitat.
Open to the public for visitors to learn about how kiwis and other indigenous New Zealand wildlife is conserved, the West Coast Wildlife Centre plays an integral role in hatching and rearing Rowi and Haast Toktoeka Kiwis for Operation Nest Egg.
The centre also plays a key role in raising awareness about Kiwi and other New Zealand wildlife conservation. The centre also has a dark house where visitors can see these beautiful birds at close quarters.
For keen birders wanting to see one of New Zealand’s rarest kiwis, small group tours of six people or less can be booked to go and see the Okarito Brown Kiwi in its habitat in the South Okarito Forest.
Quiet and patience are often rewarded for those lucky enough with close sightings of wild kiwi, along with spectacular dark South Island night skies.
Dawson, J. Lucas, R. (2000) Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest, Random House New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand.
De Roy, T. Jones, M. (2006) New Zealand: A Natural World Revealed, Bateman Publishing, Auckland, New Zealand.
Fitter, J. (2010) Bateman Field Guide to Wild New Zealand, Bateman Publishing, Auckland, New Zealand.
Mark, A.F. (2012) Above The Treeline: A Nature Guide to Alpine New Zealand, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, New Zealand.
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