I’d finally made it full circle. I woke up in the van this morning feeling like I’m discovering every little corner of this Island. I’ve looked at picture books in tourist stores full of breathtaking shots of New Zealand, but they always seem to be breathtaking shots from the same places. Then you go to those places expecting to have your breath taken away, and all you feel is somewhat cheated by the throngs of other tourists there to breathe a little less too. The sights still are beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but there is something different about going to a tourist spot and discovering something under the two week tourist radar.
My first trip to Franz Josef, I went with a group of people who all worked at Drifting Sands at one time or another. We left late from Hokitika, and decided before we left to stay at the Rainforest. We knew a guy who was supposed to be working there and had heard other good things about the place through word of mouth from other guests who had stayed at Drifting Sands. The Rainforest has a variety of rooms – from the dorms the Kiwi Experience uses to very nice hotel style rooms. We stayed in the dorms, and could see into those fancy rooms with huge beds, tvs and towels on the beds. The dorms were nice too. It was off season, so not only did my group get a six bed dorm to ourselves, we also had the entire floor to ourselves.
The restaurant/ bar in the front of the Rainforets is called Monsoon; “When it rains, we pour!” (It rains a lot on the West Coast – hence the rainforests.) Monsoon has great pizza deals and a decent selection of beer. I always chose the RIPA – Red IPA, and the Meatlovers pizza. The inside is nice, decorated in leather furniture with a pool table, but my mates and I always chose to sit in the indoor/outdoor patio at one of the long wood tables and next to the roaring fire. This fire attracted the workers who had spent a hard day building, expanding Franz Josef to make more accommodation for tourists during high season.
“Franz Josef is usually a town of about 4,000 people” they said, ‘but in the high season these streets will be full of about 10,000 tourists.” I’ve heard this of many places in New Zealand. As I love to travel in the off season, it’s hard to imagine empty streets with a few locals full to the brim with tourists. And what’s this nonsense about having to make reservations in advance for your sleep? You mean I can’t just stumble bleary eyed up to reception in the morning and request “one more night please!”
When we arrived in Franz we did the tourist tour starting with Lake Matheson. We didn’t wake up quite early enough, so mirror lake was full of ripples from the wind. More like fun house mirror lake. Still, we got some pictures and enjoyed the easy walk around the lake. After our lake tour we grabbed a bite at the cafe by the car-park and saw the Kiwi Experience bus roll in. There it is!
That’s one travel tip for ya – if you see a tour bus pulling in, run the opposite direction! Unless, of course, you are on the bus. Then, I’m sorry, you can’t avoid the masses.
***lake matheson photos
After Matheson we headed to Fox Glacier to check it out. We did the short hike that brings you to the glacier. You are not going to the glacier from the ground. You are not getting even close to the glacier from the ground hike. The glacier has receded so much from global warming that only another ice age will bring it back down to the sea. To get those fantastic pictures and walk on the glacier, you need to spend the $400 huck to take a Heli-Hike. These hikes are worth it if you are a vacationer (or a kiwi who either is getting it discounted because you run an accommodation business, or are moving away from New Zealand and this is part of your good-bye tour.)
The Fox Glacier hike is very cool, regardless. You walk through the valley where the glacier once lay, between steep cliffs running with waterfalls and below foot is grey rocks. I felt as if we were walking on the moon. The DOC has kindly put out the photogenic foot bridges for when you cross a river. Occasionally a tour guide of old people or Asians will pass by you in the opposite direction and grin and wave. The last part of the hike is a steep hill that takes you up as close as you can get to the Glacier. With a good camera, like the Canon DSLR I chose to leave back in California, you can still zoom in enough to see the ice.
Have I mentioned New Zealand is an island? It is big for an island of the south pacific. The biggest, I believe. Yet it is extremely safe here. Hitchhiking is normal. On our way from Fox, we picked up a hitcher to take him the 23km back to Franz. He was from France and had been hiking his way around the globe for almost a year now. We asked if he had been to America yet, and he said he’d like to go but he’s afraid he can’t because he had spent a month in Iran. I feel your pain, buddy. I want to go to Iran, but I’m afraid I can’t because four years ago I spent the summer in Israel, dancing with Batsheva. It’s a strange world we’re living in these days.
As we were pulling into Franz Josef, we see a familiar face walking on the side of the road admiring the beauty of the river. “RAULLLLLLLL!!!!!!!” Our entire car erupts in screams and yells as our friend from Hokitika passes. We must have given the hitcher such a fright. “You can drop me off here!” He says as he jumps out of the car at the closest accommodation. We pull a 360* and backtrack to pick up Raul. Crammed in shoulder overlapping shoulder, the six of us drive down the Main Street in the Drifting Sands toy car, happily reunited.
The next morning we woke early. Too early, if you ask me. After getting up early every morning to make bread and have breakfast with the guests at Drifting Sands, I was really enjoying sleeping in. However four of us were about to embark on a six hour journey – up a mountain. Alex Knob is no hike for those weak in the knees. I joke here, because I swear this hike fucked up my right knee for life. We had heard of Alex Knob from a local at the Monsoon Bar the night before. He said, “You all look fit, try Alex Knob, and Robert’s Point!” Okay, we may look fit because we’re young and have a high metabolism that boots the beer right out of us; but hikes like this I don’t do regularly. Back in California, my boyfriend at the time and I used to love to go backpacking. It was kind of our thing. We hiked up and down canyons on Santa Cruz Island off the Santa Barbara coast, through deserts in Joshua Tree, and up mountains in Olympic National Park. Always carrying our food, beds and water, mind you. Thinking back on those days, I thought sure, piece of cake. It’s just one measly New Zealand Mountain. Only at 1300 meters and some change climb. NBD.
I do love hiking. While Alex Knob may not be the most “scenic” of hikes along the trail, the views from the top will take your breath away. I enter a sort of trance as each foot tramps in front of the other. Up and up and up and up, no rest, no leveling out, no forgiving. The four of us stop every one in a while to take in the view, however after not too long the youngest and fittest of the four stops stopping and jams ahead. (I do have about six years of wisdom on this young tramper, however that wisdom does not help one progress up a steep trek as much as I would hope.) I had to stop twice to eat and fuel up. There was no way I could have waited til the top to munch on my lunch. I needed it now…. and now…and again now. My reward at the top would be my beloved Doritos (Side note: in NZ they don’t have my and my nephew’s favorite flavor, Cool Ranch, much to my demise. Here, the flavor we all seem to have grown fond of is Sweet Thai.)
Once we crossed the bush line, a whole new world of beauty opened up. Every step was more breath taking than the last. Around every bend in the road I thought, for sure, this has to be the summit! Only to be fooled by another bend in the trail as it wrapped graciously around the Mountain. Oh Alex, you Knob you! I entered a sort of trance, where I couldn’t stop. There would be no rest until I had my Dorito diet fulfilled. The trail was my day job, and each step was a meditation, reminding me to put my left foot in front of my right and then my right foot in front of my left and then my left foot in front of my right….. on and on and on for almost four hours.
We saw only one other person on this route. He was a local, surprised to see tourists from California, Washington State and France on his route. The local had a parachute on his back. When he got to the top, he was going to jump off the mountain and para-glide down – probably aiming to land in his farm, gracefully on top of one of his sheep and ride it off into the sunset. We, on the other hand, had no choice but to follow Alex’s stupid steep Knob back down to our beers, Meatlover pizza and fireplace banter.
Around the last bend in the Knob (for real this time,) I heard my young friends and saw the para-glider prepping to jump. “DORITOS!!!!!!” I yelled and ran up the last stretch of mountain like a bat out of hell. Let me tell you – there is nothing more rewarding than making it to the top of a climb like that. Don’t stop at a view point and turn around. Just don’t, okay?
(Caption if you post this photo here) Keep this picture in mind, as my story goes on.
We flew down the mountain at great speed. This time I was leading the pack, flying from boulder to boulder, tucking my legs and spreading my arms like I was Spider man leaping from the top of one building to the next. This, my friends, is what did my knee in I think. “What the hell are you doing girl? You usually glide down mountains with the carefulness of a tentative snake, watching for predators with each curve he makes!” Not this time, oh knees of mine. I was not making that trek down in silence. I had put my ear buds in and my running playlist on and I flew down that mountain, dancing the whole way, elated from the tramp I had just accomplished.
Once we hit a wide trail at the mountain base, you know, that trail made for those who are only doing a short 20 minute day walk, Kenny started running. Pumped and ecstatic, the three of us grinned and followed suit. We ran the last 20 minutes to the car, not feeling a thing but the high of a great fucking day.
At the bottom, I collapsed by the trail sign and comped on a piece of snow that was collected from the top of the mountain because we had all run out of water by that point. Happiness, I hear your call, and I answered.
The next day the group decided to do another long hike. Rolling out of bed and mindlessly pouring coffee in my mouth, I stumbled sleepily into the car, ready for another adventure. This time the group picked Robert’s Point.
Robert’s Point turned out to be almost as long as Alex Knob, but much more scenic. Instead of a trail you can fly up and down, there was more to explore. We crossed so many waterfalls on the way up that I had to count them on the way back. There were 15 waterfalls one way. Fifteen! And of course the boys wanted to go off track and climb up every singe waterfall on the way. I got so fed up with them, thinking “stupid boys- there will be a flash flood and they’ll all be washed down into the valley and I’m not going after them anymore!” I continued on and let them explore the slippery slope to their death. (They were fine and happy and everyone made it – everyone except my phone, that is. Warning: Don’t be a dumb ass and think it’s a good idea to do yoga on a flat boulder in a waterfall with your phone in your back pocket. It will slip out during your first downward dog and die. Sorry Strava, you’re missing out on this one!)
The walk alone was my favorite part of the hike. This time, every turn of the track produced a different landscape. At first I was using tree roots as stairs, and then there were actual stairs nailed into the side of the mountain. A little further there was an emergency hut for bad weather during the day, in case any hiker gets caught in a storm.
Still ahead of the group, I pulled over where there was an awesome flat boulder overlooking the valley and pulled a roast chicken out of my pack. “Hah!” I thought, “I have the chicken!” I munched on it a smugly and marveled at the view. Photos can not possibly capture this scenery. Tall, green cliffs with waterfalls every 100 yards or so, streaming down the sides of the mountains. The glacier floor is a beautiful color of gray, dotted with tourists doing the over popular flat Franz Josef walk. At eye level, helicopters flew by, taking a few lucky tourists onto the glaciers for their Heli-Hikes. I waited here for the group to catch up from their side trip.
Once together, we continued on, up and up. at the top of this one there was a deck with an actual picnic table. We landed a bit closer to the glacier and at a lower elevation this time, so the glacier looked bigger and closer. I believe this is the closest you can get to the glacier without taking a helicopter. I did not do the flat valley walk, however, but I can’t imagine it gets as close. At the top we dined, laughed, and the boys drank their Coronas. And yes, I had my Doritos.
Down the street from The Rainforest is a short walk to an old mining tunnel left over from the gold rush. Inside are thousands of shining lights coming from their feed lines of tiny glowworms. This mining shaft is small, dark and damp – the perfect conditions for these tiny larvae. The six of us headed up the hill to the tunnel, daring each other to turn off our headlamps and walk in the dark. Only when our head lamps were off and our laughter subsided were we treated to glowworms twinkling from the trees that line the walk up to the tunnel.
At the top of the walk was the entrance to the mining tunnel. Some small stairs lead down to a shaft that is shorter than a human can stand. The walls are rough and uneven. The floors are wet. Very wet. Dry shoe are a hopeless wish. It’s pitch dark inside the shaft. Nushaw and I were the only girls – and we screamed at every bump in the cave walls, all of us giggling and laughing as we tramped through this secret tunnel.
“Turn your headlamps off!!!” Some said. “Hell no!” voices shouted back. I should mention that glowworms are only seen in the dark, and they don’t like noise very much. These tunnels are lined with thousands of larvae, however our group was having too much fun to be bothered with the magic of nature. To calm the girls down, one of the boys cleverly put on the Beatles, and we sang our way through the tunnel on the way back.
Some of the group wanted to really experience the glow worms. After we all came out, they each entered the cave one at a time – on a solo journey in the quiet and dark. I chose not to enter the scary dark cave alone and instead joined the star gazers outside. I pulled out my camera to take long exposure shots while I listened to the boys chat and play pranks on each other.
You see, in New Zealand, there are twinkling little lights not only from the sky, but also inside the earth. You are surrounded in the mysteries and magic of our universe.
The second time I went to Franz Josef I was in a camper van. This opens up different opportunities to the traveler in New Zealand. My companion and I had every intention of dong the secret, local addition to the glow worm tunnel on the trip, as well as explore the quaint little beach town of Okarito, however the weather was rainy,wet and miserable and stopped us from any desire to do anything but sit by the fire while we were in town.
**photo of cows
At Fox Glacier, we turned down the same road you take to get to lake Matheson. This time, we passed the lake and farms and continued on down the road. The road turned to gravel, the car got noisy with the sound of adventure, and something spilled in the back. I climbed over the seats to save the coolant for Jim, and the next time I looked up I was surprised to find that the fields of green farms had turned into rainforests of ferns. We winded our way through the rainforest for what seemed like forever, making our way slowly to Gillespies Beach.
Gillespies Beach is a DOC campsite tucked away from Fox and Franz, out of reach from those with huge caravans and overlooked by tourists passing through on two weeks vacations. It is another magical spot hidden from the masses. There are a couple hiking trails that bring you to old, deserted mining equipment and ancient cemeteries. The long trail leads you through fields of yellow gorse flowers being grazed by roaming sheep, along the beach (also being visited by roaming sheep), a hidden zig zag boardwalk and up a mountain to an old miners tunnel in the cliff. Walk through this tunnel and you will find that the light at the end is none other than a spectacular hole in the cliff over the ocean. This is where fairy tales and dreams come alive, I thought, standing on the edge of a mountain over the Tasman Sea.
Continuing on up the mountain, skipping over the muddy trail and through some technical areas over rivers, you come to three flights of ladders that bring you down the sheer cliff face to the otherwise inaccessible Galway Beach. Here, black sand touches the sea and rainforest cliffs, scattered with beautiful rocks and some driftwood. Jordan and I shared the beach here with no one except the local wildlife of birds and seals sunbathing on tiny rock islands out at sea. You can find many abandoned beaches like this in New Zealand, yet Galway beach is one of my favorites because of the true remoteness and the 3 and a half hour trek it takes to get there from Gillespies Beach.
When I said I woke up the following morning feeling like I’d truly discovered every corner of this Island, I was laughing to myself with a realization. At the top of Alex Knob, there is a sun dial designed to show you what you’re looking at from the top of the mountain. I spent a good ten minutes playing with my camera to get the sundial and the coastline in the background in focus. Where do you think my camera was pointing, four weeks earlier? Gillespies and Galway Beach, of course.
Back then I had no intention nor any idea I would find myself here a month later. The lines between the beaches looked short from miles and miles away, atop a mountain. I giggled thinking of perspective. Something that is quite long and treacherous to get to, a paradise beach for example, seems quite close and easy from afar. Perspective is stepping away, above and out of our problems to see something differently. Both realities exist at the same time – the short distance from atop the mountain and the three and a half hour hike. It is from where we are standing, or where we place our focus that gives us our reality. Which reality we live in can be as simple as deciding where to stand.