Upper South Island and the West Coast Feature
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Westland National Park
Gigantic blocks of ice tumbling off the glacier face; ice fields higher up the glacier, their blue ice sparkling in the sunlight; rugged peaks (the highest in the country) soaring to the skyline; dense, virgin rainforest clawed by rock-strewn river beds.
Westland National Park is a place of extremes, including the extreme precipitation at the top of the Alps. Up to 300 inches of snow per annum falls here, feeding Westland's glacier field. Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are the two most visited.
The park is backed by the main divide of the Southern Alps to the east. High up there are thousands of acres of alpine ski slopes and rugged rocky peaks. Below the bush line, the slopes are clad in thick temperate rainforest, and in places the park runs right to the rugged coastline, home to seals, penguins, and lonely beaches.
BEST TIME TO GO
This part of the country is subject to a very high rainfall, measured in meters rather than inches. This, and its associated cloud, will play havoc with your plans if they involve climbing, flying, or ice-walking. Oddly, winter weather is often clearer than summer, although much colder, and there are fewer people around.
Westland National Park joins the Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring national parks to form a sweeping World Heritage Area of more than 5 million acres.
Best Ways to Explore
Whether you choose to fly by helicopter or small fixed-wing plane, a flight to a glacier will be a highlight. Helicopters do flights as short as 10 minutes for a quick aerial tour, or up to three-hour trips where you will get two hours on an upper ice field. Fixed-wing planes can also give you a circuit trip of Mt. Cook. These flights are all weather dependent, with cloud, rain or high winds affecting availability.
With its abundance of beautiful rainforest and rugged braided rivers, this is a great area to go hiking. There are a number of walks out of Franz Josef and Fox areas and Okarito, but also farther south around Lake Moeraki. These vary from hour-long bushwalks to multi-day hikes in the high country. Experience is essential in outback areas, and it's important to leave intentions at the local DOC office before heading off. Appropriate gear and safety equipment is also essential.
Most visitors to the park come to see and experience the glaciers. But they are not as accessible as you might imagine. The terminal face of both glaciers is constantly breaking up, with large house-sized chunks of ice falling without warning. There is walking access to within a few hundred meters of each, although this access may be closed at any time due to flooding, rockfalls, or other hazards. To experience the glacier fully, you need to join a guided ice-walk or heli-hike.
In a high rainfall area like this there are days when you will not be able to see the glaciers or the bush, despite your best intentions. Back in Franz Josef village you can visit the DOC Centre, the West Coast Wildlife Centre, or watch the Flowing West movie to see what you are missing. Then head to the hot pools where you can relax no matter how hard it is raining.
Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge is set at the outlet end of Lake Moeraki, 90 km (56 mi) south of Fox Glacier. This long-standing eco-lodge comes with a good pedigree, as the owners also own the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge on the eastern side of the main divide at Arthur's Pass. Built into the remains of the old road-building camp used by workers pushing the road through to Haast in the 1960s, it offers guests a true eco-stay. Lodge power is generated by their own hydro-station built on the outlet from the lake. It's a 20-minute walk to Monro Beach (there's no road) where fur seals and little Fiordland crested penguins are the only residents. There are many other walks, kayaking, bird-watching, and photography opportunities here; book a few nights, so you're not shortchanged for time.
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