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Westland National Park
Westland National Park Review
Westland National Park joins the Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring national parks to form a sweeping World Heritage Area of more than 5 million acres, including some of the best examples of the plants and animals once found on the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent. It's a place of extremes, including the extreme precipitation at the top of Westland. Up to 300 inches of snow falls here each year, feeding Westland's glacier field. The snow is compressed into ice on the névé, or head, of the glaciers (New Zealanders say "glassy-urs"), then flows downhill under its own weight. There are more than 60 glaciers in the park; the most famous and accessible are at Franz Josef and Fox. If you're driving through on a cloudy or wet day you will get no idea of the size of the mountain ranges just a few miles off the road. On a clear day take a moment to stop and admire them disappearing inland, layer after mighty layer. The Harihari, Whataroa, and Fox Glacier valleys are good for this.
The Fox Glacier is slightly larger than Franz Josef, but you'll miss nothing important if you see only one. Both glaciers have separate villages, and if you are spending the night, Franz Josef Glacier is marginally preferable (Fox is much more seasonal; many places have restricted hours or close completely in winter). Both towns have solid tourist infrastructures, but the summer tourist rush means you should make reservations in advance for lodgings and restaurants. Drive to parking areas outside both towns from which you can walk 20–40 minutes to reach viewing points of the glaciers (access to either glacier may be closed if conditions are not good). Both parking lots are visited by mischievous kea (kee-ah)—mountain parrots—that may delight in destroying the rubber molding around car windows and eating left-open lunches. Their beaks are like can openers. Kea are harmless to humans, but don't encourage them by feeding them. Drive to the south side of the Cook River and up the gravel side road for around 4 km (2 ½ mi) if you want a view of the Fox Glacier without the walk—the road is not suitable for campers. Trails from the parking lots wind across the rocky valley floor to the glacier faces, where a tormented chorus of squeaks, creaks, groans, and gurgles can be heard as the glacier creeps down the mountainside at an average rate of up to 3 feet per day. Care must be taken because rocks and chunks of ice frequently drop from the melting face. These faces are dangerous places and, unless you are with a guided group, you won't be allowed to get too close to them.
These being New Zealand glaciers, there is much to do besides admire them. You can fly over them in helicopters or planes and land on the stable névé, or hike on them with guides. Remember that these structures are always in motion—an ice cave that was visible yesterday might today be smashed under tons of ice that used to be just uphill of it. Likewise, some of the fascinating formations that you see on the surface of the glacier were fairly recently at the very bottom of it higher up in the valley. Danger comes with this unstable territory; guides know the hazardous areas to avoid.
For the most part, flights are best early in the morning, when visibility tends to be clearest. Seasonal variables around the glaciers are a surprising thing. Summer may be warmer and by far the busiest season, but there is a great deal more rain and fog that can scuttle flightseeing and hiking plans. There's a lot to be said for winter visits. In winter, snow doesn't fall at sea level in Franz Josef or Fox; in fact, in winter this area is a lot warmer than the snow towns farther south. Skies are clearer, which means fewer canceled flights and glacier hikes and more spectacular mountains views. Warm clothing is always essential on the glaciers, and evenings can be cold any time of year. Watch for ice on the roads at any time of day during winter.
Outside the town of Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson has one of the country's most famous views. A walking trail winds along the lakeshore, and the snowcapped peaks of Aoraki/Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman are reflected in the water. Allow at least three hours for the complete walk from town to the "view of views" and back. The best times are sunrise and sunset, when the mirror-like reflections are less likely to be fractured by the wind. From town, walk down Cook Flat Road (it's 5 km each way) toward the sea where a sign points to Gillespies Beach; turn right to reach the lake; the round-the-lake walk on its own is 1½ hours.
Lake Moeraki is in the midst of Westland National Park, 90 km (56 mi) south of Fox Glacier. There isn't a town here; it's the site of a thoughtfully designed wilderness lodge (sister lodge to the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge). Access to the coast is easiest at Monro Beach. The 45-minute walk to the beach takes you through spectacular fern-filled native forest to a truly remarkable beach: rock clusters jut out of incredibly blue waters, and rivers and streams flow over the sand into the Tasman Sea. You might arrive at a time when spunky little Fiordland crested penguins are in transit from the sea to their stream or hillside nests. Early morning and late afternoon provide the best chance of seeing them.
Two kilometers (1 mi) south of the trail entrance on the beach is a seal colony, which you will smell before you see it. If you venture that way, be sure to keep about 30 feet away from the seals, and don't block their path to the sea. A spooked seal will bowl you over on its lurch for the water. Sculpted dark gray rocks also litter the beach to the south, and seals like to lie behind and among them, so look carefully before you cross in front of these rocks.
Monro Beach is an utter dream, not least if you collect driftwood or rocks. On the road 2 km (1 mi) or so south of it, there is a lookout over the rock stacks at Knights Point. Farther south still, between Moeraki and Haast, the walkways and beach at Ship Creek are another stop for ferny forests and rugged coastline. Sandflies here can be voracious, so bring insect repellent and hope for a windy day (there are fewer sandflies in winter.) For weather conditions and other current information visit the Fox Glacier Visitor Centre and the Franz Josef Glacier i-Site Visitor Information & DOC Centre, both on State Highway 6.
Visit Watch the Māori Creation story, learn how the glaciers are formed, and about the local geology and flora and fauna. If you've got time, and a bit of money, you can have a go on their indoor ice-climbing wall (the only one in the Southern Hemisphere).
West Coast Wildlife Centre. If you can't make it to Okarito to see the kiwi in his natural habitat then this is the next best thing. Wander through the Nocturnal House to see the Rowi Kiwi (NZ's rarest kiwi); wait a few moments on entering to let your eyes adjust to the deep gloom—these guys are truly nocturnal. Or join the Backstage Pass Tour to see the incubation and rearing program and the cute little baby kiwis. Catch a wildlife movie or some local West Coast storytelling. Corner Cron and Cowan Sts., Franz Josef, 7856. 03/752–0600. www.wildkiwi.co.nz. NZ$25; NZ$20 for Backstage Pass Tour.
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