Getting There: Greymouth to Wanaka

Riding down the West Coast of New Zealand is a very different experience. Expect endless long roads, glaciers, rainforest, sandflies and very few people.
Heidornmännchen visiting Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand
Losing your wife on one of the easiest and busiest walks you’ve ever done. Does that sound unlikely?

Three full nights in Greymouth were enough. Some people might call us crazy for even staying more than a night in this sleepy town on the West Coast. But we had found such a nice little lodge to stay in and we were in serious need of some rest. Not just because we first had to get used to all the driving but also because we had to catch up with some work which had been neglected in the past week.

As I’ve stated before many times, I still need to work during this trip. And while working remotely is not really a big issue nowadays, you still need a decent environment in order to do so. And every day when you’re on the road is usually not a best day to concentrate on work. So as boring as Greymouth may have been, it was great to get some work out of the way.

Where to Next?

So here we were, in the largest city along the entire West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We didn’t really want to drive too much and were trying to figure out how we could somehow fit a visit to Franz Josef Glacier into the schedule, without having to camp out in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, we weren’t too keen on camping anywhere where we’d be easy prey for all these horrific sandflies that they have along New Zealand’s West Coast.

For those not familiar, these sandflies are not just like any run-of-the-mill mosquitos. They look like fruit flies, so they’re actually quite tiny. They tend to come in the mornings and the evenings and the less wind there is, the better. They “attack” you in swarms and almost impossible to get rid of them, even with proper insect repellent. And when they bite you, they don’t sting you. It’s really more like a microscopic bite into your flesh. If you’ve been to Canada before, they seem to be related to what they call black flies over there. The itch is just nasty and it’s really quite difficult to stay calm around them.

Anyway, so we decided to just head south along the coast and see how far we get. Depending on our progress and how we feel, we would then spontaneously decide where to stay.

Nore More Winding Roads

Quite the contrary. Riding down the coast was actually incredibly dull in terms of the road. Endless straight lines. Barely any car in sight. So in principle really good conditions to get ahead quickly.

The further we moved down the coast, the more we noticed how the vegetation gradually turned from coastal to proper rainforest. Unfortunately we don’t have any photos of this section of the drive because it was incredibly inconvenient to just stop on the side of the road. Most of the time there was little space and even though there weren’t too many vehicles on the road, simply parking on the side did not feel like a good thing to do.

So unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of these long rides through canyon-like corridors of rainforest. It really feels quite odd because you completely lose any sense of orientation and eventually develop tunnel-like vision. But it was a beautiful drive and we were setting quite a good pace since there were so few vehicles slowing us down.

We passed through many little towns, most of them with barely more than 200 inhabitants. Many of them had been founded during the gold rush but driving through these places felt strange. Not to offend anyone, but you really wonder what people do for a living nowadays. Also because it did not always feel like there were tons of options for agriculture.

Coastal area of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand
Coastal area of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand

Hello Franz Josef!

Ok, so for the record, as a German it just feels weird visiting a glacier in New Zealand that’s called Franz Josef. For those who don’t know, the story is actually quite funny. Originally the two famous glaciers (Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier) had been named after Victoria and Albert (the English Royals at the time) by Leonard Harper in 1852.

But because this poor fellow forgot to tell the world about it, the former was subsequently given a new name by the German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865, who named it after the Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria.Tough luck for Harper I guess. But it just goes to show that no one cares if you don’t tell anyone about it. Even back in the 19th century.

Anyway, we arrived relatively early in Franz Josef and decided to do the Valley Walk that goes up to the glacier viewpoint. It’s only an easy 45 minute walk/hike each way, so really nothing too challenging. You could probably do this in your flip flops if you felt you needed to.

We were a bit worried that the weather might not play along. Mainly because the entire drive down to Franz Josef had been dominated by clouds. But guess what. As we embarked on the walk, the weather slowly began to turn for the better. First we saw patches of blue sky and eventually the entire valley was fully exposed to the full might of the scorching sun.

Closeup of Franz Josef Glacier on the Valley Track
Closeup of Franz Josef Glacier on the Valley Track

That’s good for photos. And bad for your skin. There’s literally no Ozone layer down here and the only sun lotion you can buy here is factor 50…for a good reason. We didn’t really have any on us during the walk. And despite the beautiful views of the glacier, Tina figured it might be a good idea to head back to the car. I was still busy taking photos and said I’d follow her in a bit.

360° Photosphere of the Franz Josef Glacier Viewpoint

Curious what it sounds like here?

Where the Hell is Tina!?

I really didn’t stay at the viewpoint for much longer than 5 more minutes. As I headed back down the trail, I tried to identify Tina amongst the dozens of people who were walking the up and down the track. Bear in mind that I could actually see quite far because it was a valley. But it was still difficult to identify specific people.

Tina was nowhere in sight.

Franz Josef Glacier Valley Track River Bed
Franz Josef Glacier Valley Track River Bed

I was a little startled by how quickly Tina had moved ahead. I was actually confused because really couldn’t fathom how she could run off that quickly without me seeing her….at least from a distance. So I accelerated, hoping I’d catch up. After a few minutes I started to wonder: Did she take a break in the shade and had I passed her already?

She was neither in front of me nor behind me. Yes, she’s rather short, but not short enough to completely disappear. I decided to return through the valley (which is more like a river bed) until I reach the section that goes back into the forest. But once I got there, she was still nowhere to be seen. I figured she might have just waited for me there. But since she wasn’t there, I wondered if she had indeed stayed behind.

So guess what. I headed ALL THE WAY back to the viewpoint again, just to make sure. It was a 20 minute walk. I passed dozens of people whom I had already passed earlier. They must have thought I was training for something. And when I got back to the viewpoint, I still couldn’t find her. By that time I was actually quite annoyed. This was literally the easiest and busiest walk of our entire time in New Zealand and I managed to lose my wife!?

That’s not concerning.

That’s just embarrassing.

Try explaining that to the local authorities.

So eventually I decided I should just head back to the parking lot. Clearly nothing had happened to her. It was just a matter of figuring out where one would meet. And the parking lot with our sparkling blue Suzuki Swift seemed like the most natural option. So once again I headed back, adding a total of 40 minutes to a walk that should’ve only been about 90 minutes return.

By now I was sweating like a pig because it had gotten very very hot. But guess what, there she was, on the parking lot, wondering where the hell I’d been. I guess I could reciprocate that feeling 😉

Note from Tina: The Strava Snapshot you see earlier in this post is mine. Chris should actually get twice the credit for this walk but unfortunately he only started using Strava a bit later 🙂

Let’s Stay in Wanaka

When we left Franz Josef the remainder of the route really did not change much. Yes, it was beautiful. But it was also extremely rural. We passed by town where we had considered camping for the night. As we raced past them we realised that we were quite happy we didn’t. Not that they weren’t nice places. But there was literally nothing to do there.

So we pushed on, further and further. We had a quick coffee stop in Haast and that was when we decided to book a camp site for our tent in Wanaka. We still had some way to go but we knew that the route along Lake Hawea would be very snenic, so that was fine. As you’ll see in our photos here, the views were absolutely stunning and such great reward for the loooong drive down the coast.

360° Photosphere of Lake Hawea Viewpoint

And Wanaka…well, Wanaka was probably the nicest and calmest (yet still city-ish) place we’ve been to during our entire stay. The camp site was also the best one we’d been to so far and we kind of regretted that we had already booked 3 nights in Queenstown. If that booking had been refundable, we probably would have stayed a bit longer. But alas…we must live with our decisions.

360° Photosphere of Lake Wanaka Shore

And on one final note. No, we DID NOT take a picture of #ThatWanakaTree.

Instagram does weird things to people.

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