A helicopter is dwarfed by the vast landscapes of Fox Glacier. © Tourism West Coast

Westland: land of ice dragons


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Some locals say that people who move to Westland are either running away or in search of something. 

As a space and place for reflection and catching your breath, the Coast is perfect.   

Like an unfurling, white dragon, Franz Josef Glacier flexes and curves between steep-walled valleys. Māori named it Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere or tears of the Avalanche Girl. Hine was said to have lost her lover to the mountains here, and her flowing tears froze in the cold, forming the glacier.

A post shared by Tom Bernardo (@tbernardo1) on Dec 19, 2017 at 3:48pm PST

Climate change is never more evident than when seeing the melt back rates of the Franz and nearby Fox.

Where once they were huge, winding conveyors of ice, unique in the world in how they flowed down into rainforest only a few metres above sea level, now they struggle to hold their form.

It is no longer possible to be guided up the terminal face of the Franz. The only access is by helicopter, landing on white ice further up the glacier. The Fox still offers the opportunity to walk on to it, but this may be lost in the not too distant future.

The glaciers have long been the white-gold jewels in the crown of Westland. To see them retreat in such a way is sad. But, for now, they are still able to be viewed with relative ease. You can walk to near the base of them in under an hour from the road.

Nearby Ōkārito was once a thriving town filled with gold prospectors (around 4000 at its peak), now it is home to a handful of residents and travellers, of course, who visit.

Life here is slow, and the locals prefer it that way.

Travelling south from Fox, for a time the high mountains remain close, their silhouettes stretched across the lowlands with each coming dawn.

The next main settlement south along the highway is the township of Haast. From here, the main road heads inland over Haast Pass, or an alternate road follows the coast south to the fishing village Jackson Bay or Ōkahu.

Compared to the rugged coast, this is a pleasant and sheltered alcove and well worth the side trip... a breath of fresh, clean air to remind us that our busy, urban lives don't always have to remain so.

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