Franz Josef Glacier and the view to the West Coast. © David Wall

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. For me it was a bit of both.

I spent two years living in the remote coastal settlement of Ōkārito, travelling inland daily to carve steps into the Franz Josef Glacier, leading tourists up its terminal face through broken crevasses and into labyrinths of ice. It was a time of finding my feet and starting over. As a space and place for that, the Coast was perfect.   

Like an unfurling, white dragon, the Franz 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

When I was guiding, the glacier was much larger than it is today. Global warming 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 seen with relative ease. One can walk to near the base of them in under an hour from the road.

While living at Ōkārito, I formed a special bond with the sleepy coastal settlement. Where once it was 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.

My brothers came to visit while I was there, and one day we were outside throwing a frisbee around. Unfortunately, Steve’s throw went a little wild, almost hitting one of the locals who happened to be walking past. He jogged up with a smile and apologised. I held my breath, wondering if the local was going to blow up at him, but she smiled and said nothing, carrying on with her daily walk. Later I told Steve that he nearly decapitated the most famous of Ōkārito residents, the author Keri Hulme.

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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