On my way back from Mount Cook National Park, I met some friendly French girls who offered to give me a ride to Wanaka. We would be getting there on New Years Eve, just in time for the grand Wanaka celebrations. Or so we hoped. That afternoon, we departed the park and made our way down south, first through the Alps and then the rolling fields and then back into an alpine basin, where Lake Wanaka is located.
I fell in love with Wanaka the moment I saw it. It is a big town, in comparison to most other towns on the South Island, but not big enough to have four lane roads or traffic lights. It is nestled on the southern end of Lake Wanaka and is a hub for outdoor activities in both summer and winter. Despite its natural beauty and access to outdoor activities, it is generally overshadowed by its larger sibling to the south, Queenstown, which prides itself on being the “adrenaline capital of the country”. This makes the town a paradise for people that want to indulge in outdoor activities without the “adrenaline” or “party-town” aspect of Queenstown.
The big New Year party was being held on the lakefront and I went to check it out with the French girls. To our dismay, the party consisted of thousands of teenagers having the time of their lives. Looks like the adults celebrated New Years in Queenstown. In any case, there was good music and a great fireworks display over the lake to round out 2015 and bring in New Years.
I spent another day in Wanaka relaxing by the lake, walking around town and making some hiking plans. I had 2 free days before I hike the Great Walks from Queenstown with a friend. I decided to hitch-hike to Franz Josef Glacier for the 2 free days.
Franz Josef Glacier:
The drive from Wanaka is gorgeous, passing through Aspiring National Park, alongside the Makarora River. Every few hundred feet, there is a stream or waterfall that joins the Makarora making it impossible to make this drive without stopping for photo breaks. The Blue Pools, Fantail falls, Thunder Falls and the shore near Haast town in particular are good break points. The road takes you over Haast Pass and into Fiordland National Park, on the west (or rather wet) coast of New Zealand. It is supposed to rain 2 out of every 3 days here and the change in weather was obvious. Sunny Wanaka skies had been replaced by clouds and rain.
After about 6-7 hours (it’s probably a 4.5 hour drive), I got dropped off at a hostel in Franz Josef Township, another 2-street town that has primarily been erected to serve the tourism associated with visitors to its namesake glacier. Franz Josef Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that drops from the mountains, through a rain-forest, directly into the ocean, which is what makes it really famous. Or at least, that’s what it did. The glacier has receded so dramatically that it is now many miles from the coast. In fact, the glacier is now so unstable that visitors are not even allowed to walk up to the glacier due to constantly changing conditions. Anybody that wishes to walk on the glacier has to fly onto the glacier and can only hike around with a licensed guide. A very costly (but needed) proposition, especially since only one major company, Franz Josef Glacier Guides offers these chopper/guide services. Since I thought riding a chopper onto a glacier and then walking around on it would make for some rad photos, I decided to splurge on this activity. Unluckily, the weather was really bad and we couldn’t make it onto the glacier. But that isn’t the only option. You can hike around the glacier, through rainforests and across rivers, which is really fun. There’s also some cool hikes around the township that take you to old tunnels and a glow-worm forest.
Wanaka and Aspiring National Park:
After a day and a half at Franz Josef, I took a bus back to Wanaka and met up with my friend, Karen. Our plan was to leave the next day, for a 3-day trip into Aspiring National Park. But first, it was time to check out the famous Wanaka Tree, made famous by the #thatwanakatree hashtag. Check it out on Instagram and the number of variations that that tree can be photographed with will surprise you.
Up next, our trip to Aspiring National Park. Won’t go into too many details but will summarize with a day summary, some photos and another journal drawing.
Day 1: Lazy morning hanging out at the cozy Purple Cow Hostel (My favorite hostel in NZ) and then took a shuttle to the Rasberry Creek Shelter Parking Lot, in Aspiring National Park. The road is unpaved for the last hour and passes through a lot of creek beds. We went at a dry time and it was easy to cross but it might get difficult to cross for low-clearance vehicles after some rains. Hiked from there to Aspiring Hut, through the beautiful West Matukituki valley.
Day hike to French Ridge. Starts off continuing through the Matukituki valley, across glacial streams and picture-perfect meadow and then climbs up a steep mountain ridge for a couple of miles. It is pretty strenuous and even a little sketchy in some parts but the views from the top are amazing!
Headed back to the trailhead but took a detour to to Rob Roy Glacier, another beautiful hike, alongside a glacial river, which ends (where the river begins) at the Rob Roy Glacier, a gigantic glacier nestled between huge snow peaks. Go there earlier in the day to get the place all to yourself. Due to its easy accessibility, it is one of the most popular hikes for day hikers from Wanaka.
After a few days in the hills, it was time to head back to Wanaka to continue my next leg of trip to Queenstown and Milford Sound.