We rolled into Okarito and passed a woman out walking her dog. We joked that it was our host and that she came out because she saw a strange car come into town. Turns out it wasn’t a joke. Shortly after we turned at the only intersection in town and parked at the end of the road where it intersected a grass airstrip, she strolled up to welcome us to the Tui cottage. Just as indicated when we booked the place, the beach was a short walk from the front yard. It was just across the airstrip. The roar of the ocean greeted us as we opened the car doors. We were already loving it here. Laura gave us a tour of the yard first and the reason for the name of the cottage became readily apparent. You could hear the Tuis chattering and rustling in the trees as we wandered the grounds.
Two sides were fenced by flax that had overgrown the small dilapidated yet charming wooden fence covered in lichens. The entrance to our newest home away from home sat inside a small sunroom. Beautiful wood floors and wood work throughout the cottage gave it a cozy, down to earth feel. The upstairs deck with glass railing immediately stood out as a favorite feature of the spacious living quarters with both an awesome view and higher volume of the ocean’s music. During the first two days, we wandered the beach a couple of times and made our way down toward the lagoon that is home to several great white herons as well as many other species of birds. The beautiful wetland bird habitat is the principal lure for tourists to this area. Eventually we wandered into the sole retail establishment, a kayak tour company and coffee shop all in one. We gathered some info on the kayaking and as with many outings, found that they scheduled them around the tides. This meant a kayak trip would have to wait until later in our visit.
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are just a short drive from Okarito. The intent on our first drive into Franz (as the locals call it) was to find the
Te Koha gallery that had been recommended to us by our friends in TeAnau. Franz is a bit bigger community than Okarito, with what seemed like more helicopter tour companies per capita than anywhere else in the world. Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are two of the most easily accessible glaciers in the country and are the main tourist attractions that support the economy of both towns that share the same names. You can walk to view the face of the glaciers, or there are a plethora of different helicopter tours to choose from. The options vary from a short scenic flight over the glaciers, to longer flights with landings in the snow where you can step out into a winter wonderland surrounded by breathtaking snow-capped peaks, to flights that take you onto the glaciers where you are then led on a hike or climbing expedition through the frozen landscape. We intended to save the experience of a helicopter ride until our friends arrive in December, but that was about to change. Our plan involved hitting the trails, walking the glacier valleys and other trails in the area. The first day in Franz the clouds didn’t show any sign of breaking and the drizzle became steady, and we were unsuccessful in finding the gallery so we headed back to the comfort of our little cottage.
Throughout those first several days, we’d only gotten glimpses of the beautiful peaks from our bedroom window before the clouds hid them from view. The clouds generally settled in the upper valley leaving us with sunny days on the coast. After spending so many inactive days, we were ready to get out and burn some calories. There was one walking track that headed out of Okarito and followed the seaside cliffs down to another lagoon, three-mile lagoon. We can’t figure out why in this land of metric measurements a place would get such a name. Anyway, we stepped out into slightly cool afternoon breeze in our jogging shoes and found ourselves jogging toward that very lagoon. The map indicated you could return via the beach if it was low tide and it just so happened that we ended up at three-mile lagoon at low tide. We were somewhat surprised to find that “returning via the beach” entailed more than just jogging in the sand with the waves lapping at our feet.
After a short jog up the sand, we encountered a landscape resembling the boulder fields we’ve seen on hikes in Colorado’s high country. Difference was, there were waves crashing up against the rocks. Though unexpected, it proved to be an entertaining adventure, dodging waves and clamoring over boulders to get back to the Tui cottage.
That brings us to the first weekend here in glacier country. With more time for exploring, we jumped in Zed and squiggled our way along the winding road a little beyond town of Fox Glacier to the start of the valley trail. We stepped out on to the monochromatic gray rocks and dust of the freshly carved glacial valley, dwarfed by the cliffs on either side. It was like being in a whole different world, barren and drab but anything but boring. From the parking lot you could see the trail snaking through and around various rockslides from previous years and up closer to the wall of ice. Signs found all along the track warned of rapidly changing conditions and the hazards of flooding and rockslides constantly present in the dynamic landscape.
This was made even more apparent when you noticed that the trail markers and signs were propped up by rocks so they could be easily repositioned or replaced after a rockslide. You really felt incredibly small and vulnerable when you stopped to gaze at the vast valley floor and naked rock cliffs. The viewing platform for the glacier stood quite a distance from the face of the glacier, in an attempt to keep visitors from venturing into an area where the calving ice would crush a human, like my thumb on a sandfly. The glacier was certainly an impressive sight even at that distance.
The walk to the Fox glacier had eaten up only a short bit of our day, so with more daylight to fill with adventure, we turned off the main road for a visit to Lake Matheson. The pictures I’d seen of this lake showed absolutely stunning reflections of the surrounding mountains, but I knew better than to expect to see that on the day of our visit as the mountains remained nestled under their cloud blankets.
The following day, however, revealed a much different picture. The sun greeted us and lit up a stunning display of white peaks in the distance as we drove into Franz Josef for another day of walking. We stopped in a café on the main drag in Franz for breakfast and were just finishing up when we watched as a man came in and interrupted another couple saying “We should get you on your flight now.” Off they went. We followed them out and began walking toward Zed to get out and see the scenery, The trio was still chatting about how wonderfully clear it was and how it wasn’t meant to last as a storm was forecast to move in later in the afternoon. You could already see the cloud bank building off shore. Next thing we know the same man that had interrupted their breakfast, was walking beside us asking if we’d considered going up in the helicopter and suddenly there we were standing in the very gallery we’d failed to find the day signing up to get on a flight. Apparently, the place was more than just a gallery. They also ran helicopter tours in addition to offering “carve your own jade” experience. Sometimes it’s wonderful to have the freedom to be spontaneous. The flight was extraordinary over glaciers through jagged peaks drawn against a brilliant blue sky. The highlight was getting to step out on to the snow and breathe in the crisp clean mountain air with the vibrant peaks surrounding you.
Wow, was it an unexpected treat for the day and as we found out, that was the only day during our two week stay where the mountains showed off their grandeur in the sun. After we landed, we carried on with our plans to return to Lake Matheson to see the difference in views on a clear day.
The difference was remarkable and even though the surface of the lake revealed slight disturbances from the wind, it was calm enough to still offer up a beautiful reflection of the mountains and sky. After walking the lake loop, we still had time to walk the valley to the face of Franz Josef glacier.
A walk very much like the walk to Fox glacier but slightly longer and with a close up view of a beautiful waterfall along the way.
The clouds moved in as forecast and it rained all day the following day. On top of the gloomy weather, Paul’s work week got off to an extremely rough start when one of his computer servers crashed. While we’re on the less enjoyable topics I believe the sandflies deserve to be mentioned. Partly so I can vent a little and partly for advice to anyone considering a visit to this wonderful place to be prepared with insect repellent. It’ll save you lots of discomfort. These pesky little insects resemble the fruit flies that I remember using in my lab for Genetics class. They’re tiny, but they could find a square millimeter of exposed human skin even if it was on the only human around for a hundred miles. Then when they bite, it doesn’t seem like much but a little annoyance. Later, though, you realize as you scratch a little itch it ignites into the most ferocious, enduring itch ever experienced and it seems that it only feels better, while you’re scratching of course, and if you stop scratching, the itch sensation only intensifies. Imagine a mosquito bite that itches a hundred times worse than usual. Since it’s still chilly here, Paul and I only have bites on our necks and hands because that’s the only areas of skin that have been exposed. Today I discovered a new one right in the center of the palm of my hand. I can’t even imagine how that happened. On a brighter note, the sunshine in our day was getting to skype with his family back home. It gave us a chance to scratch the itch for a bit of comfort and security of home. We certainly are having the time of our lives and are extremely grateful to have the opportunity to explore New Zealand, but it has been difficult to be so far away from family. We are glad for the chance to see everyone even if for only a brief visit.
The next three days offered plenty of time for me to practice my patience as Paul spent all of his waking hours working, trying to get everything back up and running for his company. I certainly spent my share of time on the internet and on my computer too but fortunately had the leisure to take breaks outside for fresh air or when the weather was unfavorable, try some new recipes in the kitchen. I discovered a recipe for banana, oat, cinnamon cookies with peanut butter frosting. YUM! Finally, by Thursday satisfied that the most crucial aspects were functioning again, Paul agreed to take a break and go for a paddle out on the lagoon. The tides were in our favor and the sun was out. The main challenge would be the wind, but the awesome couple at the kayak shop, offered a “one-way” paddle, so we could follow the tide in, paddle up the creek a ways and they would meet us at the bridge so we could escape the battle with the wind to return to the wharf where we’d launched. That’s not to say the trip was without struggle, we somehow managed to get our kayak off the intended path through the deep channel of water. Because the water was murky, error in navigation was not immediately evident. We only discovered our predicament when I stuck my oar in for a stroke and hit mud. There we were wedged in the mud in only a few inches of water. Now, if either of us had on sandals and/or were willing to step into the cold water and muck, we likely would have been on our way much sooner. However, neither of us was willing to do that, so we pushed and heaved, stabbing the oars into the mud, until finally we were floating again.
Once we resumed paddling, we did get to see two beautiful great white herons, wading near shore and before long we found ourselves on the creek with peaceful waters and calm winds, floating amidst banks lined with ferns.
Before we exited the lagoon into the creek, the hum of plane caught our attention. We both looked up and found a small plane in the sky that suddenly began diving toward the ground, then up again, then twisting in flips. Then it really had our attention. We watched until it was out of sight and continued kayaking. Once we arrived back in town and after we enjoyed a coffee and a chat at the kayak tour/coffee shop, we set off on foot down main street. There was the plane parked right along the street. Laura, our host was out and about and commented that the pilot used to be her boss, obviously he was well known in this small town. As we sat down to dinner that night, I heard it again, that hum of an airplane engine.
I ran outside to see him driving down our street toward the airstrip. Of course I began snapping photos. I was not the only one. Neighbors and tourists from the campground appeared at the edge of the airstrip. We were treated to a brief one man airshow. It was spectacular. A bit more exciting than watching the guy who lived two houses down from the cottage, pull his helicopter out of the hanger on which his house was built and take off.
After an exhausting few days of work, Paul was able to sleep in a bit longer on Friday. We relaxed most of the remainder of the cloudy day in the cottage listening to the Tuis sing. With our time in Okarito quickly drawing to a close we enjoyed one more stroll along the shore just before the rain started again and spotted another graceful white heron on the lagoon.
With two days left, we intended to spend at least one trying the “carve your own stone” at the Te Koha gallery in Franz Josef. I was also hoping this would give me an opportunity to have an expert evaluate my collection of stones and let me know if I’d found any jade. Right after Paul wrapped up his work week, I grabbed my bag of rocks, ideas of designs swirling in my head and skipped to the car to go make some jewelry. The whole experience was right up my alley as some of you might imagine. We got to start by choosing a “raw” piece of stone. Shaping the piece came next followed by smoothing, then carving and sanding and finally polishing. Mike and Jan were so fantastic. They were so willing to help you finish a piece that suited you and what you wanted, as simple or as complicated as you wished. Really it came down to how much time you were willing to spend to craft the design you wanted.
Since we had the leisure of being in town for another day and the forecast was for more clouds and rain, we couldn’t imagine a better way to spend our time so the “carve your own” became a two day event, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. I also found out how quickly the grinders can reshape your fingernails, or remove them altogether. No blood shed, but I do have one very tender bright pink spot on my index fingernail bed and several other nails shaped with some dramatic sharp angles. The pendant I now wear, though, is one of my most beautiful pieces, mostly because of the experience through which it was born.
It was slightly sad saying goodbye to Okarito, but next stop is a remote bach (cabin) on the rocky coast (like literally on the rocks with waves crashing feet from the house) so we are anxiously anticipating the next adventure.