After the rain cleared up this morning, we got on the road around 8 to drive to the Franz Joseph Glacier area in Westland National Park. It was only an hour of beautiful scenery until we arrived at the little village.
We stopped into the visitor's center to get a map of the hikes and town, and learned that this area rains more than almost any other place in the world. Luckily it was only cloudy but not raining. We drove to the trailhead right near the town and hiked the 45 minutes out to the glacier terminal. Along the way we passed 5 or 6 tall and skinny waterfalls, pouring snowmelt off of cliffs high above us. The actual glacier itself was pretty amazing, with blue icy patches and gray gravel areas. This glacier is among the most active in the world and can grow or recede up to one meter per day. Although the movement is a reaction from snow that fell (or did not fall) five years prior, the glacier actually appears very active. Chunks of ice and rocks fell every few seconds and waterfalls were growing in ice channels along it's edge. There are numerous barriers around the edge of the glacier (you can only get within about 50 feet) but every year people go into the ice caves and are injured or killed. After the hike out to the glacier, we hiked up Sentinel Rock to see the view from a higher angle.
Following a quick lunch, we drove down to Okarito on the beach. Only 12 people still actually live there, but it used to be a bustling town of 1500 people during the peak of the gold rush. There is a huge bird sanctuary there on the lagoon where the White Heron breed. We chose to do a hike there while it was nice and sunny, as a storm was predicted to move in later in the evening. The hike went up through a fern-tree filled rainforest to the Okarito Trig Lookout which gave an amazing view of the beach, lagoon and mountains. We continued on the old Pack Track (used for the gold miners to reach the rivers) for about another hour before returning back to the wide open beach where we started.
Back in the little village, we checked out a thermal pool area, where they use glacial waters to heat and create hot tubs in three temperatures. We didn't end up staying, but got our first taste of Kiwi nightlife instead. The local Pub and Restaurant, Monsoon, was in full swing with backpackers and "The Bangles" playing on the stereo. It was a weird mix of people, all ages, all nationalities in this little tourist area, but entertaining nonetheless. We ate the most unusual nachos there as well, there was some sort of asian chili sauce on top which took a minute to get used to, but was actually quite good.
We've lucked out with a nice quiet spot on the lake and settled in before the storm moves in for this evening. We could not see any of the really big peaks today (like Mt Cook) as the clouds hung over the mountaintops for the day, even though it was sunny only 10 minutes away. Hopefully these rains will pass through and give us a view tomorrow when we head down to the Fox Glacier.