Friday, 26 August 2011

The Glacier Country on the West Coast

After getting off the TranzAlpine train in Greymouth, we picked up a rental car and started driving south toward the small town of Franz Josef.  The two glaciers we wanted to see, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, are several hours south of Greymouth along the west coast of the south island.  This gave us several hours of beautiful scenery, much of it right on the coast.

This was Paul’s first venture driving on the left side of the road.  It was good to start on rural roads rather than in busy Christchurch.  We hadn’t realized how much of your brain needs rewiring to drive on the other side of the road.  Here’s a list of the other major issues:

* First, the driver’s side of the car is on the right, not the left.  We keep walking to the wrong side of the vehicle to get in.
* You pull the seatbelt in from the right when you’ve on the driver’s side.
* The turn signals and windshield wipers are on opposite sides.  We lost track of the number of times that Paul turned on the windshield wipers when he was meaning to signal a turn.
* You have to look over the other shoulder when passing.
* You go through roundabouts clockwise rather than counter-clockwise.

Coupled with this, New Zealand has a unique driving law that a car turning 90 degrees through a four-way intersection has the right of way over a car coming from the opposite side but turning in the same direction.  That is, if we’re turning right at an intersection (crossing oncoming traffic), we wait for the oncoming traffic going straight ahead (same as the US), but have precedence over the oncoming traffic making a left hand turn (the easy turn here) in front of us.  They are going to change this later this year to fit with the rest of the world, but for now it’s quite confusing.  Anyway, after a few days Paul is mostly comfortable with left-side driving, but still occasionally turns the windshield wipers on when making a turn.

We drove to Franz Josef by late afternoon, and since it wasn’t raining we drove up to see the glacier.  Both of us did the short hike, while Paul continued closer to the glacier terminus.  Back in the car park (US: parking lot), Cindy met three Kea birds – one of them very “cheeky”.  The Kea are noted for pecking at the rubber on cars, so Cindy chased him off the roof of our rental.

Franz Josef Glacier
A cheeky kea
Kea eyes the rubber on our rear windshield (NZ: wind screen)
The next day we drove to Lake Matheson, did a one and a half hour walk around the lake, and were able to see Mts. Tasman and Cook in the distance, both directly and reflected in the lake.  We also saw many different kinds of ferns.  Ferns are a national symbol in New Zealand, and are currently visible everywhere as the logo of the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team.  Also, for those who might visit some day, the Matheson CafĂ© has excellent food as well as wonderful views of the two mountains.

Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook, viewed across Lake Matheson
Ferns on Lake Matheson walk
Fern tree
We continued on to Fox Glacier, and hiked up to the glacial terminus.  The round trip walk took about an hour.   The walk was mostly up the glacial runoff, and had signs warning hikers not to stop in certain areas, as both rock falls and sudden water runoffs (when a glacial ice dam bursts) can be dangerous to visitors.

Fox Glacier
The glacier, up close...
Paul helps the ranger with crowd control

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